In the 1950s, author Robert Schnakenberg’s father was the letter carrier who delivered jazz legend Louis Armstrong’s mail. “Louis would say, ‘Hi Mr. Mailman’ and sometimes Louis and his wife would invite my dad in for coffee. That is sort of my claim to fame.”
It also began a career Schnakenberg says involves “lurking around the edges of famous people.” The author of more than a dozen books, including The Encyclopedia Shatnerica and Christopher Walken A-to-Z, Schnakenberg’s latest is The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray, a weighty tome analyzing the life and career of everybody’s favourite Ghostbuster.
“They’re more history books than puff pieces about celebrities,” he says on the line from his Brooklyn home. “I wanted to approach them from a quasi or mock academic perspective and treat them as if they were historic artifacts rather than just pop culture icons.”
Murray was a perfect subject for the pop historian. “I had done two previous A-to-Zs and was looking around for a third person to round out the trilogy. I had visions of a three volume slip case edition in my head.”
Murray fit the criteria. “Who has a long career? Who has left a paper trail of interviews and profiles? Who has an off-camera persona that is just as interesting as what they do onscreen? It just clicked last year. He reached a point of saturation with all these viral videos going around that (the publisher) said, ‘Let’s do the book now.’”
The volume provides an overview of Murray’s long and varied time in the public eye. From critical appreciations of his films, to interesting trivia, The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray spans decades of fascinating behaviour.
“His career provides a lot of entry points for people who want to get into him,” says Schnakenberg. “If you came of age in the ’70s, the way that I did, you remember the Saturday Night Live version of Bill Murray. If you were 13 in 1984 you probably think of him as Ghostbusters Bill Murray. If you were a proto-hipster in the ’90s your image is probably the guy in all the Wes Anderson movies. Now people know him as the dishevelled guy who crashes people’s parties.”
The point is, for almost forty years Bill Murray has been a constant in our lives. “Bill Murray never had to come back because he never went away,” says the author. “He was always cool; just cool in different forms over the years.”
The Chipmunks have done for small striped squirrels what Rin Tin Tin did for German Shepherds. That is, it made the squeaky-voiced rodents big screen stars.
Alvin, Simon and Theodore have been well-known since they topped the music charts with the Witch Doctor’s crazy chorus, Oo-ee, oo-ah-ah, ting-tang, walla-walla, bing-bang in 1958 but their new movies, including this weekend’s The Chipmunks: Chip-wrecked, have turned them into the tiniest celebrities of the 20th century.
The three of them, along with furry actors like Despereaux Tilling, Fievel Mousekewitz and the gang from Once Upon a Forest have sold loads of tickets, but none would have made much of an impression if not for the pioneering work of the world’s most famous rodent, Mickey Mouse.
Created in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Mickey is one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world, rodent or otherwise. He’s an Oscar winner with 175 movies, shorts and video games on his CV; and was the first cartoon character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Mickey’s fame endures, but why? “We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little,” said Walt Disney. “When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human.”
Mickey paved the way for generations of rodent actors.
G-Force is a sci-fi-spy film featuring a specially trained squad of guinea pigs who prevent an evil millionaire from taking over the world.
Who could forget Mr. Gopher, the burrowing terror from Caddyshack? (Did you know the movie’s gopher “voice” is made up of the same dolphin sound effects used on Flipper?)
Or Rizzo the Rat, the streetwise New Jersey puppet from The Muppets Take Manhattan and possibly the only kid’s character named for Enrico (Ratso) Rizzo, a character in the X-rated Midnight Cowboy.
More sinister than Rizzo-despite his X-rated name–is Ben, the story of a boy and his rat. Best known for its Michael Jackson theme song — it’s possibly the only love song to a rat ever released — the movie plays like a Disney movie, if they made a killer rat flick.
In the movie Danny, a bullied boy, befriends Ben, the leader of a swarm of telepathic rats.
When the police use flamethrowers to exterminate the rat pack only Ben survives, saved by his human friend. “I love you Ben,” says Danny. “You’re the only friend I have.”