skip navigation
Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce

| VIEW ALL

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:

TCM Archive Materials VIEW ALL ARCHIVES (0)

Recent DVDs

 
 

Obscene: A Portrait Of Barney Rosset &... Starting in 1951, Barney Rosset's Grove Press pushed the envelope of obscenity... more info $29.95was $29.95 Buy Now

Also Known As: Died: August 3, 1966
Born: October 13, 1925 Cause of Death: Drug Overdose
Birth Place: Mineola, New York, USA Profession:

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Undeniably the singular comic who blazed a trail for modern comics, Lenny Bruce smashed the taboos of the 1950s and 1960s with profanity-laced performances at a time where uttering four-letter words on stage led to arrest and prison. After getting his start in the seedy environs of burlesque clubs in New York and Los Angeles, Bruce established himself as a rising star in more respectable establishments in the San Francisco area. He also began attracting media attention for good and ill, appearing early in his career on the "The Steve Allen Show" and gaining notice in major newspapers across the country after the release of the comedy albums The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1958) and Togetherness (1958). In 1961, Bruce's legal troubles began and never let up until his death five years later. He was arrested on numerous occasions for uttering obscenities in public which led to years of litigation, all the while being banned by virtually every club in America and even by some countries. Meanwhile, increasingly poor health brought on by his addiction to various narcotics led to an increasing life of misery, while his dwindling onstage performances became less of a stand-up act and more of a satirical rant...

Undeniably the singular comic who blazed a trail for modern comics, Lenny Bruce smashed the taboos of the 1950s and 1960s with profanity-laced performances at a time where uttering four-letter words on stage led to arrest and prison. After getting his start in the seedy environs of burlesque clubs in New York and Los Angeles, Bruce established himself as a rising star in more respectable establishments in the San Francisco area. He also began attracting media attention for good and ill, appearing early in his career on the "The Steve Allen Show" and gaining notice in major newspapers across the country after the release of the comedy albums The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1958) and Togetherness (1958). In 1961, Bruce's legal troubles began and never let up until his death five years later. He was arrested on numerous occasions for uttering obscenities in public which led to years of litigation, all the while being banned by virtually every club in America and even by some countries. Meanwhile, increasingly poor health brought on by his addiction to various narcotics led to an increasing life of misery, while his dwindling onstage performances became less of a stand-up act and more of a satirical rant against the unfairness of what he considered a fascist system. Though he suffered in life, Bruce was immortalized as an American icon for decades after his death, while becoming a true innovator who singlehandedly changed the course of comedy. Most comedy connoisseurs agreed that without the groundbreaking Bruce, there would never have been a Carlin, Pryor or Kinison.

Born on Oct. 13, 1925 in Mineola, NY, Bruce was raised by his father, Myron, a shoe salesman, and his mother, Sally Marr, a stage performer and dancer. When he was five years old, his parents split, leaving him in the custody of his mother, whose work on stage influenced him at an early age. After attending grade school and Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore, Bruce ran away from home when he was 16 and spent the next two years working on a Long Island farm. In 1942, he volunteered for the U.S. Navy and saw action in North Africa aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn during World War II. Three years later, he received an honorable discharge - originally an undesirable discharge - for posing as a transvestite in exchange for fellow shipman's beer quota. Upon his return to the United States, Bruce went back to the family farm on Long Island, only to be met with indifference. He eventually moved back with his mother, who had set up a dance school in New York City.

In 1947, Bruce embarked on his stand-up career by performing at a club in Brooklyn and later being featured as an MC at the Victory Club where his mother worked. Over time, he developed his material at clubs around New York and New Jersey like Squires, the Clay Theatre, and George's Corner in Greenwich Village. Bruce soon met Honey Harlow in 1951, a stripper whom he married later that same year. Determined to put an end to her burlesque career, Bruce embarked on a moneymaking scheme with the Brother Mathias Foundation, which solicited donations for a leper colony in the former British colony of Guiana. The scam resulted in his arrest in Miami for impersonating a priest and the illegal solicitation of funds, but the charges were later reduced to vagrancy and panhandling after it was found that the foundation was legal, the leper colony was real, and the fact that he was an imposter failed to be determined. Bruce and Harlow soon moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where both were involved in a serious car accident that left him with a head injury and her unable to walk for four months. Despite his condition, Bruce continued to perform stand-up.

