Bill Murray was strolling along a busy mid-Manhattan sidewalk one sunny day last July, wearing a pair of floppy clown shoes, a tiny polka-dot derby, and a big red nose. ”It was amazing,” he recalls a year later. ”Nobody gave me a second look. I was walking down the street in a full clown costume and people acted like I didn’t even exist. Only in New York.” New York and clown suits play prominent roles in Murray’s life these days. Both are key elements in his latest movie, Quick Change, a big-city comedy costarring Geena Davis and Randy Quaid. Opening in 1,700 theaters across the country this week, it’s Murray’s 16th film, his 9th starring role, and in some respects the riskiest and most ambitious project the 39-year-old comedian has ever attempted. A low-budget crime farce about a trio of would-be bank robbers, Quick Change is unlike anything Murray has done before. It has no ectoplasmic apparitions, no 100-foot Stay Puft Marshmallow monsters, no nuclear-accelerator ghost guns — no special effects whatsoever. What it does have is Bill Murray in a completely new role. As the film’s codirector and coproducer, he’s taking charge behind the camera for the first time. ”I’ve had enough of other people’s mistakes,” he explains. ”I’d rather make my own.”
Sitting in a hotel suite in West Hollywood, Calif., preparing for an appearance on The Tonight Show, the former Saturday Night Live star is in a typically rambunctious mood. He has just flown in from Salt Lake City, where he bought a new gadget — a spring-loaded automatic rubber-band gun. ”It was inevitable that I would direct my own movie,” he says, taking potshots at the ersatz Erte posters on his hotel room walls. ”I’ve gotten so obnoxious on movie sets” — thwack! — ”that the number of directors that would work with me has been shrinking hourly. These directors circulate through Hollywood” — thwack! — ”telling stories about me.”
Some of those stories have become legends in the annals of celebrity mischief: There was the time, for instance, when Murray amused himself during a boring benefit dinner by tossing cutlery, piece by piece, out a restaurant window. There was also his infamous first appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, which he almost blew by sharing six half-gallon bottles of tequila with the show’s crew before the cameras started rolling. (”The place was a shambles,” Letterman reported at the time. ”All the lamps were hidden because Bill had convinced (the staff) that the fluorescent lights were draining their vitamin E.”)
Murray may be notorious for his knuckleheaded offscreen antics, but he’s even better known in Hollywood for his remarkable on-screen drawing power. Along with fellow SNL alum Eddie Murphy, he’s one of the most bankable comic stars currently making movies. Last year’s Ghostbusters II grossed $112 million. Scrooged (1988) took in $61 million. And in 1984 the original Ghostbusters made history by scoring $220 million at the box office — the most ever for a comedy.
As Scrooged producer Art Linson has put it, ”Bill’s name across a marquee will sell over $10 million worth of tickets in the opening three days.” Quick Change, however, isn’t a typical Murray movie — and it may not be a typical Murray smash at the box office. Unlike his most successful films, this latest effort isn’t a special-effects blockbuster targeted for maximum teen appeal. With a budget of about $15 million, Quick Change is practically an art film by comparison, a back-to-basics character comedy aimed at a narrower, more adult audience.
”I’ve been in big hardware movies,” says Murray, ”but dealing with blue screens and stuff is not my idea of fun. Get somebody else to handle the damn slime machine. What I like best is the interplay between characters. That’s what I find most intriguing.”
In Quick Change that interplay revolves around three frazzled New Yorkers — Murray, Quaid, and Davis — who concoct an ingenious plot to rob a midtown bank and escape New York for a new life in the Caribbean. Their plan (involving a clown suit, two helicopters, a monster truck, and lots of gaffer’s tape) works brilliantly, except for one unexpected hitch: The team discovers that it’s easier to steal a million dollars than it is to get to the airport on time. From the moment they leave the scene of the crime, the entire city seems to conspire against them. There’s a fastidious bus driver with a fetish for exact change, a pistol-toting yuppie couple, a cabbie who speaks no identifiable language, and a torrent of other urban nightmares. ”It’s like a Preston Sturges movie,” Murray says. ”It’s a simple story line. But just when you think it’s going a certain way, you get tripped up.”
