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Bill Murray: Curious case of Hollywood's white whale

The unpredictable actor gets candid about his lengthy career and the filmmakers who have managed to reel him in

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Joel Ryan/AP Images

At the 2004 Golden Globe Awards, Bill Murray announced to the world that he wasn’t going to live by Hollywood’s rules anymore. “You can all relax; I fired my agents a couple of months ago,” he said as he accepted the trophy for best actor in a comedy for his poignant performance in Lost in Translation. “I would thank the people at Universal and Focus, except there’s so many people trying to take credit for this, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

The room tittered, but like much of Murray’s jaded humor, his quips were rooted in truth. Murray recently had parted ways with his agents, and since he’s never bothered with a publicist, his announcement had the immediate effect of putting everyone he’d ever worked with in the unexpected position of gatekeeper — or keymaster — to Murray himself. “His philosophy is: They’ll find me,” says Mitch Glazer, who met Murray through John Belushi in 1978 and co-wrote 1988’s Scrooged for him. “And I go, ‘Yeah, they’ll find you — through me! Because they’re calling me at home!’ I’m like an unpaid manager. Often, it’s a filmmaker who I’ve been dying to talk to, and I get excited. Then I hear, ‘Hey, this is kind of awkward, but people say you’re the guy….”

Since going guerrilla, Murray, 59, has made do with a 1-800 number (featuring a disappointingly dull automated recording) that he checks sporadically. Or not. “Getting in touch with Bill Murray remains one of life’s greatest mysteries,” says Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Show With David Letterman, where Murray has appeared 21 times. “The plus/minus on that return call can be anywhere from 24 hours to six months. That’s just how it is.”

Two years ago, producer Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition) thought Murray would be perfect to play a sly undertaker in his upcoming film Get Low, a low-budget indie about an old coot, played by Robert Duvall, who plans a “funeral party” for himself while still very much alive. (The film comes out July 30.) Zanuck, the 37-year-old son of producer Richard Zanuck (Jaws), called Murray’s longtime legal rep, a Los Angeles attorney named David Nochimson, and asked, “How do I get in the Bill Murray business?” Nochimson replied somewhat sympathetically, “Well… you don’t, really.” It was Zanuck’s first step down the rabbit hole.

The funny thing about Murray’s elusiveness — or the frustrating thing, if you’re the one trying to track him down — is that the actor is hardly a hermit. He hides in plain sight. There he is, sinking a putt at Pebble Beach. There he is, driving a golf cart through the streets of Stockholm. There he is, rooting for his beloved Cubs at Wrigley Field, or tending bar in Austin, or reading Emily Dickinson poems to beefy New York construction workers. “Belushi was unbelievably brave on stage, but Bill took that [fearlessness] everywhere, in the streets and in personal contact with other people,” says Harold Ramis, who collaborated with Murray on the comedies that cemented the Murray persona in the 1980s, including Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. “He was always unexpected. Where anyone else would go subtle, he would go huge. And where anyone else would go big, he would go very subtle.”

A younger generation of directors found integrity in Murray’s characters, and his aloofness seems only to have heightened their desire to cast him in their passion projects over the last dozen years. Through sheer persistence, Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola successfully landed the actor for their offbeat indies Rushmore and Lost in Translation — and actually helped him achieve new depth and pathos in his work. But even Anderson and Coppola bear scars. Anderson whiffed in his attempts to snag Murray for his first film, 1996’s Bottle Rocket. And as Coppola learned, the moment when you finally think you have Murray can be the most traumatic. After eight months of pursuing him for Lost in Translation, Coppola was afraid that he had abandoned her. “They had been shooting for a week or so in Tokyo, and Sofia called me, I thought, to tell me how great things were,” remembers Glazer, who was ultimately responsible for connecting the young director with Murray. “But she said, ‘Um, have you heard from Bill?’ And I said, ‘Isn’t he there?’ She said, ‘Well, no. He’s supposed to show tomorrow and we haven’t heard, and we’ve shot everything we could without him.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God. He is a bear!”’

Most recently, it was Get Low producer Zanuck feeling the pressure. Though Nochimson had told him that connecting with Murray was virtually hopeless — especially since the actor was going through his second divorce — the lawyer did offer to forward his client a one-page synopsis. Dejected and desperate, Zanuck sent it off and practically forgot about it. So he was stunned a couple of weeks later when Murray himself left a message on his office answering machine asking for a full screenplay. Zanuck’s team was giddy. “Everybody huddled around the phone, and we played it over and over to confirm that it was him,” recalls Zanuck. “He didn’t leave a number, of course. Just a P.O. box.”

A few weeks after Zanuck sent the script, Murray called again, and this time, the two discussed golf, baseball, family, life, and finally, Get Low. Murray seemed enthused about the possibility of joining the production and even asked for director Aaron Schneider’s phone number. When Zanuck hung up the phone, “It was kind of like, Holy s–t, we might actually get Bill Murray!” And then… silence.

