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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After graduation, Murray briefly studied pre-med at Regis College in Denver before running out of money, drifting back to Chicago and landing at the improvisational comedy troupe Second City, where his gifts for performance and his nascent moral code merged into the beginnings of the person he is today. "He had a very special talent," recalls Josephine Forsberg, Murray's first improv teacher. "He could project the good part of himself, the part that is optimistic and charming, onto an audience. His darker side he'd show in private, but never onstage. But what I really loved about Billy was that he supported everybody so well."

Second City's first law was that onstage its performers should avoid tension and strive for harmony. "You're supposed to make your fellow actors look good," says Ramis, also an early Second City star. "Bill internalized that ethic more than most. Belushi would come out, and the audience would laugh before he opened his mouth, but then he'd go into an extended character thing that would make the other actors feel superfluous. Bill got other people involved. He had energy, integrity. He was fascinating to watch."

And sometimes scary to watch. Murray was known to go into the audience and rough up customers he felt were not paying proper respect to his fellow actors. "At Second City we were taught that the audience were these wild electrons out there," says Murray. "It was important to please them, but we also had to control them. I mean, when you're actors on a stage, it's you against the world. It's not the audience's show. It's yours."

After he was hired to replace Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, Murray made a name for himself with affectionate renderings of sleazeball characters like Nick, the world's ickiest lounge singer. (His greatest hit was a rendition of the Star Wars theme: "Starrrr Wars! Nothing but Starrrr Wars! Gimme those Starrrr Wars! Don't let them end!") And, as usual, he took it upon himself to stand up for the rest of the cast. When Chase returned to be host of the show in its third season, Murray decked him when tension between Chase and regular cast members came to a head. "Chevy had talent," Murray says. "But we came from that Second City thing of you make the other person look good. Meanwhile, he played himself in sketches all the time."

Murray left Saturday Night Live in 1980 to become a star in Stripes and a phenomenon in Ghostbusters, movies in which he improvised much of his dialogue. Summarizing these early performances, film critic Pauline Kael wrote that Murray's "patent insincerity makes him the perfect emblematic hero for the stoned era." For a man who wanted to be emblematic of nothing and beholden to no one, Murray must have sensed that he was losing control of what he was trying to project. So, he had agreed to do Ghostbusters only if the studio, Columbia, would finance a remake of the 1946 drama The Razor's Edge with him as the lead. The move paid dividends later, but when The Razor's Edge was first released, Murray took a critical beating. "It's sort of a classic thing where people say, 'Well, now I'm going to do something serious,'" says Murray. "If I did it now, I'd do it differently. But I don't regret it."

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