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.”
As an actor two time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman has created some indelible characters—Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo and Tootsie to name a couple—but from an early age he dreamed of being a professional pianist.
“I wanted to be a musician but I was never talented enough,” he says, “so I’m not a musician. I have small hands—and by the way there is no correlation to your hands and personal parts—so I can’t reach much more than an octave.”
In the new film Boychoir he shows his musical side playing a choirmaster to a group of talented youngsters. During the film’s making he tinkled the ivories on screen and off, spending his downtime duetting with director François Girard.
“As far as François and I noodling on the piano,” he says, “I would have preferred it was only me. He was busy lining up the shots, but he did noodle, so there was a bit of competitive noodling.”
As a young man he studied classical piano but when it became apparent he’d never turn pro, he tried his hand at acting. “I had been flunking out of junior college and somebody said, ‘Try acting. Nobody flunks acting.’”
Enrolling at the Pasadena Playhouse, he shared a room with Robert Duvall and studied with Gene Hackman.
“No one told me I was a good actor,” he says. “No one told Gene and there was a third person, Duvall, and we hung out together. They are both much, much older than me. If someone was to say to the three of us in those early days that we were going to be successful, forget about being movie stars, everyone would have laughed. It’s kind of a freak accident that it happened to all three of us.”
Hoffman’s big break came in the form of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Robert Redford was considered for the part but director Mike Nichols rejected the traditionally handsome actor—“ You can’t play it,” he told Redford. “You can never play a loser.”—in favour of the unknown Hoffman. The Graduate made him a star and is now considered a classic, but almost fifty years later he remembers how the critics savaged his performance.
The barbs hurt at the time, but he doesn’t let them get under his skin any more. “Critics are… I shouldn’t say,” he laughs, “I don’t know if anyone grows up saying, ‘When I grow up I want to be a critic.’”
On Sept. 5, the Reel Guys will be wearing our matching glow-in-the-dark Dr. Venkman khaki T-shirts to celebrate TIFF’s Bill Murray Day. Beginning at 10 a.m., the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto will feature free screenings of Stripes, Groundhog Day and, everybody’s favourite, Ghostbusters, in advance of the world premier of Murray’s new movie St. Vincent. “I’m a nut,” Murray says, “but not just a nut.” His movies, which range from nutty comedies to dramas and everything in between, show his range. Today, as we celebrate the genius that is Bill Murray, the Reel Guys select a few must-sees.
Richard: Mark, I feel happy just knowing that I live in the same world as Bill Murray. I’ve never met him, but his very existence and the existence of films like Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Lost in Translation and any of his movies with Wes Anderson make my world a better place.
If I had to choose one little-seen Murray movie to tout, it would be Where the Buffalo Roam — his take on the life of the high priest of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not a great film, but it’s worth it to hear Murray say the famous line, “I hate to advocate drugs or liquor, violence, insanity to anyone, but, in my case, it worked.”
Mark: Richard, here’s my pick for a little-known film starring Murray: The Razor’s Edge. At the height of Murray’s first round of fame, he managed to miscast himself in a Somerset Maugham costume drama about a man’s search for spirituality.
His acting style is completely at odds with the rest of the material, as he’s playing the part as a louche 19th-century wiseass. And you know what? I love it!
Also from this time period, the mid-’80s, is the underrated Scrooged, a great retelling of A Christmas Carol. Traditionalists who fondly remember Alistair Sims would be aghast, but Murray really knows how to shake off the cobwebs and make the movie funny and oddly touching.
RC: Have you seen Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson? He plays Franklin D. Roosevelt and he gives the kind of effortless performance that made me wonder what might have happened to his career if The Razor’s Edge hadn’t been such a flop, forcing him back into comedy. But he can switch back and forth easily.
The same year he played an undertaker in Get Low, he also played an exaggerated version of himself as a man who plays at being a zombie during the apocalypse so he can continue playing golf unbothered by the undead in Zombieland.
It’s a surreal cameo that, like most of Murray’s appearances, is worth the price of admission.
MB: There may be bad movies that Bill Murray is in but there are no bad Bill Murray movies. He consistently rises above the material. But when the script is top-notch, there is no beating him.
I’m thinking here of Groundhog Day — one of the best and smartest comedies of the past 30 years.
He takes a clever idea and turns it into something transcendent, even philosophical. Great movie, great performance.
RC: In the transcendent and philosophical pile, I’d throw in Broken Flowers, where Murray plays a man on a journey to reconnect with all the women he knew before he became a burned-out Don Juan.
Ebert gave this four out of four stars; I give it five out of four. It’s that good.
MB: Yes, a great role for him. But consider this: his supporting role in Tootsie, where he nearly steals scenes from the great Dustin Hoffman.