It’s been 30 years since Ghostbusters was released and the world still loves everything about Bill Murray.
He’s not just one of the world’s finest comic actors, but he oozes an everyday cool that is uniquely his own. While the success of Ghostbusters was a gamechanger for the comic, today his credibility extends beyond his film work. There’s just something that we love about Bill.
In recent years he has become notorious for intervening in the lives of strangers – crashing student parties in Scotland, asking to join a kickball game in New York or being arrested for driving a golf cart through the streets of Stockholm.
Such is the ubiquity of these encounters, now a whole website is devoted to them. In recent months Murray was one of the only big names to be invited to George Clooney’s wedding in Venice and then went on David Letterman to crack jokes about it.
His greatest legacy
Murray’s regular-guy style carries an integrity which gives his performances depth while also carrying an improviser’s sense of fun and knack for doing whatever the hell he feels like. It’s an instinct that has led to oddball film choices which have deepened and prolonged his appeal.
After starring in over 60 films, he still remains intriguing and weirdly immune to the vagaries of the movie business (even when his films bomb, he carries on).
Murray recently told Variety that fame has never fazed him. He’s the same guy he’s always been. “I was kind of formed early on. People go, ‘Oh you act like that because you’re a big shot’. No, I always acted like a jerk. I come from a big family.”
So how did the off Broadway comedian end up being one of the planet’s coolest people?
In 1978 first-time director Ivan Reitman tried to cast the Saturday Night Live star in summer camp movie Meatballs, but Murray declined, saying he wanted to spend the summer playing golf, which is a lifelong passion.
Reitman recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 2012: “It’s not like he was a big star or anything. He had never been in a movie. He had barely been on television … but he’s always kind of been iconoclastically difficult about agreeing to be in things. And also hard to reach.”
Reitman’s gamble worked. Meatballs was one of the highest-grossing films of 1979. In the following years, Murray honed his style in Stripes, Caddyshack and Tootsie.
It wasn’t until 1984, when Murray and Reitman teamed up again for Ghostbusters that he finally hit the big time. Watching the first edited footage from the film Murray said he instantly “knew he was going to be rich and famous”. He was right. Ghostbusters was a smash recouping over $300 million at the box office.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Murray cemented his reputation as one of America’s best comedic actors starring in mainstream fare such as Scrooged and What About Bob?
The glittering high point of this phase came with 1993’s Groundhog Day, which at first was dismissed as a lightweight frolic but has since grown in stature to be considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Having achieved more success than most actors could dream of, Murray fully distanced himself from Hollywood. He took another sabbatical, fired his agent and set up a 1800 number and answering machine to receive film offers.
Without having anything left to really prove, Murray’s instinct for doing whatever he pleases meant he could take an unexpected left turn that would deepen and prolong his appeal.
By the late 1990s a new generation of independent filmmakers were eager to recruit him to their passion projects.
In 1997, Wes Anderson cast Murray in his second feature, Rushmore, playing a melancholy millionaire who embarks on an unlikely friendship with a 15-year-old boy.
The film would garner Murray a Golden Globe nomination and would kickstart a seven-film collaboration between star and director, including The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Then director Sofia Coppola spent eight months chasing Murray to star in Lost in Translation in a role she had written specifically for him. She also discovered the fraught experience of trying to recruit Murray to your movie: eight days into her production Coppola still didn’t know if Murray was going to show up.
Luckily he did, and her persistence paid off, as Murray gave one of the strongest performances of his career as Bob Harris, a washed-up movie star who strikes up a romantic friendship with lonely newlywed (Scarlett Johansson) in a Tokyo hotel.
Lost In Translation was a critical and commercial smash and Murray received his first ever Oscar nomination.
While most of his comedy contemporaries had drifted into obscurity, Murray suddenly became hip and iconic to a whole new generation, starring in Anderson’s madcap The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers.
Since his indie darling phase, Murray has stepped back from leading roles, preferring cameos and smaller roles in ensembles. But his stature is such that now he occupies a place as an American folk hero.
As for the overall approach to life and his career Murray says: “There’s no real plan. I just do what I like.”
Five essential Murray classics
Groundhog Day (1994)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Bill Murray’s latest film St. Vincent is due for release in Australia on December 26, 2014.