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In the News: 'Augustana Graduate Worked with Some of Hollywood's Best'

Phillip Bruns, Augustana class of 1953, starred with legendary actor Jackie Gleason on “American Scene Magazine;” played the unforgettable dad, George Shumway, on TV's “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman;” and made more than 40 feature films in Los Angeles, New York and around the world.

Bruns died on Wednesday, Feb. 8, of natural causes at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, Calif. He was 80 years old.

Read more about Bruns' accomplishments on- and off-the-screen in this Argus Leader feature:

Augustana Graduate Worked with Some of Hollywood's Best
By Jill Callison, Argus Leader

Phillip Bruns played all sorts of characters during his six-decade acting career, everything from police officers to — briefly — Jerry Seinfeld’s father.

But the Pipestone, Minn., native, who died Feb. 8 at the age of 80 in Los Angeles, created a different legacy when he established a library for children in the Bahamas.

He discovered that a school there had no books during the early 1960s, when he starred with Jackie Gleason on “American Scene Magazine.”

“He called all his friends and had them give books and created a library for those children,” his wife, Laurie Franks Bruns, said Thursday in a telephone interview from her home in California. “He cared about a lot of people.”

A memorial service for Bruns, who graduated from Augustana College in 1953, will be Sunday in West Hollywood. A second memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Feb. 25 in the Performing Arts Center in Pipestone. Laurie Bruns said her husband will be buried in New Woodlawn Cemetery in Pipestone near his parents, Henry and Margie Bruns.

Survivors also include a sister, Dorothy Boese, of Pipestone and her two children.

At Augustana, Bruns lettered in football, baseball, golf and track. He didn’t go out for football his senior year so he could concentrate on the theater.

His interest in acting was sparked by a chance encounter with longtime Augustana theater professor Earl Mundt, according to retired professor Ron Robinson.

“He always (told) the story of literally running into the director, Earl Mundt, when crossing the campus,” Robinson said. “Earl said, you ought to get into the theater, and he did it for just a lark. He really started loving it.”

After he graduated from Augustana he went on a scholarship to the Yale Drama graduate school.

“That astonished all of us,” said longtime friend John Egan, who lives in Arizona.

Bruns also spent 12 months studying in England on a Fulbright scholarship. It was there he met actor Peter O’Toole, who became a lifetime friend and asked Bruns to be godfather to his daughter, Robinson said. Another close friend was Robert Redford; they appeared in “The Great Waldo Pepper” together.

Bruns’ athleticism helped him in some of his roles, but eventually hurt him. That happened when he acted with O’Toole in “My Favorite Year” in 1982.

“He gets hung up on a coat hook, and of course they have a special harness, but he hung there for a long time as they took take after take,” Robinson said. “It really was the beginning of the ruination of his body. He had great problems with his hips particularly after that.”

Laurie Bruns said her husband, who died of natural causes, was in severe pain for the last few years.

The couple became friends in 1961 when they appeared in summer stock together. She focused on Broadway, while he spent much of his career appearing in more than 40 movies and TV shows such as “M*A*S*H.”

They met again in 1993 when he learned she had moved to California.

“Someone mentioned my name, and he said, you mean that singer from New York? Give me that phone number.” They married seven years ago, Laurie Bruns said.

Bruns had a terrific sense of humor but also appeared in more serious roles. He contributed a spontaneous line that made it into the 1983 movie “Flashdance.” When the main character falls during a skating routine, he said, “You bounce pretty good,” Robinson said.

Robinson admired Bruns’ work in movies such as “The Swimmer” with Burt Lancaster and “The Out of Towners” with Jack Lemmon. Bruns, who returned to the area often, in 1983 directed a play Robinson wrote, “Kitchen Dance.”

“He was a very bright guy,” Robinson said. “As a director, you have to be able to really analyze plays and to get into them. I thought he did a better job than almost anybody else could have with my work.”

Bruns perhaps is best known for playing the father on the TV show “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which aired in 1976 and 1977.

He also played the role of Jerry Seinfeld’s father, Morty, in the first season of “Seinfeld” in 1990.

Her husband, whose autobiography “The Character Actor’s Do’s, Don’ts and Anecdotes,” was published in 2009, was making plans until the end, Laurie Bruns said.

“His body just gave out before his ideas gave out,” she said.