From the Archives:
Bill Murray, 1988
By T.J. English
Originally published November, 1988
ED: In 1988 we sent T.J. English to Bill Murray’s home to talk to him on the occasion of Scrooged, out that November. English, who still had the tapes from that conversation, sent them to PBS’s Blank on Blank podcast, which posted the final animated Bill Murray episode this week, along with the longer podcast with outtakes (below) and it’s everything we could have expected. Here, we bring you the original, unedited article.
With his unruly crop of thinning brown hair and ravaged complexion, 38-year-old Bill Murray doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood stereotype of a matinee idol. Yet, in film after film throughout his relatively brief acting career, he has developed a remarkable rapport with his audience—which, at last count, included most of America and a large part of the free industrialized world.
Two of his films, Tootsie and Ghostbusters, are among the four top-grossing films of all time, many of the others, including Meatballs, Stripes and Caddyshack, have been successful on only a slightly smaller scale.
Born in Wilmette, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, Murray grew up in a large Irish Catholic family (one of his sisters is a Carmelite nun). He left home in the early 1970s to work his first full-time comedy gig as a member of Second City, a reparatory group that included many of the most talented comedy performers of his generation.
It was the phenomenally successful Saturday Night Live show in New York that catapulted Murray through the roof, although his beginnings were inauspicious. Brought in as a replacement for Chevy Chase, Murray took a while to reach his stride. When he did however, he left an indelible impression in sketch after sketch, in what is fondly remembered as one of the most inventive and creative shows in the history of American television.
Since leaving SNL, Murray has been able to sustain a varied and successful film career. Along with the films mentioned above, he played gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Where the Buffalo Room, a movie based on Thompson’s writings. And in 1984, he appeared in Razor’s Edge, a drama based on a Somerset Maugham novel, in which he played a jaded World War I veteran in search of spiritual enlightenment. Touted as “Bill Murray’s serious film,” it quickly died at the box office and stands as his only unqualified financial disaster.
Our interview took place at Murray’s new home, a comfortable hideaway that aptly reflects his newfound financial success. Both charming and gracious, Murray is, believe it or not, funnier in person than he is in his movies.
What follows are snippets of the conversation that took place between the laughs.
Irish America: With your new movie Scrooged set to come out in November, you’ll probably be doing hundreds of interviews. Are you generally cooperative?
Bill Murray: Hey, why don’t you go fuck yourself (laughs). No, I’m cooperative, very cooperative. I do loads of them. I’ll probably have to do a junket, where you do a couple hundred interviews.
The ones I like best are the TV ones. They bring in these guys from every big city—the guy from Seattle, Portland, New Orleans. You sit in some room. They have one cameraman, put a chair in front of you and you get a different guy every 15 minutes. You do a ten-minute slug. First the camera’s on you, then they shoot reverses. It’s funny to see sometimes. Just to see them shoot the reverses is worth the price of coming.
IA: You have to sit there for the reverses?
BM: Well, you don’t have to. But it’s the polite thing to do. I’m probably too old-fashioned not to do it. It’s really trippy, too, because they make faces that bear to no relation to what you’ve said. It’s funny to watch.
IA: How about the issue of fame in general, apart from interviews? How have you adapted to that?
BM: Well, you try not to make yourself known anymore. It’s corny but you wear a hat and dark glasses. If you see 15 drunken high school kids coming your way, you think, why don’t I have an umbrella for my face? You definitely avoid certain situations.
It’s funny, but there’s no preparation in life for becoming famous. If you’re growing up to be a butcher, you’ll watch your father cut meat. If you grow up to be a king, they’ll tell you how to stand and do all that kind of thing. But nobody tells you how to grow up to be famous, because it doesn’t happen that often. So you’re not really used to the attention. What happens is you start taking it seriously and you start becoming an ass. So people start treating you like an ass.
People usually go through a bad period when they become successful; they have a lot of run-ins. Like Mike Tyson. In another five years it will be perfectly normal. But at first everything is under a microscope.
IA: Your life must lose some of its spontaneity.
BM: That’s true. One of my favorite things used to be traffic in New York. There’s a traffic jam and there’s a Cadillac honking or something, I would jump into the middle of the street—I used to do this all the time before I was famous—and say, “Excuse me, there’s a Mercedes that has to get through here.” I’d push people out of the way. “Can we get this car out of the way here, there’s a Cadillac that needs to get through,” and just push people out of the way, smacking their cars and stuff. Whack! Just jump into it.
