The last time I met Bill Murray things got rather physical rather quickly. It was the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscars party and I was about to leave, bloated with celebrity sightings and starting to suffer from indigestion. But as I walked out I saw a man arrive who made me turn around and go right back in.
By now, Bill Murray has long bypassed mere celebrity status to become something close to a spiritual symbol, a guru of zen, and his frequent appearances among the masses (in a karaoke bar! In a couple’s engagement photo!) are reported on the internet with the excitement of sightings of the messiah. Ever since his pitch perfect performances in 90s classics Groundhog Day and Rushmore, he has enjoyed a career renaissance, shucking off his well-hewn 80s comedy persona to become one of the most delightful dramatic actors around in films such as Lost in Translation and The Royal Tenenbaums. But to me, he will always be the wisecracking rumpled cynic he played in the early comedies I grew up with: Scrooged, Stripes, Tootsie, Meatballs and, of course, Ghostbusters. Watching him stride past was like watching my childhood walk by. I failed to play it cool.
“Oh, there, there, nobody’s perfect,” he bellowed. “Come here, you look ill.”
He then picked me up and, while giving me an enormous bear hug, swung me around the room.
“This woman’s very ill! She needs a doctor! She’s ill!” he shouted.
Eventually he put me down, rumpled my hair and disappeared into the party. As I walked towards the bar for a steadying drink, I thought how my encounter with Murray had felt weird, unforgettable, unique and surprisingly aggressive. Just like, in fact, the 30-year-old comedy performances I still love him for.
That’s my Murray story. By now, many people have Murray stories because Murray has turned being famous into a kind of performance art. Instead of locking himself away in a mega mansion in Malibu or the Hamptons with a team of stylists and social media brand managers, like other celebrities, he roams the world dressed like he got into a fight with a laundry basket and lost, surprising the heck out of people and doing whatever he likes, because he can. Forty-five years into his career, 67 years into life, Murray still seems to find being Murray absolutely hilarious.
“I’m not [acting like this] for the purpose of being exciting – I do it because it’s fun. If there’s life happening and you run from it, you’re not doing the world a favour. You have to engage,” he tells me on Thursday morning, this time through the safely distancing medium of a telephone.
This is true. One of my favourite Murray stories comes from long ago, before his every move was accompanied by millions of camera phones, threatening to reduce his freewheeling ways to performance or shtick. It was the early 80s and Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd and Ivan Reitman were sweating over their film project about a bunch of guys who fight ghosts in New York. This movie would make Murray the megastar he still is, but they were having trouble locking him down to look at the script. Finally, Ramis and Reitman went to the airport when they knew he would be there to force him to read what they had done.