THE STRANGE AND BRIEF TRANSFORMATION OF BILL MURRAY
WITH TEXT FROM SATURDAY NIGHT, Whitmer and Carroll bios
In the late seventies, movie producer Thom Mount bought the
rights to an article of Hunter S. Thompson's, The Banshee
Screams for Buffalo Meat (reprinted in The Great Shark
Hunt ). The article is a long wail by Thompson, wondering
whether or not his friend and attorney
Oscar Zeta Acosta was really alive or dead.
What resulted was Where the Buffalo Roam , a Paramount
movie directed by Art Linson with script help from John Kaye. The soundtrack featured music
from Neil Young and starred Bill Murray as
Hunter S. Thompson and Peter Boyle as Oscar (more on this
At the time of casting, Murray had just started on at
Saturday Night Live. He was working hard to become funny
and liked by both the crew, cast and audience. The show
purportedly had its roots in gonzo.
SNL's male stars
John Belushi, Dan Akkroyd, and then Bill Murray
embraced, consciously and proudly, the romance of the
outlaw, the flat-out, no-holds-barred ethic that writer
Hunter S. Thompson called "Gonzo."
"They were," Rosie Shuster said, "bad-assed, macho,
go-get-em bravado types. They were formidable in that way,
and their charisma came from that as well. They weren't the
sensitive, crying males--this was not that brand. They were
in reaction to that. In the first half of the seventies,
feminist and gay rights were coming out, but the New Macho
guy started to emerge in the second half of the seventies,
and that was very much alive on Saturday Night "
Lorne Michaels didn't have the same gonzo mentality (which
shows in the soppy no-laughers of today which rely on pure
bad taste) and tried to keep it from overwhelming the show.
Unfortunately, he couldn't.
John Belushi embodied Gonzo in its rawest form.
It was no accident that he had an intense friendship with
the Prince of Gonzo himself, Hunter Thompson--Thompson once
said that John was more fun in twenty minutes than most
people were in twenty years.
It was probably no coincidence either that Thompson had so
many ties to the show, from the Johnny Angel sketch that
invoked the wrath of local Hell's Angels, to his friendship
with Belushi and Murray. A producer for the show, Laila
Nabulsi, was his "fiance" from about 1980-1985. She
produced The Curse of Lono and
the 25th anniversary CD .
Around the show's fourth season, "Billy" became the male
star of SNL, as both Belushi and Akroyd left to pursue movie
careers. When the show came back for its fifth season, he
seemd to have undergone a most unusual change in
Billy had spent his summer making a movie called
Where the Buffalo Roam , which, as its subtitle
explained, was "based on the twisted legend of Hunter
S. Thompson." Billy played Thompson, and he was still
absorbed in finishing the film as the fifth season started.
In a classic case of the role overtaking the actor, Billy
returned that fall to Saturday Night so immersed in
playing Hunter Thompson he had virtually become Hunter
Thompson, complete with long black cigarette holder, dark
glasses, and nasty habits. "Billy," said one of the
writers, echoing several others, "was not Bill Murray, he
was Hunter Thompson. You couldn't talk to him without
talking to Hunter Thompson."
Billy spent a lot of time hanging out with Thompson while
the movie was being produced, and they were a volatile
combination. One day at Thompson's Aspen, Colorado, home,
after many drinks and after much arguing over who could
out-Houdini whom, Thompson tied Billy to a chair and threw
him into the swimming pool. Billy nearly drowned before
Thompson pulled him out.
When the fifth season started, Thompson sometimes showed up
backstage, and his presence made some people on the show as
uneasy as the Hell's Angels Thompson had once written so
forcefully about. Thompson's public and private personas,
like those of his other good friend from Saturday Night
, John Belushi, had essentially merged and working with
Bill Murray-cum-Hunter Thompson wasn't easy. "Hunter," a
writer said, "might be a good person to go skiing with, take
a vacation with, do drugs with, that's fine. But he doesn't
put up with any s*** and he has no interest in helping
what's going on....Hunter Thompson is not the person you
want on a comedy show."
As such, Thompson was said to be in awe of seeing forty or
so writers working on one thing at one time and all
together (Whitmer, p255).
However, Murray did not bounce back after completing the
Early in the season the change in Billy was slightly evident
on-air--he looked subdued sometimes, other times bored--but
backstage he spewed venom. He was, in the words of various
people who had to work with him, "a tyrant," "pissed off the
whole time, pissed at the writers, pissed at the producer,
pissed at the network, pissed at TV in general, pissed at
the state of the world," "uncooperative, bullyish and mean,"
"surly and bitchy," and "doing all the things that the year
before he was calling people (namely Belushi) assholes for
doing." He regularly showed up hours late for blocking
sessions, regularly threw temper tantrums on the set,
regularly complained about the hosts, regularly berated the
writers for the quality of the material they were giving him
and regularly threatened to quit, sometimes walking out on
Friday nights and not showing up until late Saturday
Many on the show believe Hunter Thompson egged Billy on by
telling him how bad he thought the show was, but it may have
just been the sheer cantankerousness of Hunter's persona
talking through Billy himself. In one Monday writers'
meeting, one of the few he came to that yeaar, Billy,
cigarette holder in hand and sunglasses in place, launched
into a long, loud, and vicious tirade about what a "piece of
s***" the previous week's show had been. Anne Beatts made
the mistake of saying something, and he glared at her as if
to say, "How dare you interrupt me?" After staring her down
he finished his rant (p351).
Some feel that John and Dan's departure made him feel left
behind and considered quitting too. However, he became one
of the biggest starts along with Gilda Radner. He
reportedly had "Lorne by the balls, and he yanked," (p353)
blackmailing him into giving him what he wanted.
In 1980, the film was released. It wasn't too popular,
perhaps being too much of an insider's movie for the general
Billy began shedding his Hunter Thompson persona
when his work on the movie was finished. He dropped it
completely when the movie came out that spring. Where the
Buffalo Roam was panned by the critics and a disaster at
the box office, and Universal Studios quickly pulled it from
distribution. Hunter Thompson hated the film. Billy never
talked to anyone on the show about his Hunter Thompson
period, and nobody mentioned it to him. As one friend put
it, "You don't walk up to someone who's just emerged from a
coma and tell them how hard they've been to get along with."
But they were glad to have Bill Murray back.
After that Billy became more amenable to work with, although
he continuted to have his troubles with Lorne. And whatever
complaining he'd been doing backstage, after the first few
shows of the season, on-air he usually injected life into
even the worst roles he was given. As a result he emerged
from the fifth season a hugely popular
While Murray has still remain a popular actor, his hits have been few and far between.
After the success of Ghostbuster and Scrooged, he hardly had a box office
winner until Groundhog Day.
As an afterthought, I was recently ill and watched cartoons and the Comedy Network to ease my aching head.
I was watching old
reruns of Saturday Night Live, when Bill Murray
was doing his impersonation of Doc. He has the glasses,
the cigarette holder, the tumbler of whiskey. He was
in the background - it was when Buckwheat was murdered
and Eddie Murphy in character was being interviewed
and said he had this tape of what a low-life Buckwheat
really was. Bill was in the background. I couldn't
believe it and I just killed myself laughing. Overall, the skit wasn't very funny and I switched back to Teletoon.
This was rerun from about 1981 or so.