The Life, Work & Philosophy of Bill Murray: Happy 70th Birthday to an American Comedy Icon

Image by Gage Skid­more, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“Bill Mur­ray is to me what cal­cu­la­tors are to math,” Jason Schwartz­man once said of his esteemed col­league. “I nev­er knew math before cal­cu­la­tors, and I nev­er knew life before Bill Mur­ray.” Hav­ing been born in the 1980s, a decade Mur­ray entered already well-known after three ear­ly sea­sons of Sat­ur­day Night Live, I could say the same. Through char­ac­ters like Nick the lounge singer and half a nerd cou­ple with Gil­da Rad­ner, Mur­ray estab­lished him­self on that show as a goof­ball, but a goof­ball of a high­er order. As the 80s got into full swing, Mur­ray got into the movies, and ever more promi­nent roles in the likes of Cad­dyshackStripes, and Ghost­busters assured him a per­ma­nent place in the pan­theon of Amer­i­can com­e­dy.

For those who cared to look, there has long been evi­dence of con­cen­trat­ed thought and feel­ing behind the dead­pan impul­sive­ness of Mur­ray’s onscreen per­sona: his sup­port­ing turn as Dustin Hoff­man’s lemon-eat­ing play­wright room­mate in Toot­sie, his pas­sion-project adap­ta­tion of Som­er­set Maugh­am’s The Razor’s Edge, his post-Ghost­busters escape to the Sor­bonne.

It was in Paris that Mur­ray stud­ied the work of the Gre­co-Armen­ian Sufi mys­tic G.I. Gur­d­ji­eff, who describes a path to enlight­en­ment called “the way of the sly man,” one who makes max­i­mum use of “the world, the self, and the self that is observ­ing every­thing.” This con­cept, accord­ing to the Wise­crack video above, has become inte­gral to Mur­ray’s dis­tinc­tive way of not just act­ing, but being.

That counts as just one of the the­o­ries advanced over the decades to explain the curi­ous phe­nom­e­non of Bill Mur­ray. The man has also been called upon to explain it him­self now and again, as when an inter­view­er at the Toron­to Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val asked what it feels like to be him. His response takes the audi­ence into a guid­ed med­i­ta­tion meant to make every­one lis­ten­ing under­stand how it feels to be them­selves, right here, right now.

Main­tain­ing this sense of the moment, as Mur­ray lat­er explained to Char­lie Rose, is one of the goals of his own life — and pre­sum­ably not an easy goal to achieve for some­one who’s been so famous for so long, a con­di­tion he address­es in the 1988 inter­view ani­mat­ed for Blank on Blank below. “I’m just an obnox­ious guy who can make it appear charm­ing,” he says in sum­ma­tion of his appeal. “That’s what they pay me to do.”

That same year, they paid him $6 mil­lion for his role in Scrooged (play­ing, inci­den­tal­ly, the most obnox­ious char­ac­ter of his career). He’d already been cau­tioned against the dan­gers of such rapid­ly acquired wealth and fame by the fate of his fel­low Chicagoan and SNL alum­nus John Belushi, who by that time had already been dead for five years. Mur­ray had also, he says, under­gone a “spir­i­tu­al change” that showed him “there was some oth­er life to live. It changed the way that I worked,” giv­ing every­thing “a dif­fer­ent pres­ence, a dif­fer­ent ten­sion.” Onscreen, this change cul­mi­nat­ed in the roles he took on after putting broad come­dies behind him begin­ning with 1999’s Rush­more, the break­out fea­ture by an up-and-com­ing direc­tor named Wes Ander­son.

Cast­ing Mur­ray oppo­site the teenage Schwartz­man, Rush­more showed that he could be more affect­ing — and indeed fun­nier — in minor emo­tion­al keys. A few years lat­er, Sofia Cop­po­la’s Lost in Trans­la­tion took him to Japan, where he drew an Acad­e­my Award nom­i­na­tion with his per­for­mance from the depths of cul­tur­al and per­son­al dis­ori­en­ta­tion. Today, on Mur­ray’s 70th birth­day, his fans impa­tient­ly await his appear­ances in Ander­son­’s The Paris Dis­patch and Cop­po­la’s On the Rocks, both of which come out next month. Hav­ing long since become an insti­tu­tion (albeit an insis­tent­ly uncon­ven­tion­al and unpre­dictable one) unto him­self, Mur­ray can sure­ly look to the heav­ens and say what, with unchar­ac­ter­is­tic earnest­ness, he told his SNL audi­ence he want­ed to say 33 years ago: “Dad, I did it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bill Mur­ray Explains How He Pulled Him­self Out of a Deep, Last­ing Funk: He Took Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice & Lis­tened to the Music of John Prine

Bill Mur­ray Reads the Poet­ry of Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, Wal­lace Stevens, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Bil­ly Collins, Lorine Niedeck­er, Lucille Clifton & More

Bill Mur­ray Explains How a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Paint­ing Saved His Life

Art Exhib­it on Bill Mur­ray Opens in the UK

Watch Bill Mur­ray Per­form a Satir­i­cal Anti-Tech­nol­o­gy Rant (1982)

Watch Dan Aykroyd & Bill Mur­ray Goof Off in a New­ly Unearthed Ghost­busters Pro­mo­tion­al Film (1984)

Lis­ten to Bill Mur­ray Lead a Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion on How It Feels to Be Bill Mur­ray

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Brian says:

    Mur­ray is best known for his cut­ting dead­pan, and the most Bill Mur­ray line ever came not in one of his com­ic works but in a back­stage alter­ca­tion he had with Chevy Chase, whom he had replaced on SNL and who was back to do a guest host spot on the show.

    As the two were being sep­a­rat­ed by Bil­l’s broth­er Bri­an Doyle Mur­ray, Bill looked Chevy right in the face and gave him per­haps the worst insult he could as a come­di­an: “medi­um tal­ent!”

  • Ericcc says:

    Most in my cir­cles know that meet­ing him is on the buck­et list. His pop in unex­pect­ed to so many events big n small make him seem so acces­si­ble. He has bought fail­ing sports teams n sup­port­ed their rise. When some­one says “Bill Mur­ray was in town” you just shrug your shoul­ders as its just a piece of Amer­i­can­na. A trea­sure! (he has no agent? con­firm?)

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