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Bill Murray: Making It up as He Goes

“I didn’t grow up to be a famous person,” says the “Saturday Night Live” veteran, now starring in “Stripes.” “It was really all accidental”

Bill MurrayBill Murray

Bill Murray eye to eye with a groundhog in a scene from the film 'Caddyshack', 1980

Orion Pictures/Getty

Mickey Kelly likes to say that she had a surprise wedding. She thought they were going out for Mexican food. Bill Murray harbored more dangerous notions. It was the day before Super Bowl Sunday, which he considers a national holiday. In his mind, the idea of driving to Las Vegas and getting married on Super Bowl Sunday was building up an overwhelmingly powerful momentum. It just seemed… right.

For Mickey Kelly, the concept lacked appeal. Not that marriage had never come up. When a couple bounces around together on and off for a decade, the subject is bound to arise. Maybe she even felt ready for it. But not quite like that. Let’s drive to Vegas, boom. Right then, January 24th, 1981. As Murray steered through the San Fernando Valley in a rented car, all she wanted was Mexican food. So she got into a sour humor and clammed up. Stone silent. Murray was in a bad mood, too. She could tell, because he started veering on and off the road, and then he would stop the car and gaze silently out the window. Each insists that the other was responsible for generating the funk.

She: “I thought he was trying to drive me insane.”

He: “I figured tonight was the night. This was the night I’d chosen to take her and marry her, and she was in one of the ugliest moods I’d ever seen her in.”

It was true love.

Mickey broke. In the face of Murray’s lunatic intensity, she crumbled. Also, he had enlisted the help of two friends who had been married in Vegas the year before. Mickey gave up. “I really was gonna pick a fight, and then I thought, ‘Let’s just do it.’ He had this thing planned out. I thought, ‘Aaaaah, go with it.'”

Off they sped with their friends and a bottle of booze, windows open, tape player blasting Ry Cooder across the Mojave Desert.

Murray describes the ceremony as beautiful and touching. It was performed at 4:30 in the morning by a man in dark glasses. There was inspiring music. Murray had wanted Pavarotti’s “Ave Maria,” but by the time the “I do’s” came around, the tape had segued into “Pagliacci.”

What Bill Murray remembers hearing as he took his wedding vows that Super Bowl morning was this: laugh, clown, laugh.

He had to laugh.

Opening Day 1981 for the Utica Blue Sox. A huge crowd pours into Murnane Field. Tension mounts as game time draws near. Last season, fewer than 800 fans attended Opening Day. This year there are 3,500. It is believed that most of them have come to hear the national anthem.

Bill Murray is hiding in the Syracuse airport. He and Mickey Kelly have flown in from Chicago, and Murray is distraught. It seems there is a full-fledged controversy occurring in upstate New York, and Murray is the cause. When it was announced that he would sing at the Blue Sox opener, a furor ensued. A worried editorial appeared in the Utica paper. Veterans protested. There were fears that in Bill Murray’s larynx, our splendid anthem might be subjected to horrors that could wreak irreparable damage. After all, was not Bill Murray’s best-known character from Saturday Night Live that awful Nick the lounge singer, mugger of music?

Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars
Gimme those Star Wars
Don’t let them eh-eh-end…

Whoa! That nut’s gonna trash “The Banner.” Turmoil. Ruckus. This is why we find Bill Murray half-crouched in a phone booth, trying to arrange transport to Utica, when a man in a suit and tie walks up and asks if he is Bill Murray.

“Who wants to know?” asks Murray, dark with suspicion.

“Welcome,” says the man. “I’m your ride.”

Murray loves sports. Murray will go witness almost any form of sport if a friend asks him to. One of his friends is named Van Schley, and he is a kind of minor-league baseball mogul. Every season he runs a team in a different part of the country. At some point, Murray usually turns up.

“They should definitely close the state hospitals and make more minor-league baseball,” says Murray. “It’s very good for the brain.”

