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Being Bill Murray

From Caddyshack to Lost in Translation, Midwestern-born Bill Murray has created some of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic characters.
Elvis Mitchell
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

Sophistication. It's not an adjective one expects to append to the man who played Dr. Peter Venkman, the parapsychologist, apparition chaser and—more importantly—canny operator in the Ghostbusters movie: "You're more like a game show host," notes one of his clients, as he snoops through her apartment like a gamy version of an appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow."

Yet complexity, and an intriguing working-class elegance, are defining undercurrents in the acting career of 54-year-old Wilmette, Illinois, native Bill Murray. With a wry twinkle and a flick of the wrist, he's flung a number of notable performances into the cultural mainstream, acting that indicates there are at least two eras of Murray.

The first epoch starts with the punch-the-clock greatness rendered during his tenure on the original late-'70s run of "Saturday Night Live" and covers the addled Carl, the groundskeeper with a wayward lower lip who seemed to be drifting towards magnetic north, a streak of violence and a taste for Zen mastery in Caddyshack. The second period allows for vehicles that show his emotional intelligence as an actor, films like Groundhog Day, in which he is forced to relive a 24-hour stretch for what seems like forever to the self-loving—and eventually self-loathing—weatherman he plays.

Groundhog Day heralded an eventual move to deeply felt turns in more personal projects like writer-director Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, for which his portrayal of the yearning, slightly frayed stranger in a strange land netted him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. His maturation as an actor can also be glimpsed in his collaborations with writer-director Wes Anderson on Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and their newest, upcoming film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In Aquatic, Murray plays a dedicated -- and faded -- oceanographer who finds complications thicker than the weave in Anderson's handmade tweed suits, including physical threats to his well-being and a cocky rival (played by Owen Wilson) who may be his son.

As Murray relaxes with a Cuban Punch Churchill, he talks amiably about what draws him to his work. Smoke curls lazily into the air of his sprawling upstate New York compound perched above the Hudson River, where he lives with his lively wife, Jenny, and their energetic, curious sons. The family environment has echoes of his own childhood. He was the fifth of nine children of Edward and Lucille Murray, who raised their brood in the Chicago suburbs. He went to a nearby Catholic high school, paying for some of his schooling by caddying at local golf courses. After dropping out of Regis College in Denver where he'd been a premed student, he broke into show business, eventually joining his older brother Brian at The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago.

 

 

Sitting in Murray's private world today, however, another word comes to mind: curiosity. It's what attracted him to Paris in the mid-1980s, where he lived, took classes at the Sorbonne and immersed himself in the culture. Writer-director and friend Tom Schiller once described Murray's restlessness as an "itinerant monk thing."

"It's the gypsy mentality, which is one of the things I love about making movies," Murray reflects, exhaling a plume of Havana smoke. "Imagine a group of people who are thrown together, without their loved ones. They don't have that familial thing. All you have are the people you work with, so you lean on each other because that's all you know. And that oddness is compounded by the fact that you're in this new place and you don't know the city."

He's been on the road quite a bit in the last year, having been stationed in Rome and filming the highly anticipated Aquatic with Anderson. "I think he may still be over there shooting it," Murray says with a laugh. While in Rome, Murray would wander the streets around the apartment he rented near St. Peter's Cathedral, taking in the area as if he were inhaling it.

"I loved that time I spent [in Rome]," he says. "Sure, there was great food and a beautiful landscape. But locations always offer that kind of thing, and you can live in it or hide out in your trailer. What I really like about the movies I do is, we have to become our village for a while. The movie business is the only place where communes still exist, and maybe that system works because it's temporary and none of the political complications of communes come into play. And if everyone accepts that, that I'm gonna be taken care of by the state and also that I'm gonna take care of this movie when it needs me, then the movie becomes greater than the sum of its parts. That's what Wes does, and it's what happened with Sofia. And the movies reflect that. But I'm not sure that's so common on movies anymore. It sounds strange to say it, but I think communism—that is, communal living—starts at the top. That means if the person at the top—the stars, or the director—is willing to live with less and say, 'Whatever the movie needs, I'm gonna do,' then everyone benefits."

That kind of constancy is evident going back to Murray's performance in the 1982 inside-the-Actor's-Studio-neuroses comedy Tootsie, in which he played the dazed but intense playwright roommate of Dustin Hoffman's title character, who becomes a huge and inadvertent success pretending to be a woman. Initially hired for two scenes, Murray's offhanded intensity supplied balance and clarity. And he improvised every single line. "He was so good, we kept adding scenes for him. I not only wanted to see more of him, but it was a fight to keep the cameras from jiggling when he was on because we were all laughing," Toostie director Sydney Pollack recently said in Toronto. "Bill had only done those comedies like Stripes and Meatballs. I had no idea what an actor he was. But he is the real thing."

