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.