In 1978, Murray went to the state of Washington, where the Grays Harbor Loggers were playing the Victoria Mussels. Murray went in to pinch-hit for the Loggers and, amazingly, singled. He should have quit right then, but several days later, he came up in a game against the Walla Walla Padres and this time had to face the best reliever in the league. He whiffed. “He threw three sinkers,” Murray says. “I don’t know a TV actor who can hit a decent sinker.”

Now Murray is feeling better. He and Mickey are riding to Utica in a jeep. There is a police car leading the convoy, siren screaming, and a truck emblazoned with the legend ‘Matt’s Premium Beer.’ Why a beer truck? Because when Schley invited Murray to Utica, he asked what kind of refreshment he’d like on the drive from the airport. Maybe a beer, Murray had replied. 

Thousands cheer as Murray arrives. “Come on,” he shouts. “You all know the words!”

He sings the song. Plays it straight.

“I sang like a bird,” he later reminisces. “They just went crazy.”

Well, not completely straight. He does a little reprise of the last line, Nicks it.

The la-hand of the free-hee-heeee
And the home…of the…Uticaaaa Blue So-hoxxxx!

Then Murray runs down on the field and taunts the Little Falls Mets. “You guys are nothing!” he yells.

The crowd goes wild.

The Sox win going away.

Knots II
Once was not enough. Murray was not going to get away with that Vegas act. There are families involved – large, Irish, Catholic ones – and that means churches and priests and ceremonies to ratify the crazed impulse of a known eccentric. Two months after Super Bowl Sunday, Bill Murray and Mickey Kelly got married again. This time it would be done right, in Wilmette, Illinois, in the church where Murray had been baptized. To be certain, the planning was done by one of Murray’s sisters. She’s a nun.

The guests were mostly relatives, family friends and some old high-school friends. Only a few people from New York. Mickey had worked in New York as a talent coordinator on The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show and had been a production assistant on various other TV shows. But she hadn’t met Murray in TV. The connection was hometown. She’d grown up in Chicago and her sister had known Murray from high-school days.

For once, Murray was on his best behavior. Or trying to be. All the guests had arrived when somebody walked up to his mother in the front pew and whispered in her ear. The groom was still back at the family house, about a block away. Couldn’t find his shirt. Mother sent back instructions.

About 20 minutes later, in came Murray, late, but dressed in a very correct morning suit, complete with shirt. The best man was his older brother, Brian. He did the classic fumbling-for-the-ring routine, looking around him in an exaggeratedly comic way and miming confusion. Everyone thought Brian was a riot at the wedding. Bill says that Brian is the more talented of the two. It was Brian who went into show business first. Bill followed him. “There are people who still think of me as Brian Murray’s brother,” he says.

Make him laugh was the idea. Nine spirited kids were rumpusing around the dinner table. Circus time, total chaos. The man at the head of the table was a tough laugh. Ed Murray was his name; he was a lumber salesman and brought yardsticks home with him. Yardsticks were for law and order – the worse the offense, the more wood. Bill Murray caught some triples, being a dedicated cutup early on. Working the dinner table was his only way of winning the old man’s approval. Schoolwork wouldn’t do it. His marks were mediocre and his back-cow horseplay moved elderly nuns to violence. They summoned his parents to the convent repeatedly. Shame after shame. Nor was he the type to curry goody-goody credits with lawn mowing or other home chores. No, it had to be the dinner show. He and Brian were best at playing the old man, but everyone was in there trying. Six boys, three girls. It was bedlam. It was Murray’s first gig and maybe his toughest. “No drunken audience could ever compare to working our dinner table. If you got a laugh, it was like… whoa! It was like winning a National Merit Scholarship.” It was a start.

