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Eric: In Memorium: Bruno Kirby

One of the breakout television shows of the 1990's was The Larry Sanders Show. It was good on the one hand because it was funny, well performed and well developed. Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and (most especially) Rip Torn were hysterical as the host, co-host and producer (respectively) of a late night talk show in the Johnny Carson Tonight Show vein. But even better was the plethora of guest stars they would get. Men and women of the Hollywood elite willing not just to show up and plug their latest projects but viciously satirize themselves. I first gained serious respect for Jim Carrey when he appeared as himself. He did his usual Jim Carreyisms at the opening of the show-within-a-show segment, then sat down as the show went to commercial, and quietly (and very cynically) made it clear to Larry Sanders that he despised him for any number of jokes Sanders made about "Ace Ventura," but right now it was worth it to come on his podunk show and plug).

It was that kind of thing all over. Sharon Stone was distant and self-important. David Duchovny developed a strange, quasisexual fixation on Sanders. Burt Reynolds was dismissive until he learned there was money involved (this was immediately after the divorce from Loni Anderson), and then he was all for it. Warren Zevon bitched incessantly about having to play "Werewolves of London" again. One by one, major celebrities would come on the show and be absolutely vicious in satirizing themselves. It was hysterical and it was amazing.

My favorite guest star, however, had to be Bruno Kirby. Kirby was nice enough, and a truly fantastic guest. They made mention of that fact every time he was on -- he was exactly what Larry needed in a guest for the show. But Bruno Kirby was always the first person bumped for someone "more important." No matter how many times Arthur (Rip Torn's character -- the producer of the show) assured Kirby that he was a valued and beloved friend of the show's, Kirby would be the first one out the door when someone less talented but more famous showed up. And Kirby got upset and stormed off, but you knew he'd come back and try again.

It culminated on the very last episode, which was also the last episode of the show-within-a-show. Walk-ons by celebrities and well wishers had dominated the hour, so in the last minutes, while Sanders was being serenaded before the show ended. Kirby walked up to Arthur, steaming mad. "Am I getting on the show or not?" he demanded.

"We're running long," Arthur murmured, clearly barely paying attention to Kirby. "But we'll have you on real soon."

"What?" Kirby demanded. "You idiot! Listen to yourself! This is the last show!" And he stormed off, furious, leaving Arthur to truly understand, in his heart, that this was it. The show was over.

It was a perfect use of Bruno Kirby, who had the acting chops to pull it off and make the moment both bittersweet and funny. And it was a perfect way to satirize Bruno Kirby, who spent a career being the best damn thing on the screen... and always second fiddle to the less talented "real stars" around him.

Think about it. Kirby was by far the best thing in the City Slickers movies, but he didn't get the Academy Award for it. Jack Palance did. And Billy Crystal, who didn't do a really good job in a movie until Mister Saturday Night, got top billing and the best paychecks. The man was memorable and engaging both in The Godfather Part II and This is Spinal Tap, for Christ's sake. Like many truly good character actors, he worked constantly, usually in three or four projects a year, spanning from television to voice work to major motion pictures. He worked well in comedy (he had fantastic timing) and drama alike. He was good enough to steal Good Morning Vietnam from Robin Williams (and actually play a character instead of himself while doing it) and professional enough that when he got a role involving horses -- which he was seriously, life threateningly allergic to -- he got powerful allergy medicine shots once or twice a day and just dealt with it.

Most of all, Kirby was the perfect actor to play a certain kind of New Yorker -- one full of bravado, but extremely funny all the while. When I watched the documentary Super Size Me, and Morgan Spurlock interviewed a blowhard New Yorker who ranted at length on how people were screwing the fast food companies, I had to pause and verify I wasn't watching Bruno Kirby. It didn't look like Kirby, but that didn't mean anything. Sadly, any number of people who saw Bruno Kirby (and loved him) walked away thinking he was Joe Pesci.

But Bruno Kirby wasn't Joe Pesci. for one thing, he was funnier. For another, he was more versatile. And for a third, Kirby actually was in the Godfather trilogy, not the endless stream of movies that wanted to be the Godfather Trilogy.

Bruno Kirby passed away of complications related to Leukemia on Monday. Checking CNN.com, we see he is the second headline under "Entertainment," significantly lower down the page than "Britney Spears burps, munches on camera." I swear to Christ I'm not making this up. Over at E! Online, Kirby's death tracks lower than David Hasslehoff paying a pest control bill for his ex-wife.

The thing that made Larry Sanders so funny was how willing it was to satirize true things.

The thing that makes Bruno Kirby's passing so sad is how little mark it's made on the world of media. Because the mark Bruno Kirby made was phenomenal, and whether people realize it or not, he will be missed.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at August 16, 2006 2:25 PM

Comments

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 16, 2006 6:19 PM

Eric, you have to link to Kirby's IMDb page. He deserves it.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0456124/

And damn... he was in alot more than I remembered. I mean, M*A*S*H (okay, just the pilot, but still), The Basketball Diaries, Tin Men... like pretty much every really great actor, he's in more stuff than you ever realized.

On the bright side, he's still on the front page of CNN.com, if it means anything. Of course, on the not-so-bright side, his death is less important than yet more hype for some movie about aviation and reptiles.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 16, 2006 10:21 PM

I bet if you looked at Variety, his death would probably make the first page. Or at the very least a rather long entry in the obituary page. (Ditto possibly for the New York Times Obituary page.)

Comment from: Aerin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 17, 2006 2:38 PM

I bet Entertainment Weekly gives him a full page.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 17, 2006 5:19 PM

Uh, say, isn't it spelled "in memoriam"?

Comment from: quiller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 18, 2006 5:36 PM

Fresh Air is rerunning an interview with him today.

Comment from: A.G. Hopkins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 22, 2006 12:22 AM

Oh man..

I had no idea he was gone. Seriously, this is how I find out.

Kirby really was excellent. Thanks for saying such nice things about him.

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