South Cerney, Cotswolds - save 30%
TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Bill Murray - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web
Surely there has never been a greater springboard to fame than Saturday Night Live. In the years since its 1975 inception it has produced a welter of household names. There was the initial burst with Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi. These were closely followed by Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Belushi, then Martin Short, Dana Carvey and Mike Myers. More recently there were Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. Spinal Tap stars Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean all made a brief showing, as did Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid and Robert Downey Jr. There were a host of others famed in America yet not brought to world attention by cinematic success.
So intensely creative was the show that its participants generally considered it to be the best job in television, unmatchable in the job satisfaction achieved. When their stints were over, most would seek a similar buzz in Hollywood. Some were successful there, yet very few outgrew their comedic roots to become "serious" actors. Murphy and James Belushi found some joy in roustabout action flicks, but this was short-lived. Cusack, Quaid and Downey were primarily actors anyway. Aykroyd was Oscar-nominated for a straight role in Driving Miss Daisy, but never came close to carrying a straight picture. Sandler would make efforts, but his progress was slow.
Really, only one Saturday Night Live alumnus would rise to filmic prominence, maintain a high profile and attain renown as an actor. This was Bill Murray. Having hit big with gonzo comedies, then moved through increasingly sophisticated projects till receiving widespread respect for the likes of Rushmore and Lost In Translation, he has enjoyed major cinema hits in four separate decades, in the meantime transforming himself from a youth icon to, well, an icon for everyone.
He was born William James Murray on the 21st of September, 1950, in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, just north of the city on the banks of Lake Michigan. He was the fifth of nine kids (only one a girl - she became a nun) born to Irish Catholic couple Edward and Lucille. Edward was a lumber salesman and a keen golfer, having once caddied for former US Open champion Chick Evans, and been both groundskeeper and member of the Indian Hill golf club at Winnetka, just north of Wilmette. His experience and encouragement in this area would serve several of his sons well.
Given the constant flow of children, the Murray household was not an easy place to grow up, Bill later commenting "Our house was a wreck, a constant claustrophobic mess". The kids were forced to battle for space and their parents' attention. They'd all do impressions of their long-suffering mother in order to win laughs from each other and from their father. Edward was known to his friends as a funny guy, but he was hard to impress. Bill recalls once doing a James Cagney impression on the dinner table, falling off and cracking his head hard on the table's metal foot. It hurt badly but, looking up to see his father in stitches, he found himself laughing and crying at the same time.
Attending grade school at St Joseph's, Bill was a voracious reader. Up to the age of 14, he would devour books of all kinds, from The Way Things Work to Walt Whitman. Unfortunately for his teachers, though, he was an irrepressible character, keener to entertain his peers than concentrate on the lesson in hand. This would lead to him being kicked out of both the Boy Scouts and Little League (this was a shame as he always loved baseball, particularly the Cubs, and today owns a share in at least half a dozen Minor League teams). He fared little better at Loyola Academy, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Wilmette. His English teacher, Father Reuter, would describe him as "brilliant but a terrible student". Ordinarily, Reuter would make unruly pupils sit at the front of the class as an example, but had to place Bill at the back lest he begin to perform for his classmates once again. One of Murray's Loyola peers was William Petersen, later the star of Manhunter and TV hit CSI. The school would also produce Chris O'Donnell.
To help pay for his tuition at Loyola, Bill would, like his older brothers Ed and Brian, work as a caddy at Indian Hills. On his arrival, he was known as "the new Murray". By working all summer he could pay for his schooling and have a little left over for himself. One of his biggest and most enduring hits would be based on the Indian Hills experience, Caddyshack being written by Brian, drawing on Ed's stories (in 2001, the Murray brothers would open a restaurant called Caddyshack, the first of a chain). Indeed, Brian would provide Bill with many of his early breakthroughs, being the first of the family to step into professional comedy. Bill would follow him into Chicago's Second City troupe, then on to New York. A successful actor and comedian, Brian (known as Brian Doyle-Murray, having taken his grandmother's maiden name) would appear in myriad productions. There'd be Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld, he'd play Jack Ruby in Oliver Stone's JFK, and provide the voice of the Flying Dutchman in SpongeBob SquarePants show. And this would not be the sum total of the Murrays' screen success. Brother John would appear in Burt Reynolds' Starting Over and Bogdanovich's They All Laughed while, years later, brother Joel would turn up in TV hit Dharma And Greg.