When Murray was 17, his father died of diabetes, leaving those nine kids and a wife. By the funeral, the family was grieved out, drained and punchy. As they sat packed into the limo after the funeral, some kind of hysterical release swept over them, a flash flood of classic Irish black humor. It was the dinner table gone berserk. “People were walking out of that church crying their eyes out, thinking, ‘My God, they must be so sad in that car,'” says Murray. “But we’re going, ‘Can you believe she’s wearing that fur?’ Soon, nobody’d even have to say anything. Someone would walk out of the church and we’d just start roaring hysterically. The driver didn’t know what to make of it. It was like the left-field bleachers in Wrigley Field.”

There had never been a great deal of money, even before the death. Tough times then for the family, and Murray too. He’d convinced himself he wanted to be a doctor, but he left college after one year. He’d picked a small school in Denver, Regis College, because his friends were going there. Outside of parental control, exchanging Midwest drab for Rocky Mountain high, Murray’s innate weirdness burst gloriously forth. He went hippie. He brawled with upperclassmen. He dropped out. He dealt marijuana and got busted and put on probation. He moved back home and went into occupational drift, playing the family black sheep.

Odd jobs slogged by. He was rod man on a surveying crew. He landscaped. Hauled concrete blocks. Cooked pizzas in a window. There was no plan. Whenever someone called his mother and said they’d heard about some job, Murray had to take it. He was just making it up as he went along. Improvising. “I didn’t have a thought in my head about my career,” he says. The career came by accident. Brian was in Chicago, getting paid for improvising at Second City, the satirical comedy company. Bill had done a little acting in high-school plays but never thought much of it. He gave Second City a shot because Brian was there, but he didn’t stick. More odd jobs. A year later, he tried it again. It worked.

Murray learned his trade in Second City’s workshops for novices and was eventually accepted into the cast. He learned to do improvisational comedy sketches, one of the hardest forms of comic acting. No script to lean on. He often worked with another newcomer, John Candy, who’s now on the SCTV show on NBC. No one else wanted to work with them. Brian (who called himself Doyle-Murray because another actor had his name) was working with veteran Second City players John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and Joe Flaherty. Sometimes it would get very lonely out there onstage for Murray and Candy. “Once we decided to do a deli in India. We called it New Deli. It was the dumbest thing I’ve ever been part of. It was just endless death, incredible death.”

Fortunately, Murray survived death. You know the rest. The rest was Saturday Night Live. As with Second City, Murray missed the first time around. He auditioned and was told that he’d almost made the cast. The show premiered without him. By then Murray was getting TV work. Remember Howard Cosell’s variety show (also named Saturday Night Live, oddly), one of the worst in history? Murray was a regular on it. After Chevy Chase left the good Saturday Night following its first season, Murray was called off the bench. But now he wasn’t sure he wanted in. Belushi and Aykroyd worried him. The sudden fame and pressure of the hit from nowhere seemed to have whipped them into a frenzy. “I said, ‘God, this is horrible. What’s happening to these guys?’ I didn’t want to be crazy like that.” Murray had to be talked into the show that made him famous. Belushi, Aykroyd and producer Lorne Michaels finally persuaded him to go crazy with them. Brian ended up on the show, too, as a writer and occasional actor.

He started slowly. He was the new kid for what seemed like the longest time. Aykroyd was the only one who’d write him into sketches, and even then, Murray was always the second cop or the second CIA man, the one without lines. Finally, Murray wrote himself a sketch. It was a loony number in which a naked man did a nightclub act in his shower, bringing on his wife (Gilda) and her lover (Buck Henry) for bows. After that, the rocket went up. You remember that part. There was Todd the nerd and crooning Nick and, hey, go on, get outta here you knucklehead, you’re a maniac and you know it.

Murray unbound.

And now, like his fellow Saturday Night grads – notably Chase, Belushi, Aykroyd and Radner – he makes movies. He’s a star. Murray still finds this a little hard to accept. “I didn’t grow up to be a movie star,” he says. “I didn’t grow up to be a famous person. I mean, there was some talent involved, but it was really all accidental.”

Last Christmas, he went home to Wilmette for the family reunion. Bedlam around the dinner table, same as always. When you go home as an adult, the rooms always seem smaller, and so when everyone automatically headed for their own chair, Murray jumped for the head of the table. More elbow room, he said.

