Bill Murray

The funniest graduate of "Saturday Night Live" has made an art form (and a career) out of insincerity and a blank stare.

Published February 6, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Bertolt Brecht would have loved Bill Murray. OK, maybe not "Meatballs." But the revolutionary dramatist, who sometimes asked his actors to speak directly to the audience, believed in "the distancing effect" -- any device that prevents the audience from being caught up in the illusion of theater and allows them to maintain a critical distance. "Whereas identification reduces extraordinary events to the level of the commonplace," Brecht wrote, "distancing makes commonplace events rare and astonishing."

"When Bill Murray says, 'I love you,' he's in character, sincerely saying 'I love you,'" says a theater director I know. "But he's also acknowledging the audience, and his character, and the absurdity of both."

Murray's province, of course, is comedy. He is arguably the funniest comedian to have passed through the cast of "Saturday Night Live," and his droll delivery -- part smarm, part Novocain -- has been aped by a thousand lesser comics since. He starred in the highest-grossing comedy of all time (1984's "Ghostbusters," $239 million) and has brought the irreverent, improv style of Chicago's Second City and "SNL" to a wider audience than any of his contemporaries have. But his recent departures from comedy into ... well, not necessarily straight dramatic fare but certainly less comic roles (the school benefactor having a midlife crisis in "Rushmore," the alcoholic ventriloquist in "Cradle Will Rock," an unctuous Polonius in "Hamlet") put him in a whole new ballgame. He may never get that Oscar nod Jim Carrey seems to have his heart set on, but Murray probably wouldn't want to go to the Academy Awards anyway. Might interfere with his golf.

Murray grew up in a large Irish Catholic family (eight brothers and one sister) in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill. The chaos of his family life was mirrored in the opening scenes of "Caddyshack," the 1980 golf comedy written by his brother Brian Doyle-Murray. "Our house was a wreck," Murray recalled, "a constant claustrophobic mess."

As in many large families, Mom and Dad were the cause of much mirth, as both audience and inspiration. "My father was a very difficult laugh," Murray recalled in "Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf" (written with George Peper). "Adults found him very funny. But his children had a tough time cracking him up. One of my strongest childhood impressions is falling off my dinner table while doing a Jimmy Cagney impression. I hit my head very hard on the metal foot of the table leg, and it hurt terribly. But when I saw my father laughing, I laughed while crying at the same time. I guess that was some kind of beginning."

If Dad prepared the kids for tough crowds to come, it was Mom who offered some shtick they could steal. "All of us kids ended up 'doing Mom,'" Murray writes. "There are four of us who've tried show business. Five if you insist on counting my sister the nun, who does liturgical dance."

When they weren't trying to make their parents laugh, Bill and his brothers followed the Cubs, played a lot of baseball and caddied at the local course. Like his brothers Ed and Brian before him (he was first known around the course as "the new Murray"), Bill used the money he made to pay his tuition at Loyola Academy, a Jesuit high school. He attempted premed only to be thrown out of college when he was busted for possession of marijuana. Suddenly comedy didn't look so bad. By the end of the '60s, Chicago's Second City was one of the country's best-known improv groups. (The San Francisco group the Committee, co-founded by Second City alum and Murray mentor Del Close, was another.) In a recent history of the troupe, "The Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater," founding director Sheldon Patinkin described the improvisational games that became a staple of Second City's nightly revue: "The improvisational games aren't games in the sense of winning and losing, and they aren't about being funny. They're about being in the moment; they're about being totally present to each other onstage -- being 'in play.'"

Murray, who had been performing around Chicago before joining Second City in 1973, made an immediate sensation, Patinkin recalls. "You couldn't keep your eyes off Bill on stage because there was so much going on inside the guy that you knew something would come popping out sooner rather than later. He emitted a true sense of danger." It was more than a mere sense: Legend has it he jumped a heckler in the audience one night, screaming, "Fuck you and your date!"

