Let’s start with one of those crazy Bill Murray stories.
A couple years ago, a guy named Ted Melfi had a movie idea and desperately wanted Murray to star. Except Melfi had never made a movie before. In a normal universe, unknown first-timers can’t get scripts through managers to major stars.
Except that Murray doesn’t have a manager. Or a publicist. Or an assistant. He has an 800-number and a voice mail. Melfi wrangled that number from a producer friend.
He left messages. Lots of messages. Then one day, Murray called. He asked Melfi to meet at Los Angeles International Airport. They drove around and ate cheeseburgers, talked script and then Murray told Melfi the news. He’d do the movie. “St. Vincent” came out in 2014, a critical and commercial success.
“I owe everything I have in my life to Bill Murray, outside of my general health,” says Melfi.
We are on the phone because I am pretending Melfi’s story is my primary interest when, in fact, it’s just a decoy. I want the 800 number. I don’t have a script to pitch. I have a story to do. On Sunday, Murray will receive the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor. In July, my editor assigned a profile, and I’ve been trying to reach him ever since. Talking to other famous people about Murray has been easy. Over several weeks, I’ve interviewed David Letterman and Howard Stern, directors Ivan Reitman, Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, former “Saturday Night Live” colleagues Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman and “SNL” writer Jim Downey. But no Billy.
I told this to Melfi. I also explained that I’d been told – through a message from the comedian’s attorney – that Murray might be mad at me, though I wasn’t sure why. I had responded by sending Murray a note, through that attorney, to clear the air. Still, nothing. Would Melfi be kind enough to pass me Murray’s number? He laughed.
“There’s an unwritten law with Bill, and everybody knows it,” he said. “You don’t give out his contact information ever. And no one will ever do it.”
There’s a moment of silence on the phone.
“You don’t need Bill Murray to make it a great story,” says Melfi. “‘Bill Murray was unavailable for this story.’ That’s the story of Bill Murray.”
Actually, there are many stories of Bill Murray.
Here’s one from David Letterman.
Friday, Jan. 29, 1982. Letterman is nervous. Back then, he’s not the retired king of late night. He’s a gap-toothed, former weatherman from Indiana fresh off a canceled morning show. “Late Night With David Letterman” is set to premiere Monday. The host leaves his office to film a remote. While he’s gone, Murray, the guest scheduled for the debut, stops by to meet with his writers.
When Letterman returns, the “Late Night” offices are dark, the staff gone. The receptionist delivers a report.
“First, he took all the light bulbs out of the writers’ room because it was hard to concentrate with artificial light,” Letterman recounts. “Then he said, ‘You know what we really need to do?’ Then Bill takes the writers out for rum. They say there was drinking and they all got really drunk and had to go home. And I thought, ‘Oh God, what’s happened here?’”
That Monday, Murray blasted onto the set and began a hilarious, mock-harangue of Letterman followed by a lengthy mock-apology. Hopping out of his chair, he spoofed the aerobics craze by performing Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.” It was a model for future Murray appearances.
“Somebody would always come up to me and say: ‘We have a problem. Bill is not here yet,’” says Letterman. “And each time that happened I learned to not take it seriously. Bill was never late. Never missed a performance and was always well prepared and the best thing of the year on the show.”
The Twain Prize is the most prestigious comedy award in the field, with past winners including Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and Tina Fey. You would think the latest recipient would want to talk about it.
Not Murray. As August turns to September, he remains elusive. His attorney won’t reply to my emails or calls. His friends – Melfi, Reitman, writer Mitch Glazer, producer Fred Roos – offer sympathy but decline my plea for help. They don’t want to annoy him by nagging.
I wait by the phone. What makes the Murray silence so frustrating is how easy it is to track him.
During the months he’s avoiding me, he’s spotted plucking fries off the plate of a random diner at an airport, tending bar in Brooklyn, leading an “America” cheer at the Ryder Cup golf tournament and cheering on the Chicago Cubs.
Of course, there’s a big difference between sitting in the bleachers and sitting for an interview. True profiles of Murray are hard to find. Perhaps the most revealing piece about him dates back to 1988 when the late Timothy White, in the New York Times Magazine, visited Murray and his first wife, Mickey, in their home by the Hudson.
