MURRAY KEEPS US GUESSING, LAUGHING

Great. As if Michael Jordan wasn’t enough, now we’ve got to deal with Bill Murray? That’s right. Bill Murray. The actor. The comedian. Mr. Ghostbuster himself . . .

A Bulls fan?

He told me so. The other day. Said he might just show up at a Detroit-Chicago playoff game, ready to taunt the Pistons. “Maybe I’ll wear one of those Bill Laimbeer masks,” he said. “You know, I heard Laimbeer never really suffered a cheek injury. He’s just having his face lifted. It’s true. He’s getting redone so he can do TV work when he’s finished with basketball.”

Let me tell you how I came to talk with Murray, the wisecracking former
“Saturday Night Live” cast member who is now the only movie star that a hippie and a yuppie can agree on. He was in New York. I was in Detroit. And we were speaking through a satellite TV screen. He could see me. I could see him. I am not making this up. Someone once wrote that as long as Bill Murray is on the screen, rolling his eyes and looking for the meaning of life, the ’60s are not dead. But this was definitely the ’90s. I sat in a studio and suddenly, like Captain Kirk, Murray appeared on the screen, slumped behind a desk, wearing pink shorts and a white sweatshirt. He looked like a beach bum who had wandered into a lawyer’s office to collect his inheritance.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Bill. What’s your name?”

“Mitch. From Detroit. How about those Pistons?”

Murray grinned. “My Chicago boy, Mark Aguirre, helping you guys out.”

“Isiah Thomas is from Chicago, too.”

“Yeah,” Murray said, “but we don’t claim him. He’s too weird . . . “

Now. I want to state right here that I have never before had a conversation with a major appliance. But Murray could make me do it. I would talk to him through a TV screen. I would talk to him through a wall. I have been watching his work for years, and I think he is a unique figure in American entertainment — a bridge for people who want to enjoy pop culture but don’t want to feel like morons. You can catch Murray, even in a blockbuster movie, and still feel cool. He’s like an FM radio station that never got too big.

Not many actors, for example, can star in a typically silly Army comedy, yet have a line such as this: “Chicks dig me, because I rarely wear underwear, and when I do, it’s often something unusual . . . ” Not many actors can star in a typically silly supernatural comedy, yet approach a female ghost this way: “Excuse me? Miss? Where are you from . . . originally?”

Not many actors can portray Hunter S. Thompson.

Murray has. I like watching him on screen. He kind of slides along, shoulders slumped, belly out, his arms and legs too stiff, as if someone had been tightening the screws that attach them. And then there is that look. A vacant stare, big eyes, tight lips, the perfect set-up for . . . what? Sarcasm? Tenderness? Insanity? That’s the thing about Murray. You never know what’s coming. Funny? Poignant? Or both? In his newest film, “What About Bob?”, he plays a obsessive psychiatric patient who follows his analyst on vacation. In one scene, the analyst, played by Richard Dreyfuss, asks why Murray’s marriage fell apart.

“There are two kinds of people in the world,” Murray sighs. “Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t . . . ” He’s a good sport

Murray grew up in Chicago — which explains his Bulls loyalty, as well as his obsession with Cubs baseball. He goes to Wrigley Field. He has a son named Homer Banks Murray (named after Cubs great Ernie Banks). He even did a guest stint once as Cubs broadcaster during a game. (“This umpire is terrible!” Murray moaned. “Somebody find out what hotel this guy’s staying at
. . . “)

Personally, I always thought Murray would make a good sports writer. He’s got the unshaven look, the messed-up hair, the deadbeat sense of humor. He’s got the clothes.

I told him that. About the clothes. And I thought I upset him. He stared at me, his eyes narrowed. He grumbled, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

And then he laughed. And he stood up to show me his pink shorts. “You’re right. I do have the clothes. Take a look at these, huh? Tell me these wouldn’t get you into the Super Bowl pre-game party.”

Murray is a great kidder, maybe the best in the world. He could kid his way past a Russian border guard. He could kid his way onto the space shuttle. He could be talking to the Queen of England, then suddenly grab her by the head and say “Queenie. Honey. Loosen up. Here are those noogies you ordered last Christmas . . . “

I asked Murray whether he ever has a problem being taken seriously.

“Don’t you?” he asked.

