Friday, August 18, 2006

Bruno Kirby and Oatmeal

Bruno Kirby, the actor who created characters who were always specific and charmingly idiosyncratic, always made his scene partners look good, whether it was Billy Crystal in “City Slickers” or “When Harry Met Sally…,” or Matthew Broderick in “The Freshman,” Albert Brooks in “Modern Romance,” or Robert DeNiro in “The Godfather, Part II.”
But I have a personal reason for my sadness at Kirby’s sudden passing, just three weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 57.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I went to breakfast at a place called John O’Groats. Terrific oatmeal, omelets, a great little breakfast joint—always a line on Saturday and Sunday mornings. And a fun place to go on weekend mornings to see who woke up together from the night before.

So, I’m one of the folks waiting outside, and I see, and hear these two guys talking animatedly…and I knew they were actors, but wasn’t sure who they were. A tall African American guy, and a little pipsqueak, and they both look familiar, but where did I recognize them from?

They’re really babbling, and really glad to see each other. I hear dribs and drabs of their conversation. “Hey…yeah, I just got back” “What have you heard?” “What did he tell you, because I had a lot of fun…” stuff like that, that any actor might say to another, but I didn’t know that then. I remember feeling, wow, this really is LA—where people are energized by their work, and anybody you run into could be a budding star.

Sixth months later, up on the screen, I knew what they’d been talking about. There they were, Forest Whitaker, and Bruno Kirby, in “Good Morning Vietnam.” They are both spectacular in the film—Whitaker playing the soldier who looks up to Robin Williams’ character, delights in his rebellion, but then gets fed up; Kirby, as the ultimate anti-Williams—a strict-by-the-book Army broadcaster, who thinks polkas are far better than the rock music Williams wants to play, and finds his self- interview with “Frenchie” hilarious.

You want a good laugh, watch Kirby dig himself in, deeper and deeper, as this autocratic and intensely “petty” officer.

Kirby had a unique gift—I think everyone who enjoys his work thinks they’re the only one really “getting” how good he is.

Thanks, Mr. Kirby, for the work, and that great first rush of LA excitement.


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