Quite a character: Award-winning actor Phillip Bruns recounts a life spent performing
Phillip Bruns. The name might not be immediately recognizable, but the face certainly is.
Theater audiences remember his acclaimed work in Mr. Simian, for which he won an Obie Award, and Jack and the Bald Soprano and The Serving of Two Masters, for which he earned Obie nominations, and his awardwinning turn as Lyndon Johnson in Mac Bird.
“That got me jobs for 20 years,” said the actor, in an exclusive interview with YES! Weekly. “Casting directors would tell me, ‘I’ll never forget you in 1967 as LBJ in Mac Bird.’” On the big screen, he appeared (sometimes as “Philip Bruns” and sometimes as “Phil Bruns”) in such films as the box-office smash Flashdance (1983), the original screen version of The Out-of-Towners (1970) with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, opposite Best Actor Oscar winner Art Carney in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, as a small-town doctor battling zombies in Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) and as Peter O’Toole’s faithful production manager Ace in The Stunt Man (1980).
It was Bruns, in fact, who was the conduit for O’Toole (who snagged a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance) to meet director Richard Rush (Oscar-nominated for both his adapted screenplay and direction), Bruns having first met O’Toole in late-1950’s England when O’Toole was an up-and-coming actor and Bruns the beneficiary of a Fulbright Scholarship to Bristol University.
But it’s on the small screen that Bruns was most widely seen, turning up in countless series’ including “Sanford and Son,” “M*A*S*H,” “Kojak,” “Barney Miller,” “Maude” and “Seinfeld” (he was the original Morty Seinfeld), as well as regular stints on “The Jackie Gleason Show” and as the father of the title character on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
In the world of commercials, Bruns was almost inescapable for the better part of 30 years, having been cited by Time magazine as one of the three busiest commercial actors in America in 1968.
After a long and distinguished acting career, Bruns has published his autobiography The Character Actor’s Do’s, Don’t’s and Anecdotes, a freewheeling look back at his life and career, featuring show-biz stories, life lessons, practical tips for actors, personal anecdotes (some very personal!) and even tasks he performed on behalf of the US government, including a bizarre “acting job” in Paris during his Fulbright days, and being dosed with LSD as part of a government survey.
“I did not have a good trip,” he said wryly, and you can read all about it.
Born in Minnesota during the Great Depression, Bruns was very much a typical all-American boy. He chased girls and played sports. He drifted into acting, attended Yale Drama School, and a lengthy career was born. None of it, Bruns said, could ever have been scripted.
“That’s the way my life was,” he said. “I was always working! I never went on a vacation.”
His one attempt at a weekend getaway, told in the book, was perhaps the shortest in history.
Bruns looked older than he was, which made him eligible for character roles. When he was cast as Louise Lasser’s father in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” less than a decade separated them in age. A proponent of fitness since his youth, he was in much better shape than he played. “The golden age for me were my 50’s, 60’s and 70’s — it ain’t when you’re 80,” he laughed, but noted that being fit holds him in good stead even in retirement.
“I wouldn’t have gotten to 80 if I wasn’t in shape,” he said. “I’m alive, let’s put it that way!” Other incredible detours included his efforts to organize a mass donation of books (“Operation Education”) to the schoolchildren of the Bahamas during the mid-’60’s.
The book came about when Bruns was convalescing from surgery in 2000. “For years I’d tell stories at parties and they always got people laughing. They’d say to me, ‘You ought to write that down.’” In order to occupy his time during recovery, he began writing chapters from his life. Before too long, “I had a stack of pages four or five inches thick,” he recalled. “It’s a heavy book!
“I’ve learned one thing: I love being an actor much more than being a writer,” Bruns laughed.
The actor has amassed so many credits, particularly on TV, that “even my IMDB [internet movie database] listing doesn’t have them all,” he said, adding that even he’s forgotten a few. “It’s like I said: I was always working. I’d go from one thing to the other, one right after the other. This went on for years. That’s why I never had time for a vacation.”
In the book, he also imparts wisdom he’s accumulated over the years.
“Never be late” is a piece of advice he can’t stress strongly enough. “I’ve seen too many good actors lose too many good roles for the simple, stupid reason that they are late.”
There’s also the business side of the profession. Recently he received a residual check for Return of the Living Dead Part II. “I don’t think I’d gotten residuals since it was released… I hadn’t thought about it much….”
But, Bruns observed, “My movies are now being shown all over Europe,” and with censorship of horror movies loosened in formerly Communist countries, films like Return of the Living Dead Part II are proving extremely popular with an entirely new generation, and culture, of horror fans.
“I’ve received checks for $12, $89 or even $7.39,” he said, but this one was for more. A lot more.
“A check this big, you don’t ask too many questions!”