“Well, I . . . uh . . . “

“No,” he continued, “actually, I have tremendous problem with that. People think I’m kidding all the time. All day long. I just got finished working with a director who never knew if I was kidding. I made this guy cry a few times. And I was kidding. I said, ‘Don’t cry. Don’t you remember? I did this joke two days ago . . . ‘

“People who know me know when I’m kidding, like my family. I come from a big family, and they all know when– Wait. I take that back. There are two oddballs in our family. They don’t know when you’re kidding. This one brother, I love this story, I was talking to him on the telephone, we were talking about nothing, really, and all of a sudden, he says, ‘I got that, by the way.’ “

Murray laughed. “Whooooa! I don’t know what the hell he was talking about! I didn’t say anything funny or gettable at all. But he got it.”

Of course, Murray should be used to people seeing more there than he intended. He is the only actor on the planet who routinely has his lines quoted and requoted by American males aged 25 to 40. Good Lord. Nearly every sports fan in America seems to do an imitation of Murray as the rumpled greens keeper in “Caddyshack” who plays an imaginary round of golf in the flower bed:

“Cinderella story . . . former greens keeper, about to win the Masters, the crowd is going wild . . . OOOH! He got all of that one, he has to be happy with that . . . “

“If I hear that one more time,” I said to Murray, “I’m gonna vomit.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“No, I mean, you must hear it, too. What lines do people recite when they come up to you?”

“Well, that’s a big one. And then there’s ‘I want to party with you, cowboy,’ which is something I said in ‘Stripes’ after a guy told a story about making love to a cow. And there’s ‘That’s a fact, Jack!’ People are always yelling that at me from truck windows . . . “

Murray, those people should know, is not only a collection of lines. He takes the craft of acting more seriously than you’d figure. Surely you recall Murray’s years on “Saturday Night Live’ and all his diverse characters, including the nerd with the pants hitched up above his waist (“Helloooo, Mrs. Loopner”) and the celebrity reporter (“Liz, honey, we love you, don’t ever change . . . “) and the oily lounge singer (“Star Waaaars! Nothing but Staaaar Wars! Everybody, sing along! . . .” ).

But if you ask Murray for the best character he ever did on that show, he’ll choose a part that lasted all of four seconds. “I played this dumb actor

in a sketch in which John Belushi was the star. He was this famous stunt man, and I was the actor he was replacing. I do a scene where I’m about to fall off a fire escape, and they yell CUT! And Belushi comes in to fall something like, I don’t know, 18 inches. And he gets hurt. They have all these props, with his name on it and everything, and it’s just this tiny little fall . . .

“Anyhow, they ask me, the dumb actor, if I can find my way back to my trailer. And I go (long pause . . . ) ‘Yeah. . . . I think I can.’ That was the best thing I’ve ever done on TV. It was just this one moment, but I was trying a new kind of acting at that point, going from this straight manic stuff I’d always done to something different, where I was messing with the timing a little, using my body in a different way. It was scary, like changing your golf swing. Like going from briefs to boxers. But I did it. I went (long pause . . .) ‘Yeah . . . I think I can.’ ”

He smiled. “Best thing I’ve ever done.”

Hmmm.

So Murray is not just a kook. Someone once described him as “a cross between Harpo Marx and Clark Gable.” That’s not bad. You do believe it when he plays the clown. But you also believe it when pretty girls fall in love with him. In “Stripes,” he seduces a female army officer by tickling her with a spatula. “Your problem,” he tells her, poking her like a pancake, “is that no one has ever given you the Aunt Jemima treatment . . . “

And yes, you do believe it when Murray plays a nut. In this new movie, he walks around with a goldfish around his neck, saying things like “I need, I need, I neeeeed!” And yet by the end of the film, you love him. And you hate the analyst. Murray himself is not all that big on psychiatry:

“Most of the people I know who have gone through therapy, they genuinely need help, but they go to someone who reinforces the way they’re already living. That is totally baffling to me. It’s like ‘That’s you! You’re supposed to annoy people! You’re just being you! That’s you!’ It’s like people say ‘My shrink says it’s OK that I’m a bulimic.’ I mean, I don’t get it.’

The truth is, Murray has too much sense to be crazy. That is his gift.

Now, if we could only straighten him out on this Pistons thing.

“Bull Pride, Bull Power,” he said deadpan, and he made a fist. Then he looked over, and saw the people in New York telling him to end the interview.

“They say I gotta go,” he said.

I told him thanks.

“Good luck,” he said. “And as far as the Pistons, uh, maybe we’ll see you in the World Series.”

And he disappeared.

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

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