Why does everybody love Bill Murray?

EDGAR profiles the life and times of the tragicomic virtuoso.

June 22, 2014

There’s a natural phenomenon, found north of the Arctic Circle, that results in unbroken 24-hour periods of daylight. The presence of the Midnight Sun is felt farther south, too.

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, a 40-year veteran of the Stockholm police, found a small electrically powered vehicle trundling through the city centre streets. Bill Murray was driving. “I have done this since ’68 and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Holmlund told the Associated Press. “It was a golf cart. How it ended up in this predicament I don’t know.”

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. I had about six people on the thing and I dropped them off one at a time.” We don't imagine we'll be seeing Murray's golfing attire on the PGA Tour any time soon. He recalls passengers belting out a loud and loose rendition of Cat Stevens’ Father & Son in thick Swedish accents as he drove. 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 breathalyser test, he was less accommodating. “He refused to blow in the breathalyser instrument – citing American legislation,” Holmlund said. “[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. Such as the time he crashed a bachelor party and gave some life advice to the young men - video below. There’s a website dedicated to such sightings: billmurraystory.com where people are invited to share their encounters with the actor. 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 know. I’ve heard about that from a lot of people. A lot of people. I don’t know what to say. There’s probably a really appropriate thing to say. Something exactly and just perfectly right. But by God, 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? Why do we still hold Bill Murray, an actor at the peak of his box-office powers some 20 years ago, in such high regard? 77703376

Why Bill?

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 inMonsters, Inc. (2001),Little Miss Sunshine (2006) andCharlie 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. I don’t worry about it; it’s not my problem.”

The first act

Murray’s film career began with screwball summer camp romp Meatballs (1979 - below). It was unambiguous but uncynical and both its director Ivan Reitman and its star would go on to bigger and better things. billmurray5 Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) – a virtually plotless adaptation of various Hunter S. Thompson works and adventures – sees Murray shine on a poorly lit stage. He befriended Thompson and his portrayal of the legendary writer is uncanny – those jolting mannerisms, that staccato mumble, the bow-legged strut. 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 four-year hiatus studying philosophy at the University of Paris. He became an existentialist-in-waiting. 77703382 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 filmography, 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.

Bill and Wes

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. So he did it as a gift. That became our model for everyone else after that. He created the low wages.” The pair on set of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004.Murray and Anderson on the set of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissouin 2004.[/caption] Anderson is a creator of worlds, hand-drawn alternate realities. But these worlds are only half-realised without Murray’s presence. Of the eight films the pair have worked together on, Bill features in six. The six best. For some directors there’s just one actor who can truly fulfil their vision. Bergman had Ullmann. Scorsese had De Niro. Anderson has Murray.

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. So. It would have fed that thing that I found in myself, without my even knowing.”

Where are we now?

So, where next for Bill Murray? “I think there’s something that I can bring to a comedy today,” he said in a rare interview, “but I don’t know where to bring it. I’ve actually thought about having a manager again. Just to clear my head and have a plan.” He pauses, as if working it out in his mind. “I know that if I ever feel that I need to make a funny movie, I’ll figure out how to write one. I’ll get it done. If I ever get some ambition.” An Oscar is the only honour to elude Murray.He’s 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. Tune your radio into the frequency of his acting and there’s much nuance to be heard. It’s a captivating complexity that mirrors his life.

He plays his cards close to his chest, but has alluded to personal problems – especially after his wife of 11 years, Jennifer Butler Murray, filed for divorce. It makes his more recent roles all the more engrossing. 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.