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Bill Murray: The Curious Case of Hollywood's White Whale

The unpredictable actor gets candid about his lengthy career and the filmmakers who have managed to reel him in

WANTED MAN Bill Murray in 2009
Image credit: Joel Ryan/AP Images
WANTED MAN Bill Murray in 2009

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.''

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