"I was here for about 400 or 500 of those shows and I only remember about six," Murray told a crowd at Second City 's 20th anniversary show. It was here that the prototype for Nick the lounge singer first trod the boards, appalling people with his voice and taste, and in a mock political show titled "Issues and Alibis" you can hear an early version of his "SNL" newscaster. Introducing China's Chairman Deng as "one in a billion," he was perfecting a character most Americans could identify with, a cheerful idiot at the table of world politics.

Murray joined his brother Brian and fellow Chicagoan John Belushi on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour," and then went on to do the magazine's off-Broadway show in New York. In 1976, he was hired to take the place of the departing Chevy Chase on "SNL." As formulaic (and unfunny) as the show often is now, it is difficult to remember what a stir those early seasons caused. The lines between what was acceptable in prime time and what was not were clearer then, and at 11:30 p.m. on NBC, it really looked like the inmates had taken over the asylum. The style of humor was sloppy and irreverent, equally influenced by Second City and the dark sensibilities of Michael O'Donoghue and the National Lampoon crowd.

Chase, whose popularity dwarfed that of the rest of the troupe then, left for a Hollywood career, and Murray had some big shoes to fill. He rose to the occasion with the introduction of Celebrity Corner, Todd the nerd and, of course, Nick, stuck singing at happy hour at the Zephyr at Lake Minnehonka's Breezy Point Lodge ("This is my seventh summer up here ..."). Soon, at water coolers all around the country, people were calling each other "knucklehead" and "maniac," all thanks to Murray.

"I went to Second City, where you learned to make the other actor look good so you looked good," he said in 1999, "and National Lampoon, where you had to create everything out of nothing, and 'SNL,' where you couldn't make any mistakes, and you learned what collaboration was."

His experience in making something out of nothing prepared him for Hollywood. Murray's early forays into film weren't terribly inspired, though he generally tried to do more than cash in on his "SNL" personae. In "Caddyshack" (1980) he played Carl, a demented groundskeeper and Vietnam vet who equates the gopher eating up the green with the Viet Cong and finally destroys the course to save it. Carl had his spiritual side, too. He recalled caddying for the Dalai Lama, who stiffed him: "'There won't be any money, but when you die, you will receive total consciousness,'" the Dalai Lama told him. "So I've got that going for me, which is nice."

In collaboration with Harold Ramis, another Second City graduate, Murray made affable comedies such as "Stripes" and "Meatballs," no-brainers in which the casts seem preoccupied with getting through the shoot. ("I noticed that you're always last," Murray's Army sergeant, played by Warren Oates, tells dogface Murray in "Stripes." He answers, "I'm pacing myself, Sarge.") More noteworthy was his turn as Hunter S. Thompson in the seldom-seen 1980 oddity "Where the Buffalo Roam." Murray studied under the good doctor -- a dangerous practice in the best of circumstances -- perfecting the slurred speech and paranoid delivery of America's most notorious journalist. His efforts were largely wasted in this aimless, nearly plotless film, but the sendup and delivery are right on the money. Wheeling through San Francisco, typing as he drives, he seems like some beat fusion, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady combined. When asked about his story by a Jann Wenner-like editor (Bruno Kirby), Murray delivers a reply every writer has longed to utter: "I think it's the best thing I've ever done. Now all I have to do is write it up."

Murray's collaboration with Ramis hit pay dirt when he teamed with fellow "SNL" survivor Dan Aykroyd for the phenomenally popular "Ghostbusters" (directed by Ivan Reitman). Buoyed by slime-dripping special effects, a clever script and that infernal theme song, "Ghostbusters" spawned a sequel and a cartoon show and helped to make Murray a bankable star. Steeled by that bankability, Murray stunned nearly everyone when he announced that, for his next trick, he would produce, co-write and star in a new version of W. Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge."

In Hollywood, I'm certain, you could have heard a pin drop. ("He's gonna do what?") An Oscar nominee for best picture when it was made for Tyrone Power in 1946, "The Razor's Edge" tells the story of Larry Darrell, an archetypal Lost Generation hero who is changed by what he sees in World War I and sets out in search of answers. His travels take him to India, where he dons orange robes and bows to the lama (without carrying his clubs), but audiences were waiting for the laughs, which were never to come. Murray wasn't yet the actor who could pull off such a complex (and slightly incredible) character -- but give him points for trying. He could have more easily made "Meatballs II," instead of clowning his way toward satori, an enlightened wiseacre, a holy fool.

