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

Image credit: Doug Pizac/AP Images

After Ghostbusters became a phenomenon — and his first dramatic vehicle, The Razor's Edge, was poorly received — Murray slipped out of the spotlight and moved to France, where he studied philosophy. But his spiritual sabbatical did little to calm what Dan Aykroyd refers to as the Murricane. During the making of 1991's What About Bob?, a disagreement with producer Laura Ziskin resulted in him throwing her into a lake. (Ziskin has said that the toss was ''playful,'' but that other behavior of his was not.) While filming 1993's Groundhog Day, the producers pleaded with him to hire a personal assistant to facilitate better communication between him and the studio. Murray acquiesced, sort of, hiring a deaf-mute who spoke only American Sign Language. Don't worry, Murray taunted the suits, I'm going to learn sign language. ''That's anti-communication,'' says Ramis, who directed that hit, the last of the pair's collaborations. ''You know, Let's not talk.''

There always seemed to be a price to pay for Murray's genius, even if it was worth every penny. ''His [Kingpin] role really wasn't that well written, and on the first day, he looked at the pages and went like, 'Yeah, I get it,''' says Farrelly, who codirected the 1996 Amish bowling comedy. ''He then threw the pages in the air and never said one word that was written for him. In the entire movie! He just made everything up. And it was all better than what we'd written. He made the movie.''

For every happy ending, however, there are scores of Terry Zwigoffs. The director (Crumb) thought he'd landed Murray to star in 2003's Bad Santa only to find that no one could track Murray down to get his name on a contract. ''I was told by one of the producers that he really wanted to do it — just tell him where and when and he'd be there,'' says Zwigoff via e-mail. ''I left several messages on his answering machine, but after a few weeks of hearing nothing, we eventually moved on.'' Billy Bob Thornton took the role instead.

Murray's odd way of doing business has definitely leveled the playing field for filmmakers. In 2007, Dan Beers, who had worked for Wes Anderson during the filming of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, was planning a Web short titled ''Fact Checkers Unit,'' about a dynamic duo of hypervigilant magazine researchers who stalk a celebrity for confirmation of a mundane detail. Beers was hoping Murray would star. After the requisite unreturned phone calls and faxes, Beers bumped into Murray at a Brooklyn gathering of Life Aquatic alums, and Murray agreed to participate in the short. On his designated day of shooting, Murray showed up as promised, filmed for eight hours, and helped the crew schlep equipment. So how does one repay a Hollywood star who transforms a clever $12,000 production into an Internet sensation? Says Beers, ''[Bill] had told my friend, 'Tell Dan, as a gift, he's got to buy me a gun. And she was like, 'He's not buying you a gun!' So he's like, 'All right, then have him get me a knife. I want a really big knife, like something I can tie around my leg.''' Before Murray departed, Beers and the crew presented him with a wrapped gift. Murray graciously accepted it, said, ''Thanks for this,'' and just like that, he and his new 12-inch hunting knife were gone.

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