The hit movie Ghostbusters had just opened when I did the first of several interview sessions with Bill Murray in early June. The week before, entertainment reporters from all over the country had been flown into New York, and Murray had done his conscientious bit to publicize the picture, giving at least seventy-five interviews in two days. He was exhausted.
He was also very happy. The film had opened to generally enthusiastic reviews, grossing over $13 million in its first weekend. The critics had consistently singled out his performance as the film’s strongest asset. He had starred before in summertime comedy hits — Meatballs and Stripes — but this was something else. Overnight, a consensus seemed to have formed, not just in the movie business, but in the public’s mind as well, that Murray had joined the ranks of those stars whose presence in a film makes all the difference.
This special status, only just acquired, will soon be tested. Before making Ghostbusters, Murray had spent about five months in England, France and India playing the part of Larry Darrell, a seeker after truth, in a remake of the classic 1946 film version of Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge. (The title comes from the Katha-Upanishad: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”) At the time of the interviews, the film was still being edited. It opens in October. Murray says that his performance emphasizes Larry Darrell’s sense of humor, but the part is unalterably dramatic, and it remains to be seen whether the public will accept such a radical departure from the comic roles for which Murray has become known.
The first of our sessions took place on an oppressively humid day at the house Murray rents at Sneden’s Landing, on the Hudson River, a short drive from Manhattan. The house is a renovated green barn, with additions. A white gallery running across part of the second story gives it a Russian look.
When I arrived, Murray was off attending a birthday party with his two-year-old son, Homer. I walked over to the party with Murray’s wife, Mickey, who used to work as a talent coordinator for The Dick Cavett Show and is now a full-time mother. Mickey took charge of Homer, and Murray and I got into his Wagoneer and drove to a roadhouse he likes on the Hudson. He bought me lunch. When I tried to pay my own way, he checked me with a favorite dictum of Dan Aykroyd’s: “You don’t pull coin in my town.”
After lunch, we dropped in at a local garage to see how repairs on Murray’s old Rambler were coming along, and then stopped by the post office and the library. As the afternoon progressed, Murray occasionally lapsed into brooding silences. This somber side of his personality was a revelation, and it has since occurred to me that it may provide a bass line against which his comic improvisations seem all the more spontaneous and abandoned.
Back at the house, Murray took a shower and emerged with slicked-back hair, suavely smoking a pink cigarette with a gold filter. He jumped on the powerfully built Homer and pretended to eat him. Homer squealed, “Enough! Enough!” We went outside and sat down under some walnut trees to begin the interview. Homer came out and aimed a squirting garden hose at some bed sheets hanging on a clothesline. The Jamaican housekeeper, Eda, yelled at him to stop, but it didn’t really matter — it had started to rain. We then retired to the second-story gallery. No sooner was the tape recorder turned on than the sky exploded with a resounding peal. The interview was shouted over a thunderstorm out of the Catskills that would have awakened Rip van Winkle.
The other two sessions were conducted on the terrace of Murray’s sunny, sparsely furnished penthouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. During the first session, when the sun grew hot, Murray bunched up his aloha shirt and put it on his head like a hat. Before the second, he fortified himself with his favorite sandwich: peanut butter, lettuce and mayonnaise on pumpernickel.
At the time of these interviews, I had just finished reading Wired, Bob Woodward’s book about John Belushi, and I couldn’t help being struck by the contrast between Belushi’s life and Murray’s. Both actors grew up in suburbs of Chicago, began their careers with the Second City improvisational company and went on to make their names on Saturday Night Live. But — at least according to Wired — success unnerved Belushi, drove him to drugs in search of the confidence he never possessed and brought out the boor and the bully in him.
Murray seems not to suffer from these afflictions. Whether or not he takes the occasional drug, I couldn’t say, but drugs obviously form no important part of his life. Boorishness is not his style. His manners — perhaps a vestige of his Catholic upbringing — are often elegant. (He’s the only man my age who has ever held my coat for me.) His attention is focused largely on others: his wife, son, brothers, sisters. He’s interested in spiritual disciplines, and they seem to have had a salutary effect on him.
One senses that he’s achieved at least the beginnings of an inner balance and is not easily thrown by outside events (though he still does get upset when the housekeeper shrinks his good socks). Seeing him deal with fans in the street (who accost him about once every five yards), one gets the impression that Murray has learned the ancient trick of watching himself with amused detachment. He now possesses the only magic that can protect a pilgrim passing through the flames of Hollywood — a genuine sense of humor.
I know that you come from Chicago, but I’d be interested to know your social background.
That’s tough to call. My father was a lumber-company salesman, and he got promoted to vice-president about six months before he died. He was just about to start making the dough.
When did he die?