“I slept with the phone near my bed for five or six weeks, but the call never came,” says Schneider. Zanuck, however, had already started hinting to potential investors that Murray was interested, and one even offered up $5.5 million, the majority of the film’s $7 million budget, for Murray’s and Duvall’s names on a contract. “It became a Bill-or-bust scenario, because we were now incorporating ‘Bill’s asked to see the script’ into our pitch,” says Zanuck. “If Bill didn’t happen, it might’ve torpedoed the whole project.”

Zanuck persuaded Schneider to write Murray a note, the details of which he wouldn’t even share with his producer. “It was a very difficult letter to put together,” says Schneider. ”I finally just took a deep breath and wrote from the heart.” Later, Nochimson told Zanuck, “I don’t know what it was, but your director wrote a letter that really impressed Bill.” All Zanuck needed now was Murray’s signature on the dotted line.[pagebreak]

That Bill Murray is perceived as a beloved comic deity must be perplexing to those who’ve crossed swords with him over the years. Says Second City CEO Andrew Alexander, who remembers Murray’s work in the early 1970s as a member of the renowned Chicago improv troupe, “There was always a certain danger with Bill. You just never were exactly sure where he was going to go.”

Tall and imposing, Murray could intimidate less-confident, less-talented performers. “I remember sitting down with Bill and saying, ‘You know, a lot of people in the cast are pissed off at you,”’ says Ramis, who was a head writer for Second City TV. “And he said, ‘Yeeee-eah.’ I said, ‘Do you care?’ He said, ‘Nnn-o.’ So I said, ‘Okay, good talk.’ And that was it. That kind of defined him.”

In 1977, Murray replaced Chevy Chase during the second season of Saturday Night Live, and his penchant for confrontation remained intact. “There may have been bigger stars, but people who really knew funny knew that he was the funny guy,” says writer-director Peter Farrelly (who eventually codirected him in Kingpin).

When Chase, who’d left the show at the first opportunity for movie stardom, returned to guest-host, he and Murray engaged in a now-infamous backstage dustup. “It was a huge argument,” Animal House director John Landis told Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller in their SNL history, Live From New York. “And the thing I remember about Bill Murray — I don’t know Bill Murray, but he’s screaming, you know, foaming at the mouth, ‘F—ing Chevy,’ and in anger he says, ‘Medium talent!’ And I thought, ‘Ooh, boy, that’s funny. In anger, he says, “medium talent.” ‘ That really impressed me. I went, ‘So Bill Murray — wow, who is that guy?”’

“The beauty of Bill is if he sees something he doesn’t like, he will rip into that person,” says Farrelly. “I have seen him go off on people, but I’ve never seen him go off on someone who didn’t deserve it.”

When Hollywood came calling for Murray, his initial attitude seemed to be apathy. For 1979’s Meatballs, which marked his first starring role, he didn’t even agree to show up for director Ivan Reitman’s summer-camp comedy until the production was three days into shooting. But Meatballs became a sleeper hit, and Murray’s profile further skyrocketed with Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981). “He has a genuine outré gift: he makes you feel that his characters are bums inside — unconcerned and indifferent — and he makes that seem like a kind of grace,” wrote New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael about his performance in 1984’s Ghostbusters.

The pressure for him to be “on,” though, to be Bill Murray, could be exhausting. “The expectation was that Bill would come in and be funny,” says Ramis. “And in fact, [on Ghostbusters] Ivan would sometimes say, ‘C’mon, goddamn it, make me laugh.’ That’s quite a burden to put on an actor.”

After Ghostbusters became a phenomenon — and his first dramatic vehicle, The Razor’s Edge, was poorly received — Murray slipped out of the spotlight and moved to France, where he studied philosophy. But his spiritual sabbatical did little to calm what Dan Aykroyd refers to as the Murricane. During the making of 1991’s What About Bob?, a disagreement with producer Laura Ziskin resulted in him throwing her into a lake. (Ziskin has said that the toss was “playful,” but that other behavior of his was not.) While filming 1993’s Groundhog Day, the producers pleaded with him to hire a personal assistant to facilitate better communication between him and the studio. Murray acquiesced, sort of, hiring a deaf-mute who spoke only American Sign Language. Don’t worry, Murray taunted the suits, I’m going to learn sign language. “That’s anti-communication,” says Ramis, who directed that hit, the last of the pair’s collaborations. “You know, Let’s not talk.”

There always seemed to be a price to pay for Murray’s genius, even if it was worth every penny. “His [Kingpin] role really wasn’t that well written, and on the first day, he looked at the pages and went like, ‘Yeah, I get it,”’ says Farrelly, who codirected the 1996 Amish bowling comedy. “He then threw the pages in the air and never said one word that was written for him. In the entire movie! He just made everything up. And it was all better than what we’d written. He made the movie.”

