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He's his own handler

Bill Murray should sell noogies, the kind he used to give Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live, back when boyfriends _ even caricature boyfriends _ were more goofy. Form a line, wait your turn. He'll just put you in a headlock and . . . bliss.

There's still another reason to adore him just a tiny bit more: The man does not have his own publicist. Here is what you must do if you need to ask Murray to be in your movie, or play a round of charity golf or sit still for a press interview: You call a 1-800 number. You leave a voice mail. He does not always check these messages. (And return the calls? Not so much.)

This is unthinkable in Hollywood. No publicist? No staff?

"Nothing. No one," huffs an exasperated, disbelieving Touchstone/Disney publicist for the movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which opened last weekend. Murray stars as a kind of Jacques Cousteau adventurer in a coolly absurd Mediterranean meditation on midlife crisis. It's a larky Moby-Dick-type thing, with Speedos and scuba tanks, and old David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese.

When it comes to all these marketing people who whine that he's hard to wrangle, "They just smell a big fish," Murray says, with a dismissive wave. "They can't stand the idea that someone could get along in life without having a publicist, and they'd all like to have the job."

He sees himself simply as a suburban businessman, husband and father who occasionally makes movies. Sometimes these are classy, independent movies drizzled in critical drool, for which he is paid far less than his customary $8-million or $9-million fee, and sometimes not, as when he provided the lead voice in last summer's shameful but more personally profitable Garfield. Why pay a publicist to make his life hell, to always be calling him on the phone with a new schedule?

Murray has walked out of the Ritz at Battery Park on a recent, brisk Monday afternoon, with vague ideas about when _ or if _ he's coming back, leaving behind a group of peevish reporters who are waiting for strictly parceled-out private interviews with a man who doesn't like giving them. A schedule is falling apart. Frazzled studio publicists are waving around clipboards and talking into headsets. The actor, 54, was last seen wearing black Ugg-ish boots, faded blue jeans and a black T-shirt with the Blues Brothers logo on it.

How wonderfully Bill Murray of Bill Murray to act like this.

How lovable, how hangdog _ and also how (bleep) you.

This is exactly the quality that director Sofia Coppola wanted when she begged Murray (for years, the legend goes) to play Bob Harris in her film Lost in Translation: The melancholic edge to his unpredictably manic riffing was allowed to simmer and congeal in his portrayal of an aging star trapped in the antiseptic luxury and weirdness of Tokyo. There were strange moments of self-promotion and fawning admirers, much like in his own life.

"I kind of feel like there are some moments and things I know about (Murray), even things that are in this new movie, things about him I know that I'm not real excited to share with the rest of the world," says Wes Anderson, who directed The Life Aquatic.

"Whatever Bill has, whatever his kind of combination and the sense of humor and sadness about him, whatever that is, it's just about right for me," Anderson says. The director cast him in 1998's Rushmore as an unhappy millionaire who falls in a sort of sublime love with a private-school teacher. Early on, Murray's character climbs a diving board during a suburban backyard pool party, wearing baggy Budweiser swim trunks, and performs a forlorn cannonball, and nobody at the party seems to care. It was a darkly comic moment in Anderson's particular brand of joyous ennui, and it felt like a second take on the film life of Bill Murray.

Anderson used him again, in less quantity, in 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, as a middle-aged therapist who's been jilted by his depressed, playwright wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). While filming that movie, Anderson began talking to Murray about a favorite recurring idea _ something having to do with Cousteau's undersea world, something that would feel Frenchy and, of course, weird. It would be about larger themes of self and loss, a man on the brink of both ruin and personal discovery.

"I was thinking about who else could have played (Steve Zissou), and I was also thinking about who else could have played his part in Lost in Translation," Anderson says. "And there aren't that many people, but one thing I did think about was Brando. Brando at the same age Bill is now would have been great at both roles."

Murray won a Golden Globe for Lost in Translation last January. Fans of that movie are still reeling from the subtle heartache of his twofer karaoke renditions of Roxy Music's More Than This and Elvis Costello's (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding _ such modern pathos, the washed-up and exhausted, fragile quality of a star's life.