"I think I learned how to act on Meatballs," Murray says. But he doesn't mean understanding how to perform. He's referring to his own comportment. "I could be the guy who hides out in his trailer, or the guy who acts up, or the guy who has an emotional investment in the whole thing. That's something I learned being on stage in Second City. That's really my solace. If I work hard to make you look good—even if it's one in the morning and there are more people onstage than in the theater—you'll do the same for me. It's a matter of responsibility, even for people who aren't in the performing departments. To me, it's not just the actors who are responsible for that environment, or even the director. It's the whole crew that creates the environment. It's why when an outsider walks on the set, everyone knows. You can feel it."

He's most engaged when the demands he makes of himself are matched by his coworkers, as he found when he starred with Sigourney Weaver in the 2002 Off-Off Broadway stage play The Guys, in which he played a fire chief trying to come to grips with the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities and honor the lives of the men he lost. "It was just something that had to be done. It was so hard going out there night after night with a situation that was so raw. She never lost sight of the moment onstage, because she kept focus, and that kept things going right. It helped me keep on track, too. John Belushi, who I've been thinking about a lot lately, was like that, too. It's been over twenty years since he died. He was just incredible on the stage. You couldn't take your eyes off him. He knew what you wanted from him, too, and he could do it."

Devotion to craft is a code that Murray adores. "Seeing my older brother Brian and all of his pals onstage at Second City is what made me wanna act. But until you start doing it, you don't realize how good somebody is. Y'know, you see someone on stage making people laugh, like Brian did, and you just think he's being funny up there. Then, you get up there and learn how tough it is."

 

 

Brian Doyle Murray cowrote and appeared with his younger brother in Caddyshack—which, like Groundhog Day, was directed by Harold Ramis—and Bill still marvels at the final result. "It's incredible to me that Harold took four different acting styles—me, Chevy [Chase] Ted [Knight] and [Rodney] Dangerfield—and blended all into one movie, instead of it seeming like four different movies. And I was reaching with it, too. People can feel all of those things just meshing on it.

"I think more people bring that one up to me more than anything else I've done, and it seems to mean more to people as time goes on," Murray observes. When asked about the mini-remake of "Caddy Shack" starring Tiger Woods—the recent American Express ad—Murray chuckles and says, "You gotta say, he committed to it. I was impressed."

Though he doesn't take himself seriously, Murray is serious about the magnitude of a film production and what's required to keep the momentum going. "It is like a military operation, and people have to work as many hours as it takes to get the job done—more hours than there are on the clock sometimes. Even on the worst movies, people work hard, and nobody sets out to make a bad one. Well," he smiles, "almost no one.

"But anyway, on Larger Than Life [a comedy in which he plays a motivational speaker who inherits an elephant], we were shooting this one scene on the Colorado River, and there wasn't much to do except go to the motel since it was kind of an impoverished situation—no restaurants or places to hang out. But it was this crazy place that was so incredibly beautiful. So I hired this raft-charter company to raft us up and down the river all day long. Someone said, 'How are you gonna do that?' And I said, 'Let's take one person from each department so everyone gets a turn.' "But no one wanted to go first, because it was one of those productions where everyone was determined to be much more professional than the guy next to him—because no one wanted to be less professional than the elephant. So I forced the head of every department—the director, the cinematographer—to take the first ride with me, while things were getting set up. It was only a twenty-five-minute trip, and afterwards, we all rushed back to work soaking. But by having the key person in every department go first, that made it cool for everyone else to relax and take their turn.

"To me, it was like this: I shot a movie on the Colorado River, and if I didn't experience it, just walk to work every day, it's like it never happened. You might as well fly over it."

It's important to Murray that his coworkers feel that they have a stake in the production. "Otherwise, you might as well just be washing cars in Manitoba," he shrugs. The recent death of singer Rick James reminds Murray of another instance in which he lobbed a cherry bomb at potential movie-set torpor. "When I was on What About Bob? [a comedy in which he plays a self-absorbed obsessive compulsive who undermines his rigid psychiatrist, who is played by Richard Dreyfuss], we were in the boondocks. On this man-made lake with nothing to do, and I mean, the middle of nowhere—not even much television. We were an hour from Roanoke [Virginia]; now, that may not mean much to you, but people in Roanoke know what I mean. And MC Hammer was coming to Roanoke. You have to remember what that was like when Hammer came on the scene, because that was a great song. Well, Rick James's 'Super Freak,' the song he sampled, was a great song, and when 'U Can't Touch This' played, you got up and danced. That was some groove."