For every happy ending, however, there are scores of Terry Zwigoffs. The director (Crumb) thought he’d landed Murray to star in 2003’s Bad Santa only to find that no one could track Murray down to get his name on a contract. “I was told by one of the producers that he really wanted to do it — just tell him where and when and he’d be there,” says Zwigoff via e-mail. “I left several messages on his answering machine, but after a few weeks of hearing nothing, we eventually moved on.” Billy Bob Thornton took the role instead.

Murray’s odd way of doing business has definitely leveled the playing field for filmmakers. In 2007, Dan Beers, who had worked for Wes Anderson during the filming of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, was planning a Web short titled ”Fact Checkers Unit,” about a dynamic duo of hypervigilant magazine researchers who stalk a celebrity for confirmation of a mundane detail. Beers was hoping Murray would star. After the requisite unreturned phone calls and faxes, Beers bumped into Murray at a Brooklyn gathering of Life Aquatic alums, and Murray agreed to participate in the short. On his designated day of shooting, Murray showed up as promised, filmed for eight hours, and helped the crew schlep equipment.

So how does one repay a Hollywood star who transforms a clever $12,000 production into an Internet sensation? Says Beers, “[Bill] had told my friend, ‘Tell Dan, as a gift, he’s got to buy me a gun. And she was like, ‘He’s not buying you a gun!’ So he’s like, ‘All right, then have him get me a knife. I want a really big knife, like something I can tie around my leg.”’

Before Murray departed, Beers and the crew presented him with a wrapped gift. Murray graciously accepted it, said, “Thanks for this,” and just like that, he and his new 12-inch hunting knife were gone.[pagebreak]

”Fact Checkers Unit” was a mere appetizer to last fall’s Zombieland, which elevated the Cult of Murray to new heights. The film’s director, Ruben Fleischer, had originally hoped that Patrick Swayze would cameo as himself, but when the late actor got sick, Fleischer had to scramble. Stallone said no. Matthew McConaughey said yes. And then no. Jean-Claude Van Damme passed. And so did Mark Hamill.

Faced with the prospect of dropping the celebrity gag altogether, Zombieland actor Woody Harrelson called his Kingpin costar’s 1-800 number at the last possible hour. Murray quickly responded, favorably, but asked for pages. “We had to fax the pages of the script to a Kinko’s in New York someplace, where he would go and read them,” says Fleischer. “We were saying that the person with the most important job in Hollywood that day was the kid working at Kinko’s.”

Murray said yes, and for a day and a half of shooting, he hijacked the Zombieland set. “He was incredibly playful,” says Fleischer. “He had a running joke with the sound department by the end of the first afternoon, which was incredible given that I’d been shooting for over a month and had no running jokes with anyone.”

Everyone adored Murray, especially audiences when they saw the surreal finished result: Bill Murray playing Bill Murray pretending to be a zombie, but not really. (When he’s asked if he has any last regrets as he lies dying after being mistakenly shot, he responds, “Garfield, maybe.”) “In the feedback on the film, people were actually sad that Bill Murray dies,” says Fleischer. “They felt such a strong connection to him, and they were so glad he was in it that they didn’t want to see him go.”

Get Low producer Zanuck, who was relying on only an oral commitment from Murray just weeks before shooting was to begin, was worried about seeing the actor go as well. He told Nochimson that if Murray didn’t formally agree to make the film, the investor would pull out. The attorney replied, “Well, I’ve had this conversation with all the studio heads before, but… Bill. Doesn’t. Sign.” Zanuck felt he had come too far, and he eventually assured the investor that Murray was on board, contract or no contract. His gamble paid off, and apart from a week when Murray had arranged to play in a Pebble Beach celebrity pro-am tournament, he was on set every day. “He never reneged on one thing,” Zanuck says.

Being a friend of Bill’s certainly has its privileges. Last winter, Glazer directed his first movie, Passion Play, starring Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox. On the second day of filming in New Mexico, his third lead, Toby Kebbell, backed out. “I was standing in the middle of f—in’ Indian Territory, going, What?!” Unaware of the development, Murray, who’d read the script several years ago, called to check in, and Glazer couldn’t hide his anxiety. “‘There’s a hiccup,’ I told him. ‘We have to recast a part.’ And Bill said, ‘Which part?’ I said, ‘Happy Shannon.’ He said, ‘The gangster?’ He remembered it, and then he said, ‘Well…what about me?’ I tried to be professional, but I fell to my knees. It was a gift.”

And Now A Word From Bill Murray

He may be elusive, but he’s definitely not evasive. The actor opens up about his odd relationship with Hollywood — and how he keeps his priorities in line. 

