The story of the murricane
This tragicomic virtuoso charms audience with his acting skills and human qualities
In Stockholm, in summer, dusk bleeds into dawn. The sky bruises but light prevails. A protracted twilight paints the city surreal colours. It was against this backdrop, at 3.30am one August morning, detective Inspector Christer Holmlund found a small electrically powered vehicle trundling through the city centre streets. Bill Murray was driving. Murray was in town to play a pro-am golf tournament and had travelled as a passenger in the vehicle to the Cafe Opera nightclub. The driver felt he was too oiled to make the return joinery, so Murray volunteered to take the wheel. ‘That’s what America used to be famous for’, Murray later explained. ‘Helping out. Pitching in. I ended up stopping and dropping people off on the way, like a bus.’ The seats were full. People stood clinging to the back and sides. When it was requested Murray stop at a shop so they could buy mixers, he duly obliged. When the police asked Murray to take a breathalyzer test, he was less accommodating. ‘Police asked me to come over and they assumed that I was drunk’, Murray countered, ‘and I explained to them that I was a golfer.’ Transpose this scene into the life of any of his peers and it comes with screeching headlines about a breakdown. If it was a young star – say Justin Bieber – then people would be calling him a burnout. That was not the case with Murray. It never is. In fact, had it not been confirmed by police reports, and later the actor himself, the story would have been consigned to the ever-growing books of Murray mythology. Those tales – often anchored in truth, often embellished in the minds and decorated by the tongues of adoring fans – that involve Old Bill turning up somewhere unannounced, doing something unexpected, and disappearing in a puff of punchlines. He appears at SXSW culture festival in Austin, Texas, with the Wu-Tang Clan in tow, manning the bar and refusing to serve anything but tequila. He invites himself to a student party in St Andrews, Scotland, and does the washing up before leaving. He joins kickball games in the park, crashes karaoke parties, sneaks up on strangers and steals their French fries. And he always leaves them, it’s said, with the same line: ‘No one will ever believe you.’ Murray was asked about these stories and his charismatic leaving line: ‘I know. I know, I know. I’ve heard about that from a lot of people. I don’t know what to say. But it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Just so crazy and unlikely and unusual?’ From broadsheets to blogs there’s an unquenchable thirst for these tales. Murray’s a one-man meme. A viral virtuoso. Yet there’s no big machine turning the cogs of his career. You can count on one hand the proper interviews he’s given in the past decade. You won’t find him on Twitter. He has no agent, manager, publicist. He doesn’t even have a phone. How, exactly, does he get away with it? Why are these acts seen as charming and not contrived? Murray – figuratively and literally – is the exception. In 1970, the Chicago Tribune reported that the young Murray, waiting to board a plane to Denver, ‘jokingly told another passenger that he was carrying two bombs in his luggage’. Airport staff failed to see the funny side and federal agents were called. They found no explosives; they did find a five-brick haul of contraband worth over $20,000. One of Murray’s oldest friends says, in those days, he was a very different presence to the one we know now – more anarchistic than avuncular. ‘He was kind of scarier then’, producer and writer Mitch Glazer said. ‘I didn’t know him very well. He was blazingly funny. But he also seemed angrier.’ These days, Glazer is in a better position than most to comment on Murray’s character, particularly his very distinct sense of humour. The pair worked together on Scrooged (1988), after John Belushi had introduced the pair when Murray joined Saturday Night Live. Glazer’s wife, actress Kelly Lynch, says Murray calls the couple’s house anytime the film Road House is on TV, normally as soon as the sex scene between Lynch and Patrick Swayze starts. He once called from Russia. ‘No matter what time’, Glazer said, ‘two in the morning, the phone will ring. It was kind of funny, the first dozen or so times…’ Glazer calls his mercurial friend the Murricane.