Tiring of the East Coast, Bruce moved out West in 1953, where he spent the next four years doing stand-up and performing as an MC at various burlesque clubs while Harlow resumed stripping. Because of the baser environment of the strip clubs he worked, Bruce was able to delve into topics taboo in more respectable establishments, while also being free to use coarse language without constraint. After the birth of his daughter, Kitty, and a divorce from Honey in 1955, Bruce moved away from the San Fernando Valley strip clubs to more upscale places like Ann's 440 in San Francisco. Meanwhile, he tried to jumpstart his career by writing the script for the low-budget gangster flick, "Dance Hall Racket" (1956), which starred his mom, his ex-wife and himself, but the movie failed to gain much notice until Bruce had already entered into immortality. Meanwhile, his fame as a performer began to grow, with Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner arranging for him to perform in Chicago and host Steve Allen inviting him onto "The Steven Allen Show" (NBC/ABC/syndication, 1956-1964). He also began releasing albums of live material mainly taken from concerts around San Francisco like The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1958) and Togetherness (1958), which featured a controversial cover with Bruce, a black woman and an Asian woman surrounded by hooded members of the KKK.

Because his act incorporated extensive use of foul language and discussion of taboo subjects - unheard of for comedians at the time - it was only a matter of time before Bruce attracted unwanted attention. Following an arrest in September 1961 for possession of prescription narcotics, Bruce was in trouble with the law again that October when he was taken into custody for obscenity while performing at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Though acquitted by a jury in March 1962, police and other law enforcement agencies began frequenting his performances, often undercover. Trouble mounted for the daring comedian throughout the year. Upon the release of American (1962), an album of recordings made two years previously, Bruce was officially banned from playing Australia after being promptly ushered offstage for greeting the audience with vulgarities. He was arrested again for drug possession and obscenity in October 1962 before an arrest that December on yet another obscenity charge while performing at The Gate of Horn in Chicago. Meanwhile, leading American figures like Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Taylor, Gore Vidal and Allen Ginsberg either positively testified or petitioned the Chicago court during the lengthy six-month trial that ultimately ended with a guilty verdict in November 1964.

Prior to his conviction, Bruce had run afoul with other authorities, including an arrest in Los Angeles for narcotics possession, though he was eventually acquitted. He was also banned from entering England and Scotland while denied permission to perform in Detroit despite having played there for many years. Following two arrests in the same week at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village in 1964, Bruce lost an appeal for his Chicago obscenity conviction when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the decision. In 1965, he released a semi-fictional autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, which was compiled from a series of essays written for Playboy magazine. By this time, Bruce's act had drifted away from comedy and had become a more stream-of-consciousness rants decrying his numerous legal entanglements while riffing on fascism and his lack of free speech. After a declaration of bankruptcy in late 1965, Bruce delivers a searing satirical performance in Berkeley, CA, only to follow with a disastrous set at Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium in July 1966, where he was described as paranoid and under the influence of narcotics. Less than two weeks later on Aug. 3, 1966, Bruce was found dead of a morphine overdose in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home. He was 40 years old. Thirty-seven years later, in 2003, Bruce received a posthumous pardon from New York Governor George Pataki for his 1964 obscenity conviction. By that time, he had remained both an icon and trailblazer, serving as inspiration for later comedians like Dick Gregory, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and just about any other comedian able to yell "f*ck" on stage without being arrested.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

2.
 Dance Hall Racket (1956) Vincent
3.
 Dream Follies (1954) Willie
4.
 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time (2004) Honoree (Archival Footage)
5.
 But... Seriously (1994)
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Please support TCMDB by adding to this information.

Click here to contribute