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Triumph of the Bill

Wild man Bill Murray -- He may be difficult to work with, but the ''Groundhog Day'' star is riding high on the silver screen

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Triumph of the Bill

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It's 9:30 in the morning and Bill Murray is already running half an hour late. He enters Coogie's, a spankingly bright Malibu, Calif., breakfast place, wearing a pink felt bowler that seems like something out of Alice in Wonderland. He looks tired as he calls for ''a barrel of coffee,'' cold cereal, and sliced bananas. At 9:45, midway through his meal, he realizes — he was given a schedule the night before — that he's running dangerously behind: It's Super Bowl Sunday, and Murray is slated to cohost MTV's live pregame ''tailgate party'' from outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. We dash for the limo. ''We're due in 45 minutes and it'll take an hour to get there,'' he shouts to Joe, the driver. ''I know you can do it.'' As the car peels out of the mall parking lot, Murray says, ''We have an MTV pass so we're above the law. Oh, boy, from this point on, it's a rally.''

Leafing distractedly through a Sports Illustrated Super Bowl issue, Murray warms up his voice with a series of exercises that includes a lot of humming and yawning. ''I've got to come up with an angle for this,'' he says, leaning over to borrow some lip balm. ''Do you have an angle?'' By 10 minutes to airtime, we've found the Super Bowl grounds, but the MTV trailer is nowhere in sight and our driver seems lost. Murray slips into a sarcastic play-by-play. ''We're back by the Frito truck, vendors only. This looks as good a place as any.'' He's beginning to sweat. We pull up into parking area D at six minutes and counting. He spots MTV's temporary headquarters, runs to a briefing in the producer's trailer, then to the makeshift stage. With a minute to go, the crowd is shouting Murray's name. Someone requests ''Brandy,'' and, in his best lounge-singer baritone, he launches into the 1972 Looking Glass hit. ''There's a port in a western bay '' Three...two...one...he's on the air.

It can't be easy being this guy. ''Bill prefers a challenge. He'd rather come in with seconds left on the clock,'' says Harold Ramis, a longtime friend of Murray's and director of his new comedy, Groundhog Day, which has made $43.5 million since opening Feb. 12. Ivan Reitman, who has directed the actor four times (including in the two Ghostbusters films), recalls that Murray didn't commit to doing Reitman's summer-camp comedy, Meatballs, until the third day of filming. ''If there's no drama, he'll create one for you,'' Ramis goes on. ''He likes walking to the edge, and to get to the edge means pushing everyone else there. He has two modes: sleep and overstimulation.''

It can't be easy working with this guy either. He's smart. He adores mischief. He has strong feelings about the way things should be done and stronger feelings about people who don't do them that way. And he's almost always late. The Murray lore is studded with stories of exasperating behavior: the cliff-hanger arrivals, the run-ins with directors, costars, and studio functionaries. When Sony, Columbia's parent company, sent a jet to fly Murray cross-country to the Groundhog Day press junket, he kept the plane waiting four hours, arriving at the last possible moment before the jet had to depart.

But those who have been able to hang on for the ride — and that includes many directors, costars, and studio functionaries — speak of Murray in the kind of tones usually reserved for leaders of charismatic cults. ''I love Bill Murray,'' Ramis says unabashedly. ''Billy is brilliant,'' says What About Bob? director Frank Oz. ''I trust him, whatever it is that is Billy in him.'' For Murray's believers, the success of Groundhog Day and his acclaimed performance in the just-released Mad Dog and Glory have been vindication that their faith was not misplaced. After eight post-Ghostbusters years of films with erratic box office performance, Murray is back, smiling his off-kilter smile from the dead center of the movie mainstream.

In Groundhog Day, he plays a self-important weatherman dispatched with a producer and cameraman (Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott) to cover the annual groundhog festivities in the sleepy burg of Punxsutawney, Pa. Once there, he discovers he's trapped in a kind of temporal tape loop, repeating the same day over and over. In real life, probably the closest the 42-year-old actor will come to that experience is at his movie's press junket. For seven hours, during the course of 40 separate TV interviews, he sits in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, getting his graying hair tousled, his makeup retouched, and responding to what seem to be the same three questions repeated endlessly:

How did you prepare for your role as a weatherman?

''I just watched the weather. You know, I've been a weather watcher for years.''

''I watch the Weather Channel all the time; there's this guy from Wisconsin who's almost my personal savior.''

''I went outside every day and guessed what was going to happen when I got there.''

Did it hurt when Andie MacDowell slapped you?

''That's what she does best. She's an action actress.''

''She's combat-trained. Our government trained her. What she did over there is CIA crack company black-bag work.''

''Did you get that question from the Columbia School of Journalism?''

Imagine you had one day of your life to live over. What would you do?

''I know I would take a shower.''

''I'm not just gonna lose weight and floss, I'm gonna live.''

''I'll still be practicing golf. This nuclear-war stuff is not gonna change my day.''

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