The charismatic, talented Bruno Lawrence remains one of our rare screen actors to have become a local star, thanks to his ability to convey a sense of virility, natural charm, and danger. As Ian Mune has commented, "there was a sense when he was on camera that anything could happen." Bruno's skills as an actor and musician sprang from the same creative well. Music writer Nick Bollinger put it like this: "as an actor, his ability to listen and respond to others, not to mention his acute awareness of rhythm and timing, were refined through years of jazz improvisation."
Bruno was born David Lawrence in England in 1941, to an English mother and a Taranaki father. In 1946, his family emigrated to New Zealand. Lawrence picked up the nickname ‘Bruno' as a youth and moonlighted as a semi-professional musician, drumming in bands around the lower North Island. He released a single called Bruno Do That Thing, which made the finals at the 1965 Loxene Golden Disc Awards (forerunner to the Tui's). Bruno also spent time as a cadet reporter, but decided he was too "imaginative" for the job.
Bruno's musical activities intensified during a stint drumming with singer Ricky May, and with Max Merritt and The Meteors in Australia. Already he had begun experimenting with acting, hooking up with musician and future director Geoff Murphy while both were teenagers in Wellington.
Bruno's first acting role involved playing a mad professor in lost short Doctor Brunovski. Brunovski ignited Bruno and Murphy's interest in filmmaking, and later made its way into Blerta's live performances. The duo reconvened for the more ambitious Tank Busters (1970), based on an idea of Bruno's. This tale of student robbers won a television screening; Bruno talks about it in documentary Cowboys of Culture.
Tank Busters actor Murray Reece would call on Bruno's talents for Time Out, an unusual half-drama, half-doco Reece made for TV's Survey slot. Bruno improvised dialogue in a scene performed alongside actual police officers. As Roger Booth writes in his biography Bruno, "character creation with loosely constructed dialogue ideas was Bruno's forte. It always remained his special strength, the distinctive mark of his craftsmanship".
When Bruno won a Feltex best acting award, fellow thespians voiced their displeasure, partly because he was using an unrefined Kiwi accent when British accents were still the norm. When Reece directed for pioneering local drama Pukemanu, he cast Bruno as a biker.
In late 1971, a loose company of musicians, actors and artists began to aggregate around 'Wild Man' Lawrence. Known as Blerta (The Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Traveling Apparition), this travelling performance troupe quickly became an influential alternative cultural force in New Zealand's fledgling scene.
By 1974 Bruno and his family had set up a communal base in the Hawkes Bay community of Waimarama, joining the families of Geoff Murphy, Blerta actor Martyn Sanderson and cinematographer Alun Bollinger.
While Bruno continued to make music, contributing to notable Kiwi bands like Spats and The Crocodiles, from 1980 onwards he would plunge his energies into acting. Bruno Lawrence's face and name was to become synonymous with Kiwi films; from 1980 to 1982 alone he appeared in seven features, plus the unreleased Prisoners and TV's A Woman of Good Character, long one of his favourite roles.
Bruno would act in Geoff Murphy's first four features: playing the title role in Murphy's rough-hewn 1977 feature debut, Wild Man (which Bruno also helped write and produce); cameoing as a drugdealer in Goodbye Pork Pie, experimenting with method acting in Utu, and winning international praise for his solo turn in The Quiet Earth.
After hopes of casting Jack Nicholson in The Quiet Earth were shot down, Murphy overcame producers' resistance to Bruno playing scientist Zac Hobson. For a good proportion of the film's running time, he commanded the screen solo, as the man wondering if he is the last man on earth. As with his acclaimed performances in Smash Palace and Heart of the Stag, Bruno also helped write the script. The story of him burning the Quiet Earth script in frustration during one fevered writing session is one of many legendary Bruno stories.
