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Unleashing O’Casey: Julian Barry, Lenny Bruce & American tragedy

[Eddie Izzard as Lenny Bruce]

“What was tragic about Lenny was, he wouldn’t pay the two dollars…He had the idea that somehow the law would get to the truth and that would change things.”

Barry says he was fascinated with Lenny Bruce from the time he first caught his act in a New York club in the mid-fifties. Lenny was in there among the pushers and the strippers and the jazz greats of his day. He took risks, he had disdain for the comics around him. Like the jazz musicians of his day, Lenny Bruce could improvise and you never knew what he was going to say. He wasn’t safe like Milton Berle.

The problem was how to get him down: the real Lenny Bruce on stage. Of all the actors who have done him, including Dustin Hoffman, Barry prefers the Eddie Izzard rendition. “No one had him like Eddie.” But what to write? How to hammer together the dramatic sequences that separate a real theatre event from a biography? “Working from real life, most of the time you’re gonna fall asleep because it’s all so fucking predictable. When he was a kid he….Then he grew up and….Then they kissed. It’s episodic. Where’s the drama? Where are the lies of art that lead to truth, as Picasso once said. I needed to find what was tragic in Lenny Bruce and what was tragic about Lenny was, he wouldn’t pay the two dollars. He didn’t really think too much about being a comic. In Jewish culture, to really count, you need to be a scientist or a doctor or a lawyer. When Lenny got hold of the law, he realized how beautiful it was. It took over his life. He had the idea that somehow the law would get to the truth and that would change things. That was his tragedy.”

I asked him about the Jewish thing. Film and theatre are pretty Jewish. Lenny Bruce was a Jew who attacked the US as a puritan country. That was carrying a grenade into a biker bar. Was that a problem for Julian Barry, I wondered.

“Yeah. I had a long talk with Paddy Chayefsky. He had an office on the same floor as Bob Fosse when we were working on the movie. Paddy was very nervous about Lenny. He thought he was bad news for the Jews. His filthy mouth, his language. Bob and I maybe convinced him. But you know what, if you want to put people to sleep, write for television. If you want to wake them up, make them jump out of their seats, write for Broadway.”

I asked what his biggest fear was when he put Lenny Bruce on the stage. “Look, I loved Lenny. I turned people on to him. Basically, the world at large didn’t know who he was. As he said ‘My mind works in such a discursive manner.’ That was what I was looking for. That rhythm. The guys who knew him were hip-inside guys. The people who bought Fantasy Records and smoked dope. I was allowed to use Lenny’s act. I had the outside Lenny, but I wanted to get inside, way inside. I was shitting blood worrying about it. I was afraid no one would believe it. I think I got away with it. Broadway! And it started out as a fucking screenplay!”

“And ended up as a film with Bob Fosse,” I added. “What was that like?”

“Tiring. When you sat in the room with Bob Fosse, his mind made you so tired, you couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was so intense and he was doing dexadrine and chain smoking all the time. They got part of it right in All That Jazz, but Bobby had this little boy thing going till he got his way. He was a little more fey than Roy Scheider played him, but then he (Fosse) directed All That Jazz, a film about his own life! When I heard he was doing Lenny, I kept waiting for his call. The phone didn’t ring. He was talking to two other writers: Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner. Those guys don’t know anything about Lenny Bruce. I had to beg Marvin Worth to get me in there. I said to myself “I hate this business. How many times do I have to get my Equity Card? Your ass is always up for grabs. I was ready to go in there and punch him out. Finally he calls me in and tells me: ‘You’re probably wondering why I didn’t agree to see you? Here’s the thing. I know you worked on it for more than a year and you know everything about Lenny Bruce. You’ve seen every interview. (We’d bought the interviews from Larry Schiller.) You know all his routines, but Julian, that stuff I have to find out for myself. What works and doesn’t work. I don’t want to be in a room with someone who will correct me on Lenny Bruce. I may want to do something that isn’t a play. I may want to do it in a completely different way.’ So there it was. He was getting down to business. He asked me to write two key scenes for the movie.