He died December 1969, when I was seventeen. I was a junior in high school. He never made a lot of money, and we had nine kids in the family, so even a lot of money wouldn’t have made much difference. I grew up in a suburb called Wilmette, and people had money there, but we weren’t among them.
Did everyone work to help support the family?
Well, it wasn’t like that. My father did it, really. We paid our way through high school, ’cause we all went to a Catholic school — except for two of my brothers, who were heathens and went to public school. My brothers and I, we would caddy in the summer, and my sisters would baby-sit.
Where do you fit into the family constellation?
Fifth. I like to say that they peaked with me, and it was all downhill after that, I was sort of in an odd spot, but I guess everybody thought they were in an odd spot in our family. I had the misfortune of reaching adolescence at a time when the world turned upside down, and I somehow had to represent the changing society to my parents — with limited success. I was speaking for the entire culture, everyone from Tim Leary to the Airplane.
Were you a problem in school?
Well, the schools are still standing. But I was an underachiever and a screw-off. I remember I took the National Merit Scholarship Test, and I scored high enough to win, but when I got the score back, there was an asterisk next to my name, meaning I had qualified for the National Merit Scholarship but wouldn’t get one because I wasn’t in the top half of my class. Which was devastating, really bad news, ’cause my father would have loved to have heard that somebody was going to come up with the money for college.
What was the matter with you in school?
This is the same conversation I had with my teachers then. “What’s wrong, Bill? Something bothering you? Something wrong at home?” I don’t know, I just didn’t care for school much. Studying was boring. I was lazy. I’m still lazy. And I had no interest in getting good grades. In grade school, I was basically causing trouble all the time. But not very serious trouble. When I got to high school, I started to meet a more sophisticated kind of troublemaker. I mean, these guys were really smart — with 148 IQs — and really nuts, the first guys that got kicked out of our school for grass. They just traveled on a different plane than the general Jesuit “all right you’ll study tonight, you’ll crack them, you’ll come in and you’ll shut up” sort of attitude. I mean, you couldn’t have long hair in our school, so these guys would let their hair grow really long and grease it down so it looked like it was short, and you’d see them on the weekends, and you couldn’t believe how much hair they had, ’cause they’d washed it. They put up with all the grief that the preppie crowd gave them for being greasers, and they didn’t care. Because come the weekend, they were doing a completely different thing than the guys from Wilmette who were trying to drink beer and get high. They didn’t have any interest in being part of the social scene at this preppie Catholic school. They were downtown, stoned, listening to blues.
So where were you? Were you downtown at the blues joints?
Well, no, I was not. I was basically in the middle. It was all right, because I got to look at both sides. I didn’t know from downtown and the blues joints, but at the same time, I didn’t have enough money to really have a lot of fun. I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have a driver’s license until God knows when. So I basically relied on friends; they were my wheels. Or I’d take a bus or hitchhike. And in the suburbs, that’s really lowballing it. Everybody else’s parents drove them, or they had their own car. My parents just looked at me: “Your brother hitchhiked to school, and you’ll hitchhike to school.”
Were you close to the people in your family?
I was pretty close to my sister Peggy. She was the one close to me in age.
What has she become?
She’s become a parody of herself. No, she lives in the suburbs, and she’s got three kids. She’s an activist. She’s about as active as anybody can get. She drops out of bed rolling. Gets a lot done. She always was that way. So when I went into my bad phase, in college, she had no time for me. At that point, the only decent relationship I had in the house was with the dog.
What was the dog like?
The dog was the greatest dog in the world. Cairn terrier, one of those little dogs. My mother’s dog. He was one of these dogs that will play fetch forever. And he just loved to go for walks. I would take him for walks to Evanston, about a fifteen-mile walk. His feet would be sore, but he would love it. This was my bad period. Everybody had left the house. My oldest brother was in the air force, my second oldest brother was living downtown, one sister was in the convent, another sister had moved away somewhere. My day would basically begin around twelve or one. I’d wake up, and I’d eat like about eight fried eggs and about half a loaf of toast, and then I’d drink about half a gallon of milk, and then I’d hang around, I’d read, I’d listen to the radio, I’d make a few phone calls. And then, at about 5:30 or six, when my mother was going to come home, I’d split. And I’d come back around four or five in the morning. I’d be lying there in bed, and my mother would scream at me, “I want you here when I get back.” I’d have been downtown, hanging out with my brother Brian Doyle-Murray. Also, I had friends who went to Northwestern. I’d walk the streets of Evanston all night long. Walk home or ride home on the subway in the middle of the night. It was so cold in the winter, I would just jump in front of cars to get them to give me a ride. And they were so scared, so glad I didn’t have a gun, they’d give me a ride home.
When was the first time that you figured out that you might want to be an actor?
Well, I was in The Caine Mutiny at school. I played Keefer, a sleaze guy who rats on everybody. It wasn’t much of a part. The only great thing about it was that you got to get out of class for a few hours, and that was like getting a three-day leave in the army, because class was hell.