He stands to demonstrate, humming the "Super Freak" bass line—doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo—and wiggling his hips, while maintaining a smiling concentration. "It got you sort of excited. So I chartered this old bus, and we went right from the set to the Hammer concert. We had a boom box playing all that music, and I think some moonshine, and made it a party all the way to the concert. I called my then agents and said, Get me tickets because I'm bringing a bunch of people to the show. And we get there, and [Hammer and his crew] were excited because they can't believe someone they know is coming, because they'd been playing all the smaller spots, like Allentown. And he says, 'C'mon backstage—how many are with you?' "

Murray shakes his head and laughs: "'All of them,' and I pointed to this line of people as far as the eye can see. They happened to have fifty-five extra seats on the side of the stage and we took 'em. I ended up joining Hammer on stage—this incredible, elevated stage that was filled with dancers and all of these musicians who weren't playing their instruments—and I did the dance. That's right, the Hammer dance. Surprisingly, I knew all the steps. But I learned why he wore those weird chef's pants, because I split my pants right up the back. And since it was the end of the month off on a remote location, all I had was my pants. I was going commando, if you know what I mean. I was working without a net, and stumbled to the side of the stage, and the costumer—who's now my wife—had these giant safety pins. She fixed me up, and I went out and finished the number. Later [Hammer] told me that professional athletes would come up and not be able to finish the number. I wondered if it was because of the pants, and he said, no, they didn't have the stamina."

"I know that 'U Can't Touch This' took on a new definition that night," he says, finishing his smoke.

 

 

It's that spirit of keeping himself open to things that led to his joining indie-filmmaking legend Jim Jarmusch, with whom Murray is working in pre-production for a film with an imminent start date. They met while taping a talk show in Manhattan and got together over dinner afterwards at Balthazar. To add to the synchronicity, Sofia Coppola's agent was dining at the same restaurant that evening; she called Coppola, who had been chasing the elusive Murray for months trying to get him to star in Lost in Translation, and alerted her to the sighting. Coppola viewed his meeting with Jarmusch as a good sign and she was proved right since he did eventually contact her.

Murray's nose for adventure made him want to work with Wes Anderson. "My agents kept sending me copies of Bottle Rocket, his first movie, and I never watched 'em. Still haven't seen it. Don't tell him. But I read the script and it was obvious to me he knew what he wanted, and that sureness, that precision, would pull in the right kinds of people."

It could be said that the actor is at the point in his career where he shifts from big studio enterprises like Charlie's Angels to independent-minded films that keep his pilot light blazing. But that wouldn't explain why, much earlier in his career, he followed his freshman film success Meatballs with a triumphant assault on the screen as the doomsayer/bon vivant Hunter S. Thompson in the otherwise forgettable Where the Buffalo Roam. "Oh my God," he says, laughing as he fires up an Opus X, "that part was a hard one to get out of my system; Hunter insinuates his way into your soul. I warned Johnny Depp that would happen to him [Depp played a Thompson-like character named Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas] and he learned the hard way."

Murray has just returned from the Dominican Republic with first-time director Andy Garcia, who was there making an autobiographical film about growing up in '50s Cuba. "He's a gent, Andy, a real gentleman who's devoted to his family, though he's one of the slowest golfers on God's green Earth. He called after Aquatic, when I didn't think I ever wanted to work again. What made the Andy movie happen is my wife likes Andy: 'That's OK. Go work with him. He's a gentleman.'

Murray happens to be a gentleman as well—the kind of fella who actually stands when a woman joins him at a dinner table; the only other person I've ever met besides my father and myself to do so. "Yeah, I noticed that about you. Isn't it always so funny when a woman says, 'Oh, you're such a gentleman'? And you're just doing the respectful thing?" he says. "It's not like I'm tossing a camel hair coat over a puddle," he muses, rolling his eyes, " though now, I suppose I'll have to. But, it's just something to do to show that you're not unconscious, and it makes people feel good."

Murray and Garcia have become fixtures at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament on the PGA Tour every year. Murray is as well-known for his antics on the course, as for his golf. "The first time I went to Pebble Beach, I went with George Pepper, the guy who got me to go," says Murray. "He was the editor of Golf magazine. I'd been asked to go before, but I was always working—you know, back in the day when all I did was work. George called me up and said, 'Do you wanna go to Pebble Beach? Because they'll invite me if you come.' 'Oh, OK.' That was a good enough reason to go. I played with a guy named John Adams. Big John. Big hitter, longtime tour player who never won a tournament but played on the tour a long time and made a very nice life of that. Laid back guy—very quiet."

Taking a break from the White Plains, New York, location of the new film he's shooting with Jarmusch, Murray smiles slyly and takes an amused pause before answering a question. "Am I a laid-back golfer?


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