Forget Robert De Niro. Never mind Kevin Spacey. Don’t even think about Denzel Washington. Can it be possible that the greatest actor in the world is: Bill Murray?
That’s the fact, Jack!
Or at least that’s the argument made by Robert Schnakenberg, author of The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray: A Critical Appreciation of the World’s Finest Actor (Quirk Books, September 15), an exhaustive, encyclopedic devotional to Murray, his career and his life. Spanning the early days of Murray’s debut on Saturday Night Live to his current role as showbiz and cultural icon (after all, he’s done Hamlet, Charlie’s Angels, the voice of Garfield the cat, and played President Franklin D. Roosevelt), the book is part critical analysis, part biography, part love letter — and all Murray, all the time.
Despite his lofty place in the American consciousness, “we know very little about the real Bill Murray,” writes Schnackenberg. “Like Lewis Carroll’s elusive Snark, his true nature remains shrouded in mystery. Saturday Night Live’s Tom Schiller likened him to a Buddhist trickster figure, a reincarnated peripatetic monk who uses humor to awaken and enlighten.”
In addition to his many and varied film appearances, the book examines Murray’s near-urban legendary existence as a modern-day comic sprite. “There are websites devoted to chronicling Murray’s sudden appearances—from sandlot kickball games to drunken bachelor parties—and entire Twitter accounts made up of impromptu photographs taken with him in airport lounges, hotel lobbies and minor-league baseball stadiums,” Schnackenberg writes. “It’s hard to imagine a time when he was a famous actor and not the world’s most celebrated gatecrasher.”
That showbiz career, of course, was launched on Saturday Night Live in 1977, when Murray was the mustachioed replacement for the departed Chevy Chase. His characters became legendary, from the sleazy lounge singer (“Star Wars! Nothing but Staaaaar Wars!”) to the host of the Mexican game show ¿Quien es Mas Mas Macho? to the Earl of Sandwich in the “Lord and Lady Douchebag” sketch to his turn as Weekend Update’s co-anchor. “It was so goofy, that show,” said Murray in one of the many interviews of the actor quoted in the book. “You could say or do anything you like in the name of entertainment. I was water-skiing behind some very powerful animals.”
After leaving SNL, Murray became one of Hollywood’s most successful and sought-after comedic actors, starring in such popular vehicles as Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984). Later, though, with mind-bending lead roles in films such as Groundhog Day (1993) and Lost in Translation (2003), and memorable supporting turns in movies including The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Murray would prove himself as something more than just a silly face, but as an actor with some serious chops.
The book, however, gives us more than merely a glimpse inside Murray’s career. What does he think of the Marx Brothers? Or of Totie Fields? Or Pope John XXIII? What happened when he fell in love for the first time at age 12? (“She was in love with another guy . . . it baffled me that you could love someone so much and not get it back.”) It’s all in the book.
And the book might be the closest we ever come to understanding the true nature of “the Murricane,” as he’s called by his intimates, a man who pops up with glee like some kind of comedic gopher on the golf course of popular culture. Schnakenberg interviewed more than dozen of Murry’s colleagues and associates in composing The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray. “For the record, no one I spoke with had an unkind word to say about Bill,” Schnakenberg writes. “As a matter of fact, time and time again, the portrait his friends painted looked an awful lot like the image of Bill Murray we know from the photo-bombs: the rumpled, wisecracking rapscallion with an impish gleam in his eye. The guy whose bear hugs and bawdy jokes enliven any party he deigns to crash.”
If you’re a Murray fan, this book may be the closest you’ll get to knowing him personally—until he actually does crash your party. And we’re not saying that that’s going to happen. But it’s always a possibility.