The first time I ever saw Bruno Kirby on the big screen was in 1973. He was Stanley, one of a gaggle of geeky teenaged friends (including Ed Begley, Jr. and, yes, Kurt Russell) surrounding Kathleen Cody, who plays the comely daughter of the beleaguered Superdad of the film’s title, essayed, as no one else could have, by Bob Crane. The movie is a harmless bit of early ‘70s Disney dreck, and Kirby’s Stanley, that slightly reedy, strangulated voice front and center, stood out from the crowd as perhaps the silliest of the bunch, Jughead to Cody’s Betty to Russell’s Archie. Kirby made such an impression on me in this film—he was so committed to this strange performance in this inconsequential movie—that I figured Stanley was probably close to how he really was. (It was much easier to make such assumptions at age 13.)
He made such an impression on me that I was completely unaware I was even watching him the next time I encountered Bruno Kirby on film, as it happened in a movie of considerably higher quality than Superdad. Kirby did a short-lived sitcom with actor Richard Castellano in 1972 called The Super, in which he played the rotund actor’s son, and by sheer coincidence, only a year after Superdad was released, he would play the young Clemenza, the role Castellano originated in the The Godfather, in that film’s sequel, The Godfather Part II. As Vin Scully might say, Kirby (born Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu Jr. in 1949) went from the cellar to the penthouse in one short year.
Kirby would continue to make an impression on TV viewers who paid close attention to shows like Columbo, Kojak, Delvecchio and Hill Street Blues, but his life on film was as a memorable character actor. He had one of those voices that, combined with his boyish face, made him particular well suited to both comedy and drama—he could do ingratiating best friends as well as unstable, down-and-out blue-collar bad guys, and he often found himself butting heads with antiestablishment figures like Robin Williams’ Lt. Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam or, even better, Bill Murray’s Hunter S. Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam, where he played a particularly impotent version of Jann Wenner. He was unforgettable as the joke-cracking limo driver in This is Spinal Tap and actually hit a period in the late ‘80s- early ‘90s where he found himself in demand—the Bruno Kirby type was a very good fit in mainstream comedies like When Harry Met Sally…, The Freshman and City Slickers, and he was just the man for the job.
Kirby was, for the most part, an actor of small, juicy moments—he never had the really big role that would change his career, but instead kept cruising through, humming quietly, insistently, turning in good work in good films and bad, and if you didn’t remember the name of the movie he was in (say, Sleepers, for example), it was much more likely that you remembered him in it. And a quick scan of his credits on IMDb reveals that he somehow found himself cast in Paul Verhoeven’s blood-and-guts romantic epic Flesh+Blood, perhaps the strangest bit of casting in Kirby’s career, as well in William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising as (according to IMDb) “Man Greasing Up His Fist In Club.” After his run-in with Friedkin, he’d do time with Murray’s gonzo Thompson (a fairly typically agitated turn in an underrated movie), which would prove fertile training ground for his role as Albert Brooks’ film editing partner in Brooks’ masterpiece Modern Romance. Kirby’s patience is tried in a completely different way here—his attempt to placate Brooks in the editing room when Brooks tries to use his work as a distraction from his failed attempts to forget his girlfriend is a brilliant match between Brooks’ passive-aggressive neuroses and Kirby’s nonplussed attempts to pretend that his colleague’s behavior is in some way normal.
Kirby would continue working on shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and in films like Donnie Brasco, A Slipping-Down Life and perhaps most notably in the recent TV remake of Helter Skelter, a retelling of the Manson murders in which Kirby played Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor on whose book both TV films were based. A recent appearance on HBO’s Entourage would be his last, however. Kirby died Monday night from complications related to leukemia, a disease with which he was only recently diagnosed. Kirby was too young to go—he was only 57—but he left a lot of good work for those who love good, rich, detailed character acting, performances created less for the massaging of ego than for the informing and expanding of whatever project he was in. I’ll never forget him rolling up that carpet and leading young Vito Corleone down the streets of Little Italy toward a life that would forever enmesh them together, or his patient accommodation of every little tweak as he and Brooks run Foley sound to George Kennedy running down a carpeted hallway in Modern Romance. And I’ll never forget Stanley either.