Then they had another show, The Music Man. I auditioned for the part of the Music Man because I could sing. I auditioned for the part with two other guys, but someone else got it. Then, we three auditioned for the barbershop quartet, and we got those parts. One day after school, I walked by the school theater, and there were girls in there, and I just walked in. It was an all-boys school, you know, so it was like, girls — you wanted to take your clothes off. They were attractive girls, too, and they were wearing almost no clothes, ’cause it was a dance audition. A woman turned around and said, “Now, who’s going to audition to be a dancer?” I just jumped up and said, “I’m a dancer.” And people were like, “Huh? What? Come on.” So I went up onstage. I just wanted to sort of stand behind these girls, really, get as close as I could. I did my little audition, just clowning around, really. The woman said, “Okay, you, you, you and you,” and she pointed to me, and I was in. So I told my friends, “Hey, I’m not going to be in the barbershop quartet — I’m a dancer now.” They said, “What? Why?” I said, “I don’t know, man, I don’t know. It’s just an instinct.”
It turned out to be a good move, because the dancers rehearsed at night. The dancers rehearsed at 7:30, ’cause the dance instructor was a real dancing teacher, and her only time was between 7:30 and ten at night. So it meant that I would go home, eat dinner and say, “Mom, I gotta go out.” And I would leave the house, which was even better than leaving school. I would get to go out for three hours, and it turned out that the dancers were like the kind of people I was telling you about who were misfits in that school. They were slightly nuts and had different tastes in all areas. We had just incredible times. Sometimes, the dance teacher would say, “I have to leave early,” and we’d go, “Oh, that’s too bad; that means we just have another hour to drink gin out of Coke bottles and jive down with these girls; that’s just too damn bad.” And I’d come home half-snookered on gin and Coke, and my mom would say, “How was it?” and I’d say, “Uh, I hurt my foot.” She was thinking I was Baryshnikov or something, since I was so dedicated. I had the greatest time of my high-school career doing that show, so I got hooked on show business.
What was your next step?
Well, I took one acting class in college, ’cause I thought it’d be a piece of cake and there were a lot of girls in it. I knew I could act as good as these girls could, just by seeing them around the coffee shop. And I figured if you were a man and went into a course that was mostly women, you couldn’t get a worse grade than your costar. And all these girls were getting good grades because the teacher was kind of working the ropes. He was running “the artist one” by them — you know, “Oh, yes, I am an artist.” But when class was over, he was lonely and so on. So as long as you never looked funny at him while he was staring at a girl, you got a good grade. But I only hung in there for one semester. That was that.
So still there was no star that you were following.
Still no star I was following. And it really only happened because my brother Brian started acting, and I went and started seeing him. Brian is five years older than I am. After high school — when I was still a grade-school punk — he vanished. He went to school out in California for a while and then quit and became a railroad switchman. He put a couple cars into San Francisco Bay once, but I guess all railroad men do something like that. He did a lot of weird things. When my father died, Brian came back and was supposed to support the family. He got a good job, and if he’d stayed in it, he’d have ended up a very wealthy man. But after six months, he quit the job and went to work at Second City. He had started by taking workshops there, and then he went to work there full time. That drove my mother completely around the bend. She couldn’t believe it. Brian lived in Old Town, where all the hippies were, and I started hanging out at his place. That’s where I met Harold Ramis and John Belushi and Joe Flaherty and Del Close, who directed the show, and Bernie Sahlins, who ran Second City. They thought I was a riot — weekend hippie, you know, going back to my straight life in the ‘burbs every night. I had good friends at Northwestern, and I would drug them down there, and we would all weasel our way into the show for free and watch. After you’d seen the show a hundred times, they couldn’t really expect you to pay.
Were you and Brian the family cutups?
No, everybody was a cutup. Everybody was funny.
Was your father funny?
He was real funny, and he was a very tough laugh. He was very tough to make laugh. He was very dry, very dry. He sure as hell wasn’t going to laugh unless it was really funny. My father’s father was the real nut. He was crazy till the day he died. He lived to be ninety. He was the kind of guy who had the light-up bow tie. But you’d really have to beat on him to get that bow tie out there. He would do it only at the most tastefully tasteless occasions. He was a real good man, my grandfather. He always had licorice in his pocket, and he always had a Budweiser and a Camel. He had false teeth. There was always a baby in our family, and he’d always say, “Come here, little baby.” And then he’d pop out his teeth exactly like the ghost in Ghostbusters and just scare the hell out of the baby. My mother’d get really pissed at him. “Grandpa! How could you scare him like that?” He wouldn’t say anything; he’d just drink his beer.
Is your mother funny?
