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.