Where the Buffalo Roam


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 later).

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 " (p232).

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 personality.

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 movie.

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 afternoon.

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 public.

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 performer.

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.

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