Well, I didn’t use to think she was funny, but now I realize she’s like completely out of control, nuts. I just never noticed it. I sort of took it all seriously, you know, and acted like it was normal. Now I realize that she’s funny to watch at least sixty percent of the time, like the way it’s funny to watch a baby panda fall over stuff in the zoo. I finally started taping her phone calls when I worked on Saturday Night Live. I couldn’t believe that someone could go on like that, and I realized that I’d been listening to that my whole life. I mean, you can really hear her mind work. I steal her stuff all the time.
Can you think of an example?
Well, not really. I mean, I steal so much that sometimes Brian will laugh, and he’ll say, “Mother.” If I’d started paying attention to my mother when I was twelve instead of trying to sneak out of the house and avoid her, not only could I have handled her a little better, but I could have gotten a much better education about women and about people. But it was a fear of the unknown, I guess. Now she’s become a show-business mother. She’s gone around the bend. I remember when she came out to Hollywood one time, and we took her to the Polo Lounge. Brian called Doug Kenney [cofounder of the National Lampoon and cowriter of National Lampoon’s Animal House] and said, “Page my mother at the Polo Lounge.” So this guy who looks like a Mexican general walks through, saying, “Lucille Murray, Lucille Murray” at the top of his lungs, and the entire Polo Lounge is looking around for Lucille Murray, and she gets up to, like, visual applause from the entire crowd. And all of a sudden, she just like snapped. She started talking like Photoplay magazine circa 1959, about Eddie Fisher and Liz Taylor and Richard Burton and all this stuff. For about six or seven weeks she was completely around the corner. She would call me up and say stuff like, “Well, they have to come to you now.” I mean, we’d taken her into our dark little world, and now she was a show-business authority. It was insane. This was my mother, this was the woman who’d said to me, “Couldn’t you be happy doing community theater?” And now she was cutting my deal for me.
When had she said that about community theater?
Just in the beginning, after Second City. Maybe she said it to Brian, actually. She didn’t see any money in acting, even though Brian had gotten good reviews in Chicago and was really great in the show. Or it may have been in the period when he’d gone out to Hollywood and tried to get different kinds of work and was starving again. She said, “This is not working. Couldn’t you try community theater?” She wanted him to do anything to make some dough. “Fine, you’re having a ball, but I still have an eight-year-old to feed at home.” I mean, how she managed to get all the rest of the family raised is amazing. How my father did it on the little money he made was amazing.
It must have been around the time we’ve been speaking of — say, 1971 — that you first met John Belushi. As I’m sure you know, Bob Woodward’s book Wired portrays Belushi as very talented, but also as one of the most obnoxious people of the age. Would you care to comment on that?
Well, I haven’t read the book. I’ve gotten tired of defending Belushi. Of saying, “Well, the picture that’s been drawn of him is not accurate.” So let me try something new. Maybe he’s going to become a historical figure like Captain Bligh, and they’ll keep doing remakes of the story. Like there’ll be another Wired, which will say his problem was that he was exercising too much. That these fitness regimes that he went on, karate classes and all that, really made him snap, and he was just an Albanian and they’re not supposed to exercise, they’re just supposed to eat and talk and make jokes. Which I think is just as viable an explanation for whatever happened, or will be in a hundred years, because by then it won’t matter how he died, because obviously he would have been dead by then anyway. But whatever he did that made him important enough to last that long will make him interesting. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of how we met. But he was young, and he was funny, and he was really free on the stage. He didn’t have the same sort of technique as anybody else. He would just make great choices.
What do you mean by “choices”?
Well, the way he would react in a scene, especially improvising. There’d be several people onstage thrashing around, trying to figure out exactly what was happening. And rather than thrash in the conventional way, Belushi would be thinking, thinking very fast, and he would make an active choice, rather than a combative sort of word-game choice. He would polarize the scene one way or the other. He’d make a decision to do something, and as soon as he did it, it was such a strong move that the entire scene just shifted to that direction. It wasn’t necessarily always stealing a scene — he’d make a choice, and all of a sudden all the other parts would fall right in. Sometimes he’d be the center of it, sometimes he’d make the others the center. It never looked like he was thinking furiously. It was almost like a martial art. To have a guy who could do that was like having one guy who could swim. He’s your best friend.
When did you first work with Belushi?
I might have improvised with him once or twice at Second City. But I didn’t work with him until I got to New York. It was on the National Lampoon Radio Hour. John was one of the producers. He dragged all these people out to New York — Flaherty and Harold and Brian — and got them on the radio. A lot of people stayed at his place. Then he put The National Lampoon Show together, and we went on tour — Philadelphia, Ontario, Toronto, Long Island. That was in 1975. Later we opened off-Broadway in a place called the New Palladium. I was Belushi’s roommate on the road. We drank a lot of Rolling Rock in those days.
You mean you weren’t doing coke all night long?