He found himself content to stay quiet and let his brothers and sisters go for the laughs. “Now I listen to the others,” he said. “I don’t say so much.”

It sounds, I said, as if you won the competition. There you are, in your father’s chair, listening to the others do the jokes.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.

Stripes opened, his latest. The box office was better than the reviews; and that’s the fact, Jack.

Murray did some talk shows and interviews and vanished just before the opening. The New York Post, America’s finest humor magazine, was right on top of the story: “Comedy Star Takes A Bride In Secret Marriage Ceremony.” It reported that Murray had just secretly gotten married and was on a honeymoon in Ireland and South Africa. The wedding had been on the East Coast, it said, so Aykroyd and Belushi could attend. All the guests had been sworn to secrecy. The secret bride was named Mickey Wright.

“They even got my name wrong,” said Mickey.

She and her husband of five months were reading this grotesque tripe in a drugstore in Montauk, New York.

“Someone must’ve heard me say I was marrying Miss Right,” said Murray.

Exhausted from months of moviemaking and weeks of movie plugging, he and Miss Right had jumped into her little Honda, which has only one operable door, and driven from Manhattan (where they live in a loft above a noisy restaurant) to Montauk for a few days of rest. Montauk is on the outer edge of Long Island and can be quite restful. They checked into a beachfront resort named Panoramic View, probably because it has one.

Presently, Columbia Pictures found them and delivered me to their door. Murray looked tired. With a couple days’ growth of beard, he looked like a combination of Richard Burton and Senator Joe McCarthy. The two were thinking about going to Europe, but they needed to recuperate first.

“I don’t really feel we’ve had a chance to be married,” said Mickey, “because we’ve had Stripes since we were married.”

“It’s true,” said Bill. “I wish Stripes was over. We started it in November and it’s not over yet.”

Mickey Kelly seemed like a nice, normal, sane person, the kind you would want Bill Murray to marry so that when he does things like daring Hunter Thompson to tie him to a chair and throw him into a swimming pool (which he once did in Aspen, nearly causing him to drown), she might be able to get help or – who can say? – even talk him out of it.

I kept hearing those kinds of stories about Murray from his friends. Then I heard them from Murray. Over-the-edge stories. Like the time he and Warren Oates (who plays a drill sergeant in Stripes) visited the ashes of Strother Martin (the grand old character actor who told Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”) at Forest Lawn, got drunk on Armagnac, poured Strother some, blacked out and came to hours later, both of them covered with cuts and bruises. “We figured Strother took us somewhere and beat us up,” is Murray’s explanation.

What he says about his tendency toward provoking colorful incidents is this: “I like to push it. When you get a certain amount of confidence out in the world, you start pushing things, you know?”

At Montauk, Murray seemed fairly restrained. A bit moody, a little withdrawn. Maybe it was the exhaustion. There was always a minimum level of playfulness, however, and performance, as if it were necessary to stay in practice. Murray made a valiant effort to vacation, though the weather sometimes fought him. He rented a surfboard and two “boogieboards.” He plunged into the surf one chilly evening, his belly hanging over his white Adidas swimsuit. “It’s not cold,” he yelled back. “It’s at least 65 degrees.” The rest of the North American populace scoffed and left him the whole ocean. Mickey waved futilely for him to return.

Murray got a rubber band and tied the back of his hair into a ridiculously tiny ponytail, which he wore for several days. He drove around Montauk honking at pedestrians and waving. Those waved at would whirl around and stare as the mystery Honda zipped away. “You get them just as you pass their line of vision,” Murray said and then mimicked the victims puzzling it out. “Were those your friends?”

Ivan Reitman, the producer and director of Stripes, called one night to report that the picture was doing quite well, though not as well as the summer blockbusters Superman II and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Murray told Reitman that that was understandable – if he were going to a movie, he’d probably pick those ahead of Stripes. In truth, though, he liked Stripes. He said he thought it the best of his four movies (the others are Meatballs, Caddyshack and Where the Buffalo Roam).

