Search  About Salon  Table Talk  Newsletters: subscribe/unsubscribe  Advertise in Salon  Investor Relations

[Arts & Entertainment][ Books ][ Comics ][ Life ][ News ][ People ][ Politics ][ Sex ][ Technology ][ Audio ]

Article Finder
Brilliant Careers


Bill Murray | 1, 2, 3

Murray, who had been performing around Chicago before joining Second City in 1973, made an immediate sensation, Patinkin recalls. "You couldn't keep your eyes off Bill on stage because there was so much going on inside the guy that you knew something would come popping out sooner rather than later. He emitted a true sense of danger." It was more than a mere sense: Legend has it he jumped a heckler in the audience one night, screaming, "Fuck you and your date!"

"I was here for about 400 or 500 of those shows and I only remember about six," Murray told a crowd at Second City 's 20th anniversary show. It was here that the prototype for Nick the lounge singer first trod the boards, appalling people with his voice and taste, and in a mock political show titled "Issues and Alibis" you can hear an early version of his "SNL" newscaster. Introducing China's Chairman Deng as "one in a billion," he was perfecting a character most Americans could identify with, a cheerful idiot at the table of world politics.

Print story

E-mail story

View Salon privately with SafeWeb

Murray joined his brother Brian and fellow Chicagoan John Belushi on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour," and then went on to do the magazine's off-Broadway show in New York. In 1976, he was hired to take the place of the departing Chevy Chase on "SNL." As formulaic (and unfunny) as the show often is now, it is difficult to remember what a stir those early seasons caused. The lines between what was acceptable in prime time and what was not were clearer then, and at 11:30 p.m. on NBC, it really looked like the inmates had taken over the asylum. The style of humor was sloppy and irreverent, equally influenced by Second City and the dark sensibilities of Michael O'Donoghue and the National Lampoon crowd.

Chase, whose popularity dwarfed that of the rest of the troupe then, left for a Hollywood career, and Murray had some big shoes to fill. He rose to the occasion with the introduction of Celebrity Corner, Todd the nerd and, of course, Nick, stuck singing at happy hour at the Zephyr at Lake Minnehonka's Breezy Point Lodge ("This is my seventh summer up here ..."). Soon, at water coolers all around the country, people were calling each other "knucklehead" and "maniac," all thanks to Murray.

"I went to Second City, where you learned to make the other actor look good so you looked good," he said in 1999, "and National Lampoon, where you had to create everything out of nothing, and 'SNL,' where you couldn't make any mistakes, and you learned what collaboration was."

His experience in making something out of nothing prepared him for Hollywood. Murray's early forays into film weren't terribly inspired, though he generally tried to do more than cash in on his "SNL" personae. In "Caddyshack" (1980) he played Carl, a demented groundskeeper and Vietnam vet who equates the gopher eating up the green with the Viet Cong and finally destroys the course to save it. Carl had his spiritual side, too. He recalled caddying for the Dalai Lama, who stiffed him: "'There won't be any money, but when you die, you will receive total consciousness,'" the Dalai Lama told him. "So I've got that going for me, which is nice."

In collaboration with Harold Ramis, another Second City graduate, Murray made affable comedies such as "Stripes" and "Meatballs," no-brainers in which the casts seem preoccupied with getting through the shoot. ("I noticed that you're always last," Murray's Army sergeant, played by Warren Oates, tells dogface Murray in "Stripes." He answers, "I'm pacing myself, Sarge.") More noteworthy was his turn as Hunter S. Thompson in the seldom-seen 1980 oddity "Where the Buffalo Roam." Murray studied under the good doctor -- a dangerous practice in the best of circumstances -- perfecting the slurred speech and paranoid delivery of America's most notorious journalist. His efforts were largely wasted in this aimless, nearly plotless film, but the sendup and delivery are right on the money. Wheeling through San Francisco, typing as he drives, he seems like some beat fusion, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady combined. When asked about his story by a Jann Wenner-like editor (Bruno Kirby), Murray delivers a reply every writer has longed to utter: "I think it's the best thing I've ever done. Now all I have to do is write it up."

Murray's collaboration with Ramis hit pay dirt when he teamed with fellow "SNL" survivor Dan Aykroyd for the phenomenally popular "Ghostbusters" (directed by Ivan Reitman). Buoyed by slime-dripping special effects, a clever script and that infernal theme song, "Ghostbusters" spawned a sequel and a cartoon show and helped to make Murray a bankable star. Steeled by that bankability, Murray stunned nearly everyone when he announced that, for his next trick, he would produce, co-write and star in a new version of W. Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge."

In Hollywood, I'm certain, you could have heard a pin drop. ("He's gonna do what?") An Oscar nominee for best picture when it was made for Tyrone Power in 1946, "The Razor's Edge" tells the story of Larry Darrell, an archetypal Lost Generation hero who is changed by what he sees in World War I and sets out in search of answers. His travels take him to India, where he dons orange robes and bows to the lama (without carrying his clubs), but audiences were waiting for the laughs, which were never to come. Murray wasn't yet the actor who could pull off such a complex (and slightly incredible) character -- but give him points for trying. He could have more easily made "Meatballs II," instead of clowning his way toward satori, an enlightened wiseacre, a holy fool.

. Next page | At pro-am golf tournaments he's found his true stage
1, 2, 3


Brilliant Careers archive

For a full list of Brilliant Careers profiles

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Sound and Vision

Audio and video highlights of our Brilliant Careers profiles

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Collectors' cards

Brilliant postcards
Send an electronic postcard with interesting facts about our Brilliant Careers subjects


shim shim shim shim shim shim shim

Brilliant Careers: Sound and Vision Audio and video highlights of our Brilliant Careers profiles


Salon  Search  About Salon  Table Talk  Newsletters: subscribe/unsubscribe  Advertise in Salon  Investor Relations

Arts & Entertainment | Books | Comics | Life | News | People
Politics | Sex | Tech & Business and The Free Software Project | Audio
Letters | Columnists | Salon Plus | Salon Shop

Reproduction of material from any Salon pages without written permission is strictly prohibited
Copyright 2005

Salon, 22 4th Street, 16th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
Telephone 415 645-9200 | Fax 415 645-9204
E-mail | Privacy Policy