Born in Evanston, Illinois in 1950 and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, one of eight children in his Irish Catholic family, Bill Murray had been a stage performer since he was in high school, where his biggest claim to fame was probably being the lead singer of a rock band. But he was also occasionally a troublemaker (to the surprise of absolutely zero Bill Murray fans). He even once got arrested for trying to smuggle pot through an airport in the seventies, but luckily for him, his older brother Brian Murray (later known as the actor Brian Doyle-Murray) invited Bill to come with him to join Chicago improv troupe The Second City, where many of the most famous comedians and actors would get their start. Brian and Bill both got their feet in the door after Second City, with the two brothers being hired to write and perform for the radio comedy show The National Lampoon Radio Hour, based on humor magazine the National Lampoon and created by National Lampoon writer Michael O’Donoghue.
That show, which first aired in 1973 and was recorded at the National Lampoon headquarters in New York City, featured such comedians as John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis as regular cast members. The sense of humor of that show’s comedy sketches was just as edgy and shocking as the jokes in the National Lampoon magazine, which may have been the reason why advertisers stayed so far away and why the show got cancelled before the decade even ended. Fortunately many of the writers and performers who worked on that show would end up on Saturday Night Live, which premiered on NBC in 1975 and became a mega hit. Murray wouldn’t join the cast until the second season in 1977 after Chevy Chase departed, and Murray stayed on SNL for three seasons until 1980.
Murray rose to stardom pretty quickly, with his first lead film role being Tripper Harrison the summer camp counselor in the 1979 comedy hit Meatballs directed by Ivan Reitman, which was followed by a string of hits in the 1980s, including Caddyshack (1980) written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis and National Lampoon co-founder Douglas Kenney, directed by Ramis and starring Bill Murray as country club groundskeeper Carl Spackler opposite Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Ted Knight.
Other hits include the war comedy Stripes (1981) directed by Ivan Reitman, Tootsie (1982) in which Murray played the roommate of Dustin Hoffman’s failed actor Michael Dorsey, and most famously Ghostbusters (1984) starring Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman, a role initially intended for John Belushi by writer and co-star Dan Aykroyd before Belushi died in 1982. Murray was actually working on his own film for Columbia Pictures at the same time, an adaptation of the novel A Razor’s Edge which Murray co-wrote the screenplay for and was intended to be his first big dramatic role. Murray only agreed to star in Ghostbusters to help finance The Razor’s Edge. Fortunately Ghostbusters turned out to be a huge box office success and a cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately The Razor’s Edge, which came out the same year, bombed. The frustration of that film’s failure caused Murray to take a break from acting in the mid-eighties (to spend time with his family, travel Europe and study history and philosophy), although he occasionally returned to the screen for a cameo such as in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), and before the decade ended he officially returned to the screen with the hit comedies Scrooged (1988) and Ghostbusters II (1989).
In the nineties, Murray found success reuniting with Little Shop of Horrors director Frank Oz for the comedy What About Bob? (1991) in which he played a mentally unstable patient opposite Richard Dreyfuss’s psychotherapist, and he had another box office hit with Harold Ramis’s fantasy comedy Groundhog Day (1993) in which Murray plays a cynical weatherman forced to relive the same day over and over again. Other well-received films include Mad Dog and Glory (1993) co-starring Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman, Tim Burton’s critically acclaimed Ed Wood (1994) featuring Murray as Ed’s drag queen friend Bunny Breckinridge, the Farrelly Brothers’ bowling comedy Kingpin (1996), live-action/animated sci-fi comedy Space Jam (1996) and neo-noir thriller Wild Things (1998).
It was beginning in the late nineties and into the 2000s when Murray stepped into the independent film scene a lot more frequently, collaborating regularly with film director Wes Anderson who first cast Murray in the 1998 indie darling Rushmore in a role that earned praise from various critics circles alongside Jason Schwartzman (in his film debut) and Olivia Williams. Murray would continue working with Wes Anderson on many highly regarded films including The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Isle of Dogs (2018) and The French Dispatch (2021).
Murray also starred in Sofia Coppola’s romantic slice-of-life film Lost in Translation (2003) as a movie star with a fading career having a midlife crisis in Tokyo opposite Scarlett Johansson. Murray stated it was his favorite film he ever worked on, and his role earned him recognition from the Golden Globes, the BAFTAS and Film Independent. In addition to Anderson and Coppola, Murray also frequently collaborated with director Jim Jarmusch in such films as Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control (2009) and The Dead Don’t Die (2019), he earned acclaim as a funeral parlor owner opposite Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek in Get Low (2009), portrayed Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012), went to war alongside George Clooney in The Monuments Men (2014), played a grumpy Vietnam War vet in St. Vincent (2014) opposite Melissa McCarthy, voiced Baloo the bear in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) and reunited with Sofia Coppola as art-dealing playboy Felix Keane in the A24 film On the Rocks (2020) opposite Rashida Jones as his daughter. So Murray’s pallette was clearly eclectic.
Despite being a huge movie star and a popular American celebrity, Murray has a reputation for being very detached from the Hollywood scene because he has no agent, no manager and fields all his offers through a personal phone number that he pretty much only checks if he feels like it, so getting ahold of him for a film role is tough, although Murray simply states that all you really need is a good script to get him interested (except for that time he agreed to voice Garfield in that 2004 film adaptation when he mistook the film’s co-writer Joel Cohen for one of the Coen Brothers).
The actor with a reputation for being a lone wolf is also wolf-like in ways that are less eccentric and more disturbing. It has been confirmed by many of his co-stars and co-workers that Murray is not only difficult to work with sometimes but he has been accused of inappropriate behavior on film sets too. For example: mood swings, verbal abuse and even physical altercations. He got into a fight with Chevy Chase backstage at Saturday Night Live, he didn’t get along with his co-star Richard Dreyfuss or Scrooged director Richard Donner, he had a falling out with Harold Ramis over creative differences on Groundhog Day (Ramis wanted a rom-com, Murray wanted something deeper) that resulted in Murray constantly disregarding Ramis’s direction, and most shockingly he was said to have harassed Geena Davis during the filming of Quick Change (1990) and lost his temper towards Lucy Liu on the set of Charlie’s Angels (2000). Murray often downplays the seriousness of these complaints but I’m obviously wont to believe there’s a pattern here. So far his career hasn’t been completely damaged by these stories but notably, following unspecified inappropriate behavior accusations on the set of an upcoming film called Being Mortal, Searchlight Pictures decided to suspend that film’s production entirely. Will that experience, and the fact that Murray paid the female production assistant he offended $100,000 lead to Murray changing his behavior? I’m a cynic when it comes to expecting Hollywood to hold inappropriate behavior accountable but we’ll see. I’ve always loved Murray’s screen persona as a troublemaker but not so much that I want him to bring that persona into the real world.
A deadpan smart aleck personality and a Bugs Bunny-like disrespect for authority figures has gained Bill Murray a large fan base among audiences in the eighties but also a lot of respect from film aficionados for his incredible acting and natural comedic and dramatic ability, so I would hate to see him squander his talents.