Exclusive: Bill Murray on how he grappled with fame after Ghostbusters
The following is an excerpt from Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ’80s Changed Hollywood Forever by Nick de Semlyen. The book traces the rise of iconic funnymen from the 1980s, including Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase, and offers behind-the-scenes stories of their rise as well as the making of the films that made them stars. In this selection, Bill Murray looks back on the frenzy that followed Ghostbusters and how he grappled with that newfound fame. Read on below. Wild and Crazy Guys publishes May 28 and is available for pre-order.
Bill Murray had a routine. Every morning, wearing a battered pair of Converse tennis shoes, he strolled into Paris’s 5th arrondissement, passing such landmarks as the majestic Val-de-Grâce church and the tropical Jardin des plantes. Arriving at Sorbonne University, he climbed a steep spiral staircase. At his destination, a hushed classroom overlooking the Eiffel Tower, he sat at a desk for the day’s lessons. When they were over, he headed back down, smoked a cigarette hand-rolled with Gitanes tobacco, bought lunch, and popped into his favorite chocolatier for 150 grams of candy. Then he treated himself to a silent movie at the Cinémathèque. Often it was something by Buster Keaton. He worked his way through the canon of D.W. Griffiths: he loved A Romance of Happy Valley, and once sat through The Birth of a Nation, nibbling on chocolate, not caring that the intertitles were in Russian and impossible to understand.
If Murray had had a publicist, they would doubtless have been frantically trying to reach him, asking why he was content to let big-money offer after big-money offer slide past. With the smash success of Ghostbusters, he had rocketed right to the top of the A-list. But rather than capitalize on it, Murray would take four years off, including a six-month sojourn at the Sorbonne, studying philosophy and history. By the standards of Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter, it was an insane decision. But to him it made perfect sense.
For one thing, the public’s response to Ghostbusters had been everything he’d feared when hesitating over Meatballs in 1978. Peter Venkman inspired Peter Venkmania, and everywhere Murray went, people wanted a piece of him. “They scream your name like they’re being raped or killed,” he said of hysterical fans after the film’s release. “Things got really weird this summer.”
There were perks to fame, like the time he met his idol. “I went to dinner with my agent—I was a movie star, a big shot in my mind—and there across the restaurant was Cary Grant,” Murray recalls. “I was gobsmacked. It was everything I could do to not get up and walk over to his table. But I didn’t. I just held it together. And as he left the restaurant, he gave me a look that said, ‘That was cool. I know what you were doing. I know what you felt. And you sat there and didn’t do it. And that was cool.’”
But others did not afford him the same courtesy. From mid-1984 on, he could no longer dine, visit a store, or even walk down the street without getting mobbed. He grew his hair long and turned his stubble into a beard in an attempt to elude recognition, but it didn’t work. One morning he woke up at five, feeling panicky, headed to the airport, and flew to Montreal to meet Dan Aykroyd. They got in a car and just started driving, ending up in Wisconsin, where Murray had relatives.
Word quickly got out that two Ghostbusters were in town. Recalled Murray: “We’d go out to some bar one night and the next night it would be packed with thousands of people. . . . After a few days I’d lie awake in bed in the middle of the night, and it was like there were carloads of people out there, driving out in the dark looking for me.”
Even when he was safely ensconced inside his brand-new New York apartment, the phone rang constantly, with producers and executives offering him weak parts in expensive films. He felt deeply disillusioned, saying, “I get the same number of lousy ideas. . . . They don’t make movies. They make deals.” Or maybe his appetite for work had just gone completely. He hemmed and hawed when his brother Brian and Harold Ramis approached him about a film they were writing called Club Sandwich, about a tacky holiday resort. Even when Aykroyd dreamed up a vehicle for the two of them called Law of the Yukon, which they would film in Alaska, he couldn’t be pinned down.
At the same time as Murray was struggling with the consequences of massive success, he was trying to come to grips with one of the most painful failures of his life. He had poured his heart into The Razor’s Edge, seeing the coming-of-age tale as a parallel to his own journey from the Chicago suburbs. At the film’s junket in a Beverly Hills hotel in October 1984, Murray asked the manager to mix him up a Champa Tampa, the orange-juice-and-Champagne combo he’d enjoyed back in his Second City days, and looked out of the fourth-floor window, pondering the future. “There are no dancing gophers or marshmallow men in this thing,” he said, trying to prepare audiences for his first true serious role. “I know I’ll probably jump off the ledge if it doesn’t open big.”
It didn’t. In fact, it opened to a big universal shrug, making $6.6 million, less than half of what Ghostbusters pulled in on its opening weekend. The critics were as apathetic as everyone else. “India looks fine. Paris looks fine. The Razor’s Edge looks awful and Bill Murray looks stoned,” wrote William E. Sarmento. “This performance is one-dimensional from start to finish.” He went on to call the film “Somerset Mauled.”
Dejected, Murray agreed to a few public appearances, including a ceremony at Harvard University to pick up a gold pudding pot as Hasty Pudding Man of the Year 1985. “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” he told the audience, in a speech that was followed by thunderous applause and the Ghostbusters theme tune. But he felt anything but. After some deliberation with his wife, Mickey, he took action.
First he turned down an offer from Time magazine to appear on their next cover. He set up a voicemail account linked to an 800 number, so people could leave him job offers without him having to talk to them. And then, like his tormented Razor’s Edge character Larry Darrell, he headed to France—although Murray at least had company, given he was taking Mickey and his two young sons, Homer and Luke.
In fact, it was far from a hermitlike existence. “He knew the local butcher and the local grocer and the bistros near him,” says Ivan Reitman, who visited Murray in Paris a couple of times. “He was on first-name terms with everybody and they protected him. You know, he was both really serious about what he was doing and at the same time had an odd, goofy sense of humor about it. But it was legitimate. He was doing what he needed to do to survive.”
Murray would remain there for six months. But he wouldn’t appear in a substantial role on the big screen again until 1988. “I’m famous enough,” he said. “Being more famous isn’t going to do anything but cause me more problems.”
At the peak of his success, Bill Murray was pulling the ripcord.
Excerpted from WILD AND CRAZY GUYS: HOW THE COMEDY MAVERICKS OF THE ‘80S CHANGED HOLLYWOOD FOREVER Copyright © 2019 by Nick de Semlyen. To be published on May 28, 2019 by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House.