You can’t do it now because if you somebody shouts, “Hey, hey, Meatballs!” The whole thing is lost; the point you were trying to make or whatever fun you wanted to have is undercut.
IA: Didn’t you go back to your high school reunion recently in Wilmette, Illinois? Did your being famous present any problems there?
BM: That was alright. I was a little afraid at first. I was afraid of going back there and being, you know, sort of radioactive. I thought I’d get a lot of stuff like, “So you turned out alright, ha ha. I remember you when you were a jerk.” But it didn’t happen. It turned out they basically knew who I was anyway, so it didn’t make any difference.
IA: What was it like growing up in Wilmette?
BM: Wilmette is sort of an affluent place to live, but we were definitely at the bottom of the social register. When you say to people in Chicago you’re from Wilmette, they think you’re the Rockefellers or something. But we didn’t have the dough. Most of my friends had plenty of money. The idea of college was nothing to them, but not for us.
IA: What was your family like?
BM: I have five brothers and three sisters. My father died when I was 17. My mother got a job and everybody covered themselves if they were big enough, although I wasn’t big enough.
IA: What initiated the move to Chicago?
BM: Just to get out of the house.
IA: Second City hadn’t developed yet?
BM: That had happened. At the time it was just for the fun of it. I was going to workshops for awhile, still working at other jobs. It didn’t come easy at first, but I worked hard and eventually got hired by the regular company. I remember thinking, my God, you mean they’ll pay me to do this?
IA: When you started working for Second City, everything must have seemed new. Do you every find yourself looking back on that period as the foundation for things you’re doing now?
BM: The thing I learned there was the difference between a good laugh and a cheap laugh. But when I think of learning how to be creative, how to dig into the zeitgeist, turn over new stones, that came later when I was working for National Lampoon. We did a radio show and a live show. That was a strong group of people; we really had a competitive kind of fun.
IA: How long did National lampoon last?
BM: It was on for two years, I think. I only did it for a few months. I had quit Second City and hitchhiked to New York to visit Brian [Murray, his brother]. He was working on the show and they were going to begin this live show. I came in and met people. They needed someone to work on the Radio Hour, so I slept on my brother’s floor for awhile and got the job.
IA: Weren’t you also on Howard Cosell’s live show?
BM: That came later. The Cosell show and Saturday Night Live were getting started at the same time. They had hired some people on Saturday Night Live and rather than wait—I didn’t know if I was going to get hired or not—we had an offer from the Cosell show. So myself, Brian and Chris Guest took the job. It was all right. We were cut from the show almost every week. We used to sit in the bar next door and watch the show.
IA: Given that the Cosell Show didn’t work out, how did you feel that first year when Saturday Night Live was getting off to such a hot start?
BM: That was rough. We used to come home when our show was finished and watch their show. To me it felt like these guys were smirking at us. They had this big hit show. But you can’t argue with Saturday Night live. Just get out of the way, it was a steamroller. One advantage, though, was that I was able to watch my friends going through the fame thing before I did. I learned a lot about it by watching them. When I met Dan [Ackroyd] and John [Belushi] after that, boy, were they different. I thought, Oh Jesus, when you get famous something weird happens to you.
IA: What was different?
BM: Well, I’d known these guys a long time. Dan I knew for six years, and I knew Belushi since I was 18. They were just weird. I was put off by it.
IA: After Chevy Chase left Saturday Night Live, you finally got a crack at the show yourself. Was it touch that first year, following in Chase’s footsteps?
BM: The first year was almost a complete wash. Dan actually kept writing me into scenes with him where I would be the second cop. He’d write a scene where two FBI agents would walk in and I’d be one of them. Two cops, two FBI agents, two electricians, that sort of thing. It wasn’t that I had to live up to Chevy’s shadow, because I didn’t feel that from the other actors. But I didn’t know any of the writers, really, and they have to know what you can do before they can write for you. So I didn’t really get cooking until the last show of the season when I wrote something for myself.
IA: How about having to adjust to the pace of that show, which had already been rolling for a year. It must have seemed pretty crazy and hectic.
BM: It wasn’t that hard. When you’re the second copy, there’s no pace to pick up.
IA: There are a lot of stories about the atmosphere on the set of Saturday Night Live. Did everybody get along?
BM: Well, not everybody got along, but most of us got along. There were a couple of crazy writers. But, basically, when you’re making comedy you want to feel funny, so you don’t have many gripes I mean with John and Jane, you would have to do a computer search to find more opposite types. But they both respected each other. They worked together.
IA: Is it true you and Chevy Chase had a fight on the show when he returned to host?
