Julian Barry, whose 1971 Broadway play and 1974 movie, both titled Lenny and telling the story of legendary comic Lenny Bruce, died Tuesday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 92.
His death was reported to The New York Times by his daughter Julia Barry, who said he died in his sleep and had been under medical care for congestive heart failure and late-stage kidney disease.
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Although most widely known for his highly influential Bruce projects, which earned considerable acclaim for the writer and his title stars — Cliff Gorman on stage, Dustin Hoffman on screen — Barry’s career extended to other projects that caught the public’s attention in their day. He wrote Rhinoceros, the 1974 film adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s play starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, a movie that has grown somewhat in esteem since its initial critical dismissal, and the 1978 Faye Dunaway vehicle Eyes of Laura Mars, which has not.
Launching his career in the 1950s as a stage actor and stage manager, Barry soon had a not particularly promising start in television: two episodes in 1966 of The Wackiest Ship in the Army and one of Mission: Impossible the same year.
Still, Hollywood interested was piqued, and in 1969 Barry was commissioned by Columbia Pictures to write a biopic on Bruce, the troubled comedian who had died of a drug overdose three years earlier. The project fell through, and Barry moved on to Rhinoceros.
But unwilling to give up on Lenny just yet, Barry approached Hair director Tom O’Horgan about staging it as a play. Barry adapted his screenplay for the stage, and the play — which, like the subsequent film, made use of actual transcripts from Bruce’s routines — became a Broadway hit. Gorman won the Tony for his performance as the comic, becoming one of the few cast members of the controversial The Boys in the Band film to find immediate follow-up success.
Barry then went to work adapting the play, which had been adapted from a screenplay, for the Hollywood version. Hoffman was cast as Bruce and Valerie Perrine as Honey Bruce, with Bob Fosse directing. The film was praised by critics and received six Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Barry’s screenplay, Fosse’s direction, the performances of Hoffman and Perrine and Bruce Surtees’ stark black-and-white cinematography.
The film left the 1975 awards ceremony empty-handed, though, understandable in an impossibly competitive year that included Chinatown, The Godfather Part II and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
While Barry wouldn’t hit those heights again, he continued writing movies until 1992’s Me Myself and I starring George Segal and JoBeth Williams. Other credits include 1984’s The River, with Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek, and the 1991 TV movie A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz with Jane Alexander and Christopher Plummer.
Barry himself conceded that his career never returned to Lenny levels. According to The New York Times, he took full responsibility, blaming himself for turning into a typical “Hollywood phony” and once recalling a disastrous meeting with Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack. Attempting to establish his Hollywood hip bona fides, Barry lit up a joint, which most definitely did not impress Redford or Pollack. As the Times recounts, Barry later recalled, “I had to live up to my reputation as the man who wrote about Lenny Bruce.”
Barry is survived by his partner, Samantha Harper Macy; daughters Julia (from his marriage to film producer Laura Ziskin), Sally and Jennifer Barry; son Michael Barry; and other extended family.
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