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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Following The Razor's Edge, Murray basically took four years off. He studied French at the Sorbonne, traveled extensively and turned down lots of easy money. He was very happy. "A lot of us work in whatever we can and let the locusts come in and clean our bones," says Aykroyd. "Billy's different. He's off on another kind of journey that people, including me, don't always understand. "

Murray does not like to talk about career plans or personal growth--"Are you trying to make me gag?" he asks--but in the early '90s it became obvious that he was charting a new course and evolving as an actor. "Groundhog Day was a transitional movie," says Ramis. As weatherman Phil Connors, Murray was doomed to relive the same day until he got it right, in the process evolving from a surly (but funny) egoist into a sweet (slightly less funny) human being. "In that role he actually got at the edge between the better, higher, gentler Bill and the bad, cranky, dark Bill," says Ramis. "He figured out how to project the entirety of himself through character. When we were making the film, I'd launch into some explanation of the scene we were about to do, and he'd say, 'Just tell me--good Phil or bad Phil?'"

Throughout the '90s, Murray popped up in small parts in movies as distinct as the raunchy Farrelly brothers' bowling comedy Kingpin, the quirky Tim Burton--directed bio-pic Ed Wood, and Wild Things, a film he succeeded in hijacking despite the heavily marketed presence of a lesbian schoolgirl love scene. The movies were O.K., but Murray was better, and in Rushmore he finally found something worthy of his skill. Anderson conceived the role of the pitiable, contemptible but redeemable Herman Blume specifically for Murray (in part because he loved him in The Razor's Edge). Murray was a revelation as a man fighting off soul death.

The acclaim from Rushmore brought an avalanche of offers, almost all of which Murray ignored. In a typically idiosyncratic move, he decided to go agentless in 1999. (Michael Ovitz represented him until 1995.) He has since replaced a powerful talent agency with an automated voice mailbox. He gives out the 800 number sparingly and monitors the messages from his home overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York. "I check in regularly," he says. But then adds, "Sometimes I don't check in. Things get busy. I got stuff to do. But you just can't have the phone ringing in your house all the time. I like to be accessible, but on my own terms."

In Hollywood, that 800 number is held up as Murray's ultimate declaration of independence. It's also good business. By creating an aura of aggressive indifference, Murray is now extremely well paid for his occasional dalliances in grade-Z films. (See Charlie's Angels and Garfield; better yet, don't.) He has also ensured that people who want to work with him really want to work with him. "I've had people say, 'I need you in this movie. You're the only one who can do it,'" says Murray. "And as soon as you say no, they've moved on to George Chakiris."

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