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Bruno Kirby: A Man of Many Scenes


There are lots of wonderful moments to remember from 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally. Those dramatic shots of New York City, Meg Ryan's convincing performance, if you please, at Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side. But is there an exchange any funnier than this?


BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) I made love to this woman and it was so incredible, I took her a place that wasn't human. She actually meowed.

BRUNO KIRBY: (As Jess) You made a woman meow?

SIMON: That's Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby, the actor who almost never played the lead but who almost always stole the show. Mr. Kirby died this week at the age of 57.

Bruno Kirby was the son of an actor and grew up in New York's Hell's Kitchen. His big break came in 1974 when he played the young Clemenza in The Godfather Part II. He later appeared in Helter Skelter, Good Morning, Vietnam, Tin Men, The Basketball Diaries and Donnie Brasco.

In 1984's This is Spinal Tap, a parody of a British rock band, Mr. Kirby played the band's underappreciated limousine driver who prefers Frank Sinatra to glam rock. His character seemed to understand Sinatra's brutality and pain with the kind of insight that the actor seemed to bring to most of his roles.

It may be fitting that some of Mr. Kirby's most notable parts have been the kind of friend any guy would like to have, and any girl for that matter. He used to play on a basketball team with Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner and Barry Levinson. Off the court those friends made at least five movies together, most of them blockbusters.

As Jess in When Harry Met Sally, Mr. Kirby is the friend you need in a divorce.


KIRBY: (As Jess) When did this happen?

CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) Friday. Helen comes home from work and she says, I don't know if I want to be married anymore. So I say to her, don't you love me anymore? You know what she says? I don't know if I've ever loved you.

KIRBY: Ooh, that's harsh. You won't bounce back from that right away.

CRYSTAL: Thanks, Jess.

KIRBY: No, I'm a writer. I know dialogue, and that's particularly harsh.

SIMON: Some of Bruno Kirby's most dramatic roles were in comedies. Here he is in the 1991 hit City Slickers, explaining the inexplicable to Daniel Stern.


KIRBY: (As Ed Furillo) Kim wants to have kids.

DANIEL STERN: (As Phil Berquist) And you don't?

KIRBY: (As Ed Furillo) I tell her it's because we wouldn't have as much fun. But that's not the reason. It's a real commitment, and saying I'm never going to be with another woman for the rest of my life.

STERN: (As Phil Berquist) Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. I have no life - we're all agreed on that, right?

KIRBY: (As Ed Furillo) Right.

STERN: (As Phil Berquist) Okay. And your big problem is that you're married to this gorgeous, 24-year-old underwear model who thinks that the sun rises and sets in your pants, and that's not enough for you?

KIRBY: (As Ed Furillo) You don't understand.

SIMON: Bruno Kirby died on Monday, three weeks after he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 57. His brother John told the Washington Post, there was nothing ever calculated about his comedy and yet it was so genuinely human and funny. He would reveal his guts in his drama and yet you loved him and he broke your heart with it.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.