The problem for Murray and the other star children of Saturday Night Live is to find movies analogous to the show that made them. It’s hard. They grew up on sketch comedy: short takes, topical satire, lots of different characters, imitations, ad-libs and jokes. Live audiences sharpened their timing. On Saturday Night Live, they worked in a hip ensemble touched by the magic of hot young talent breaking new ground. Movies are different. In a movie, you have to sustain one character for an hour and a half. There’s no audience to work to. And the temptation these days seems to be to aim for younger and less sophisticated audiences and play it safe.

Of the Saturday Night alumni, Murray’s screen persona – the semi-lovable, slightly degenerate, smartass hipster, easy-going but always on the verge of exploding into sublime weirdness – may be the most natural for adaptation to movie stardom. He seems to have found an audience, but he still hasn’t really found a movie worthy of him. (Stripes has its moments, but far too few.) To do it will probably take another accident – the right script, director and producer coming together.

So far, accidents have been Murray’s forte.

Sitting in his hotel room, drinking Armagnac (which he calls truth serum) and chain-smoking, Murray talked about his transition from Saturday Night Live to movies. The biggest difference, he said, was rhythm. “It’s all artificial rhythms, that’s the thing about movies, because they’re manufactured. Stand-up comedy or live TV has its own rhythm because there’s a natural oomph with the audience. But film is completely artificial, and that’s why it’s hard. You have to fix the rhythms in the editing room.”

I asked if he missed Saturday Night.

“No, I really don’t,” he said. “That show was hard to do. I miss the people. It was like being in the army, in a way, where you’re thrown into a platoon of 18 to 20 people and you get to know them really well. I enjoyed that a lot. It was a really special experience and one that you can never duplicate. You can never explain to anyone what it was like to be on that show. It was people working as hard as they could.” He paused. “And getting enormous rewards.”

Like fame. How are you handling fame?

“It’s a strange thing to happen when you’re 26. No one is raised by their parents to be prepared for what happens when you become famous when you’re 26. I mean, you’re talking about people who could barely pay their electric bills the year before. But it’s bullshit to hear people whine and complain about their success, and I don’t like to bitch about it.”

What’s the hardest part, losing privacy?

“Fuck loss of privacy. That’s not the least of it. That you can handle. You can buy privacy, to an extent. What you really lose is yourself, your real self. Every time you’re reminded that you are the guy from TV, you sort of gravitate to being that guy. You leave yourself to answer that need for someone else. That’s really the problem.”

Is there ever a fear that Saturday Night Live was the peak? That you’ll never work at that level again?

“Well, there was definitely a fear, when the show was ending, of ‘Oh, my God, I’m on my own again.’ I mean, it was great being in that crowd, because you had it covered. You had a steady gig, you had other people who were real good, you had a production crew, a producer, writers; you had everything going. All you had to do was show up and you had a good gig. But once that was over, you were out on your own, and somehow you had to put yourself in a situation again where you had a chance to do the same quality work.”

Would you ever do TV again?

“I had the best job on TV. And there’s no job like it now and there’s no job like it coming around.”

Sometimes Murray says that if the movie business doesn’t work out, he can always go back to making pizza. From him, it almost sounds believable, because his life isn’t so different from before. More money but similar style. He still has his family. (On hanging out with his brothers, he once said: “It’s just an amazing feeling of strength. It’s like having bodyguards.”) He married the girl from back home. He bums around New York’s less formal neighborhoods in impressively non-chic garb. He still fields better than he hits.

After about four days in Montauk, the Murrays drove back to the city, only to disappear again. Shortly thereafter, Columbia reported a sighting in Copenhagen. They had made it abroad. They were wandering. No itinerary, no plans. Mr. Murray and Miss Right were just improvising. Making it up as they go along.

In This Article: Bill Murray, Coverwall


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