I’ve had a lot of odd jobs. Very odd. I carried a sandwich board for a sewing shop’s going out of business sale. Delivered pizza in a dodgy St. Louis neighborhood (we held a franchise record: three drivers assaulted and one car set on fire during a single shift). Lab-coated beer-tester in a Muslim country. Pitcher’s mound engineer and turf-Zamboni artist. Janitor and — in the same year — English professor (practically the same job). Senior editor of a lifestyle magazine in the Middle East, overseeing a staff that had no experience writing, editing or using English. Fraud investigator for unemployment insurance claims (denying benefits to struggling families!). Substitute high school Latin teacher. But there was perhaps none quite as weird as my job in the summer of ’95, as stand-in for Bill Murray.
The film, initially called “Nickel & Dime” and eventually renamed “Larger Than Life,” concerns a motivational speaker who inherits the circus elephant, and clowning paraphernalia, of his estranged father. Murray’s catchphrase, “Get over it!” was embraced by critics and viewers, but a box office hit this was not. I’d brought my wife, a schoolteacher, to audition for a small role in the movie. I was in the process of getting my Ph.D. in American literature.
“Do you want to try out?” they asked me. “We need extras.”
“OK,” I said, “but if you have anything a little more menial and underpaid, that would be great.”
Silence. One of the casting agents tapped her philtrum. “He’s about the same size as Bill ...”
My wife and I, along with a few others, were dragged into a small, drab, airless room. It was furnished as if for a snuff film or maybe an employee lunchroom at Ikea. Beige table, three beiger chairs, video camera mounted on a tripod. We were asked to stand and face the camera. A few moments later, the casting director entered, flanked on either side by a minion with clipboard arms and actuarial eyes. She had the warmth of Cruella de Vil and the hairdo of a Spartan helmet. “OK, one at a time, look into the camera and tell us a little about yourself.” The others listed their acting credits. It was my turn. “I drove my wife here. I like bourbon and 19th-century fiction.”
The casting director and her minions huddled, whispered. “You remind us of Bill. Are you a fan? You’re a huge fan, aren’t you?” I liked his work well enough, but a fan? A huge fan? I preferred Jacques Tati and Takeshi Kitano. “He’s OK.”
The casting director’s face morphed into something analogous to a smile. I was hired on the spot. “He’s just like Bill!” a casting agent gushed. “Bill’s gonna love him!”
He did not.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with Murray. I was sitting in a rickety beach chair reading Heinrich Zimmer’s “Philosophies of India.” The director, walking my way, whispered to Murray: “Your stand-in.”
“Hey,” Murray said. His arm shifted ambiguously, perhaps for a handshake. I tried to stand up while reaching out my hand, which was at least one activity too many. By the time I was equipped to shake, his arms were folded. I hey-ed back. Murray, eyes panning the set, muttered something about lunch. A few seconds later, they drifted off. I sat back down. Murray half-turned toward me, doing something with his hand — part finger-gun, part swatting-a-fly. I never knew what he was trying to convey.
The most oblique conversation we had was after I’d run down an alleyway five times, chased by an elephant, while carrying a heavy trunk on my back.
“You’re in pretty good shape,” Murray said.
“Thanks. I work out.”
“You mean ... the ... with the ...?” He mimed, as best he could, the pole, string and lopsided ball.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m in a league.”
Murray sensed I was kidding but didn’t seem to know how to respond. Deadpan routines were his job. I was just a book-wielding nebbish with a broken-down beach chair who didn’t watch "Entertainment Tonight." He stared at me, squinting, nodding his head. He was chewing gum, or pretending to. “OK then,” he said. “Keep it up.”
The most disconcerting thing that happened on set was when I was accosted by a couple of ardent Murray fans.
“Give us your autograph?” the man asked.
“Uh ... why?”
“Cuz ____” He shrugged the remaining words.
“I’m not, you know, Bill Murray.” I was dressed identical to the comedian, because of the whole stand-in thing.
“Just go ahead and give us that autograph.”
“OK.” So I did.
For several uncomfortable moments, they hunched over my indecipherable signature.
“Uh, what’s this say here?” the woman asked.
“Who’s that now?”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Then why did you sign our autograph?”
“Because ... you ... asked me to ...?”
They looked at me like I was insane.