But Murray's pre-eminence these days isn't all about art houses, and the odd cult status he's discovered there. It's also about the Bill Murray that men everywhere identify with, deeply, and revere as a role model, and thus honor him by still doing beery, crooked-jawed routines from Stripes and Meatballs and Caddyshack. There's a Greenskeeper Carl and a Nick the Lounge Singer in every American male now, courtesy of Murray. It apparently comes bundled with the standard software.

It's about the Bill Murray who starred in 1993's Groundhog Day and has since seen that film take on a long and profitable afterlife as, of all things, a teaching tool. In varying interpretations, Zenmeisters and megachurch preachers and Catholic laity have proffered Groundhog Day as a parable for life. Corporate trainers use it as a feel-good way to impart business philosophies. People who won't give a whit about The Life Aquatic and thought Lost in Translation was slow and pointless will just as easily expound on how Groundhog Day changed their lives, improved their sales, helped them fine-tune their backswing.

Away from the Sofia Coppolas and Wes Andersons (and the role he'll play in the next Jim Jarmusch film), this other Bill Murray, with family, opened golf-themed Murray Bros. Caddyshack restaurants (motto: "Eat, Drink and Be Murray") in St. Augustine, Orlando and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Murray also wrote a golf-related memoir, Cinderella Story, five years ago. He has invested in a handful of minor-league baseball teams. His six sons all got names befitting ballplayers or class clowns, themselves a farm team: Homer, 22, and Luke, 19, with his first wife, Mickey Kelley; with his second wife, Jennifer Butler, there's Jackson, 11; Cal, 9; Cooper, 8; and Lincoln, 3.

He is still your dream of a goofy brother-in-law, part of a big Catholic family that screams a lot and laughs a lot. Bill is one of eight Murray children from suburban Chicago; his brothers Joel Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray are also actors, attending and honoring the traditions and dogmas of the Second City improv troupe the way other families send their boys to Notre Dame. One of Murray's sisters went another direction and became a Dominican nun. He went to Loyola, the Jesuit high school in his home town of Wilmette, Ill., and spent a year at Regis College (another Jesuit-run institution in Denver) before he dropped out and fell in with the cult of improv. He filled the empty spot on Saturday Night Live left by Chevy Chase in 1977; it was the first time someone replaced a cast member, and so naturally people thought he was terrible: awkward, unfunny, acerbic and strangely acne-scarred.

He's back now, a couple hours after he disappeared.

Sitting on a butter-colored sofa, playing nice _ friendly and avuncular, but so ready to have this over with. Bill isn't a bastard. He's sleepy, and runs his meaty paw all over his forehead and face after a long yawn. "Let's do it," he says, and your heart sort of sinks as you realize we aren't going to do "it" at all _ that the questions probably don't interest him and that our allotted time has been shaved to comparably nothing.

Then again, all anyone wants to do with Murray now is be trapped in a hotel.

So let's try.

We talk with Murray about fatherhood. In the new movie, Steve Zissou is confronted by a man who may or may not be his son, played by Owen Wilson. Murray doesn't see much in the way of his own experience as a father coming into his performance. "I never really think about parts that way," he says.

We talk about nuns. We talk about the Catholic Church's views on divorce. "I never understood it," he says.

We talk about how hard he worked _ physically _ on The Life Aquatic. His physical appearance in the film is enthrallingly middle-aged: He is tanned, broad-torsoed and Hemingway-bearded. ("He does grow a great beard," Anderson remarks. "And I think he got real strong for this movie, like physically strong.") Anderson told him it would take three months to complete shooting off the coast of Italy. It wound up taking five, and carved sorely into Murray's family life. "We get out there and they said, "It could take into January,' and it did, and it was just brutal. I mean, it was long for me, but brutal for my wife, who has the kids." Murray was miserable, and says he's never been away from home that long.

What's made him happy, lately?

"I went to the reunion of my grade school graduating class," Murray says. "Not the high school reunion, which is a whole different thing, but grade school. St. Joe's. These are the people that I was a little kid with. And nothing's really changed. You go and you really feel happy to have grown up and be alive and you really feel just completely like yourself. That was one of the greatest times I've ever had, seriously, just being with those people again. Not talking about work or anything. Talking about our kids"