“You want me to write new stuff, Bob? That’s an audition. OK, I’ll do it.”

“That was it. We had both been on Broadway for a long time. Fosse was on his way to Africa to do a snake for Stanley Donan on The Little Prince. He wanted the scenes done when he got back. I wrote them, he read it and he hired me. We got five Academy Award nominations. And he was right about the rewrites.”

Looking back on Lenny the play and Lenny the film, Julian Barry has much to say: He had a lot more fun with Tom O’Horgan on Broadway (where everyday was a new adventure) than he did with Bob Fosse and Dustin Hoffman.

I told him I loved Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the film.

“Yeah, but you never saw the best Lenny of all. Eddie Izzard in London. Every actor who did it, had his schtick. Dustin had his thing, Cliff (Gorman) had his. Eddie was Lenny. But Tom O’Horgan was great. The way he staged it was so amazing. Tom was a genius. My favorite thing about Lenny on the stage was the rear wall, which was Mount Rushmore, but it was Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman and Nixon. At the end of the play, when the cops and reporters rush in, they go to Nixon’s face and they pull it open the jaw and inside the mouth is a toilet. Lenny was dead in the toilet. That’s really great theatrical staging!”

I asked him to compare theatre and film. Broadway and Hollywood. He said he got his start on Broadway first as an actor in the play Shinbone Alley, where he played the newspaperman, and was also stage manager. Finally he got hired as a stage manager who took plays out of town for tryouts and then into New York for their Broadway openings. “I did that till I was in my thirties. I learned everything about what goes on backstage. That was my life. I loved Broadway. Hollywood is different. Those guys play hardball. You have to have one hand on your dick or they’ll steal it. Fosse and Dustin. Dustin’s a tough guy. I knew Dustin from L.A. theatre. Dustin was an extra in a play called A Cook For Mr. General by Steve Gethers. I directed an actor in summer stock named Paul Price. All Dustin ever says to me is ‘You gotta get Paul Price into the show.’ Paul Price. Paul Price. He went crazy. Mr. Fruit Loops. Dustin was an extra. He had no lines and there he is popping up from behind the scenery like a mad man “GET PAUL PRICE INTO THE SHOW.” I finally did it. He was an extra too. That was Dustin Hoffman. And that wasn’t even film, Ben. But was amazing about Dustin Hoffman, was the fact, that even as an extra, you couldn’t keep your eyes off him.

I was on the floor. “You wanta hear my Mel Brooks story?”

Later. O.K. How can a guy who’s the greatest tragic writer in America be so funny?

“You said that about tragedy. Thanks Ben, but I didn’t say that. And tragedy can be funny.”

“What I learned backstage taught me to use everything. Even in Hollywood.”

Working with Fosse wasn’t exactly a dream either, says Barry, but two triumphs with one work (film and theatre) brought many rewards and lots of phone calls. He tried a little television, but hated the constraints and limitations. Maybe Lenny Bruce was watching over him.

Then Hollywood came calling. After the success of his screenplay for Lenny, film rewrites came his way. Agents and producers knew he could grasp the guts of a drama in a few minutes and rip out the boring stuff. In Hollywood, under the constraints of runaway budgets, the skill of fixing a flawed screenplay was priceless. He was paid well for a few dazzling repair jobs:

One of his most rewarding rewrite experiences was doing uncredited work on a Faye Dunaway film, The Eyes of Laura Mars. “When you do rewrite work, they depend on you to get it right. Fast. Tommy Lee Jones even gave me the idea for the ending. I always listen to actors. Even when they’re scary. Tommy Lee was scary. I guess I learned that from being a stage manager.” That was in 1977. It brought him on the set, where Barry met, fell in love with, and married associate producer Laura Ziskin, who went on to produce two of the largest grossing films in Hollywood history: Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Though the couple are long divorced, they are still pals and share a daughter, who loves them both. Barry is jovial about marriage. He’s tried it four times, but is now content to remain single.

The important thing was the way Julian Barry, the writer was welcomed on the set.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2009.