Bill's waywardness would continue to blight his education. He enrolled at Denver's Regis College, another Jesuit establishment, to study pre-med, looking to a career in medicine that would suit his bright mind. Unfortunately, while in his first year he was caught smuggling 9 pounds of marijuana through Chicago's O'Hare airport and put on probation. This, along with a sickening realisation that his peers were in it for the money rather than their patients' wellbeing, brought his student days to a close. He tried his hands at a few manual jobs but also, aware of Brian's place in the famous Second City comedy troupe, tried his hand at stand-up on Chicago's club circuit. He proved such a natural that, in 1973, he joined his brother at Second City.
Here, taken under the wing of one John Belushi, he began to hone his act. Second City's players would constantly engage in improvisational games, forcing each other to be "totally present" while onstage and Bill's ability and the "seething activity" of his comic mind soon came to be noticed. It always appeared that he was on the verge of exploding into either violence or some brilliant monologue, an impression strengthened when he once attacked a heckler. This sense of danger was much appreciated by his peers, and he learned control over some 500 performances, at the same time creating prototypes of several of the characters he'd take to Saturday Night Live, including his smug newscaster and Nick the Lounge Singer.
Success would now come quickly. Some of the Second City cast, including Belushi and both Murrays, were brought to New York to join the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Bill also appearing in the 1975 off-Broadway spin-off, organised by Ivan Reitman (that year he'd also provide the voice of Johnny Storm in the syndicated radio series The Fantastic Four). But then came a set-back. Producer Lorne Michaels was drawing together the cream of the hip new comedians for an edgy NBC ensemble show to be called Saturday Night. Many of Bill's peers - Belushi, Aykroyd, Gilda Radner - were taken on, but Bill was left behind and forced to watch as the show went ballistic, rapidly achieving a popularity that was close to Beatlemania. Everyone, but EVERYONE was waiting to see what these guys would do next.
In the meantime, Bill had work elsewhere. While off-Broadway with National Lampoon, he'd been spotted by scouts for a new variety show, ABC's Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Cosell was a sportscaster with a bad toupee, who'd made his name with his Monday night football broadcasts and his coverage of several Muhammad Ali fights. Now he was attempting to become the new Johnny Carson and Bill was hired to add the humour alongside the Prime Time Players. It didn't work. Cosell was no variety host and the show lasted only one season.
Thankfully for Bill, the success of Saturday Night (from now on, with Cosell's show out of the way, to be known as Saturday Night Live) was causing problems amongst its staff. Chevy Chase, who'd dominated many of the sketches and become more famous than his fellows due to his weekly newscast introduction "I'm Chevy Chase . . . and you're not", was persuaded to go for Hollywood gold, joining Goldie Hawn in Foul Play. A vacancy was open and, despite studio executives' fears that Bill, sardonic and bristling with righteous indignation, was more an Irish streetfighter than a comedian, he was taken on, joining brother Brian, then hard at work as a writer.
Signed for three shows on a look-see basis, Murray did not think his first appearance went well. Being made up as a 75-year-old for his first sketch made him uncomfortable and undermined his confidence. Nevertheless, on leaving the building Lorne Michaels approached him and said "I guess you're going to be moving to New York". He was in, but no sketches came his way for weeks and for an age after that he was given just "second cop" parts - and these only because Aykroyd was kind enough to write him in. At one point his lack of progress became so noticeable that, as a joke, he was allowed to appeal directly to the audience, asking for their support as he wasn't sure if he was cutting it on the show. With this he won many new fans.
One of these wasn't Chevy Chase. Returning to host one show in the second season, Chase discovered that Murray, wound up by a mischievous and jealous Belushi and probably threatened by Chase's presence as well, was after his blood. Backstage the pair would engage in a screaming row that nearly came to blows.
