Getting to Know: Bill Murray

As he announces a reunion with director Sofia Coppola on the first feature from Apple Studios and a documentary does the rounds about his penchant for unexpected appearances, Bill Murray becomes the latest star to be profiled in Cinema Paradiso's ongoing Getting to Know series, after Cate Blanchett and Sidney Poitier.

Since making his screen debut with an uncredited bit part in Paul Mazursky's 1976 drama, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Bill Murray has established himself as a unique presence in American cinema. In his early films, he tended to play goofballs who kicked against the system before he settled into a period of essaying narcissistic know-alls whose essential decency is slowly revealed during a series of setbacks. Following a mid-career personal crisis, however, he accepted a string of older, but wiser roles that tempered his trademark deadpan cynicism with a wisp of sadness. Through all of these phases, Murray has become an iconoclastic cult icon whose quirkier off-screen antics have brought him a social media status that almost matches his movie fame. But, as his nickname suggests, becoming 'The Murricane' hasn't always been plain sailing.

Second City Shenanigans

The middle child of nine, Bill Murray was born in Evanston, Illinois on 21 September 1950. He first demonstrated his comic talents while competing with his siblings to make their lumber salesman father, Edward, laugh at the dinner table. But he also spent a lot of time reading biographies of America's frontier heroes and following the fortunes of the local Chicago sports teams. When his father died when he was 17, Murray took a job as a golf caddy to help mother Lucille pay the bills. However, he also started singing with the high-school rock band, Dutch Masters, and taking an interest in community theatre.

Dropping out of a pre-medical school course at Regis University in Denver, Murray found himself in trouble with the law when he chose his 20th birthday to joke to a fellow passenger at O'Hare Airport that he had two bombs in his luggage. In fact, he was carrying five two-pound bricks of marijuana worth around $20,000 and he was given five years' probation as a first offender. However, he was also handed a lifeline by his brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, who introduced him to The Second City, an improvisation troupe run by Del Close, who proved a profound influence on a comic generation that included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Indeed, Myers and Murray have been linked with a biopic that fellow alumnus Harold Ramis was developing when he died in 2014.

Murray credits Close with giving him this life-changing piece of advice: 'You gotta commit. You've gotta go out there and improvise and you've gotta be completely unafraid to die.' Taking this message to heart, Murray followed Belushi to New York in 1974 to work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. However, an off-Broadway spin-off show led to Murray being hired to replace Chevy Chase on the second season of Saturday Night Live in 1977 and he caught the attention with his 'Apology Speech', in which he appealed for audience patience to help him become funny again after a slow start on the show.

Over the next few years, Murray became renowned for such characters as Nick the Lounge Singer, Jerry Eldini, Dick Lanky and Honker the Homeless Guy. Moreover, he shared an Emmy for his contribution to the SNL scripts and caught the eye of Monty Python's Eric Idle, who cast him as DJ Bill Murray the K in his sublime Beatles mockumentary, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978). But this wasn't Murray's only brush with rock royalty during this period, as he managed to gatecrash Elvis Presley's funeral at Graceland in August 1977.

Hits and Misses

Murray was hoping to take the summer off to play golf and baseball when Belushi persuaded him to take the lead in Canadian director Ivan Reitman's Meatballs (1979). In keeping with his later practice, Murray turned up for filming without any prior contact with Reitman and proceeded to ad lib his way through the role of head counsellor Tripper Harrison, whose motivational speech to his Camp North Star charges before their showdown with the rival Camp Mohawk includes the immortal line, 'It just doesn't matter.'

Naturally, Murray stole the show and went on to garner fine reviews for his portrayal of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Art Linson's Where the Buffalo Roam and his gleefully manic display as greenkeeper Carl Spackler in Caddyshack (both 1980), which he co-wrote with his brother and marked his first collaboration with director Harold Ramis. But Murray also figured in a clutch of misfires, including SNL buddy Mike O'Donoghue's Mr Mike's Mondo Video (1979), Ira Miller's Loose Shoes (1980) and Tom Schiller's Nothing Lasts Forever (1984), which was shelved by MGM despite being produced by head SNL honcho, Lorne Michaels.