Last year, Glazer persuaded Murray to participate in his Vanity Fair cover story, but “even that wasn’t easy, and I’ve known him since 1977.”
Occasionally, as a favor to a filmmaker, Murray will do interviews pegged to a movie that’s coming out. But even those arrangements rarely go as planned. At the Toronto Film Festival for the premiere of “St. Vincent,” Melfi remembers Murray disappearing at one point. Instead of doing more press, he had gone to a friend’s house to make waffles.
This is the Everyman Murray, the crasher of kickball games and karaoke jams, who would rather borrow your 10-speed than preen on a red carpet. Friends have been describing his feelings about receiving the Twain as “ambivalent.” And don’t try to talk business with Bill.
“You just don’t do it,” says Aykroyd. “Talk about anything else and everything else and you start to bring up the business, like some kind of pitch, like you’re trying to angle him, you’ll turn around and there are those taillights. That’s the Maserati turning. Go chase him. You aren’t going to catch him.”
Howard Stern remembers the first time he noticed him. It was 1977, and Murray had been brought in to replace Chevy Chase, a huge star, on “SNL.”
“My first reaction was, who the f--- is this guy to come on?” says Stern. “And then, like out of nowhere, he started doing that thing. The lounge singer. He wasn’t nervous. He wasn’t trying to win me over. But he won the audience over in minutes and didn’t even seem to be breaking a sweat.”
“Nick,” as the character went by, left his shirt open and wore a red neckerchief. His medleys could dart from Crystal Gayle to John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme, campy lyrics added with fluttering eyelashes. In another performer’s hands, the joke might have been a mockery of every Holiday Inn lounge lizard. With Murray, Nick became not just forgivable but lovable.
“The character is so happy and so unapologetic,” says Downey. “You don’t end up feeling sorry for him. It’s a strange, acquired taste, and typically most people don’t find the bad version of something funny.”
Murray’s leap from “SNL” to movies may seem natural now. John Belushi and Chase had come before, and many others would come later. But at a point when most young actors would just be grateful for a bit part, Murray haggled over his starring role in “Meatballs.” It wasn’t about the money. Reitman scheduled the shoot for the summer of 1978. Murray worried that making the summer-camp comedy would cut into his time playing golf and baseball during the “SNL” break. When Murray finally agreed, though, he came to work. The first day on the set, Reitman noticed the actor holding a rumpled script.
“Up to that moment, I wasn’t really sure he had read it. The first thing that he said was, ‘This is crap,’” says Reitman. “The first scene is where he’s introduced to the CITs (counselors in training). He did the script, but he changed every single line.”
Murray would largely improvise the film’s famous “It just doesn’t matter” speech, and at one point, Reitman got a closer look at the actor’s copy of the script. He had scribbled the letters “SOT” on almost every page. It stood for “Same Old Thing.”
“The first mistake people make is to think because he is so spontaneous and puts on an air of not caring that he doesn’t care. But the fact is, he really does care about the work and is very precise and professional about how he conducts himself,” says Reitman. “He hated guys who went for the most obvious. He’d say, ‘I’ve seen that before. I’ve seen some version of that before. It’s the easy joke.’”
There is a purpose to how Murray lives his life.
Aykroyd, who co-starred in the first two “Ghostbusters” movies, talks of the failed attempt, over years, to convince Murray to star in a third. The money was good, the studio was behind it and his co-stars wanted in. In the end, Murray refused. He did agree to a cameo for this year’s reboot with Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig.
Aykroyd brings up G.I. Gurdjieff as a way of explaining his friend. Murray admires the Russian mystic.
“Conflict in the Gurdjieffian philosophy can serve creativity,” says Aykroyd. “Billy believes you’ve got to stir things up. You don’t just put your marbles against the wall. You go in there and you either go through the wall or you knock a marble so it knocks another marble out. From friction comes heat and from heat comes creative power and a flame.”
Talking about his public improvisations two years ago, Murray seemed to reference Gurdjieff.
“My hope always,” Murray said in an interview scheduled to support “St. Vincent,” “is that it’s going to wake me up. And if I see someone that’s out cold on their feet, I go, ‘OK, I’m going to try to wake that person up.’ It’s what I want someone to do for me: Wake me the hell up.”