This aside, all was going well - in 1977 he even shared an Emmy with the rest of the cast and writers. His position would gradually strengthen and his cast of characters widen, particularly once Aykroyd and Belushi had left to make The Blues Brothers. As a reporter for Update, he interviewed a grieving Mrs Ed after Mr Ed had died, then moved up to perform as newscaster himself. He played Connie's boyfriend in the Conehead sketches and Nico, the cook at the Olympia Caf'. His catchphrases "knucklehead" and "maniac" swept the nation. He was the Swill Salesman, Nick the lounge singer and Todd the Nerd, playing alongside Gilda Radner. In fact, he would engage in a tempestuous affair with Radner - par for the course in a comedy team driven by drink, drugs and unbelievable pressure.
In May, 1980, with Michaels leaving and the original cast dispersing, Murray decided to call it a day - very wisely as, Eddie Murphy aside, the show was about to enter a terrible slump. Like many of the others, he recognised that he was already at the top of the TV tree, in terms of fame and personal job satisfaction, and now used his SNL clout to gain a foot-hold in Hollywood. (This was not the only thing he gained from SNL - by 1981 there was also a wife, Margaret "Mickey" Kelly, who'd been the first female page at NBC and worked behind the scenes for Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. Once married to Bill, she'd open a furniture shop).
Actually, by 1980 Murray had already made a few forays onto the big screen. He'd made a brief appearance in Paul Mazursky's Next Stop, Greenwich Village, concerning kids' frustration at middle-class life in 1953. He'd shown up as Bill Murray The K in The Rutles and lent his voice to the American version of Tarzoon, Shame Of The Jungle, a satirical French/Belgian Tarzan animation that saw the ape man's woman kidnapped by giant penises. This was released in 1979 as Jungle Burger. There'd also been a big hit in Meatballs, directed by Ivan Reitman and co-written by Harold Ramis, a team that would serve Murray well in his early years onscreen. This saw Bill as Tripper Harrison, head counsellor at a summer camp for unpopular kids, using all manner of unorthodox tactics to boost their confidence while attempting to seduce all the female workers and plotting dastardly assaults on the nearby camp for rich kids. His "It just doesn't matter" speech would become an anti-establishment landmark.
So, Murray was already set up by the time he left Saturday Night Live, and 1980 saw him hit the Silver Screen in earnest. First came Where The Buffalo Roam, immediate proof that he was keen to escape that comedy trap. Here he played Hunter S. Thompson in a series of vignettes set between 1968 and 1972, with Peter Boyle as his crazed attorney Lazlo. There was drinking, there was drug-taking, there was plenty of fully-fledged gonzo mania as Murray sought and found the spirit of the man himself. In fact, Murray had appeared in an earlier documentary on Thompson (this can now be found on the second disc of the Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas DVD) and had also spent time on Thompson's Colorado ranch, drinking, shooting things and generally preparing for the role. He had continued to act gonzo on his return to Saturday Night Live - much to the consternation of cast and crew.
1980 also brought Caddyshack, a movie that cemented Murray's place in the American psyche for good. Directed by Ramis and, as said, written by brother Brian, this was ostensibly about a young kid trying to win a caddie scholarship (as brother Ed had done) but was made by its characters and sub-plots - a flash golf club plagued by crudely wise-cracking newcomer Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase as an unutterably smarmy pro, and especially Murray as Carl Spackler, a deranged Vietnam vet now working as groundskeeper and battling against a swarm of hyper-intelligent gophers. Actually, to begin with, Murray's role had been much smaller, but his superb ad-libbing forced a re-think and the gopher sequences were filmed and inserted after the movie was completed.
After a brief and forgettable showing in the Kentucky Fried Movie-style Loose Shoes, he took on another lead, in Stripes, again with the Reitman/Ramis team. Originally intended for Cheech and Chong, this saw him as the wise-assed, authority-baiting John Winger who joins the army for a laugh and drags his nerdy mate (Ramis) with him. Naturally, there would be confrontations aplenty with sadistic drill-sergeant Warren Oates and the public loved it. Though not overtly political, Murray's sarcastic, ever-questioning characters had made him a personification of the lingering rebellious spirit of the Sixties and Seventies.