He had more luck with Reitman's Stripes (1981), an army comedy in which he co-starred with Ramis and the pair were reunited alongside Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson in Reitman's Ghostbusters (1984), which has gone on to become the third-most successful comedy in US box-office history. Coming off the back of playing Dustin Hoffman's playwright roommate in Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (1982), Murray was keen to tackle a serious dramatic role. But, when John Belushi died, he agreed to take over as Dr Peter Venkman on the proviso that he could write and star in John Byrum's adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's tale of self-discovery, The Razor's Edge (1984).

Such was the negative critical response, however, that Murray took a four-year sabbatical from cinema, during which he only cameo'd as a sadomasochistic dental patient in Frank Oz's cult musical, Little Shop of Horrors (1986), and as himself in John Hughes's She's Having a Baby (1986). Although married with two young sons, Murray relocated to Paris, where he divided his time between studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and film classics at the Cinémathèque Française. However, he returned Stateside to see his ailing mother and performed in an outdoor production of Bertolt Brecht's A Man's a Man, as well as giving regular readings around New York.

Back With a Bang

Still feeling 'radioactive' after the success of Ghostbusters, Murray asked producer Art Linson if he could collaborate with screenwriters (and old SNL pals) Michael O'Donoghue and Mitch Glazer on the Charles Dickens-inspired screenplay for his comeback picture, Scrooged (1988). But, despite the reassuring presence of brothers Brian, John and Joel among the supporting cast, the pressure of his $6 million fee and director Richard Donner's insistence on reining in his improvisational approach left Murray feeling miserable throughout the shoot. His mood scarcely improved on the set of Ghostbusters II (1989), as neither Ramis nor Aykroyd had wanted to make a sequel. Thus, Murray decided to take the reins himself on Quick Change (1990), a remake of Alexandre Arcady's Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicle, Hold-Up (1985), which saw Murray produce and direct, as well as star as a crook who disguises himself as a clown for a Manhattan bank robbery that goes like clockwork until he makes his getaway.

Despite the largely positive reviews, Murray's sole directorial venture proved a commercial disappointment and he settled for acting roles in Frank Oz's What About Bob? (1991) and John McNaughton's Mad Dog and Glory (1993). The latter saw Murray take on the mob boss role rejected by co-star Robert De Niro (who played a milquetoast NYPD photographer) and he promptly broke De Niro's nose during their climactic tussle over Uma Thurman. No blood was shed during the making of Groundhog Day (1993), but Murray had misgivings about the scenario and slowly fell out with his director. Harold Ramis hugely admired his star and once compared him to 'all the Marx Brothers rolled into one: He's got the wit of Groucho, the pantomimic brilliance and lasciviousness of Harpo, and the Everyman quality of Chico.' But they didn't speak for 21 years after this much-loved comedy and only patched things up shortly before Ramis died. However, Murray went some way to making amends by paying his old friend a fond tribute at the following year's Oscar ceremony.

Once again deciding to take time for himself, Murray restricted himself over the next three years to the supporting role in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) of Bunny Breckinridge, the cross-dresser who helped fabled Z-movie director Edward D. Wood, Jr. script the cult sci-fi cheapie, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). As a favour to producer Ivan Reitman, he also put in a cameo appearance as himself in Joe Pytka's live-action/animation hybrid, Space Jam. But his other roles in 1996 were more substantial, as he played hissable tenpin bowling star Big Ern McCracken in Peter and Bobby Farrelly's Kingpin and motivational speaker Jack Corcoran in Pen Densham's Larger Than Life, in which he inherits an elephant from the clown father he never knew and has to ride Vera across country to her new owner.

Murray fared little better with Jon Amiel's The Man Who Knew Too Little  (1997), which was adapted from novelist Robert Farrar's spoof spy thriller, Watch That Man, which had been inspired by the only film that Alfred Hitchcock remade, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 & 1956). Yet, while his supporting turn as smug lawyer Kenneth Bowden in John McNaughton's Wild Things (1998) drew positive notices, it was largely overshadowed by a controversial sex scene involving Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards. But Murray was about to meet the director who would help bring him to a new audience and take his career to a new level.