No, no, no. We didn’t have any money to do coke. Coke wasn’t a big deal anyway at that time.
Were you doing any drugs?
Oh, smoking grass. But basically we were juicers at that time. At most of these gigs, we got free drinks, so we drank. We were still starving actors, so we had to get whatever perks we could get. We drank Champa Tampas at the New Palladium, champagne and orange juice. It was a special there. And it’s a great drink to work on because it’s got that sugar pump, and it’s nice and cold. And the air conditioning was no good in that place, and we were just drenched with sweat. After three shows on a Saturday night, you’d literally have to wrap up your shirt in a paper bag and put it inside a plastic bag. Everybody in the show was good: Belushi, Gilda Radner, my brother Brian, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and later Richard Belzer. One night something happened and I came late, so I got to watch the scenes. And it was the funniest show I’d ever seen in my life. They were the funniest people in the world. I was laughing so hard. And I’d already done the show for three and a half months.
How did you get from the Lampoon show to Saturday Night Live?
Well, while we were in the stage show, they started to cast Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell and Saturday Night Live at the same time. People from both programs would come and watch our show. We all auditioned for Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live. Things dragged on and on, and Brian and I and Belushi were going to take the job on Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell,’ cause it didn’t look like Michaels was going to hire us. Then Belushi got hired for Saturday Night Live, and Brian and Chris Guest and I took a job on Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Everybody else was on the other show. So we were on TV, and they were on TV. But they were the show, and we were on with the Chinese acrobats and elephants and all sorts of crazy acts, and we would get cut almost every other week. And then that show got canceled, and we got a job working on a documentary that TVTV was making about the Super Bowl. Michael Shamberg was doing it, and he wanted to have funny people doing funny things with the situation. Then Shamberg asked me if I wanted to work for him on the next couple of documentaries, so I went out to California for nine months. During which time Saturday Night Live kept rolling, and Chevy left the show, and they wanted somebody new, and they called me up. I’d worked with Gilda and Belushi in the Lampoon show; I’d met Danny when we were both in Second City. So they just figured I knew the styles. “We’ve worked with him. He’s all right”
What was it like coming on as the new guy?
Well, it was tough. I had to spend about six months being the second cop, second FBI guy. The first week I was on, they gave me sort of a test. They gave me a lot of stuff to do, and I went crazy, I loved it. I roared. I was there on a look-see basis. I had a three-show deal. It was three shows, see if I can do it. After the first show, Lorne said, “Well, I guess you’ll be moving here to New York.” So that made me feel good, but then and for the next six months, I didn’t have anything to do. They gave me a lot the first week, and then I realized how competitive it really was.
The hard part was, the writers made the show, and the writers didn’t know me, so they’d write for who they knew. If you do a great scene one week, the next week the writers would write for you. If you blew a joke in somebody’s sketch, you were history. You were invisible. I blew a joke in one of Anne Beatts’ sketches, and she still hasn’t forgiven me.
What was the joke, and how did you blow it?
We were four guys running clubs, and I was opening a new bar called the Not Just a Meat-Rack Bar. I blew the line. I had the office right next to hers, and she wouldn’t even look at me for at least six weeks. It was like that. If you blew a joke, people didn’t trust you. If you blew a joke, what you basically did was you failed to get this writer’s joke to 20 million people that were watching the show. Twenty million people would have laughed if you’d said those words properly. It was very serious. And I blew one of Michael O’Donoghue’s jokes. It was the Burger King sketch. The counterman said, “How do you want yours? We’ll make it any way you want it.” And I was supposed to say, “I want mine with the blood of a Colombian cocoi frog on it.” What happened was I went out there and for the heck of it, I wore this brand-new yellow silk baseball jacket that someone had given me. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I said, “I’ll wear it in the sketch. I look so damn good in it.” We’d rehearsed the sketch, done it in blocking, so on and so forth. For the real show, they put stage blood into this Colombian-frog burger, and whoever it was sprayed blood all over this jacket. I just about went nuts. I guess I blew the line first, then they sprayed the blood all over me. This is my classic Saturday Night story. They sprayed the blood all over me, completely destroyed the jacket, I had blood all over my hands, and I had two minutes to get out of this clothing. Taking off the jacket, I got blood all over everything. I had two minutes to get on a wig, a mustache on my lips and a pillow in my stomach to look like Walter Cronkite. And all this stuff was being done while the band was playing “Contusion,” by Stevie Wonder, at top volume. The makeup guys were fighting about how much gray to put in my hair. I’d blown O’Donoghue’s joke, and I was now in danger of blowing myself completely out, because I had this huge pillow and it never fit; the zipper didn’t close. There was blood still all over my hands and the wig and everything. The band screeched to a halt, and the guy said, “Five seconds.” And I went absolutely crazy. I went absolutely hysterical. I shrieked like a banshee, and the audience started laughing. They said, “This guy’s having a breakdown.” But then I pulled it together, and I was funny in the sketch, and that was really when I realized that it could be fun because it was so ridiculous. That was when I finally relaxed. But I had to blow a big joke in order to do it.