The wacky trilogy of Meatballs, Caddyshack and Stripes lifted him into the big league and his next appearance was in Sydney Pollack's Tootsie, the smart cross-dressing comedy that brought career rebirth to Dustin Hoffman, an Oscar to Jessica Lange and a screen debut to Geena Davis. Murray received his share of the plaudits, too, for his part as Hoffman's flat-mate and straight-man, supporting his actor buddy when, in frustration at his lack of work opportunities, he applies for a prime female TV role and actually gets it. Such was Murray's fame at the time that he agreed to have his name removed from the opening credits, lest people expect a Bill Murray-style comedy.
1984 would prove to be Murray's toughest year yet, bringing both massive success and bitter disappointment. Nothing Lasts Forever, produced by Lorne Michaels and directed by Tom Schiller, who'd made short films for Saturday Night Live, was a bizarro comedy adventure involving secret societies beneath New York and trips to the Moon. Sadly, it was never released to theatres, or even to video. But this was small fry compared to Bill's other projects that year. First came Ghostbusters, another team-up with Reitman and Ramis. The most expensive comedy ever made, it was originally intended as Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's follow-up to The Blues Brothers, but Belushi's death in 1982 led to extensive re-writes and the introduction of Murray. Now Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis would play the three parapsychology researchers who set up shop in a New York firehouse, aiming to rid clients of unwanted poltergeists and the like. Having saved Sigourney Weaver, they must then save the whole city from the threat of ancient Sumerian god Gozer the Gozerian.
With excellent special effects, a Number One single by Ray Parker Jr and Murray stealing most scenes as the smart-mouthed, womanising Dr Peter Venkman (he'd gain a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts), the movie was an enormous hit, grossing over $220 million. To boost its run, Reitman ran a TV trailer giving a Ghostbusters number for people to call, where they'd hear a message from Murray and Aykroyd. For six weeks they received a thousand calls an hour, 24 hours a day.
It was a further sign of Murray's actorly ambitions that he hadn't wanted to make Ghostbusters, despite the kudos and huge sums on offer. In fact, he only took it when studio executives agreed to bankroll his own pet project, The Razor's Edge. Written by Somerset Maugham, this had first been filmed in 1946 with Tyrone Power in the lead. Now, having co-written this new adaptation, Bill starred as Larry Darrell, a Chicago aristocrat who, volunteering as a medic in WW1, witnesses such horrors and heroics that he finds post-war home life unbearably superficial. Taking off for bohemian Paris, then a Himalayan temple, he sheds his materialism and gains a deeper wisdom.
It was typical Murray, at least it was true to the moral root of his comedy. But people had already categorised him as A Funny Guy and did not want to see him in such serious fare. The critics mauled the movie, calling it a vanity project, and audiences stayed away in their millions. The success of Ghostbusters only made it worse. Frustrated and disappointed, Murray took off for Paris with Mickey and son Homer (born in 1982, Luke would follow in 1985). He would sink into deep depression for four years, making only a couple of cameo appearances. "I withdrew from life," he'd say later "from business and from all the relationships I value".
These cameos would include a turn as Steve Martin's masochistic dental patient in Frank Oz's Little Shop Of Horrors and a slot in the end credits of John Hughes' bitter-sweet comedy She's Having A Baby. Aside from these, nothing would be heard of him till he leapt back into action with 1988's Christmas hit Scrooged, a re-write of A Christmas Carol by Saturday Night Live original Michael O'Donoghue that saw Murray as ferocious TV boss Frank Cross, gradually brought to decency by a crazy variety of spectral visitations. Though many critics disliked it, it was a hi-octane joy, with Murray at his arrogant, patronising best and a series of brilliant cameos from John Forsythe, Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait and David Johansen. Aside from putting Bill back on the map, it would also see him introduced to one Jennifer Butler, a costumer on the production. She would work on his next few films, too, and the pair would forge a relationship - his wife Mickey being one person he'd withdrawn from during his years of depression. He and Mickey would eventually divorce in 1994 and he'd marry Jennifer in 1997, having already fathered three sons by her (Jackson, born in 1993, Cal in 1995 and Cooper in 1996).