Leave a Message

Murray has been on a Winnebago tour when Wes Anderson contacted his agent with the screenplay for Bottle Rocket (1996) and knew nothing about the debuting director's eagerness to cast him in a role that ultimately went to James Caan. Impressed by what he saw, Murray signed up to Anderson's next project, Rushmore (1998), and won a raft of critics circle awards and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as world-weary industrialist Herman Blume and Murray has since collaborated with Anderson on The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Adopting an air of polished naturalism, the Duke of Deadpan has also forged a recurring link with indie icon Jim Jarmusch on Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005) and The Limits of Control (2009). In the first, Murray played himself as a waiter serving non-caffeine herbal tea to GZA and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan and he urges them not to let on that they have seen him. This vignette chimes in with Murray's habit of showing up in unexpected places and having fun with ordinary people. Documentarist Tommy Avallone collected some of the best anecdotes in Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man (2018), including accounts of him photobombing a wedding shoot, serving drinks in a bar, washing dishes at a Scottish student house party and posing as a roadie for the all-girl group, The Like.

During the film, Avallone tries to contact Murray on the 1-800 number that he has used for business calls since dispensing with agents and publicists around the turn of the century. As he only accessed his voicemail when the mood takes him, Murray has managed to miss out on projects like Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008). That said, he has also actively turned down parts in several prestige pictures, including a pair that earned consecutive Best Actor Oscars for Tom Hanks: Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993) and Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump (1994).

Moreover, Murray's scenes as a flamboyant gay decorator were cut from Carl Reiner's The Jerk (1979). And, would you also believe that he is also supposed to have auditioned to play Han Solo in George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and been considered for the roles of Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Buzz Lightyear in John Lasseter's Toy Story (1995)?

However, the animated segments of the multi-directed live-action/animation hybrid, Osmosis Jones (2001), took place inside the body of Murray's character, Frank Detorre, while he also voiced Clive Badger and Boss in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018), and Baloo in Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book (2016). More curiously, he accepted the role of the lazy, lasagna-loving cartoon strip cat in Peter Hewitt's Garfield: The Movie (2004), because he thought that screenwriter Joel Cohen was actually the more famous Joel Coen. Despite discovering his error and being slated by the press, Murray surprisingly agreed to do the sequel, Tim Hill's Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties (2006).

An Icon Takes Stock

Such is his status that Murray works when he feels like it. Despite playing Bosley in McG's big-screen spin-off of the 1970s TV hit, Charlie's Angels (2000), he also started to pick projects that challenged him rather than pandered to audience expectations. Consequently, he cropped up as vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw in Tim Robbins's 1930s theatre memoir, Cradle Will Rock (1999); as Polonius in Michael Almereyda's adaptation of Hamlet (2000); as the Hemingwayesque writer in Andy Garcia's 1950s Cuban saga, The Lost City (2005); as Mayor Cole in Gil Kenan's sci-fi adventure, City of Ember (2008); as funeral parlour owner Frank Quinn in Aaron Schneider's Depression-era saga, Get Low (2009); as cuckolded gangster Happy Shannon in Mitch Glazer's Passion Play (2010); as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson (2012); and as Sergeant Richard Campbell tracking down Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece in George Clooney's The Monuments Men (2014).

Murray was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his work as misanthropic Vietnam veteran Vincent MacKenna in Theodore Melfi's debut drama, St Vincent, and earned a second Emmy as Jack Kennison opposite Frances McDormand in Lisa Chodolenko's mini-series adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's acclaimed novel, Olive Kitteridge (both 2014). Most memorably, he teamed with Scarlet Johansson to play ageing actor Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), which saw him miss out on the Academy Award for Best Actor having taken the category at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs.

But this was a difficult period for Murray off-screen, as second wife Jennifer Butler made a number of damning accusations during their 2008 divorce proceedings. As a result, Murray withdrew from acting for a spell and contented himself with cameos as Agent 13 in Peter Segal's Get Smart (2008) and as himself (disguised as a member of the undead) in Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland (2009). Indeed, he has remained selective in recent times, taking roles of varying lengths as Saul in Ronan Coppola's A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2012), Ice Pick in Peter and Bobby Farrelly's Dumb and Dumber To (2014), Carson Welch in Cameron Crowe's Aloha (2015), and Richie Lane in Barry Levinson's Rock the Kasbah (2015).

He also took a cameo as supernatural sceptic Martin Heiss in Paul Feig's much-maligned franchise reboot, Ghostbusters (2016). But Bill Murray continues to go his own way, showing up in TV shows like Parks and Recreation (2009-15), Angie Tribeca (2016-) and Vice Principals (2016-17), two of which are available from Cinema Paradiso to keep you occupied while waiting for those much-anticipated reunions with Jarmusch on The Dead Don't Lie, Anderson on The French Dispatch and Coppola on On the Rocks.

