I’ve been hosting tribute evenings for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for more than thirty years. They’ve even put my name on the award—The Maltin Modern Master—which I take as a high compliment. The tribute evening takes place at the historic Arlington Theater on State Street in Santa Barbara—but not this year.

When festival director Roger Durling called to tell me who had agreed to accept the honor this year I was floored: Bill Murray. Bill Murray!  Then came the letdown: the conversation would be virtual. Drat!, as W.C. Fields would say.

But I didn’t reckon with our honoree’s unpredictable mind. I also didn’t know what to expect. would he be serious or jokey? Would we have time to play all the film clips we’d prepared? And would the lack of an audience rattle him?

Bill Murray in Meatballs

Following a collage of Murray moments spanning forty years—from Meatballs to his latest, On the Rocks—I said a little about his remarkable career and then intoned the words, “Ladies and gentlemen… Bill Murray.” Our guest of honor appeared on screen, accompanied by an awkward silence.

There was no live audience, so we didn’t hear the cheering or applause that would normally arise at that moment. I wish we’d piped in crowd noise as the sports teams do.

But there he was, seated in what seemed to be a den or living room, wearing a cool leather jacket. “I’m in a Screen Actors Guild safe house,” he explained in his trademark deadpan fashion. “I was brought here in the trunk of a car.” It may well have been true, although I gather he was on the West Coast and using his iPad. (On my end, the techies took no chances and made sure festival Roger Durling and I were hardwired.)

I now realize that what felt like “dead air” after every question I asked was, in fact, Bill’s way of considering each topic before jumping in with a response. He took the tribute seriously and gave very thoughtful answers.

John Candy and Bill Murray at the Second City in Chicago in 1973 (courtesy of Second City)

Of his early days with Second City in Chicago he said, “They were always very nice to me, all of them: Joe Flaherty and Harold [Ramis] and Jeannie Vanasco. I was very lucky hanging onto the coat-tails of all those people—Belushi especially and Danny Aykroyd—people that went out there and did it first. I learned so much just by watching them.” He used the word “lucky” a number of times.

He also mentioned people who made an impression on him along the way: master cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, who shot Ghostbusters, actor William Atherton, that same movie’s bad guy, and George Gaynes, who played the soap opera actor in Tootsie and cracked Bill up on a regular basis. “I did a full Danny Thomas spit-take” reacting to one of Gaynes’s scenes, he recalled. He also grew very fond of Tootsie director and costar Sydney Pollack. He tipped his hat to Elaine May, the A-list script doctor who grafted his roommate character onto Larry Gelbart’s screenplay, with hilarious results.

I learned the Murray Mantra: “rehearsals are for losers.” When he’s working with compatible colleagues “we just want to get out there and do it. A script has two dimensions, but when you enter the physical world and you have to stand, move and talk, something arrives that’s unexpected and not accounted for. That’s where you make your bones. It happens there.”

Trying to find a polite way of asking why he held out so long before agreeing to appear in Ghostbusters II, I asked if he was reluctant to make the film. He nodded vigorously and confessed that he was “very, very reluctant.” Only when the producers managed to corral all his costars in one room did he change his mind. “It was really fun to be together. Those are some wonderful, really funny guys—and girls.”

He was sold a concept that struck him as a bright idea, but says when he showed up on Day One he was given a script that bore no resemblance to what he’d been pitched. He took the high road and made the most of it. In fact, he is the only cast member of the original 1984 movie to appear in every iteration of Ghostbusters, including the gender-twisting 2016 feature and an upcoming sequel directed by Jason Reitman, whose father piloted the original.

Bill and I were joined by Sofia Coppola

His most vivid recollection of Ground Hog Day was how cold it was where they were shooting in Woodstock, Illinois. Painfully cold. And he still marvels that Danny Rubin wrote a film about Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania without ever having visited the town. He is well aware of the film’s enduring popularity and boasts of “having cornered the market” on that holiday.

Bill Murray in Rushmore

Murray’s agent wanted him to appear in Rushmore and kept sending him cassettes of Wes Anderson’s first feature, Bottle Rocket, none of which he ever watched. All it took to win him over was reading the screenplay for Rushmore. When asked if he’d like to meet the author (and director) he said, “It’s not necessary. When do we shoot?” From the screenplay he could tell that Anderson “knew exactly what he wants to do” and that sealed the deal.

He feels fortunate to have worked with Anderson on so many films since then. “We’ve become great friends. He really makes moviemaking an experience.” It’s not so much a shoot as a communal adventure, each time in a new location. “There’s nothing else; [just] making that movie and being with the people who are making that movie. And every movie he makes is better and better and better…”

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in On The Rocks

As for Sofia Coppola, who has written two great roles for him—in Lost in Translation and last year’s On the Rocks, “I love Sofia…and the longer I know her the more I love her.” He admires all the roles she inhabits—mother, daughter, sister, writer-director—and her tenacity. He’s also quite fond of the Coppola family and their mutual support system. He had nothing but praise for Sofia and his costar, Rashida Jones.  At this point, Sofia and her brother Roman appeared on the video screen to offer congratulations.

I asked why he’s only directed one movie, Quick Change (with Harold Franklin as co-director) and written so little.

“I haven’t gotten down to business yet,” he responded. “I should be writing; I haven’ t knuckled down. I really enjoyed directing and I thought I was going to do it all the time. I liked working with actors.” But his life underwent some changes and the opportunity slipped away. He also realizes that “to direct a movie it takes a lot of time… a big chunk of your life.”

Having watched A Man for All Seasons not long ago, he then requested “a few words before sentencing.” And he addressed most of his remarks to me.

“I’d like to say it’s really an honor to receive the Maltin Malted Milk Award. I was taken by surprise because I didn’t know I was receiving an award. I thought that we were honoring Leonard Maltin. I didn’t really know, because of COVID and lack of news I thought you had passed away and it was good that you were finally getting some recognition. When I found out that [you were] still with us, it was a happy/sad moment for me.  Sad because I had some beautiful things that I had prepared to say about you, Leonard. Now they’re just going to have to wait. And Happy…because, well, happy for you.” Can you imagine what I felt like listening to all this?

In summing up the evening, he said, “All those montages…makes me think that I must have done something with my life so far…It also suggested there’s quite a bit more that needs doing.”

As far as I’m concerned, Bill Murray can rest on his laurels if he wants to. He’s more than earned that carte blanche. Everything he does is worth seeing…and he always makes me laugh. There’s no one else quite like him.

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May 2024