Only in retrospect do I realize how impressive was the unimpressiveness of my first impression of Bill Murray. It was 10 years ago in New Orleans during Super Bowl week. An outfit called TVTV was making an offbeat Super Bowl documentary with comedy bits improvised by Murray.
I remember watching him being filmed as he talked on the phone, trying to persuade people to sell him their Super Bowl tickets. There may have been slightly more to the premise than that, but I don't think so, and he certainly wasn't getting any more out of it. But he didn't seem dismayed. He was trying, but he wasn't working himself into a lather. That was it. I did not reflect, "There is a comedic superstar in the making." Not at the time.
Not long after that, a friend of mine encountered Robin Williams in a bar. Williams' feet were on roller skates and so were his face, mouth and mind. My friend's awed reaction, after Williams skated off into the night, was "Who in the world was that?" People don't ask that about Murray. He is an independent Irish guy from Chicago (the fifth of nine children), a lifelong Cubs fan, who likes the streets and doesn't like to be pushed.
In 1981 he married Mickey Kelly of Chicago; they have a son, Homer, 2. Murray enjoys being amusing and also being amused. Robin Williams can play a Russian or Popeye or a being from outer space, and lose himself in the role. Murray, on the other hand, is Murray, not desperate to go over. For a prospective Saturday Night Live sketch, he was cast as a rabbi. During the read-through, Murray used a Swedish accent. It didn't work, you might say. Murray shrugged. Yiddish, with all due respect, he didn't know from. That was the end of the sketch.
Hanging out with-Murray, now 34, is not like being swept up into a private world of looniness or redirected angst. It is more like being at the Super Bowl or a funeral with someone who appreciates the absurdity of the situation but also the reality of football or the deceased. Onscreen it is clear that Murray realizes he is in a movie, which is not the same as life. But he also stays within himself, in the athletic sense: a hitter who knows the ball will jump off the bat if he doesn't overswing. He comes across with reliable freshness. The nation's theater owners named him 1984's No. 1 Male Star.
Who else is himself in movies anymore? Ever since John Wayne became a ghost, America has been yearning for a real guy. Murray is one. It is as though the usher, after lighting you to your seat, has walked on down the aisle and stepped onto the screen.
Conceptualizing, Murray concedes, is not his strong point. And concept rules in Hollywood today. As in: "These guys exorcise ghosts, right? Only funny." Dan Aykroyd is great at thinking up things like that. Murray isn't. But you say: "These guys exorcise ghosts, right? And one of them is Bill Murray," and you've got something beyond concept—a hook, and someone who can hang a real hat on it.
Today, he observes, "I drive an '81 Jeep. And parking attendants say, 'What the hell is this? What are you doing in this?' " Critics raised the same questions with regard to Murray's latest picture, The Razor's Edge, in which he played a serious part in a funny way or vice versa. Hey, they should have seen him in that bit on the phone with the Super Bowl tickets.
What will Murray do next? A few years back, he says, he called Clint Eastwood and proposed that the two of them do a straight movie together. "Clint's answer was: 'You want to do a service comedy?' He was working with monkeys then; he didn't need me."
Maybe Eastwood will change his mind. I can see it now, old Clint with a punk in his sights, saying something like "Make...my...day." And Murray is his partner, is more excited by women than by punks and keeps coming in with: "You tell him, Dirty Harry." In a Swedish accent.
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