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Putting Words in Their Mouths

How Bruce Vilanch got from Old Town to Tinseltown and a starring role on the big screen

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By Bill Stamets

"You're not the same Bill Stamets who managed Cher, are you?" asks Bruce Vilanch over the phone from New York. Uh, no. Vilanch, 51, is a showbiz fixture who came to fame as a behind-the-scenes quip auteur for celebrities on awards shows. The new documentary Get Bruce! shows Vilanch honing gag lines with Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Robin Williams, and other stars who need help making unscripted apercus, intros, and segues onstage. Steven Seagal, going over his lines in a gold lamé tunic, asks Vilanch, "Is 'auspicious occasion' too eloquent?"

"When you start out you dress yourself, you do your own makeup, your own hair, and you write your own jokes," explains Vilanch. "Then you become a great big star and you're so busy doing things like this--talking on the phone and making appearances--there's no time to sit around and write new material." Recently elevated to head writer on Hollywood Squares, on which he also appears, Vilanch swears he doesn't have his own writer coaching his interviews. "Otherwise I'd be wittier this morning." So will Get Bruce! get Bruce better fees? "I had no idea the Reader was so interested in money," says Vilanch, chortling. "It was a counterculture publication when I was there. All of a sudden it's got capitalist like everyone else."

Get Bruce! is playing at Pipers Alley, which is on the same block Vilanch lived on when he moved to Chicago in 1970 to write features and reviews for the tabloid Chicago Today. Before that, he was arts editor and then head editor of the Ohio State Lantern. "A common exercise then was to take coverage of a crime as done by some anonymous person at the New York Times, and then by Jimmy Breslin," recalls the former journalism major. "And they would have you compare the two of them, and of course you were supposed to emulate the New York Times because it was factual and dispassionate. Of course I always thought the Jimmy Breslin version was a whole lot better. It was theatrical and entertaining, and that was what I wanted to be."

At Chicago Today Vilanch could indulge himself. "I was a kind of stunt reporter," he says. "I went on diets, I did a series on that. I traded places with a housewife--'Mr. Mommy'--Mr. Mom was stolen from that, actually. It was in Blue Island. I will never forget it. I was there for a week, while she was going to be a drama critic for a week. She showed up for one day and took a vacation. I ran the house. I did everything but sleep with the husband, which I was also prepared to do, but she didn't see it that way." His being gay was a nonissue at work. "We didn't know you had to make a declaration. It was like 'who cares?'" says Vilanch. He kicked back at the Trip at Ohio and Rush and at Kitty Sheon's, "a 'wrinkle room' where old queens hung out."

Vilanch also frequented a piano bar called Punchinello's with Bette Midler, whom he had befriended after reviewing her act at Mr. Kelly's. Soon he was writing her patter between songs and refining her alter ego, a reincarnation of the lewd Sophie Tucker. "I had a whole bunch of people I was writing for I had met during the five years I was in Chicago. It was a flagrant and blatant conflict of interest, but you have to understand, these were the Watergate years. It took Watergate for newspapers to get a conscience about that. Not only were we in bed with them, it was an orgy."

Vilanch left Chicago in 1975 when Bette Midler's dresser's brother started Manhattan Transfer and got him a gig writing for a TV show starring the group, and his career took off. Now, in Get Bruce!, it's his chance to be center stage. "I think when they hear it's a documentary somehow people expect they're going to see suffering," he says. "Someone asked, 'You think you got a shot at the Oscar?' I don't think enough Jews die in this movie. Many of us suffer, but we don't die."

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