BM: Yeah, we had a little fight. It was a Hollywood push fight, you know. He had a lot more to lose; he’s a good-looking guy. He wasn’t going to get hit. To give you an idea how insincere the fight was, my brother Brian, who’s smaller than both of us held up apart. I’m 6’1” and at the time I weighted about 190; Chevy’s about 6’4” and weights about 215.
IA: A baseball fight.
BM: Yeah, worse than a baseball fight. But a lot of funny lines were said back and forth. “How would you like a mouth full of chicklets?” I think was one of Chevy’s lines. That was a good one.
IA: How about the fact that the show was designed as a repertory show, yet in the first year a pattern was established where someone would become a star and move on. It happened to Chase, Belushi, Ackroyd, then you. What’s it like getting drawn into that?
BM: I would say I was the only one it didn’t affect (laughs). No, it had to affect you. It affected you in all kinds of ways. I don’t think it truly affected me in the worst way. I mean Chevy became famous on that show, that was uniquely different. John was more of a solo. He was an improv player, when he was on he was the best. But he became a star, and stars do act differently. It’s just a mechanical thing. When everyone starts kissing your butt, you just walk bent over.
But there was a way within our group you could be cut down to size pretty quickly. All you had to do was fuck up a joke once and whooo, a serious cause for concern. Just once.
IA: While you were on that show, did the cast socialize with each other much?
BM: That changed some. You became sort of magnetic all of a sudden because you were famous. So if you were leaving from 96th and Lexington and going to Rockefeller Center, seven people could attach themselves to you on the way to work. I remember once trying to walk to 57th and 6th Avenue, and it took an hour. So all of a sudden, it was, “Hi John and Dan, I got Charmaine and Bruce and Warren and 20 people here!” It’s a mild version of the Muhammad Ali syndrome.
The wildest times we had was when Dan and John bought their own bar, the Blues Bar, so we had a place to go after every show. That was high living, where you had a bar that was sort of dark and you served drinks and had your own people in. We needed that for burning off energy. The performance high was very powerful on that show when we got cooking.
IA: Your film career began with Meatballs and then you did Where the Buffalo Roam. How did that come about?
BM: They wanted Danny and John to do it first, but they decided to do the Blues Brothers movie. So then they asked me. I had already met Thompson the year before out in Aspen and we hit it off, so I was acceptable to him.
It was an interesting experience. I spent a lot of time with Hunter. He came out and lived in the house where I was staying in Hollywood. So I was basically working 24-hour days. No shit. But that made the performance work, too. I really had him cold.
I felt I had an obligation to talk Hunter’s politics somehow, you know. His politics are going to live longer than the stories about how weird he is. He’s a decent guy who lives real hard, but he has a sharp mind and a better way with words than anybody writing today.
IA: He’s known to be a pretty serious drinker. Were you drinking together?
BM: Yes. I finally got to where I could drink with him. I can’t do drugs with him, but I can drink with him. Although, I can’t now. I really have to work up to it.
IA: The film itself wasn’t all that well received, was it?
BM: Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News said that obviously it wasn’t the real Hunter Thompson. He couldn’t have done that many drugs and written a book like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Well, obviously she never read the book. Actually, he and I tried to write a narration for it because it really lacked a narrative line. Episodically, some of the stuff was really spectacular, I thought; as funny as anything I’ve done in movies. But the story line was nonexistent. So we tried to write a narration that would help, but it was rejected by the director.
IA: Even though the film didn’t do well, your movie career really seemed to take off around this time. Had you give much thought to what kind of roles you wanted to do?
BM: No, I never thought about it. I mean, I could have done all the comedies I wanted. I was getting offered virtually every single one and I was turning them all down, because they weren’t funny. I just kept getting rewrites of Meatballs and Caddyshack. And there’s this weird thing in Hollywood, the more you say no, the more it drives them nuts. “Well, just give him more money,” they say. “We’ll just pay him twice as much.” They get insane for you to do something. To tell you the truth, though, I don’t think the big directors ever considered me much. I lucked out with Tootsie. That was a big name director and a big name actor.
IA: Did they come to you with that part?
BM: Well, yeah. The director and the star were at odds. I was sort of a concession. I don’t think anybody really wanted me as much as I was a name nobody felt like arguing about. The director said, I can make anybody look good. Use him!
IA: That was another phenomenally successful movie
BM: That was really big. They thought they had a bomb on their hands. But Tootsie was three times as big as Meatballs, and Meatballs was a serious hit. Tootsie is in a very rarified economic world.