Professionally, there have also been “wake-ups.” In 1984, he agreed to do “Ghostbusters” only if the studio paid for him to remake “The Razor’s Edge,” a drama set in World War I and based on W. Somerset Maugham’s book. Murray played World War I veteran Larry Darrell.
“Ghostbusters” came out in June, setting box-office records and bringing Murray praise for playing sweetly sarcastic Dr. Peter Venkman. “The Razor’s Edge” came out in October and bombed. Murray didn’t brush off the commercial failure and sign on for “Caddyshack II.” Instead, he moved to Paris. He read books. And he turned down lucrative movie roles. He would not return to star in a film for four years until 1988’s “Scrooged.”
Even if “The Razor’s Edge” failed to score at the box office, it did reach a teenager in suburban Texas.
Wes Anderson rode his bike to a local video store to rent the film on Betamax and watched it with his brothers in the family’s wood-paneled TV room. Larry Darrell stuck with him.
“He was sort of poetic and heroic and very sad,” Anderson writes in an email, “but I remember what we also thought: He’s still funny.”
Years later, Anderson would think of Darrell again when he was writing the role of boozy, broken businessman Herman Blume. Murray agreed to be cast and Anderson made “Rushmore.”
So why won’t Murray talk to me?
For weeks, I blamed Laraine Newman.
I had spoken to the actress and comedian, an original “SNL” cast member, on Aug. 22. It had not gone particularly well. Newman has had some bad experiences with the media. With me, she was uneasy with questions I thought were straightforward. For example, what did she think of Murray’s willingness to take a risk like “The Razor’s Edge”?
“One can never know what another person is thinking,” Newman said. “I don’t think he would like anybody describing what his thoughts and motives are. He of all people would detest that. It’s unfair. Nothing could be more alienating than being misrepresented. Even if it’s something good.”
We talked about their friendship over the years. About how once he stopped by her house with a bag of avocados. About how Newman, years ago, had gone through a difficult breakup, and Billy had come by, in a convertible, and they’d gone for a long ride that helped her feel better.
But what she didn’t tell me, until confirming weeks later in a follow-up call, was that she had been uneasy enough about our interview to send Murray a warning.
Newman pulled up the exchange and read part of it to me over the phone.
Murray was already “horrified,” though we couldn’t determine if that was embarassment about being singled out for the Twain.
Then he responded to her concerns about me.
“I’ll try to kill this,” he wrote.
The interview? The story? My career?
I mulled this over for weeks, imagining Newman’s exchange was why I couldn’t get the courtesy of a return call from Murray’s attorney, David Nochimson.
Then I talked with Joel Murray. He’s the youngest of the nine Murray kids and also an actor. He heard me out and then told me to let it go. It wasn’t my fault. He suspected his older brother never planned to meet with me.
“You can’t beat yourself up,” said Joel Murray. “It’s like dealing with a terrorist. They don’t care if they die. He doesn’t care about publicity at all.”
But maybe there’s still a way to end this on a high note. With another story.
This comes from Letterman.
Last spring, Murray wrote to tell Letterman he was in New York and would love to get together. Letterman looked at his schedule. It was tight. The only day he had at least partially open was a day during he would be getting immunization shots for a trip to India. He gave Murray the address.
“The following day I’m in Dr. Hartman’s office and I’m in the examining room and I’m in my underpants,” says Letterman, “and there’s Dr. Hartman, a lovely fellow, and he’s got his lab coat on and he’s beginning to explain all of the different things he’s going to vaccinate me against. Suddenly, there’s a knock on the examining room door and I think, ‘I bet this is an assistant or somebody wanting to take blood.’ ‘Hi Bill,’ I say, in my underpants. And the doctor, of course, is stunned. Oh, Bill Murray. So Bill comes on in. We’re squeezed in there the three of us. He starts yakking to the doctor about this and what you going to give him and that because Bill had been to India.”
Letterman offers one of his patented cackles and stops telling the story.
“It was so crazy I’m having trouble explaining it. I’m in my underpants. There’s Bill Murray and I’m getting injected. That’s not right, is it? That’s a violation of the Hippocratic oath, isn’t it? So now he starts giving me all of the injections, so Bill looks at me in my underpants and says, ‘Have you been lifting?’”