“What the hell kind of clown are you?”
“The crying on the inside kind, I guess.”
– A bank guard and Bill Murray, Quick Change
Last week, for the first time since Mark Twain walked these 46 states, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and there was much rejoicing. One of the rejoicers caught on camera was Bill Murray – no surprise, really, as Murray’s fandom of baseball in general (he’s part-owner of a number of semipro teams) and the Chicago Cubs in particular is well known. In fact, to a growing number of people, Bill Murray is Chicago. So we got to see him celebrate – cheering from the stands, honking the horn of the MVP winner’s prize car, getting into the clubhouse to soak up the champagne. He was aglow, and the blogosphere bathed in that glow for days.
It got me thinking about what it is to be Bill Murray. “Bill Murray is a pop cultural icon of such stature that his name should become a verb,” Esquire once wrote. “Like when you do something so completely entertaining and out of left field that you would describe it by saying, ‘I totally Bill Murray-ed that.'” Indeed, every other month it seems a new surreal story comes up where Murray unexpectedly mingles with the masses. Bill Murray stealing a French fry from you. Bill Murray sneaking up behind you, putting his hands over your eyes and saying, “Guess who?” Bill Murray tending bar and only serving tequila. Bill Murray giving a speech at a bachelor party. Bill Murray playing kickball. Bill Murray walking in slow motion. Bill Murray reading poetry to construction workers. There’s even a site that collects stories about Bill Murray encounters, some of which are actually true. Taken together, the tales add up to a life of orchestrated anarchy, with Murray the disheveled conductor.
People envy Bill Murray his life. He’s an award-winning actor who’s cut himself off from Hollywood as much as a working actor can – he has no agent, no manager, and fields offers for work on a phone answering service that he checks when he feels like it. Meanwhile, he floats through the world, quixotic, doing as he pleases. This reminds me of the character Larry Darrell in W. Somerset Maugham’s book The Razor’s Edge, a book Murray loved so much he only agreed to be in Ghostbusters if the studio let him make a movie of Edge, with Murray as Larry. Larry’s stated goal is to “loaf” on what money he has, which turns into a worldwide quest for a raision d’etre. His rejection of conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive (thanks, Wikipedia!), and at the end he’s the only character who’s found happiness.
I think Murray has needed happiness for a long time. He and his eight siblings grew up poor in Wilmette, IL – Murray’s spoken of only being able to afford to buy combs for Christmas presents – and his father died at the age of 46. At age 20 he was a convicted dope smuggler, and he has quite a history with alcohol as well. He is known to have had on-set feuds behind the scenes of many of his movies, with targets ranging from Sean Young and Lucy Liu to Richard Dreyfuss and, most painfully, Harold Ramis. Ugliest of all, he had a messy divorce from his second wife – the “other woman” in his first marriage – who alleged in her filing that he was abusive and not much of a father, among other harsh words. Dan Aykroyd nicknamed him the Murricane, and no wonder.
Understand, I’m a big fan of Bill Murray. He’s made me laugh since my pre-teens. He can do unctuous or aloof and still get you rooting for him. My all-time favorite acting performance is his work in Lost in Translation. (Number two: Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now.) I’m fascinated with how he uses humor in that movie, as a shield and as a weapon, allowing him to stand apart from the oddness of his life. He dropped the humor when he wanted to communicate, whether with his wife on the phone or with Scarlett Johansson lying fetal next to him on (not in) the bed. It’s a complex performance, where more is happening behind his eyes than before them, and it’s one I keep coming back to.
So it’s hard for me to equate the man I find so funny with the man who’s made life hard for a number of people, perhaps including himself. I’ve had to defend myself for liking the work of Woody Allen (well, 20th-century Woody Allen, anyway) far more frequently than I have for liking that of Murray, but if I’m to be honest, I need to justify my liking him just as much.
And I can.
This is a quote from James Downey, who worked with Murray on Saturday Night Live:
I used to walk down the street with Bill Murray and have to stand there patiently for twenty minutes of like drooling and ass-kissing by people who would come up to him. And Murray would point to me and say, “Well, he’s the guy who writes the stuff,” but they would continue to ooh and ahh over him. Murray can be a real asshole, but the thing that keeps bringing me back to defend him is I’ve seen him be an asshole to people who could affect his career way more often than to people who couldn’t. Harry Shearer will shit on you to the precise degree that it’s cost-free; he’s a total ass-kisser with important people.
Back when neither of us was making much money, Murray and I would take these cheap flights to Hawaii. We had to stop in Chicago, and at the airport there’d be these baggage handlers just screaming at the sight of him, and he would take enormous amounts of time with them, and even get into like riffs with them. I enjoyed it, because it was really entertaining. We went down to see Audrey Peart Dickman once, and the toll guy on the Jersey turnpike looked in and recognized Murray and went crazy. We stopped and people were honking and Bill was doing autographs for the guy and his family.
I’ve yet to meet the celebrity who was universally nice to everyone. But the best at it is Murray — even to people who had nothing to do with career or the business.
That’s come up very frequently in the stories we hear about him, up to and including the woman he invited to join him at game six of the World Series this year. He’s someone who gets a lot of demands put on him – read this article to get a sense of how much of his life consists of dealing with strangers approaching him – and he deals with it by giving people these moments. He give them stories, worth far than the usual currency of photos or autographs, held closer to the heart. And it would seem that most of the time, the smaller you are, the bigger he makes you feel.
Sometimes that comes back to Murray in positive ways. He told a story of someone saying to him, “I just want you to know, I used to work as a page at NBC, and my job was to refill the M&M bowls and the peanut bowls in the actors’ dressing room. And only you and Gilda [Radner] ever treated me like a human being. You were nice to me.” The former page’s name? Bruce Willis.
I say, let Bill Murray use his fame and his talent any way he can to help him through his life. I think he, like all of us, has earned the right to be himself, perhaps even more for his search to find himself and know who he is. Which I believe he’s done. Musician Jason Isbell once tweeted that Bill Murray went to one of his concerts and said to the merchandising guy, “I’m gonna go and say hello after the show.” The merchandising guy, looking to help, said, “I can get you a pass.”
To which Bill Murray responded, “I’m Bill Murray.”