Murray was great with crowds. To amuse and entertain fans — quarantined by a phalanx of headsetted PAs — he could turn on the lounge singer shtick at a moment’s notice. The problem was, he rarely turned it off, which is not so great in a more intimate setting. Colleague: My wife is sick. Murray: [turns to imaginary crowd] Hey, great to be here in ... Cincinnati. I love you folks. We’re gonna have a great time tonight.
If Murray seemed to have a hard time with sincerity and regular-guy-itude, it wasn’t his fault. The film industry has a rigidly defined culture of hierarchy, exclusion and deference. I once made the mistake, at lunch, of sitting with the lighting director and director of photography. As I approached, eyebrows crinkled and backsides scooted away. When I tried to join the conversation, they recoiled. It was high school, I realized. They were the jocks and I was the weird exchange student from Estonia.
I started hanging out with the set nurse. I parked my chair next to hers and she showed me her screenplay. She wanted me to play the lead. “You know, because you’re good-looking, but only a little.” I seemed to be the only one who didn’t dream of becoming an actor, director or screenwriter. I was impressed by the key grip, who had written a screenplay that described one character as a “hollow-eyed Methuselah.” But the prop master also had a screenplay, as did a gaffer, and the scary-looking guy from craft services.
If the set were high school, the nurse was the sympathetic English teacher who lived in an apartment teeming with cats. The scribbling key grip was the nerd who loses weight and starts wearing contacts. Murray was the star quarterback who is in every school musical and has an affair with the French teacher.
What exactly does a stand-in do? Stand, mostly. In or out. Sometimes both. There’s also a lot of sitting. Sometimes there were diversions. Baseball legend Stan “The Man” Musial stopped by one day, at Murray’s request. He whipped out a harmonica and we all sang “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” though no one knew more than the first line. One day I saw Janeane Garofalo, one of the costars. We were shooting at a cemetery in North St. Louis. She was wearing a ringer T-shirt, green cargo pants, suede Pumas and a black baseball cap pulled down almost to her nose. Although her face was obscured, it was definitely her. Or at least her body double. I spent a few hours working up the courage to approach her, and then didn’t.
The work itself meant going to wardrobe, finding out what Murray would be wearing that day, and putting on an identical outfit. It was frankly a little stalkerish. Then it was time to sit and read for several hours until my name — “Mr. Murray’s stand-in!” — was shouted through a megaphone. At this point, the lighting director would hold a light meter to my face and body, for an hour or more, while his underlings adjusted lights, scrims and flags. He treated me like a mannequin. No smiles, no conversation. He would occasionally brush my groin with the light meter — inadvertently, I’m sure — but there was never a Sorry about that!
Murray and I were basically the same size and shape, and we both had dark hair, so we could wear the same clothes and the lights reflected off us with similar dynamics. That’s all you want from a stand-in. You can’t ask a celebrity to stand around for an hour. Sadly, my beautiful long hair was chopped off to more closely resemble Murray’s, and my luxurious sideburns were landscaped. I went from Elvis Presley to Jason Priestly in a matter of seconds, which was tidy but emasculating.
The production dragged on. And on. Six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. Last-minute “requests” to show up a few hours early, or stay late. I’ll say one thing for Hollywood — they work hard. I’ll say another thing: It’s incredibly tedious. Hours of standing around, tweaking the lights, waiting for stars to emerge from their trailers. All for a few moments of celluloid gold.
One day near the end of shooting, Murray stood in front of me and started adjusting his tie.
“It’s like looking in a mirror,” I said.
“A pretty funny mirror," he said.
“Are you saying I’m funny-looking?”
“No,” he said, “I’m saying I’m funny-looking.”
“Not at all. You’re a handsome man.”
“Pshaw,” Murray said. “You’re just saying that.”
“Yeah, I am.” Moments later, he was called to the set. It was our last man-to-stand-in talk.
The film tanked. Shortly thereafter, Murray embodied a concept I’d studied in grad school — the Paradigm Shift. Rather than star in whatever big-budget flotsam the major studios cooked up, he began to curate his career more judiciously. Small parts in quality films. Leading roles in quirky independent features. It worked. The public admired his good sense and his craft. At the same time, with perhaps implausible symmetry, I grew disillusioned with academia. Committee meetings, grade grubbing, pointless research, bottom-line-obsessed administrators. It was like high school. Or worse — Hollywood.
Andrew Madigan is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. His first novel," Khawla's Wall," will be published by Second Wind on December 1