Now back on form, Murray was at last persuaded to reunite with Reitman and Ramis for Ghostbusters II, set five years after the original. The guys have been banned from their paranormal pest control, but then New York's bad vibes create a river of evil slime in the sewers and Peter MacNicol decides to reincarnate a 16th Century tyrant in the body of Sigourney Weaver's young son. So, who you gonna call? Once again, Bill was at the very centre of it all.
He moved on to make his directorial debut in Quick Change, also starring as a p-o'd city planner who plots the perfect bank heist. Dressed as clowns, he and accomplices Geena Davis and Randy Quaid do the job in spectacular and hilarious fashion (Security Guard: "What the hell kind of clown are you?" Murray: "The %u2018crying on the inside' kind, I guess") then suffer awesome frustrations are chaotic events conspire to prevent them escaping New York.
1991 saw him begin a run of superb performances with What About Bob?, once more with Frank Oz. Here he played an obsessive-compulsive, multi-phobic patient of smug psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss who can't accept the doctor is deserting him to go on holiday and follows him up to New Hampshire, annoying the living poop out of him all the way. It was brilliant stuff, with Murray openly testing himself as a hapless Clouseau-style character to Dreyfuss's, well, Dreyfus.
Two years later, it all really began to open up for him. First came another major hit with the superior comedy Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis and not unlike Scrooged in that it saw Bill as an arrogant TV man (here a weather forecaster) driven to the paths of righteousness by insane circumstances. Here he's on location in Punxsatawney to see whether their famous groundhog will predict six more weeks of winter. Unfortunately for him, he becomes trapped in a time warp, endlessly repeating the same day over and over until he finally learns that producer Andie MacDowell will return his affections if he stops being so surly.
He followed this with a near-straight role in Mad Dog And Glory, directed by John McNaughton of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer fame. Here he was a gangster boss whose life is saved in a hold-up situation by shy police photographer Robert De Niro. Grateful to the man, Bill lends him Uma Thurman for a week (she's trying to pay off her brother's gambling debts to Murray). Naturally, both men fall for Thurman and the conflict challenges their shaky friendship.
It was a good part for Bill. As his character was a cold-hearted thug who was desperate to be nice, a born gangster trying to cut it as a stand-up comedian, it further stretched his abilities and his famed intelligence. It also tested his stunt skills, a challenge he failed miserably when he broke De Niro's nose (still, this was surely less painful than when Carol Kane tore his lip horribly while filming Scrooged). And he went one step further in his next part in Tim Burton's bio-pic Ed Wood, as John "Bunny" Breckinridge, the camp queen who played The Ruler in Wood's classic botch-job Plan Nine From Outer Space.
It seemed inevitable that Bill, a comedy king of 20 years' standing, would sooner or later work with new tyros the Farrelly brothers and it finally came to pass in 1996 with Kingpin. This saw him as Ernie McCracken, a bowling hustler who uses young prodigy Woody Harrelson in a scam that goes wrong, resulting in Harrelson losing his bowling hand. Years later, Harrelson finds a prodigy of his own (and a na've Amish one, at that) in Bill's Quick Change co-star Randy Quaid and everything leads to a final showdown with arch-enemy McCracken. The movie, not as hugely successful as the Farrellys' other efforts, would become a cult classic, notorious for Bill and Woody's fabulous bald-man brush-overs.
Oddly, given that he'd become very picky when it came to scripts (he says he was tired of always having to rewrite his parts), his next two pictures were well below the standard we'd come to expect. First, Larger Than Life saw him as a motivational speaker (catchphrase "Get over it!") who inherits an elephant from his circus clown father and must take it across America, finding personal redemption along the way etc etc. Then came The Man Who Knew Too Little, where he was a US tourist in London who's mistaken for an assassin and drawn into a Bond-like world of espionage. Both films were desperately weak.
