A few years ago, Bill Murray attended a concert in New York City's Central Park. When the show ended, Murray walked east toward his car. By the time he reached the parking garage, 50 people were dodging traffic to keep up with him. "What's amazing was that Bill was interacting with all of them," says Wes Anderson, Murray's director on three movies, including his latest, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. "He was leading this hilarious roving mass conversation. It was like street theater. I can't think of anybody else who would a) inspire people to walk with him for 14 blocks and b) find a way to make it a participatory experience."
Murray, 54, usually attracts a crowd when he's out in public, and he admits that he is probably at his funniest and often at his happiest in the spontaneous moments when he is reacting to people reacting to him. "There's a lot of goodwill out there," says Murray. "Sometimes I walk down the street, and I feel like the mayor of New York. Better. A lot of people don't like the mayor." At the same time, Murray has his limits. "That sweet and generous side of Bill is 100% real," says Dustin Hoffman, who gave Murray his first major dramatic role (over the objections of director Sydney Pollack) in 1982's Tootsie. "But he's a tough, working-class guy, and he has a very strong sense of right and wrong. I don't know how it works, but if you mess with it, well, he would have done very well in Golden Gloves had he chosen to go that route."
All great comedians begin their career leading audiences around by the nose, but over the years, one of two things tends to happen: the comedian either self-destructs (as in the case of Murray's fellow Second City alums John Belushi and Chris Farley) or, worse, the power shifts, and the comedian finds himself chasing after the audience. "There are a lot of people in this field who are extraordinarily needy," says Lorne Michaels, executive producer and a creator of Saturday Night Live. "It's a very hard thing not to give an audience what they want, and it's so easy, so gratifying to give in. But if Bill has neediness in him, he's always kept it a secret. That's why other performers admire him so much. He never gives in."
The wisdom of that strategy has recently become self-evident. While Eddie Murphy toils in kids' movies, Steve Martin keeps remaking his remake of Father of the Bride and Robin Williams plays psychopaths as restitution for the saccharine sins of his Patch Adams period, Murray has not only remained funny but has transcended funny. The man who taught a generation how to rebel with a smirk in Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters has forsaken easy laughs and giant paychecks to play a series of sad, complicated characters like Herman Blume, the lonely industrialist in Anderson's Rushmore; Bob Harris, the fading movie star in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation; and now Steve Zissou, the dreamy, arrogant, incompetent but good-hearted oceanographer in The Life Aquatic. "Before," says Hoffman, "he was masking his depth--or at least shrouding it--with comedy. Now if the comedy isn't there, he allows us to see his nakedness."