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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.

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