The film also has offbeat elements of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Arthur Hiller’s The Out-of-Towners, Charles Crichton’s A Fish Called Wanda, and even a pinch of Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies of the 1930s. Nevertheless, Quick Change is a Bill Murray movie at the core. It’s more modest than any of his others, more restrained, but it still smacks of the droll cynicism that made the comedian one of the 1980s’ most influential and successful stars.
Murray’s career has been built on the twin pillars of irony and anomie. Virtually every character he has played — from the anarchic camp counselor in Meatballs to the modern-day Ebenezer in Scrooged — reveals him as the ultimate iconoclast, a walking inside joke. Part of him always remains coolly detached from the action, constantly winking at the audience, making sly observations and sardonic wisecracks. More than any other comedian’s, his brand of comic insincerity closely dovetailed with the sarcastic tenor of the decade.
Murray has always been a nonconformist. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, he was a troublemaker from the beginning: He was kicked out of Boy Scouts and Little League and defrocked as a Catholic altar boy. He spent most of his teen years slumming in downtown blues clubs, getting recreationally high with his friends. ”I was lazy,” Murray has said. ”I had no interest in getting good grades. Studying was boring.”
At 20, he was busted at Chicago’s O’Hare Internattonal Airport for possession of 81/2 pounds of marijuana. He was put on probation, but the experience clearly shook him up. Murray quickly turned to a more socially acceptable livelihood: He joined his older brother Brian in Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe. That gig eventually led to a spot in The National Lampoon Show, a cabaret revue in New York. One of the regular visitors to the show was a young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels, who, in 1977, hired Murray for Saturday Night Live‘s third year.
Murray’s adjustment as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player wasn’t entirely smooth. At one point there were backstage fisticuffs with former top banana Chevy Chase (who had left the show five weeks before Murray signed on). By the $ end of Murray’s three-year stay, however, he had created some of SNL‘s most memorable characters: Lisa Loopner’s noogie-crazed boyfriend, Todd DiLaMuca; Weekend Update’s smarmy celebrity reporter; and the lavishly tacky Nick the Lounge Singer, warbling endless versions of ”Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars, gimme those Star Wars, don’t let ’em ennnnnd!”
Today, sipping beers and puffing on cigarettes in his hotel room, Murray talks about his SNL years with nostalgic wistfulness. ”People wish that the SNL guys and girls would do as well in the movies as they did on TV, but it’s not the same thing. They’re two different mediums and you can’t compare them. On TV, there’s just not that much that can go wrong — you only have to be good for five minutes at a time. But in movies, there’s a million things that can go wrong. It’s a lot more complicated.”
With Quick Change the complications started well before the camera began rolling. ”We didn’t realize that codirecting was such a radical concept, especially to the Directors Guild of America,” recalls Quick Change screenwriter and codirector Howard Franklin. ”We had to fly out to the West Coast and get a special waiver from the guild council. It was sort of a miracle that we got one. We had to prove we were sincere.”
Murray was so anxious to put the film in motion that he began shooting two weeks before any studio had been signed to the project, financing it with his own money. The investment gave him an additional title, but cost him in added aggravation. While filming, the coproducer-codirector had to contend with dozens of classic New York gremlins — gangs demanding protection money, thieves dismantling crew members’ parked cars, a summer heat wave. One evening, there was even a shooting during an attempted stick-up (nobody was hurt).
It takes a New Yorker to really hate New York,” says Murray, who now lives outside the city, in suburban Sneden’s Landing on the Hudson River, with his wife, Mickey, and his sons, Homer and Luke. ”Anybody else just doesn’t know the depth and breadth of it. They don’t know what they’re hating.”
The director takes a long gulp of beer, a drag on his smoke, and carefully reloads his rubber-band gun. — With additional reporting by Ray Bennett