Let’s take a big jump over six comedy movies, to the present. Now you’re doing your first straight role in The Razor’s Edge — and not only is it a straight role, but it’s the story of a man on a spiritual quest. How did you get into that kind of a project?
Well, I’d become friends with John Byrum, the director and writer [Heart Beat and Inserts.] We wanted to do something together because we got along. I liked the way he talked about Hollywood. He says terrible things about Hollywood and everything in it. And he used to make me laugh talking about that, so I figured that he knew what he was talking about when it came to movies. We grew up about a mile apart from each other, so we had a lot in common without ever talking about it. He had a couple of projects I didn’t particularly want to do. Then he sent a book to my house, and it was The Razor’s Edge. I’d never read it, and I read about fifty pages or so, and I said, “This is great, this is what I want to do.” I called him up, and I called up a guy at Columbia, Shel Schrager, and said, “I’d like to do this.” And he was encouraging. John said he’d been planning to do it for ten years. He said that he wanted me to work with him on the screenplay, and John had a reputation for not letting anybody change a word of anything he wrote. So we started talking about it, and I suggested that we should work under the most difficult conditions we could find — like bars and places where there was a lot of activity.
Why did you suggest that?
Well, I believe that good things come from difficult conditions, and I thought that no matter how badly we did, at least we’d have the experience of trying to concentrate on one thing while being distracted all the time. So we would work in bars where the jukebox would be on, and places where there were a lot of people. We were constantly being interrupted by people coming over and saying, “Hey, aren’t you on Saturday Night Live?” and stuff. We traveled around. We went to practically all the restaurants and bars in the tri-state area — Manhattan, New Jersey, upstate, southern New York — and we’d try to work.
Then, after a while, it got so we couldn’t work at home; it was too distracting. So we would take trips. We both had to get in shape. I weighed about 205 pounds. So we went to spas like Calistoga, above San Francisco, and we’d sit in the mud baths, and then we’d go in the mineral baths, and then we’d get a massage, and then we’d work. It got so we could work any time in the day or night. And the finish to it is that we finally ended up in India; we were in a gompa — a monastery — in Ladakh, at 17,000, 16,000 feet.
And it was chaos, absolute chaos. There were all sorts of Englishmen running around screaming and monks saying, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” There were Moslems. We were in the middle of almost a religious war. John and I just sat down on the bottom step of this place and talked like there was nothing going on at all. And I said, “You know, we’re the only people here that are prepared for this.” It was great. We ended up being not taken by all the distraction.
How many times did you read the book?
We kept using it as a reference. I probably read it…twice, three times maybe. I carried it around with me for a few months, and sometimes I’d just open it the way you open some sort of mystic book — just open at a page and read. I got the story right away, I think.
What was the story that you got?
Well, the story I got was of a guy who sees that there’s more to life than just making a buck and having a romantic fling. I’d experienced that, and I knew what that was, so I had my own ideas about how it played. We wanted to update it, make it more modern in attitude, if nothing else, even though it is a period movie. There are things in it that came from our own lives or that were happening to us while we were doing the movie.
Like, it was very easy for us to substitute [laughing] our wives in the role of Isabel, who’s the girl who’s driving Larry nuts.
Now, Isabel is a girl from a well-to-do Chicago family who has known Larry Darrell since childhood, and loves him, and wants to marry him. Larry comes back from the First World War, and he still loves Isabel, but he doesn’t want to get married anymore. He wants to go off and “loaf,” as he puts it — that is, to study and think. How do your wives fit the part of Isabel?
[Laughing] Well, I’m on dangerous ground here, but at moments they demand regular, socially acceptable, behavior. Just at times. Those times really glare, especially when this is what you’re thinking about all day. You’re thinking about the story when someone says, “We have to go to Such-and-such’s party because she invited me…” And if you say, “Well, you don’t like her; I don’t like her — what are we going there for?” all of a sudden, that’s why the lady is a tramp.
In the book, at least, Larry goes first to Paris, and then to the north of France, and works in a mine where a fellow worker introduces him to mystical books. He ends up going to the Far East, and, finally, in India, he has a spiritual experience of a high order. Did you go to the same parts of India?
No. I don’t know why we didn’t want to go down to the lowlands, where Larry went. I think we just sort of saw the mountains all the way, you know.
All right, then, what was your Indian experience about?