As Murray's celebrity grew in the '80s and '90s, so did his aversion to the trappings of celebrity. He seemed to fear becoming one of the people he parodied. "Whenever I hear a star say, 'My fans,' I go right for the shotgun," he told the New York Times in a rare interview. Without blowing off his fans (the actor is famous for tipping large and signing autographs), Murray has kept his private life private (he has been married twice and has five children), and in his work he has always been professional. (His much-publicized dust-up with Lucy Liu on the set of "Charlie's Angels" may have had something to do with the fact that the script stunk.)

His attempts at career management have improved over time as well, if only in increments. ("Baby steps," the needy analysand he played in "What About Bob?" would say.) In the produced-and-abandoned "Mad Dog and Glory," he held his own with Robert De Niro, playing a psycho gangster with a budding career in stand-up. The 1990 "Quick Change," which he co-produced and co-wrote (with director Howard Franklin) was an ideal vehicle for him. A Vietnam vet (again) robs a bank in a clown costume -- and then spends most of the film trying to get out of New York. ("What the hell kind of clown are you?" the security guard demands when he sees the dynamite taped to his body. "The 'crying on the inside' kind, I guess," he replies.) The film fizzled, however, and formulaic fare like "The Man Who Knew Too Little" (1997) didn't do much better. (He was perfecting his Mister Magoo quality, though, what Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly called his "assertive obliviousness.") Murray found his perfect role as the conceited weatherman in 1993's "Groundhog Day." Murray's doomed to relive the same day in Punxsutawney, Pa., forever, and his trademark insincerity and seeming asides take on a greater meaning as he repeats each scene.

Movies seemed to matter less to Murray as his presence at golf tournaments increased. There, in a sense, he has found his true stage, clowning before an audience grateful for any levity. "Walking around the course that day," he recalls of his first foray into what he calls "golf entertainment," "I saw how starved galleries are to be set free. It's not just the quiet, but also the golfer's tensions are mimicked. By physicalizing or simply acknowledging those tensions, you could effect crowd relaxation, warmth and sometimes laughter."

And of course he gives the money to charities.

But for people of Murray's generation, golf was always the game one's father played. Golf was plaid pants and martinis and Bob Hope. Starting with "Caddyshack's" Carl, who cultivated turf you could smoke ("It's a little harsh"), Murray pioneered the idea of golf as something liberating, even cool. Maximum Golf and Tiger Woods owe him a doff of the cap.

When he's not golfing or hanging out with his kids, Murray finds time to make a few movies. He condescended to appear in last year's camp hit "Charlie's Angels" after Drew Barrymore set her cap at him. "But every time we phone Bill's agent to check on the status of the offer," producer Leonard Goldberg recalled of preproduction, "we're told that they can't find him. On the plus side, there have been various sightings of Bill."

Moviegoers will be seeing Murray in a variety of roles this year: as a sex therapist in the farcical "Speaking of Sex," as a game show contestant in Harold Franklin's "Press Your Luck" and in Steven Soderbergh's much-anticipated remake of the Vegas classic "Ocean's 11," in which he'll play a lounge singer, naturally. He has also reteamed with "Rushmore" director Wes Anderson to star in the upcoming "Royal Tannenbaums." Anderson courted the comic relentlessly for his previous film and Murray delivered the performance of his career. Standing at the edge of the diving board, bourbon in hand and cigarette in mouth, with his gut hanging out of his shorts, Murray's Blume was the picture of middle-aged despair. His rivalry with a 15-year-old prep school student (Jason Schwartzman) was all the more affecting for the vehemence he brought to it. His loneliness trumped that of an adolescent and his desperation to feel love was authentically moving. And if he can bring half the joy and passion to his acting that he does to his game, the rest of his career should be something to behold.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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