  • Caddyshack (1980)

    1h 34min

    Brian Doyle-Murray drew on family experiences for the script of this anarchic golfing comedy. Brian and Bill had caddied together at the Indian Hill Country Club near Chicago, while Bill had been a groundsman at the Evanston Country Club. Indeed, he was working on the concession stand at another course when debuting director Harold Ramis first met him and he quickly realised that he needed to keep the camera running as his pal improvised his lines as Carl Spackler, the increasingly manic, chrysanthemum-lopping green keeper who resorts to ever-more desperate measures to combat a mischievous Bushwood gopher. Industrial Light & Magic's John Dykstra created the subtle effects that made the pesky critter such a formidable foe and Murray looked back on the picture with affection in his memoir, Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf.

  • Stripes (1981)

    1h 58min

    This army romp was originally conceived for stoner duo Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong before director Ivan Reitman convinced Murray and Harold Ramis to co-star. Enlisting after losing his cab-driving job, his apartment and his girlfriend in one wretched burst of bad luck, Murray cajoles Ramis into serving Uncle Sam and they proceed to subvert the system from their recruitment interview onwards. Whether confronting Fort Arnold drill sergeant Warren Oates or flirting with MPs PJ Soles and Sean Young, Murray and Ramis have an instinctive comic chemistry that makes their later dispute all the more unfortunate. Murray later regretted making a movie in which he touted a machine gun, but the sequences in which he convinces John Candy to mud wrestle and describes his fellow soldiers as mutts and mutants ably display his talent for mad-libbing.

    Director:
    Ivan Reitman
    Cast:
    Bill Murray, John Candy, Harold Ramis
    Genre:
    Comedy, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Ghostbusters (1984)

    Play trailer
    1h 41min

    Convinced father Peter H. Aykroyd's book, A History of Ghosts, would make a great movie, Dan Aykroyd approached Ivan Reitman with a treatment about a pair of futuristic ghost hunters operating in outer space. When John Belushi died (and became the model for Slimer, who was known on set as 'Onion Head'), Murray beat Michael Keaton and Chevy Chase to the part of Peter Venkman, which he only accepted because he wanted the studio to bankroll his cherished adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Adopting the air of supercilious ennui that would become his trademark, Murray particularly enjoyed the card and shocks sequence, which was inspired by the Milgram Experiment conducted at Yale in the early 1960s. He claims that when he first saw edited footage, 'I knew then I was going to be rich and famous.'

    Director:
    Ivan Reitman
    Cast:
    Bill Murray, Casey Kasem, Dan Aykroyd
    Genre:
    Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Collections, Comedy, Classics
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • What About Bob? (1991)

    1h 35min

    At one point, Robin Williams was considered for the role of Bob Wiley, while Woody Allen and Patrick Stewart were mooted to play psychiatrist Leo Marvin, who finds himself trapped at his retreat at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire with a new and highly needy patient who understands his family better than he does. However, Frank Oz paired Murray with Richard Dreyfus and the sparks soon began to fly, as they took radically different approaches to the material. Murray later revealed, 'I drove him nuts, and he encouraged me to drive him nuts.' But Murray was also at odds with producer Laura Ziskin and 'playfully' tossed her into the lake. Yet, with a scenario that anticipates Oz's later hit, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), this is an often hilarious odd-couple farce that Dreyfus admits still makes him laugh.

    Director:
    Frank Oz
    Cast:
    Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss, Julie Hagerty
    Genre:
    Comedy, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Groundhog Day (1993)

    Play trailer
    1h 41min

    Having been bitten twice by his rodentine co-star, Murray genuinely suffered for his art in playing Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray), who keeps waking at 6:00 am to endure another 2 February in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Sceptical about the predictive powers of the woodchuck emerging from its burrow to determine the remaining duration of winter, Connors is forced to reassess his attitude to small-town folk and his own sneering worldview after falling for news producer Andie MacDowell. Co-writer Danny Rubin didn't think Murray would be right for the role and lobbied for Kevin Kline. But director Harold Ramis recognised that Murray had reached a career crossroads, as he 'got at the edge between the better, higher, gentler Bill and the bad, cranky, dark Bill'. Sadly, their feud prevented them from working together again.

