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Sunday, August 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruno Kirby, actor with quirky charm

The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Bruno Kirby wasn't a movie star. That was one of his great charms as an actor: his ability to look and sound like a guy who just walked in off the street and had no idea he was playing a role in a movie.

He was like that in life, too. He wasn't interested in being the star in the room. He made everyone else feel like they were playing the lead.

He died late Monday in Los Angeles, less than three weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia. His wife, Lynn Sellers, was with him throughout his illness. He was 57.

Mr. Kirby probably is best-known as Billy Crystal's best friend in "When Harry Met Sally" (in which he famously says, "You made a woman meow??"), or as Crystal's thrill-seeking buddy in "City Slickers," or as the uptight military disc jockey opposite Robin Williams in "Good Morning, Vietnam."

On Wednesday, Crystal said the death of Mr. Kirby was "a terrible loss."

Film buffs recall Mr. Kirby's breakout role as the young Clemenza in "The Godfather: Part II." He played the wiseguy nephew of Marlon Brando in "The Freshman." He was hilarious as the Sinatra-worshipping chauffeur in "This Is Spinal Tap," forced to drive around a bunch of conceited rock 'n' rollers who don't really understand "Frank."

On screen he could be edgy and quirky and a little wound up. They call someone like Mr. Kirby a "character actor," which probably means he didn't have the matinee-idol oversize cranial structure and the twinkling white teeth and the kind of hair in which each lock required its own stylist. But the best character actors, like Mr. Kirby, can steal a scene like a pickpocket.

"There was no pretentiousness about him. He was a class act, and yet he was still from the neighborhood," his brother, acting coach John Kirby, said Wednesday. "He never went Hollywood."

Bruno Kirby was born Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu in New York on April 28, 1949, and he and his brother grew up in the city's notorious Hell's Kitchen section. He moved to California in the late 1960s.

His father was actor Bruce Kirby. John Kirby said it was obvious that Bruno Kirby would become an actor in first grade, when he was brilliant singing a song from "Oklahoma!"

"There was nothing ever calculated about his comedy, and yet it was so genuinely human and funny. He had the same way with drama. He would reveal his guts in his drama, and yet you loved him and he broke your heart with it. He had one of those personas where it was really hard to dislike him," John Kirby said.

Among Mr. Kirby's early film credits: the 1971 drama "The Young Graduates" and the 1973 drama "The Harrad Experiment." He also played Richard Castellano's son in the short-lived 1972 situation comedy "The Super." More recently, he appeared on the HBO series "Entourage."

Mr. Kirby made his Broadway debut in 1991, replacing Kevin Spacey as Uncle Louie the gangster in Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Lost in Yonkers."

In 1997, Mr. Kirby starred as writer Alan Zweibel in Zweibel's affectionate play about his friendship with comedian Gilda Radner in the Off Broadway production "Bunny Bunny."

"I've been very lucky," Mr. Kirby told The New York Daily News in 1990. "And in this business, you have to have a certain amount of timing and luck because I know, right now as we're sitting here talking, there's a guy driving a cab in New York City who can put me away."

In addition to his brother and wife, Mr. Kirby is survived by his father; his stepmother, Roz; and his stepbrother, Brad Sullivan.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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