Well, we went over there first on a reconnoiter to see what it would be like to shoot there. We went to Bombay, and we went to Delhi, and we went to Kashmir, to Srinagar — which was really interesting. The British lived in houseboats on the lake there, because they weren’t allowed to own land. We didn’t go to Ladakh, in the Himalayas, because we couldn’t get in — the weather was bad. John went back later, with the production manager and the producer and the set designer and the cinematographer. They got into Ladakh that time, and they said, “This is it; this is definitely the ticket. We don’t need Bombay; we can double the same thing in Srinagar.”
A few months later, we went back to shoot. We spent a week in Delhi and then got on a charter for Srinagar. It was my birthday. As we took off, I was sitting in the back, screaming, “Yeaugh, yeaugh,” just whipping this jet to go. I was so excited that we were actually going up to the mountains on my birthday. I’ve always, always, loved the mountains. I didn’t see my first one until I was eighteen, and then I wanted to see them all. But the biggest mountain I’d ever been on was 14,000 feet, and when I read that a base camp in the Himalayas is at 14,000 feet, that’s when I realized that this would be the mountain experience.
So what was Srinagar like?
It’s a beautiful place, on a mountain lake. The architecture is straight out of The Arabian Nights. They sell rubies and silks on the street. They’re strong people up there — Moslems — with blazing blue eyes.
The local production guys had gotten us cars to drive us to the locations. They were old things that looked sort of like Ramblers. There was one car that said “Director,” another that said “Producer,” and my car said “Hero.” And all the kids would run after, going, “Hero! Hero! Hero!” And there would be women leaning out of windows from the third or fourth floor going, “Hero! Hero!” They also built me a trailer, which they were proud of, ’cause they knew movie stars sat in trailers. So they built one on the back of a flatbed truck, which was basically a plywood doghouse, with no windows. There was no air in it. The one time I went in there, all the Indians were sleeping in it, ’cause they got used to me not being there, so I just stretched out on the floor.
You next went up to Ladakh.
That’s a great flight. You realize just how big the mountains are: you’re not flying over them, you’re flying between them. Coming in to land, the plane goes between two mountains and there is about forty feet of clearance on either side. When the wind comes up, the planes don’t go there, because you can lose forty feet in half a second. You’ve never really lived until you’ve landed a plane in that shoe box there.
At the airport, we were met by a fleet of black jeeps driven by Tibetan Mongols who drive like cowboys. A big chain of black jeeps set out and headed toward the monasteries, where we were going to shoot. In sixty miles of the Himalayas, I saw about all the spectacular things I ever saw in the Rockies. It was like a hall of fame of mountain majesty. There were Stupas everywhere — these big reliquaries — and monks walking on the road. Then we came over a rise and saw the first real mountain. It wasn’t Everest or anything, it was just one of the boys, and it was much bigger than the biggest mountain I’d ever seen.
Anyway, we kept driving up, and we started to go past abandoned, fortresslike monasteries. The first one I saw, I thought, “Nobody lives there now, but people did live there for 850 years.” It looked kind of frightening. Then I thought, “If that one frightens me, what about the ones that have people in them?” Well, we finally arrived at our monastery, the one we were going to stay at. All the equipment trucks were already there — big trucks with crazy paint jobs and horns and spangles and reflectors and lights all over them. It looked like the circus had come to town. You had to walk up a steep path, and you were exhausted, breathing like a dog when you got there, and there were all these monks staring at you.
There’s a big open courtyard surrounded by a wall painted with creatures from the Buddhist scriptures. They were all painted by the uncle of the man who owned the Yaktail Hotel, where we stayed, in the nearby town of Leh. There was a giant prayer wheel about five feet tall, and there were two sets of giant steps on opposite sides of the courtyard, one leading into the shrine of the giant Golden Buddha, and the other leading to the prayer room where they would do the tea service.
It soon became clear that no one on our side was really talking to the monks. In fact, I had the impression that we’d come unannounced. Pretty soon, difficulties began to arise, and nobody seemed to know how to address them. The crew spoke Londonese or Cockney, we spoke American, the production manager from India spoke Hindi, his assistant director spoke some sort of curds and whey, and it was like the tower of Babel. Nobody on our side spoke Ladakhi, which is a language that’s spelled exactly like Tibetan but pronounced differently. We were always looking around over our shoulder like, “They’re gonna kill us,” and sure enough, things got out of hand right away.
We had these young boys to play junior monks. We’d hired them in Srinagar. Typical movie stuff: “Can we have your son for two weeks, madam? We’re gonna shave his head.” So we put these kids in monk’s robes, shaved their heads and gave them cute little prayer wheels, and we set up to shoot them walking across the courtyard of the monastery. The monks were watching from the upper window, checking us out.
Whoever was in charge there had obviously picked out the number-one zealot and told him to keep an eye on the movie crew, because suddenly this insane Buddhist monk, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-one, started screaming and yelling and coming down like a fighting cock on this completely stoned-out Indian assistant director. (Our A.D.’s were basically stoned on hash the whole time, which was disconcerting.) Then more of their guys got into it, and more of our guys, and pretty soon it was screaming all-out war.