IA: Since we’re on the subject of economics, what do you do with all this disposable income you’ve been acquiring?
BM: I recommend to anyone who wants to be rich and famous to be rich first and see if that’s not enough. Because I enjoy being rich a lot more than I enjoy being famous. The only good thing about fame is that I’ve gotten out of a couple of speeding tickets, and I’ve gotten into a restaurant when I didn’t have a suit and tie on. That’s about it. And you can talk to girls more. You don’t necessarily do any better with them, but they will talk to you. They don’t think of you as a potential suitor. They think of you as some freak or something. You may as well have an elephant on a rope for all they care.
As for the money, the sort of Elvis Presley thing of buying your mother a car is great. My mother has learned how to spend money. I mean she used to call and say, “Bill, we really need a boiler.” Just for the hell of it, I’d say, “Why don’t you shop around and see which one. Don’t blow a lot of money, just shop around and get a bargain. I don’t want you spending senselessly on this boiler. I don’t want a boiler that’s too big for the capacity of the house.” I’d say stuff like that just purely for the devilment of it.
I finally got her an American Express card. The numbers she puts on this thing are geometric, every year. I mean, the first year she bought a tow when the car broke down. The second year she went to dinner on her birthday or something. The third year she rented a condo in Florida for the winter and took a couple of cousins and friends and basically spent a couple months in Florida. And last year she went to China on a boat. So she’s figured it out.
IA: Wow. She’ll probably be on one of those moonshots before long.
BM: Yeah, she’s probably bought a NASA Challenger ticket. I mean that’s great. You know, she had nine kids. Technically she could commit murder and get away with it, so whatever numbers she runs up on me is not ever a misdemeanor.
IA: Does guilt come into play at all when you’re making staggering, laughable amounts of money?
BM: Not really, I’ve always had an instinct for money. Like on the first movie, Meatballs, I demanded a percentage—the movie that was never going to get out of Canada. My agent said he could get me so much, but I said, “Tell them I want a piece of the action.” He was, like, “I can’t do that.” I said, “Betcha I can find another agent who can.” So he did and I did.
And on the Tootsie thing, they sort of passed a salary cap, right. Because they thought the movie was going to go under. So I said, “I don’t want any money up front, just give me something.” Just luck, dumb Irish luck. Fortunately the movie made $178 million! That was just lucky. But I think it’s smart luck. I don’t feel guilty about making money because unless the movie loses money, I haven’t ripped anybody off. And on my movies that haven’t made money, I didn’t make money.
It’s only because I grew up without any money that it’s kind of gleeful to me. I know it could have been anybody. There were a lot of actors in Second City far more talented than me who quit before it got to the paying stage. I had no other option.
IA: I guess Ghostbusters was another one that didn’t hurt your bank account.
BM: Talk about rarified. Since that movie, I read about successful movies in the paper—“big box office hit” they say. Nothing, nothing. None of these movies compare. That was just huge, that movie.
IA: I know you’re always asked this question, but there was no way you could have known it was going to be such a hit.
BM: No, I absolutely knew it was going to be that big. I actually said, “This movie is going to be bigger than Tootsie and smaller than Star Wars. That’s exactly where it is. The biggest movie of all time is ET, then Star Wars, then Ghostbusters. Star Wars made $240 million something, Ghostbusters made $225-230 million and Tootsie did $178 million.
I knew right where it was going to be. There was no question. I read the first 75 pages of the script, picked up the phone and said, “Dan [Ackroyd], I’m in.” And in 45 minutes they had a caterer for the movie.
IA: It was just before Ghostbusters that John Belushi died. All you guys were on the fast track at the time, so you must have really been affected by it.
BM: Yeah, mmm…
IA: I sort of put words in your mouth there.
BM: Yeah, it’s a little too much like an entertainment question. Let me put it this way: everybody is going to die, whether you got a byline in your life or not, everybody is going to die. And he died. That’s the worst part of it for us, we enjoyed him. He was our friend and he died. He went in a bad way and he’s getting brutalized for it. He’s paying for it more than you or me or anybody.
This police chief in LA put this huge poster up where John died—of dead bodies in a morgue and a big fat body under a sheet saying, “Cocaine is a killer.” Right where he died, intentionally, very willfully, very maliciously. I wanted to set fire to that thing. I wanted to blow it up.
John Belushi’s life was a hard life. He had a lot of fun and he made a lot people laugh and he did a lot of nice things for people. I mean, when he was coked up he was a horrible asshole, there is no question about it. But when you’re friends with somebody, you’re friends. You don’t just write them off; even when they’re dead.