Sitting in Bill Murray’s presence is a religious experience, somewhat (we assume) like having an audience with the Dalai Lama. There is an ease about him. Serenity. Zen. And this despite the fact that he’s wearing orange suspenders decorated with carpenter tools. In Manhattan for a showing of Get Low at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, the actor spends the first five minutes of our interview wrestling with the curtains so that he can admire the flowers on a Park Avenue balcony. Then he sits down and speaks warmly about how the makers of the film, in theaters July 30, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

EW You must get flooded with scripts. Why did you choose to make Get Low?

BILL MURRAY Well, first I got a message that this guy, [producer] Dean Zanuck, wanted to speak with me. I spoke with him on the phone and just had a wonderful conversation with him. And I was like, Ah, nuts. Because I’m really lazy. I don’t really like to work. Then I got a letter from the director [Aaron Schneider]. It was incredibly self-effacing. He directed a short.

Two Soldiers.

And he’d won an Oscar for it. As he says, when he was up giving his acceptance speech, they cut to me in the audience on the TV set, so he thought the whole thing was kismet. Then I saw his short, and I really liked that, so all these things just informed against me. I really kept thinking, Aw f —, something go wrong here, you know?

I imagine the chance to work with Robert Duvall was not a deterrent either.

I love his Tom Hagen in The Godfather. It’s my favorite part. “Can’t do it, Sally.” I just love the s— he does in that movie. I’ve always liked his stuff. I think he’s incredibly real and a certain kind of actor that all actors go, “Okay, I give. That guy, he’s better than I am.” You can’t really pass up that opportunity to work with someone who has more stuff than you, because it’s part of your education. It was amazing to see how accessible all his emotions are and how he was able to touch all these things in an instant. You realize you have a long ways to go.

Let’s talk about the way you run your career. You don’t have an agent, don’t have a publicist —

I got you, Jeff.

How long have you been working this way, and does it really give you more freedom?

Yeah, the phone just doesn’t ring. It’s nice. You know, when you have an agent, the phone rings all the time, because there’s someone there whose job it is to get so-and-so on the phone, and so they dial the number, and they’ll let it ring 75 times. That’s all they’re supposed to do right then: Get that guy on the phone. So you can be in your house and be like, I’m not answering that phone. But it will ring 75 times, and all you can think is, I really don’t want to meet the person that lets a phone ring like that.

When did you decide to cut out all the middlemen? Was there a moment when you decided that this is how you want to run your business?

I kind of made a halfway measure when I said to [my agents], Don’t call me, I’ll call you. I did that for about six months, and I was like, That ain’t bad. I mean, I don’t want to say anything derogatory, because [in the 1980s and early ’90s] I had the greatest agent. I had [CAA cofounder Michael] Ovitz. He was everybody’s monster and he was my guy. He was my monster. It was great. He did things that no one did before and made things happen. [Ovitz left CAA in 1995 to work for Disney.] But I just really only want to work when I want to work. Life interferes, you know. When you’re young and all you have is your career, some of your life can be in second place. And then you want your life to take first place, and other people don’t see it that way. They see it that your life has to take second place, and it’s hard. Life is really hard, and it’s the only one you have. I mean, I like doing what I do, and I know I’m supposed to do it, but I don’t have anything to bring to it if I don’t live my life.

The Essential Bill Murray

He can be funny, honest, and tragic — sometimes all in the same role. A look at some of his finest moments. 

Meatballs (1979)

As a gonzo counselor at a mediocre summer camp, Murray established the lovable rascal that would become his trademark. The movie may not hold up as well as some of his others, but it just doesn’t matter!

Caddyshack (1980)

For his scene-stealing performance as grizzled gopher killer Carl Spackler, Murray incorporated an unusual speech pattern that he’d used to accost surprised strangers on the street.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman kisses the girl, uncorks zingers, and stays cool under pressure, even when splattered with ectoplasm and marshmallow.

Quick Change (1990)

Murray codirected this underrated gem, in which he plays an angry New Yorker who dresses as a clown to rob a bank. Murray’s ”crying-on-the-inside” performance planted the seed for his later melancholic work.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Weatherman Phil Connors starts out as the type of jerk Murray himself would loathe, but Murray made his transformation from prima donna to Zen master a graceful (and funny) existential journey.

Kingpin (1996)

Despite only 21 minutes of screen time, Murray’s ad-libbed turn as reprobate pin-head Ernie McCracken — draped in hair-raising bowling regalia — represented his comic genius in its purest form.

Rushmore (1998)

Critics swooned over Murray’s portrayal of wealthy, wistful Herman Blume, who mentors a precocious prep student until they both fall for the same pretty teacher.

Lost In Translation (2003)

Murray captured the ambivalence of an aging movie star whose encounter with a young woman in Tokyo leads to karaoke without irony.

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