The Many Faces of Bill

Long the king of deadpan wit, Murray proves to be the undisputed master of comedic strife with his role in The Life Aquatic

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On film sets Murray's dedication to an inner code of ethics--and his demand that others follow it--has earned him a reputation for being difficult. (During the making of Charlie's Angels, he and Lucy Liu engaged in a feud over creative differences, reportedly causing production to shut down for a day.) For someone who has built his life around the idea of team play and who continually mocks all pretense to self-importance, difficult is a word that cuts deep. "If it keeps obnoxious people away, that's fine," he says defensively. "It makes me think of that line--you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. People say this to you with a straight face, and I always say, 'Who. Wants. Flies?'" A moment passes, and Murray changes his tone. "Oh, difficult. You know, difficult. Well, I have this avenging-angel side, and it is not always a good thing."

Murray, who grew up in a blue-collar family, suggests that his outbursts are generally spurred by a still fiery sense of class resentment and empathy for the underdog. On the set of his new film for Jarmusch, Murray got into a fracas with the location manager when he arrived at a rented house for a scene with child actors and discovered that there was no heat. When he started a fire in the fireplace, the location manager told him to stop. "'Who are you?'" Murray says, whispering, as he recalls the story, in the same intimidating hush he used at the time. "She said, 'I'm locations.' I said, 'Well, if locations had done their job and made sure it was warm enough for these people, we wouldn't be lighting a fire in the fireplace.'" But at the wrap party, Murray approached the woman again. "I said, 'You know, we had our moment, and I don't apologize for that for a second.'" But she had excelled at other aspects of her job, and Murray told her so. "I wanted to let her know I could see it both ways."

"He's not malicious," says Harold Ramis, who directed Murray in Caddyshack and Groundhog Day. "He's just a ronin or a samurai in his commitment to no existing authority. I don't know what the standard is he's upholding, but when someone is acting outside of it, he will do whatever he feels is necessary to bring them into line." Ramis continues, "But it's also very hard being the kind of star he is. Few scripts are perfect, and every movie Bill's been in, he's put on his shoulders and made infinitely better. That's an incredible burden on his creativity and leadership, but he's so suspicious and his standards are so high that he allows very few people to help carry the weight."

Ramis counts himself among the excluded. Despite also working as co-stars in Stripes and both Ghostbusters movies, the two haven't spoken in 12 years. Ramis claims he no longer recalls what precipitated the silence, and Murray says only, "We had a falling out." Nevertheless, Ramis requests, "If you could please attach the words 'he said affectionately' to every quote of mine, I'd really appreciate it because I had and have great affection for Bill. It goes unexpressed and unconsummated at this point, but I'd love to do something with him again."

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