You read Wired [Bob Woodward’s book about Belushi] and you’ll find that the people who were not John’s friends sold him down the river. Those are the people in Wired, and a lot of them were far more serious drug abusers than John. I couldn’t believe it when I read some of that. I only read about six pages and it turned my stomach. Once again it was the third string. The creeps, the jerks, the suckers talking about a life they are not qualified to speak of.
IA: Was Woodward sniffing around? Did you know that book was coming?
BM: I knew it was coming. The wife actually urged people to talk to him. I wouldn’t talk to him. See, there’s a problem with John Belushi. The problem is that John Belushi is the second most famous personality to come from Wheaton, Illinois. The most famous person was Red Grange, the football player, and the third most famous person to come from Wheaton, Illinois, is Bob Woodward.
All Wired did for me was make me think Nixon must have gotten really fucked over. It really made me feel sorry for Nixon, who I never felt any pity for whatsoever. Talk about the third stringers, talk about not knowing what it’s like to be John Belushi. How about not knowing what it’s like to be President of the United States. You know. This guy last week in the paper was talking about LBJ being paranoid. Well, the guy had the job before him got three bullets in the head. How would you feel?
IA: To get back on track…
BM: The Belushi stuff gets me going (laughs). Talking about it in the past week has got me going again. I think it’s got to lie fallow for a few years before anybody can touch it again.
IA: I wanted to ask you about Razor’s Edge, which everyone refers to as you “serious movie.” Wasn’t it made before Ghostbusters?
BM: It was part of a deal with Ghostbusters. I was trying to get it made at Columbia, but they didn’t have much interest in it. I figured they would trade something.
IA: What drew you to the character in Razor’s Edge?
BM: I had gone through that kind of period myself. I had gone through some kind of spiritual change in the late 1970s, where I sort of saw that there was some other life to live. I’m not living it now, but I know that there is a different level to live on and it changed the way I work, my acting style.
That’s the reason I’m not the one that’s dead. I really think if I hadn’t found something, I’d be dead. The attraction of the fast life is very powerful. Even today I could go at any time. And I’m aware of that. You can be this dude walking down the street and end up handcuffed to a bed in New Jersey before you know. And I caution anybody who walks out on the street to settle your accounts before you leave the house, every day. It’s not just show-biz people.
IA: How about Scrooged? It took a while. How did it come together?
BM: Yeah, it’s been around for a while. We almost did it two Christmases ago. I asked Sidney [Pollack] to direct it. I knew it had to have a certain look, I knew it had to be somebody who could handle a big movie. I don’t really know that many people who can do both. So I asked him. He said okay and we started working on the script.
The more we worked on the script the more dead rotting flesh fell from it, until we were left with just a skeleton. And that was just four weeks before we were going to start. We were left with nothing. We could have only shot a couple of scenes, and this was just before Christmas.
I knew I was in the lurch. I would have had another year without a movie. So I asked Sidney to come on as executive producer and help get the script together. He said okay. He worked on the script with myself and Michael O’Donoghue, and he got Elaine May, his friend. We got Richard Donner, the guy who did the first Superman, to direct it.
IA: It seems to have all the right ingredients—Bill Murray in a modern retelling of the Scrooge story.
BM: There were some disagreements about the tone of it. But there’s really some great stuff in it. It’s a movie that’s emotional without being sentimental. It’s really going to kill people.
IA: So this is going to be a big Christmas release? They are really going to push this thing.
BM: Yeah, you’ll be sick of it probably.
IA: Before a film comes out, do you suffer anxiety from it?
BM: I’ve had great anxiety about this film. The director and I had two different senses of humor. Mine is one that would consider funny, his is one I would consider at a later date. We had disagreements. We basically shot two movies and the first cut was his movie. There was kind of a conversation about it.
IA: Was there any blood shed? Did objects fly through the air?
BM: You know the smell of bone burning, burning cartilage and bone. That’s what happened after that conversation. But I wasn’t the only one having the conversation. Fortunately, there were people more influential than myself in the conversation. Your readers shouldn’t hear these stories. But, hey, there’s going to be a movie there and there wasn’t once.
IA: Sounds like a sure thing, unless something drastically wrong was done along with way.
BM: It as done, but it’s been repaired. There was some major, major work done on this thing. It’s now like a metal airplane. You don’t know why it flies, but it flies.
IA: The Spruce Goose.
BM: It is the Spruce Goose. Exactly. It’s a huge wooden airplane that flies. It only has to fly once—Christmas season, 1988. That’s it. ♦