At the 2004 Golden Globe Awards, Bill Murray announced to the world that he wasn’t going to live by Hollywood’s rules anymore. “You can all relax; I fired my agents a couple of months ago,” he said as he accepted the trophy for best actor in a comedy for his poignant performance in Lost in Translation. “I would thank the people at Universal and Focus, except there’s so many people trying to take credit for this, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
The room tittered, but like much of Murray’s jaded humor, his quips were rooted in truth. Murray recently had parted ways with his agents, and since he’s never bothered with a publicist, his announcement had the immediate effect of putting everyone he’d ever worked with in the unexpected position of gatekeeper — or keymaster — to Murray himself. “His philosophy is: They’ll find me,” says Mitch Glazer, who met Murray through John Belushi in 1978 and co-wrote 1988’s Scrooged for him. “And I go, ‘Yeah, they’ll find you — through me! Because they’re calling me at home!’ I’m like an unpaid manager. Often, it’s a filmmaker who I’ve been dying to talk to, and I get excited. Then I hear, ‘Hey, this is kind of awkward, but people say you’re the guy….”
Since going guerrilla, Murray, 59, has made do with a 1-800 number (featuring a disappointingly dull automated recording) that he checks sporadically. Or not. “Getting in touch with Bill Murray remains one of life’s greatest mysteries,” says Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Show With David Letterman, where Murray has appeared 21 times. “The plus/minus on that return call can be anywhere from 24 hours to six months. That’s just how it is.”
Two years ago, producer Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition) thought Murray would be perfect to play a sly undertaker in his upcoming film Get Low, a low-budget indie about an old coot, played by Robert Duvall, who plans a “funeral party” for himself while still very much alive. (The film comes out July 30.) Zanuck, the 37-year-old son of producer Richard Zanuck (Jaws), called Murray’s longtime legal rep, a Los Angeles attorney named David Nochimson, and asked, “How do I get in the Bill Murray business?” Nochimson replied somewhat sympathetically, “Well… you don’t, really.” It was Zanuck’s first step down the rabbit hole.
The funny thing about Murray’s elusiveness — or the frustrating thing, if you’re the one trying to track him down — is that the actor is hardly a hermit. He hides in plain sight. There he is, sinking a putt at Pebble Beach. There he is, driving a golf cart through the streets of Stockholm. There he is, rooting for his beloved Cubs at Wrigley Field, or tending bar in Austin, or reading Emily Dickinson poems to beefy New York construction workers. “Belushi was unbelievably brave on stage, but Bill took that [fearlessness] everywhere, in the streets and in personal contact with other people,” says Harold Ramis, who collaborated with Murray on the comedies that cemented the Murray persona in the 1980s, including Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. “He was always unexpected. Where anyone else would go subtle, he would go huge. And where anyone else would go big, he would go very subtle.”
A younger generation of directors found integrity in Murray’s characters, and his aloofness seems only to have heightened their desire to cast him in their passion projects over the last dozen years. Through sheer persistence, Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola successfully landed the actor for their offbeat indies Rushmore and Lost in Translation — and actually helped him achieve new depth and pathos in his work. But even Anderson and Coppola bear scars. Anderson whiffed in his attempts to snag Murray for his first film, 1996’s Bottle Rocket. And as Coppola learned, the moment when you finally think you have Murray can be the most traumatic. After eight months of pursuing him for Lost in Translation, Coppola was afraid that he had abandoned her. “They had been shooting for a week or so in Tokyo, and Sofia called me, I thought, to tell me how great things were,” remembers Glazer, who was ultimately responsible for connecting the young director with Murray. “But she said, ‘Um, have you heard from Bill?’ And I said, ‘Isn’t he there?’ She said, ‘Well, no. He’s supposed to show tomorrow and we haven’t heard, and we’ve shot everything we could without him.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God. He is a bear!”’
Most recently, it was Get Low producer Zanuck feeling the pressure. Though Nochimson had told him that connecting with Murray was virtually hopeless — especially since the actor was going through his second divorce — the lawyer did offer to forward his client a one-page synopsis. Dejected and desperate, Zanuck sent it off and practically forgot about it. So he was stunned a couple of weeks later when Murray himself left a message on his office answering machine asking for a full screenplay. Zanuck’s team was giddy. “Everybody huddled around the phone, and we played it over and over to confirm that it was him,” recalls Zanuck. “He didn’t leave a number, of course. Just a P.O. box.”
A few weeks after Zanuck sent the script, Murray called again, and this time, the two discussed golf, baseball, family, life, and finally, Get Low. Murray seemed enthused about the possibility of joining the production and even asked for director Aaron Schneider’s phone number. When Zanuck hung up the phone, “It was kind of like, Holy s–t, we might actually get Bill Murray!” And then… silence.
“I slept with the phone near my bed for five or six weeks, but the call never came,” says Schneider. Zanuck, however, had already started hinting to potential investors that Murray was interested, and one even offered up $5.5 million, the majority of the film’s $7 million budget, for Murray’s and Duvall’s names on a contract. “It became a Bill-or-bust scenario, because we were now incorporating ‘Bill’s asked to see the script’ into our pitch,” says Zanuck. “If Bill didn’t happen, it might’ve torpedoed the whole project.”
Zanuck persuaded Schneider to write Murray a note, the details of which he wouldn’t even share with his producer. “It was a very difficult letter to put together,” says Schneider. ”I finally just took a deep breath and wrote from the heart.” Later, Nochimson told Zanuck, “I don’t know what it was, but your director wrote a letter that really impressed Bill.” All Zanuck needed now was Murray’s signature on the dotted line.