You could say he’s the most present person in the acting industry.
He never tries to alter himself for the situation – he’s absolutely in his shoes.
And if we could each do that ten percent more in our lives, we’d be better and cooler people for it.
Bill Murray may be secretly teaching us how to live.
And in the book the Tao of Bill Murray we find out why that is.
Since I young age, being born into a family of nine kids Bill was always looking for ways to gain attention from his parents.
One memory from his childhood was when he tried to do an impersonation of an actor while standing on his chair at the dinner table, falling off and smacking his head on the table leg.
Through tears, he saw his father laughing and the pain seemed worth it.
Bill then figured out early that a surefire way of doing silly and crazy stuff was sure to make his father laugh.
During his college years Bill was bright but he had always been an indifferent student. He wasn’t really college material, always dressing differently to anyone else sometimes wearing pyjamas and a sport coat to school and pyjamas and loafers to formal events.
Bill always considered himself one of the first hip dressers for that matter.
After college he drifted from one odd job to the next: landscaping, surveying, hauling concrete blocks eventually hanging around the legendary second city theatre in Chicago where he joined a comedy troupe and eventually having the nerve to audition.
His mentor and acting coach Del Close taught Bill to be fearless about failing onstage: you’ve gotta go out there and improvise and you’ve gotta be completely unafraid to die. You’ve got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots.
Bill’s one simple acting lesson at Second City was this: if you make the other actors look good, you’ll look good.
He wrote scripted sketches and flailed through bad improvisations but soon enough emerged as a Second City star, known for a wide range of characters. When he began to perform on stage in front of an audience there seemed to be a dangerous streak to him where some evenings he would jump into the crowd and physically assault the hecklers.
Sometimes he would not bother showing up until literally minutes before the show started just to raise the bar and see how far he could push his tolerance for stress.
One acting colleague of his during those days said that there’s a charming assholeness to Bill and it’s how he really got through life. But asshole in the sense of old fashioned asshole. Like a jerk willing to make a fool of himself and there’s something admirable about that and there’s something that makes you want to push somebody like that.
Eventually Bill moved on to work at NBC’s Saturday Night Live but as the junior member. The writers were coming up with sketches for the established actors, not him, so Bill was spending his Saturday nights filling out the ensemble as the second cop or the second FBI man, trying to make impression beyond the disgruntled guy with acne scars.
During one of the shows Bill made an appeal to the audience as he spoke directly to the camera saying he doesn’t think he’s making it on the show and that all his eight siblings are vying for him to make it and it’s no concern for the audience whether or not his family needs the money he makes.
He went on to mention how his father had died when he was seventeen and people always said that Bill would never grow up to be as funny as his dad and that now he’s not around to see him be not as funny as him.
After that sketch, Bill got more of the spotlight on the show and began to perform in more primary characters who displayed insincerity.
After five seasons on SNL he felt burned out by the pace of live TV and was eager to follow in the footsteps of his comrades Dan Ackryod and James Belushi who performed in the Hollywood hit The Blue Brothers.
He went on to star in Meatballs and thereof followed a string of hits in the early eighties including Caddyshack, Stripes and of course Ghostbusters.
Bill developed an onscreen persona of the wiseass slacker who gets the girl. And he also developed an offscreen persona of the actor who shows up late and throws away the script, only to improvise the best scene in the movie.
Ivan Reitman, the director for Ghostbusters said that Bill would always hate doing the same punch line more than once or twice, unless he knew it was so great he had to have it there, and then he would keep spinning it different ways to make it better.
In later film projects Bill demonstrated that he had aptitude as a dramatic actor and was able to tackle roles that demanded more of him than just sarcasm and wisecracking.
At one point Bill realised that with the level of fame he had it could be destructive and therefore went to another country in order to hold on to what he valued in himself.
Moving to Paris for a while he attended the Sorbonne where he studied French and philosophy and was exposed to teachings for the Harmonious Development of Man exhausting the tenet and belief system that most people, even as they lead their waking lives, are actually asleep on the inside.
Taking the teaching to heart, Bill started waking people up.
Over the next decade, when he got back to Hollywood, Bill made the obligatory Ghostbusters sequel and a full range of high concept comedies like Groundhog Day, Scrooged and What About Bob?
He also directed a movie Quick Change only to decide that directing was too much work.
Later on Wes Anderson, who had grown up watching Bill Murray movies, had written a script that showed how a smart aleck young man could grow into a world weary middle aged man. Bill made that movie, Rushmore and delivered a wry, truthful performance as love smitten industrialist Herman Blume. That film redefined his career and kicked off a long term collaboration with Andreson and opened the door to working with a variety of other cool independent minded directors including Jim Jarmusch in Broken Flowers and Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation.
He is the only actor I know who doesn’t have a manager or an agent or even a publicist and has come up with a new procedure if one wanted to pitch him a movie project and didn’t already have a personal relationship with him: you could call a 1 800 number, leave a message and hope he listens to it and likes what you have to offer.
Bill’s inaccessibility has meant that he’s missed out on starring roles in many great movies, including some that he might have wanted to be in if the filmmakers had been able to track him down. But he doesn’t care.
I just really only want to work when I want to work. Is his answer. Life is really hard and it’s the only one you have. I like doing what I do, and I know I’m supposed to do it, but I don’t have anything to bring to it if I don’t live my life.
Bill says that he wants to bounce off people that are positive and hope that that will make him more positive and give him momentum. He said that he’s the best version of himself when he is working. By really getting into his work, the non essential stuff drops away.
He likes to compare acting and athletics. Both professions require grace under pressure, which comes from a strong internal sense of timing and balance.
Someone once told him a secret about living – you can do the very best you can when you’re very very relaxed. And that’s sort of why he got into acting. He realised the more fun he had, the better he did.
The attention to details is one of his strengths, as an artist and as a human being – he notices the small differences that make up our world. He believes that when one becomes an adult and get to pick their pleasures, they should be worth picking.
Danny Rubin the screenwriter of Groundhog Day has a theory about Bill believing that they way he walks into a room and shakes things up has less to do with his desire to be the centre of attention and more to create a playful atmosphere in which to dwell.
Bill isn’t just a clown. He has a tao, a way of being, a philosophy of life. He is extremely generous of spirit but on his own terms.
He lives life to his standard, even though sometimes he’s lazy and sometimes he’s eccentric and he can be frustrating to other creative people and unfair because everything has to go on his clock. But he’s worth it.
If making movies brings out the best aspect of Bill then his ongoing adventures with the public can be considered an effort to make real life more like the movies.
Even though his fame grew with the years he’s always looked for the path that would let him engage with the world, not confine him to a golden box.
He engages in public antics with the hope that it’s going to wake him up. And if he sees someone that’s out cold on their feet then he’s going to try and wake that person up. It’s what he’d want someone to do for him: wake him the hell up.
A large portion of Bills appeal comes from the feeling that we’re watching him play – if we know he’s working, its not much fun.
Bill is so full of fun, it brightens up the holiday, said Sofia Coppola when directing him in Lost in Translation. Everyone is happy when they see him and he knows how to bring joy.