At a recent press event for the indie film Get Low, two members of the cast Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek were good-naturedly trading stories about craft and character in a conference room at Los Angeles' Four Seasons Hotel. Despite the considerable star power, though, something was missing: the third and arguably most intriguing wheel in Get Low's acting triumvirate, Bill Murray.
"I don't know where he is today," said Duvall at one point. "He didn't show up in L.A."
Not showing up to a film's press day is normally an inexcusable Hollywood faux pas punishable by severe tabloid headlines. But in Murray's case, the absence was met with shrugs. For producers, co-stars and the gathered members of the media, it was another case of "Bill being Bill."
Indeed, Murray not only missed the Four Seasons press event, but the television interviews the day before as well as the film's Hollywood premiere. Right up until the Four Seasons event began, anxious p.r. people half-expected Murray to suddenly saunter into the room. When a film representative finally announced, "Mr. Murray will not be attending," there wasn't even a glimpse of surprise from the gathered journalists and when director Aaron Schneider later referred to Murray's on-set joie de vivre by simply saying, "Bill is Bill," it drew an unexpected laugh. Murray keeps a schedule that could be charitably described as mercurial: he's largely inaccessible to all but his trusted associates, and insists that most inquiries be filed in the form of a message on his personal 800 number (or in some, lucky cases, through his lawyer). But because his legend is built not so much on inaccessibility as it is on unpredictability, his appearances and grand-scale absences make news.
All things considered, Bill being Bill will draw far more attention to Get Low than whatever the film's frugal marketing budget can command. "I cannot help but think of the boost [Murray] can bring to this film," producer Dean Zanuck tells TIME. "He adds a whole other dimension, crosses every generation. I don't know if there's a single other actor that could give that fine a performance onscreen but also capture the attention of filmgoers."
Murray seems more media savvy than publicity shy: a week before ditching his L.A. events, he appeared on Late Show with David Letterman to take a swim in a water-filled Dumpster a well-publicized stunt that arguably did more to market the film than a day of interviews would. (He then proceeded to leave Duvall and Spacek hanging at a New York City event that night, possibly due to a minor head injury sustained in the Dumpster dive.) But his devotion to the project, Zanuck insists, is for real: Murray attended five film festivals to support the film, even hobbling through the icy streets of Park City, Utah, on an injured knee for its Sundance screening. "It was a pain in the ass uphill, downhill, snow. But he grinded it out," says Zanuck.
Ordinarily, Murray's appearances are so rare that when he does allow himself to be interviewed, it becomes an event in itself: his sit-down with GQ editor Dan Fierman for the magazine's August issue was so noteworthy that AOL's Entertainment site ran a breathless comment from Fierman about the experience ("Sitting across from Bill Murray was basically the most terrifying, wonderful thing I have ever done in my career," he said. "The man is an American treasure, and I still can't believe I met him.")
Murray's impetuous behavior goes back to the early days of his film career. Cindy Morgan, who played Lacey Underall in the 1980 film Caddyshack, recalls having a bad day on the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., set. That night, she says, Murray knocked on her door, asking simply, "Do you want to get out of here?"
"I woke up the next morning on a nude beach in Jupiter, Fla.," she says, laughing.
Murray's quirky dealings with the media have only grown in time. Luke Wilson, who co-starred with Murray in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, recalls Murray having a more "traditional approach" to his p.r. work back then. "But you forget that he's been in the business for over 30 years. So I can see him getting a little tired," says Wilson. "He probably doesn't want to go on Entertainment Tonight."
Regarding the stories that have emerged since then about Murray's working without an agent and through an 800 number, Wilson says with a chuckle, "I hear that and think, This guy is a genius. There's really no one else like him."
To get Murray on board for Get Low, the filmmakers had to send materials to a post office box and wait to see if the actor would respond. Schneider says that after Murray expressed interest in the script during a phone conversation, "we jumped up and down and sent the script to this P.O. box. And then we thought, Now what?" It took several weeks of old-fashioned written correspondence, followed by random calls from Murray, to finally land him.
The filmmakers insist that once Murray was on board, he was a dream actor to work with. He even gamely took up publicity assignments that few actors would consider. Last fall, Murray spent the Thanksgiving holiday with Zanuck and Schneider promoting Get Low at a film festival in Lodz, Poland, at which Murray took the stage during one event to present an award for a short film. "Before the introduction, he said to the crowd in perfect Polish, 'I love you, may I borrow some money?' " says Zanuck. "It brought the house down." Murray followed up with a road trip to Warsaw, where he and Zanuck attended a stranger's house party and sat in the front row of a Polish fashion show. "With Bill, you never know where you are going to end up," says Zanuck. "You come to expect the unexpected."
So when that means another event cancellation with no explanation and no recourse (without an agent or manager, there is no one to crack the whip in crisis moments), there is simply acceptance and continued gratitude even when the stakes are high for an independent film that needs every bit of p.r. help it can get.
"Bill leads an improvisational life," says Zanuck with a slight smile. "I respect him for it."