On 6.15 the Ringer podcast (Bill Simmons, Chris Ryan, Sean Fennessey) mentioned a post I did about the old Billy Crystal-Bruno Kirby feud (“When Billy Screwed Bruno,” 8.24.06). The post appeared ten days after Kirby‘s death from lukemia on 8.14.06.
Here’s the original post, which was basically a riff on an article by New York-based journalist Nicholas Stix. I’ve also re-posted a response to Mark Evanier‘s POV Online discussion (dead link) of the Stix article.
Here it is: This article by New York journalist Nicholas Stix (posted on Tuesday and updated today) could have been called “When Billy Shafted Bruno.” It’s not mentioned in the lead graph or the second or third graph, but the heart of the story provides indications and quotes supporting a thesis that Billy Crystal “made” the career of the late Bruno Kirby, who died last week, and then he un-made him.
Or so the indicators indicate. Crystal certainly seems to have had an indirect hand in limiting Kirby’s acting opportunities and may have been, in a sense, a “career- killing ogre” as far as Kirby was concerned. By all means read Stix’s article, but in a nutshell it says the following:
(a) “Kirby, whose first big role was young Clemenza in The Godfather, Part II, was one of the hottest character actors in Hollywood in the late 1980s, through 1991. Kirby’s high point was Rob Reiner‘s When Harry Met Sally (1989), in which Kirby played the male second banana as the sportswriter-best friend of Crystal’s character. Sally would prove to be one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, and the high point in the career of everyone involved in the production.”
(b) “In 1991, Kirby had an even more substantial role in City Slickers as Crystal’s character’s macho friend,. That same year, Kirby also won acclaim on Broadway, replacing Kevin Spacey as the male lead, playing the smallest of small-timers, would-be gangster ‘Uncle Louie’ in Neil Simon’s memory play, Lost in Yonkers which won four Tony awards.”
(c) “At that point, Kirby was one of the top character actors in the business, his career on a trajectory that was leading inexorably to Oscar nominations, and perhaps even a golden statuette. And then his career tanked. Following City Slickers, the names of most of the pictures he was in were so forgettable — obscure, direct-to-video duds that I had never even heard of — that I instantly forgot them.”
(d) “During or shortly after the making of City Slickers, Kirby and Crystal had a falling out, and not only would Crystal no longer work with Kirby, but neither would any of the many producers and directors associated with Crystal. As a result, while Kirby continued to work, he was cast in fewer movies and the ones he was cast in were, well … take a look for yourself: Golden Gate (1994), Heavenzapoppin’! (1996), A Slipping-Down Life (1999), History Is Made at Night (1999), One Eyed King (2001).
(e) “On 9.12.01, USA Today‘s Susan Wloszczyna interviewed Crystal as part of a press junket for America’s Sweethearts, and at one point asked for a worst-junket story: Wloszczyna: “The only thing I could come up with is that when you were making City Slickers II, you and Bruno Kirby had a falling out.” Crystal: “He wasn’t in City Slickers II.” Wloszczyna: “Yeah, I know, but there was some reason that he didn’t do it. Are you guys still friends?” Crystal: “I haven’t spoken to him — I think we are. I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in a long time.” There’s an interlude and then back to the subject. Crystal: “This is a perfect situation. We’re here to talk about the movie, and you’re talking about something personal or whatever it is that happened, I don’t know, eight, nine years ago.” Wloszczyna: “But it’s about the movie, because the subject of the movie is the press and famous people.” Crystal:: “So now you’re my worst junket story.”
(f) “I think we are” still friends? “Something personal or whatever it is that happened, I don’t know, eight, nine years ago”? “Whatever”? With a guy you went from being practically vaudeville partner with, to not seeing or speaking with “in a long time”?
Evanier response: POV Online‘s Mark Evanier is arguing that the Bruno Kirby-Billy Crystal piece by Nicholas Stix that I linked to yesterday (i.e., the one that suggested that Crystal might have been a “career-killing ogre” as far as Kirby was concerned). I don’t know anything about this, but Evanier makes some good arguments. I ‘m disputing one of them, though, and I want to point out something he didn’t mention:
“Perhaps Crystal blocked Kirby from being cast in City Slickers II and subsequent Billy Crystal movies,” he writes. “It was probably within his power to do so…but how could he stop Steven Spielberg from hiring Bruno Kirby? How could he stop Cameron Crowe or Ron Howard or…well, name the top fifty directors in the business these days. If one of them decided Bruno Kirby was the best actor for a given role, would that director say, ‘Let’s go with our second choice. I want to help Billy Crystal destroy Bruno’s career’?”
That’s well put and well-reasoned, but I also know from limited experience that when the word goes out on an actor or actress that he/she is bad news and/or more trouble than he/she is worth or has made an enemy of a very important person, etc., people pick up on this and they tend to steer away from him/her. It’s cowardly but people do this. Actors can go cold for long periods of time, and sometimes the cold streak starts when a big name hands them a black spot.
Once again, I’m not saying Crystal did this to Kirby — I don’t know anything — but I know that if a certain heavyweight decides to shun an actor, other heavy- weights pick up on this and figure, “If there’s a 1 in 100 chance I might alienate that heavyweight actor-director by hiring this character actor, why do it? Why not just hire someone else?” This is a town, trust me, that runs on terror, avoidance and backbones made of jelly.
The other thing that Evanier is missing out on are the indications of lying in Crystal’s responses to questions about Kirby put to him by USA Today‘s Susan Wloszczyna (a.k.a., Suzie Woz) on 9.12.01.
Wloszczyna asked Crystal, “The only thing I could come up with is that when you were making City Slickers II, you and Bruno Kirby had a falling out.” Crystal said, “He wasn’t in City Slickers II.” And Wloszczyna says back, “Yeah, I know, but there was some reason that he didn’t do it. Are you guys still friends?” Crystal answers, “I haven’t spoken to him — I think we are. I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in a long time.”
Stop right there — anyone who says “I think we’re still friends” is dodging and side-stepping. And following this up with “I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in a long time” is, I suspect, a code phrase that means “I haven’t wanted to see or speak with him for a long time because of some shit that went down that I don’t want to get into again.”
Crystal later says to Wloszczyna, “This is a perfect situation. We’re here to talk about the movie, and you’re talking about something personal or whatever it is that happened, I don’t know, eight, nine years ago.” That’s an obvious tipoff that speaking about Kirby is an uncomfortable thing for Crystal. And saying the words “personal or whatever” is another lie — he knows it was personal and he’s saying “or whatever” to water it down.
I’ve believed for years that prepared or carefully phrased statements often cover underlying truths, and that it’s always the words in passing — the obiter dicta — that give the real game away. A professed truth is always suspect, but you can always trust the obvious scent of a lie.
That said, I’m not pushing any kind of notion that Billy Crystal is a “career-killing ogre”, much less the devil. I have no knowledge or stake in any of this. Kirby may have torpedoed himself in all kinds of different ways as far as his career was concerned — I don’t know a damn thing — but Crystal definitely wasn’t being honest with Wloszczyna in that exchange, and that’s why I ran the link to Stix’s piece in the first place.