Bruno created possibly his most enduring character in another Kiwi classic: Roger Donaldson's Smash Palace (1981). Donaldson later argued that "Bruno made this movie what it was". His performance as an embittered small town mechanic facing divorce was a classic study of the rogue Kiwi male in extremis. New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote that "Mr Lawrence makes Al real and recognizable every step of the way, so that even when his anger erupts into violence, he hasn't lost the audience's sympathy."
In 2000 veteran NZ Herald critic Peter Calder argued that Bruno's portrait of "the petrolhead father fighting for access to his daughter" remained "the finest single performance in our cinema."
Though Bruno spent time in the United States on an Arts Council grant, and impressed many American critics with his Smash Palace performance, he appears to have made few efforts to sell himself as an actor in the States. Bruno also spent years trying to develop a film to direct himself, about two 50s era musicians - at one point winning interest from producer Edward Pressman (American Psycho).
1984's Heart of the Stag saw Bruno playing a hired hand working for an antagonistic farmer (Terence Cooper). Metro magazine voted it the best Kiwi film of the year, and a number of overseas publications praised Bruno; The Los Angeles Times wrote of his "undeniably attractive screen presence, the tough tenderness of a young Brando".
By now, wearying of overexposure, and also of being typecast as the heavy or the loner, Bruno looked to Australia. Changes in tax loopholes led to a massive drop in local feature production, providing further encouragement to cross the Tasman. Bruno's first noteworthy Australian part was as a blind patient in Colleen McCullough's An Indecent Obession (1985).
Other Australian roles included playing one of the robbers (most of them fellow Kiwi actors) in mini-series The Great Bookie Robbery. Bruno showed a more human side as mentor to Kylie Minogue's character in The Delinquents, and foreman to Brit Anthony Hopkins in Spotswood. The latter was one of many collaborations with director Mark Joffe; Bruno had been nominated for an Australian supporting actor award, for his corrupt cop in earlier Joffe movie Grievous Bodily Harm.
Alongside his busy Australian career, Bruno found time for the occasional role back home. Bruno twice played real-life detective sergeant Terry Batchelor in productions based on the Rainbow Warrior sinking; one of his final Kiwi roles was as a man gifted with ESP in 1993 revenge fantasy Jack Be Nimble.
In January 1995, Bruno developed stomach pains five days into the shoot of Joffe's latest film Cosi. He was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer from smoking, and died on June 10 of that year. Bruno's tangi near Waimarama attracted close to 400 people, and lasted several days. As Nick Bollinger has written, "there were stories, there were tears, and, of course, there was music".
Bruno went out on a creative high: playing a cynical TV producer in acclaimed current affairs satire Frontline. Lawrence got the role after Frontline co-creator Santo Cilauro pitched the rest of his team that Bruno was one of Jack Nicholson's favourite actors. Cilauro found that Bruno brought a loveability to his character that wasn't in Frontline's original script:"...the reason that happened was because the actors couldn't help but love Bruno. There was no other way of showing him except as the loveable rogue."
Bruno's life and work are explored in both Roger Booth's 1999 biography Bruno: The Bruno Lawrence Story, and documentary Numero Bruno (2000), directed by Steve La Hood. Musician Fane Flaws talks about Blerta and Bruno's musical talents at various points, during the opening half hour of this 2019 interview. "He was remarkable," says Flaws. "He could have played with anyone in the world."
Profile updated on 5 November 2021
Roger Booth, Bruno - The Bruno Lawrence Story (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999)
Numero Bruno (Television documentary). Director Steve La Hood (Hoodwink Pictures, 2000)
'Fane Flaws - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 13 September 2019. Accessed 5 December 2019
Nick Bollinger, 'Bruno Lawrence: Bruno did his thing' (Revised Version) Originally published in The Listener, 1 July 1995, Revised in 2009
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Peter Calder, ‘The fast life of our first real film star’ - NZ Herald, 19 July 2000
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film 1912 - 1996 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Janet Maslin, Smash Palace (Review) - The New York Times, 16 April 1982
Magic Kiwis - Bruno Do That Thing (Television documentary). Director Robin Scholes (Communicado, 1996).