It turned out that our little monks were turning their prayer wheels the wrong way. It was a major thing to them, like, “Just a second, Jesus is supposed to be right side up on that crucifix, you know.” The monks were going crazy. And then one of the guys, who could speak almost every language ever invented, said, “Well, what do you expect, these kids are Moslems.” Which was like, “I’ll throw a little gasoline on the barbecue.” They went really crazy.
That was when Byrum and I were just sitting on the steps like nothing was going on at all. It was our English A.D. — who eventually snapped and completely lost his mind — who found a way to settle this thing with the monks. “Do you have any young boys who would be interested in being in the movies?” he asked them. So we hired four Buddhist kids from the neighborhood, and they spun their wheels the right way.
We’d also needed an older man to play the high lama. They were reading actors for it in London, and I said, “Look, we’re going to find the guy over there; don’t worry about it. We’re not going to hire Ben Kingsley to play this part; we’re going to find a real guy to do this.”
Well, we found the guy — he was the uncle of the owner of the Yaktail Hotel, the same guy who did the paintings — but he didn’t speak a word of English. So then we needed a Ladakhi who spoke English, to teach him his lines, but we couldn’t find anyone. But the hotel owner had given me the address of this monk who worked up at some school center and spoke English. He turned out to be younger than me, and his name was Chiptan Chostock, but we called him Tip.
Tip spoke English, Hindi, Ladakhi, Tibetan, Kashmiri — you name it. He would huddle together with the old guy and repeat the line, “You are closer than you think,” over and over. They did it for hours at a time. Once Tip arrived, we had no more problems with the monks. It was like, “Hey, he’s one of our guys.” It was like having an Indian scout. All of a sudden, we had somebody who spoke all of the languages, and the unspoken language, too.
Anyway, he became my partner. He was just so interested in everything. He loved riding in the jeep and looking through the camera. And we put him in the movie. Here’s this incredibly spiritual guy who walks 200 miles back and forth between this monastery and the school where he teaches. And these A.D.’s are saying, “Can we get Tippy-Tip in here, please.” “Does he need any makeup?” “No, he’s very dark already, he’ll be fine.”
The last night I was there, he said, “I want you to come over to my place.” I thought, okay, I’ll see where he lives, meet his family; I’ll probably have to sign a lot of autographs, have my picture taken with the sisters. So we drive to Tip’s father’s, which is on the outskirts of Leh, a big house with a garden. We go inside, and I’m thinking that we maybe should have asked the driver in. Tip said, “I did ask him in, but he wouldn’t come in because he’s a Shiite, and Shiites won’t take anything from Buddhists.”
By this time, Tip’s father had appeared, and he said, “But we Buddhists take everything from them.” At which point I realized that Tip’s father spoke English. Now Tip had gone to a school where he learned with a lot of English people — he learned English from me as well — but there was no explanation for his father’s English, because he’d lived in this place for his whole life, and anyone who spoke English had only come but recently, and he didn’t have any truck with anybody. He just sort of knew it, intuitively. Which was real spooky, ’cause you got it real clear that this guy spoke the language and wasn’t trying.
We sat down and started making buttered tea, and Tip’s mother came with various desserts made out of butter. So, after about a gallon and a half of buttered tea, all twelve courses of buttered desserts, they said, “Would you like to stay for dinner?” I thought that was pretty good, considering that these people all weighed about 105 pounds apiece. I said I really had to go back. So, they showed me the house, they took me to the kitchen. It was a dark room, and there were all these Asian faces, and the walls were full of these copper pots covered with carbon, and there was a hole in the ceiling where the smoke went out, and it looked right up to the stars. The stars were very bright, they lit up this room and everybody’s faces and all the pots on the wall.
And all of a sudden, all the children — there were 12 — sort of materialized out of the walls. The father looked like Fu Manchu — he was the only man I saw over there who was over six feet tall — and I was attacking him and tickling him, and hitting myself on the head with pots, and showing him my stomach, and stuff like that. We were all laughing, and all the sound was going right up through the skylight. There was a perfect exchange of something between the stars and what was happening in the room. I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable like that. I felt like if I stayed there longer, something magical would happen, like they’d break down and say, “Okay, Bill, you passed the test; you’re one of us.” I really wanted to stay there. They were so free, so open. They made you feel that you could act like a fool and not feel bad about it, and they made you feel like there was more to it than that, and if you watched yourself, you’d know even more.
One of the things that makes Maugham’s novel so interesting is the very convincing picture it gives of a man who’s had some kind of spiritual experience.
Yeah, I’m just thinking you’re going to ask me what kind of spiritual experience I’ve had. Well, I didn’t go to Woodstock. I saw a poster for it. I don’t know. I had more powerful spiritual experiences back a few y