Murray began his career with his brother Brian, as part of improvisational comedy troupe The Second City in Chicago. He migrated to New York in 1974 and was scouted by Belushi for the National Lampoon Radio Hour. He began a three-season run on Saturday Night Live in 1977, replacing Chevy Chase. Glazer is said to be the best man to place a script in Murray’s hand, as Bill refuses to play the Hollywood game, eschewing all the usual hangers-on in favour of a voicemail box, an 0800 number which he checks infrequently. As a result, he’s missed the opportunity to star in Monsters, Inc. (2001), Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). ‘It’s not that hard’, Murray explained. ‘If you have a good script that’s what gets you involved. People say they can’t find me. Well, if you can write a good script, that’s a lot harder than finding someone.’ Murray’s film career began with screwball summer camp romp Meatballs (1979). Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) sees Murray shine on a poorly lit stage. A disjointed, diluted patchwork of vignettes, it’s an unsatisfactory film worth revisiting only for Bill’s performance. It was the beginning of Murray’s first purple patch – a string of box-office hits that included Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), and Tootsie (1982). Here we see Murray the man to trying to make sense of the world. Murray the fast-talking, funniest man in the room. Murray the everyman. We familiarise ourselves with that face, its default deadpan setting, its crags and crevasses suggestive of both premature ageing and an agelessness. ‘I know how to be sour’, Murray said. ‘I know that taste.’ In 1984, he began work on a film adaptation of the novel the Razor’s Edge. He co-wrote the screenplay which signalled his first foray into dramatic film. In the same year he, with some reluctance, agreed to star in Ghostbusters – a role penned with John Belushi in mind. Murray agreed to the Columbia Pictures-made film so he could fund Razor’s Edge (1984). The former was the year’s highest-grossing release; the latter flopped. Following that he retreated into a fouryear hiatus studying philosophy at the University of Paris. He became an existentialist-in-waiting. Murray was back in business with Scrooged (1988) and Ghostbusters II (1989). Neither were his best work; but neither have aged too badly. It was in his subsequent films What About Bob? (1991) and Groundhog Day (1993) – both big at the box-office and acclaimed by the critics – where he began to sign his signature across the screen. The misunderstood misanthrope. The grouch with the big heart. The slacker who comes good in the end. Various characters tied together with Murray’s yawning vowels and peerless screen presence. Groundhog Day is treated with the kind of reverence the greatest actors achieve only once or twice a career. Murray says it’s ‘probably the best work I’ve done.’ And so concludes the first act of his career in film. Conventional wisdom says the actor enters something of a fallow period in the mid-90s. Sure, there were duds, but in Murray’s fimography, you’re never more than a movie or two away from mining a gem. His performance in Kingpin (1996) is masterful, and it marks a shift in the kind of movies Murray makes, the characters he plays. In a recent interview, the cult-film director Wes Anderson claims Murray has cost his actors millions of dollars by laying the fiscal blueprint for all of the director’s future ensemble movies when he appeared in Rushmore (1998). ‘In the movie he made before’, Anderson says, ‘he was paid $9 million. That was the entire budget of our movie. So we asked him, ‘How shall we do this?’ And he said, ‘I will do it for scale.’ And that was $9,000. That became our model for everyone else after that. He created the low wages.’ Of the eight films the pair have worked together on, Bill features in six. The six best. The two team up again this year with the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Murray, in the second act of his career, inverts the characters found in the first. The volume has been turned down. He’s introspective. Existential. The eyes that shone so brightly with mischief have dulled a little and we long to know what’s going on behind them. Lost in Translation (2003) is the high-water mark of this mode – perhaps of his career. The role for which he won almost everything except the prize he deserved most. Murray admits to wanting the Oscar, but concedes he didn’t need it. ‘I’ve since realised that it was good I didn’t win’, he said afterwards, ‘because I wasn’t ready. Guys go for five years without working because they’re thinking, ‘Oh, this isn’t Oscar-worthy.’ They become paralysed. It would have fed that thing that I found in myself, without my even knowing.’ Murray is arguably the greatest comedy actor of his generation. One of the best of all time. It would be good to see him return to comedy. It would be good to see his hands wrapped around an Oscar. But we love Old Bill for more than just his onscreen performances. Few actors can crack you up and break your heart quite like Murray. Few have the lightness of touch that can hold punchlines and pathos in one hand. He sneers at Hollywood and smiles for fans. He’s unattainable to press and available to the public. He’s nowhere. He’s everywhere. He’s the anonymous, high-profile star that’ll buy you drink and sing you a song. Being Bill is his greatest performance. ‘No one will ever believe you’, he says. But we do believe him. And that’s why we love him.