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Julian Barry, Who Made Lenny Bruce Into ‘Lenny,’ Dies at 92

Julian Barry, whose scripts for a Broadway play and a Hollywood movie about Lenny Bruce, both titled “Lenny,” became definitive portraits of the comedian as a truth teller who drove himself mad in a righteous struggle against American hypocrisy, was found dead on Tuesday morning at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 92.

His daughter Julia Barry said he had died overnight in his sleep. He had been receiving medical treatment for congestive heart failure and, in recent weeks, for late-stage kidney disease.

Like Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, Mr. Bruce died young (he was 40) and became a figure of continually renewed pop-culture lore. His comedy career and his criminal prosecutions on drug and obscenity charges inspired museum exhibitions, one-man theatrical performances and biographies. From 2017 until this year, a fictionalized version of Mr. Bruce was a recurring character on the Amazon Prime television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

Mr. Barry’s play, which opened on Broadway in 1971, five years after Mr. Bruce’s death, proved that Mr. Bruce could draw an audience posthumously. The 1974 movie version, which starred Dustin Hoffman in the title role, has endured as a classic of the Lenny Bruce mini-genre. It earned six Academy Award nominations, including for best picture, best actor and best adapted screenplay. (Mr. Barry lost to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo for “The Godfather Part II.”)

Cliff Gorman in the title role and Jane House as his wife in the original Broadway production of “Lenny” in 1971.Credit…Martha Swope/The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In both scripts, Mr. Barry paid homage to Mr. Bruce by including lengthy passages of his stand-up comedic material. His Lenny Bruce is crude but winningly so — more forgiving human frailty than mocking it, and skillful in using earthy common sense to attack the prejudices of his day.

Clive Barnes of The New York Times called the play a “dynamite shtick” of theater, and reflected on the irony that Mr. Bruce had been arrested after using language in nightclubs that by 1971 seemed unexceptional when declaimed from a Broadway stage. “The last laugh,” he concluded, “is with Mr. Bruce.”

The Broadway star of “Lenny,” Cliff Gorman, won the 1972 Tony Award for lead actor in a play. As Mr. Gorman told The Times in an interview after the play opened, his performance roused Mr. Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr, to visit his dressing room and address him as a “genius.”

Mr. Barry’s script compared Mr. Bruce to Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift. Some people rolled their eyes.

“The story Julian Barry has extracted from Bruce’s life tends to sanctify and, in the end, even to solemnize Bruce rather than to explore his obsessions,” another Times theater critic, Mel Gussow, wrote in a 1972 review, when Sandy Baron replaced Mr. Gorman.

But Mr. Barry found a powerful fan in Bob Fosse. After directing the movie version of the Broadway musical “Cabaret” (1972), for which he won the Academy Award for best director, Mr. Fosse decided that he wanted “Lenny” to be his next film project. He hired Mr. Barry to write the script.

“In the play, I mythologized Lenny Bruce,” Mr. Barry told Rolling Stone in 1974. In contrast, he said, the movie offered “a cold, objective approach.”

Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce and Valerie Perrine as his wife, Honey, in the 1974 film “Lenny,” directed by Bob Fosse and written by Mr. Barry.Credit…United Artists

Mr. Barry was perhaps referring to the film’s depiction of Mr. Bruce’s decline — ranting onstage about his arrests, shooting heroin, speechifying pathetically in court and finally dying of a morphine overdose naked on his bathroom floor in Los Angeles.

Yet in “Lenny,” filmed in arty black and white, Mr. Bruce’s flaws are redeemed. He cheats on his wife, but he shows himself to be faithful to her when she needs him most. His idealism about racial slurs — that by using them people can sap them of their malign power — goes unquestioned. His enemies in the legal system do not explain their defense of conservative social mores.

Mr. Barry saw Mr. Bruce as a tragic hero.

“The whole beauty of Lenny,” he told Rolling Stone, “is his message: We’re all the same schmuck.”

Julian Barry Mendelsohn Jr. was born on Dec. 24, 1930, in the Bronx and grew up in the Riverdale neighborhood. His father struggled as a salesman during the Depression but eventually rose to become an executive at the Hudson Pulp and Paper Company. His mother, Grace (Fein) Mendelsohn, donated time and money to Jewish causes and the theater.

Julian began acting as a teenager while attending Horace Mann, a day school in Riverdale, where, he wrote in his memoir, “My Night With Orson” (2011), he was a “townie” — not as privileged as wealthier fellow students who lived in uptown Manhattan. Believing it would aid a future career in show business — and following the advice of Philip Burton, a British director who taught at a summer acting camp that Julian attended — he modified his name to sound less Jewish while still just a teenager.

He was briefly an undergraduate at Syracuse University and Emerson College in Massachusetts. After serving in the Army and fighting in Korea in his early 20s, he established a career as a Broadway stage manager. He then took at a risk at the age of 35, turning down steady work to focus on writing.

Mr. Barry’s first screenplay to be filmed was “Rhinoceros” (1974), an adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s play starring Gene Wilder, left, and Zero Mostel.Credit…Kino International

Mr. Barry found success in television writing scripts in the 1960s for popular shows like “Mission: Impossible.” His first screenplay to be filmed was “Rhinoceros” (1974), an adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s play, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

Mr. Barry’s four marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Julia, from his third marriage, to the film producer Laura Ziskin, he is survived by his longtime partner, Samantha Harper Macy; two daughters, Sally and Jennifer Barry, from his second marriage, to Patricia Foley; a son, Michael, also from that marriage; five grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

In his autobiography, Mr. Barry described years of meeting stars and starlets. He and Frank Sinatra spent hours telling old stories and imagining a movie they might make together.

Summing up his life in the mid-1980s, he wrote, “I was still bumming a ride on my Academy nomination.”

Yet project after project of his did not get made, lost in the Hollywood purgatory known as “development.”

To some extent, Mr. Barry wrote, it was his own fault for becoming too hip for his own good. He grew his hair long, and he name-dropped in the offhand style of a “Hollywood Phony,” he wrote. Discussing a script of his with Robert Redford and the director Sydney Pollack in Mr. Redford’s hotel room, he suddenly lit up a joint. He was later told that the two men did not like him.

“I had to live up to my reputation,” Mr. Barry recalled, “as the man who wrote about Lenny Bruce.”

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