    Director:
    Harold Ramis
    Cast:
    Bill Murray, Richard Henzel, Andie MacDowell
    Genre:
    Comedy, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Romance
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Blu-ray
  • Kingpin (1996)

    Play trailer
    2h 1min

    Peter and Bobby Farrelly were known as the kings of gross-out comedy for a reason, as this tenpin bowling romp squirm-inducingly demonstrates with a string of unsubtle bodily function gags. But Murray is on peerless form as Ernie McCracken, the scuzzy Iowa bowling pro out to beat Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid), the Amish sensation who has been discovered by washed-up bowling supplies salesman Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) in his bid to wreak revenge on 'Big Ern' for losing his hand as a promising junior after some angry amateurs had jammed it in the ball return on discovering they were being scammed. If Chris Farley hadn't dropped out, however, Murray would never have been cast, as Quick Change colleague Randy Quaid persuaded him to reconsider a rejected role, which he capped off with three strikes in the deciding showdown.

    Director:
    Bobby Farrelly
    Cast:
    Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Bill Murray
    Genre:
    Comedy, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Rushmore (1998)

    Play trailer
    1h 29min

    Did a lightbulb switch on in Murray's head when he heard Max Fischer's line, 'I guess you've just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life,' as this story about the romantic rivalry between a prep school geek and a grouchy industrialist over a widowed teacher has proved epiphanal. In addition to launching his collaboration with Wes Anderson, the part of Herman Blume also saw Murray latch on to the brand of off-kilter melancholy that has become his speciality. He clearly recognised the script's significance, as he offered to work for free. The scenes in which he jumps into his swimming pool, crushes Max's bicycle with his Bentley, falls over a fence and discovers his rival's humble origins rank among the highlights of his entire career.

    Director:
    Wes Anderson
    Cast:
    Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams
    Genre:
    Comedy, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Lost in Translation (2003)

    Play trailer
    1h 37min

    For many, Bob Harris is the signature role of Murray's later career. He has admitted it's his favourite picture, but it took Sofia Coppola several months to make contact with him and Wes Anderson, Mitch Glazer and Al Pacino all helped persuade Murray to meet her. As he hadn't signed a contract, Coppola was hugely relieved when Murray arrived in Japan to play the ageing actor who befriends neglected trophy wife Scarlett Johansson while in Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial. Sofia's father, Francis Ford Coppola, had teamed with Akira Kurosawa to make some Suntory ads in 1979, while Murray modelled his expression on some Harrison Ford beer billboards. Despite the closeness that develops between Bob and Charlotte, Murray and Johansson didn't always hit it off and tensions meant their touchingly intimate bed scene took two days to shoot.

    Director:
    Sofia Coppola
    Cast:
    Bill Murray, Nancy Steiner, Scarlett Johansson
    Genre:
    Comedy, Drama
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Broken Flowers (2005)

    Play trailer
    1h 41min

    The celebrated American critic, Pauline Kael, described Jim Jarmusch's debut feature, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), as a 'punk picaresque'. Dedicated to maverick French auteur Jean Eustache, but bearing echoes of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Oscar-winning drama, A Letter to Three Wives (1949), this mellower mid-life odyssey sends Murray's womanising computer tycoon on a journey to discover which of five former lovers might have sent him a letter informing him that he has a 19 year-old son. Holding his own against co-stars of the calibre of Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Julie Delpy and Tilda Swinton, Murray gives a poignantly reflective performance as a resistibly self-centred chauvinist that reinforces Swinton's contention that he is 'a tired child who has laughed so much he aches, but finds it too complicated to fully explain the joke'.

    Director:
    Jim Jarmusch
    Cast:
    Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone
    Genre:
    Comedy, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

    Play trailer
    1h 30min

    Adapted from a BBC radio play that was inspired by the letters of Daisy Suckley, this account of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's affair with his distant cousin (played by Laura Linney) has been accused of prying pruriently into the private life of the Democrat whose New Deal policies ended the Depression and whose readiness to help Britain in the fight against Fascism jettisoned America's policy of Isolationism and transformed it into the world's policeman. Yet, while this is a deeply flawed and somewhat salacious study of FDR and changing attitudes to the public's expectations of a politician's morality, the meeting between the Roosevelts (Murry and Olivia Williams) and King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) fascinatingly affords Murray the opportunity to shatter a few historical myths while also exploring the disconnection between image and reality.

    Director:
    Roger Michell
    Cast:
    Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams
    Genre:
    Drama, Comedy, Documentary, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray

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