Who knew back in the ''Caddyshack'' days that the guy who roamed the greens of Bushwood Country Club in search of gophers would one day become Hollywood's most buzzed about Oscar contender? Although many people still think of Bill Murray as the sarcastic goofball of ''Saturday Night Live'' or the lovably insincere guy from such '80s comedy hits as ''Stripes'' and ''Ghostbusters,'' he has quietly morphed into one of today's most sought after serious actors. (Murray's turn as the jaded Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola's ''Lost in Translation'' has insiders whispering ''Best Actor.'') Along the way, he's developed a reputation as something of a mad genius.
The reclusive 53-year-old actor has driven some of Hollywood's top producers and directors to near distraction as they pursue him for their films. Unless you're one of his closest friends, you can't just pick up the phone and reach Bill Murray. Calling his agents at CAA won't help because (a) he just fired them, and (b) they usually didn't know where he was anyway. And don't think just because you have his personal 1-800 number you'll be able to reach him either: Though he checks the messages regularly, he rarely responds.
And Murray is an equal-opportunity evader. Even Sofia Coppola -- aided by her famous friends (Wes Anderson, who directed Murray in ''Rushmore'' and ''The Royal Tenenbaums'') and her more-famous father (Francis Ford Coppola) -- had trouble getting her ''Lost in Translation'' script to the elusive star. ''It was heartbreaking watching her try to get Bill Murray to do it,'' says proud papa Coppola. ''The whole family held their breath hoping for him to respond -- which took months.''
Directors Chris and Paul Weitz (''American Pie'') tried to recruit Murray for their latest project, ''Synergy,'' but moved on after he refused to meet with them and demanded too much money. He was also supposed to star in the coming Christmas movie ''Bad Santa,'' but, according to a source close to the production, ''Everyone eventually lost their patience'' trying to woo the star, and Billy Bob Thornton was cast in the title role instead.
''Bill was always the guy who wasn't afraid to speak his mind,'' says Harold Ramis, who has worked on six films with Murray. That trait caused problems on the set of ''Charlie's Angels'': Lucy Liu became enraged after Murray more than implied that she wasn't in the same league as the rest of the cast.
''Bill approaches the business in his own unconventional way,'' says producer Newman. ''Things like coaching Little League sometimes take priority. One has to work off his schedule, and it can get complicated.'' Ramis found that ''the trick with Bill is not to make agendas. He relaxes when he's not being pressured.'' But ''Translation'' producer Ross Katz says Murray didn't make unusual demands on his set: ''He definitely marches to his own tune, but he's a consummate professional.''
Since 1979, Murray has appeared in nearly three dozen films, twice earning Golden Globe nominations (for ''Ghostbusters'' and ''Rushmore''). Despite standout performances in such well-regarded films as ''Ed Wood'' and ''Groundhog Day,'' he has never received an Oscar nod. ''He's always done work that was special, but it's hard to convince someone of that when you're doing broad comedy,'' says ''Stripes'' director Ivan Reitman. ''Comedy tends to be undervalued.''
Murray's first foray into dramatic territory (''The Razor's Edge'') fell flat with audiences, but they began to accept his serious side once he merged dramatic skills with his comic talent in films like ''Rushmore.'' ''He's a comedic genius but he has soulfulness. In 'Lost in Translation,' Sofia really tapped into that,'' says Katz.
''Don't be fooled by his on-screen attitude,'' cautions director Frank Oz (''What About Bob?''). ''He works hard and cares a great deal. He's not the easy, casual guy he often plays. Like most of us, he's not what he seems.''
What Murray seems right now is red-hot. ''Look at where he is now with 'Lost in Translation' and where the people he started out with [on 'SNL'] are,'' says producer Barry Mendel, a vet of Murray films ''Rushmore'' and ''Tenenbaums.'' ''The proof is where he sits in his career -- at a fantastic place.''
''So,'' as Murray himself might say, ''I've got that going for me -- which is nice.'' (Additional reporting by Karen Valby)