Even so, his star was still in the ascendant, and from now on his every appearance was worth watching. In John McNaughton's Wild Things, where high school girls Neve Campbell and Denise Richards blackmailed teacher Matt Dillon, he played a wonderfully sleazy lawyer, clad in a neck-brace for an insurance fraud. Then there was a brief but brilliant cameo as a freeloading producer in Friends Like These, where four actors battle for the lead in a Scorsese bio-pic of Al Capone.
And then there was Wes Anderson's Rushmore, the movie that finally saw Murray accepted as a heavyweight actor. This concerned 15-year-old Max Fischer, a kid so enthusiastic and manipulative he's more or less taken over his own school. Attempting to win the heart of teacher Olivia Williams, he seeks a sponsor for a new aquarium and finds one in Murray's steel tycoon. Unfortunately, he also finds in Murray a love rival who, though far older, is just as childish and vindictive. Thus the pair square off, in hilarious but increasingly cruel fashion.
It was a killer role for Bill, and one that saw him Golden Globe-nominated for the second time. He followed it up with a small part in Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock, a 1936-set piece where a young Orson Welles attempts to stage a controversial anti-capitalist play - Bill appearing as an alcoholic ventriloquist so terrified that Commies are infiltrating vaudeville that he alienates all his colleagues. Then he took his first classical role as Polonius in Michael Almereyda's update of Hamlet. Here he was the bumbling father of Julia Stiles' Ophelia, warning her not to get too close to Ethan Hawke's vengeful Hamlet.
Now alternating big productions with more interesting indie fare, he played Bosley in Charlie's Angels, famously getting into a ruck with Lucy Liu. In true post-modern style, the film would reference many other movies, including Murray's own Caddyshack. He'd also reunite with the Farrelly brothers for Osmosis Jones, playing Frank, within whose body the film's gross-out animations take place. The title role would be played by Chris Rock, who'd earlier followed in Bill's footsteps at Saturday Night Live.
Murray tends to stick with directors who provide classy scripts, and so he returned to Wes Anderson for The Royal Tenenbaums, where Gene Hackman attempted to inveigle his way back into the home of the family he deserted years before by pretending to be dying. Anjelica Huston would play his estranged wife, with Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow as the now grown-up kids, each of them a former prodigy. Bill would step in as Raleigh St Clair, Paltrow's bearded intellectual husband who thinks he knows everything but doesn't even know his own wife. He'd make another cameo in John McNaughton's Speaking Of Sex, a fairly lame sex'n'therapy farce where Bill, as a defence attorney, provided most of the few laughs on offer.
2002 saw Murray return to the New York stage in The Guys at the Flea Theatre, as a fire chief attempting to write eulogies for eight of his men lost in the World Trade Centre attacks. Helping him in this was a journalist, played by his Ghostbusters co-star Sigourney Weaver. Then, after appearing with RZA and GZA from rap crew the Wu-Tang Clan in one segment of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes, and with his own brothers in comic TV golf documentary The Sweet Spot (Bill would also write the bestselling Cinderella Story: My Life In Golf), there came yet more plaudits for his efforts in Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation. Here he was a jaded movie star in Tokyo to snag a couple of million for a whiskey ad. Meeting Scarlett Johansson, a young wife and Yale philosophy grad being ignored by photographer hubbie Giovanni Ribisi, he finds himself surprisingly interested and then slipping into love. It was an interesting exploration of fidelity, commercialism and disillusionment, but also a very, very sweet love story, marked by Murray's moving karaoke version of Roxy Music's More Than This. His performance would win him a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for best actor.
From here it was only up. He next provided the voice of Garfield the Cat in a Joel Cohen-penned adaptation of the cartoon hit. Then he was back with Wes Anderson for The Life Aquatic, where he played a Jacques Cousteau type struggling to finance his adventures and reconcile with his estranged son. After this came the even more complicated The Squid And The Whale, directed by Noah Baumbach, Anderson's co-writer on The Life Aquatic. Here he was the patriarch of an oddball Brooklyn family, starting an affair with a student his eldest son is pursuing while his wife Laura Linney gets it on with their other son's tennis coach, John Turturro.
Many actors can be said to have come a long way, but Bill Murray's trek to serious recognition has been a truly epic journey. As a great comedian and now a fine actor, he deserves all the praise he gets.