Bill Murray's excellent adventures: Curious case of the A-list actor who pulls pranks on strangers

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Curious encounters with the Hollywood actor have become an internet phenomenon – but are the stories really true? Mark O'Connell investigates.

One Saturday afternoon the summer I was 16, a couple of friends and I were sitting on a bench in our hometown of Kilkenny, smoking cigarettes and enduring the agreeable boredom of one another's company, when the actor Bill Murray materialised on the other side of the street, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and a baseball cap, and clutching an off-white drawstring laundry bag such as you would ordinarily see in the hands of people who were not major Hollywood stars.

This hadn't happened completely out of the blue – Murray, we were acutely aware, was in town for a new comedy festival – but it was still quite a thing to look up and see him just sauntering down the main street of your hometown like it was no big deal. And so I found myself doing something I'd never have done in non-Murray-based circumstances: I shouted across the street.

"Bill! … Bill!"

He stopped walking and looked over at me and my two friends. "Hey fellas," he shouted back, in what was unmistakably the voice of Bill Murray, with its low-hanging Chicago vowels and its heavy but somehow inclusive irony. Unable to think of anything else to say, I asked him what he was up to. He hoisted up the bag he was carrying and said, "Just doing a little laundry is all!". Then he saluted, before continuing on his way down the street toward the laundrette, never again to be glimpsed by me or my companions.

By most reasonable measures, this is about as boring a celebrity encounter as it's possible to imagine. The only plausible element of intrigue or drama to be found here is in the unresolved question of why one of the world's most famous film stars would be taking his own clothes to the laundrette, rather than delegating the whole business to the staff of whatever hotel he was staying in. Yet whenever I mention it to people, it tends to get a disproportionately delighted reaction. And this, of course, is because people – people of my generation, at least – tend to relish any opportunity to hear about the various public manifestations of Bill Murray.

This experience of mine counts, in fact, as a very minor entry into the canon of The Bill Murray Story, which is a highly specific and thriving sub-genre of contemporary celebrity folklore. The Bill Murray Story is predicated upon some or other brief but remarkable intervention of Murray into the lives of complete strangers. The setting is usually a public place, and there is often, as we say in Ireland, "drink involved".

The original BMS, the founding narrative of the form, goes roughly as follows: some nameless patsy (a friend of a friend, a colleague's cousin, whatever) is alone on a quiet city street late at night, and is suddenly set upon from behind by a stranger, who places his hands over the person's eyes, tipsy-uncle style. Our flustered protagonist then turns around to find that his or her assailant is none other than Bill Murray; at this point, the star of Lost in Translation, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day whispers the words, "No one will ever believe you", turns smartly on his heel and dissolves once more into the unknowable murk of the night.

This story is pretty much your typical urban legend; it crops up in various forms in various places, and its provenance seems to be unknown. Murray was asked about it in an interview with GQ a few years back and, though he didn't outright deny it, his noncommittal answer suggested an unwillingness to impair the progress of a fun story that had taken on a cultural life of its own. "There's probably a really appropriate thing to say," as he put it. "Something exactly and just perfectly right. But by God, it sounds crazy, doesn't it? Just so crazy and unlikely and unusual?"

And maybe what's important isn't the truth or falsehood of the story, but the extent to which people seem to want to believe it, or at least to repeat it. Because even if it's not true to the letter, it's true to the spirit of Murray, who has come to seem less like a movie star than an intermittent event, an ongoing work of living improv. The Murray of popular imagination uses his celebrity as a secular superpower, making unexpected and (broadly) benevolent interventions into the lives of the citizenry. He has made party crashing into a kind of performance art.

A by no means exhaustive list of extracurricular public activities in which, due to photographic or filmic proof, we know him to have engaged over recent years:

*Came across a group of twentysomethings playing kickball at a park on New York's Roosevelt Island, and requested that he be allowed to join in the game.

*Got involved in a karaoke and Chartreuse session with another group of young strangers at a karaoke bar near Union Square.

*Showed up at a student house party in St Andrews, where he'd been playing in a celebrity pro-am golf tournament, had a couple of beers, and then just upped and did the dishes before leaving.

*Strolled into a badly overcrowded and understaffed bar in Austin during the SXSW festival – accompanied, mind you, by his good friends RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan – and hopped behind the bar and started bar-tending, unilaterally imposing a strict tequila-only service policy.

For a generation of people who grew up watching films like Ghostbusters and What About Bob?, the benevolent intervention of Bill Murray has become a sort of Platonic ideal of the fun experience. (I'd argue, actually, that Lost in Translation is compelling less for its dramatisation of an unconsummated intergenerational romance than for its dramatisation of the audience's unconsummated desire to get rat-arsed in Tokyo with Bill Murray.)

There's a website, billmurraystory.com, that serves as a repository of reader-submitted first-person testimonies of Murray encounters (tagline: 'No one will ever believe you'). Some of them are true; most are basically Bill Murray fan-fiction. (Bill Murray stealing a fistful of popcorn at a benefit concert. Bill Murray strolling into a café and solving a complicated mathematical equation in a student's notebook.)

The site was set up by a Philadelphia web developer named Bill Kilkpatrick, initially as a way of indulging his and his friends' penchant for making up tales about Murray run-ins. In the early days it was all fake stories, but as it gathered momentum, he says, people started uploading stories about real encounters. I asked him whether he has any sense of what's true and what's made up. "It's weird," he said. "Half the fun is that you don't really know. Some of the ones where it's just like an unexpected kindness or an interesting exchange – yeah, I mean they're probably true. And then some of the crazier ones, it's like it could go either way."

What is the meaning of this vast repository of real and imagined narratives? Why is there no comparable phenomenon around Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lawrence or Ben Kingsley or Jay-Z or Sigourney Weaver, or any other marquee-name celebrity? What is it about Murray that has allowed him to transcend the category of mere fame to become a kind of folk hero at the centre of his own postmodern myth cycle? Obviously, people really like his film performances, and he's clearly an extremely funny and charismatic person off the screen.

But there's more to it than this. Unless some scandal or tragedy intervenes, what we ordinarily see of major celebrities is no more or less than what their PR representatives want us to. They tend to be either so aloof and gleamingly perfect as to seem hardly human (your Clooneys, your Jolies, your Beyoncés), or drug-or-booze-addled hot messes (your Gibsons, your Lohans, your Sheens). Whereas Murray looks to be both completely extraordinary and completely normal. He doesn't have any 'people'. He doesn't even have an agent. He seems to take full advantage of his own celebrity while being at the same time weirdly impervious to it. (Famously, he has an 800 number, whereby people who want to hire him for an acting job can call up and leave a message, which he'll reply to if he's interested. I contacted his lawyer, by the way, to see if he might be willing to pass on this number. No dice.)

Murray seems to be constantly doing things for no other reason than that they're fun things to do. But it's a very specific kind of fun: generously inclusive and yet somehow paradoxically self-enclosed, as though his public manifestations – the kickball games, the party crashing and so on – were a kind of in-joke with himself, a way of keeping himself amused that just happens to involve amusing the whole rest of the world.

Bill phones a friend

One of Murray's oldest friends is the writer/director Mitch Glazer, who is married to the actress Kelly Lynch. In an interview with the AVClub.com, Lynch mentioned that whenever Road House (in which she featured in some pretty explicit scenes with the late Patrick Swayze) is on TV, Murray makes a point of picking up the phone and calling Glazer. "Every time Road House is on," she said, "and he or one of his idiot brothers are watching TV – and they're always watching TV – one of them calls my husband and says, 'Kelly's having sex with Patrick Swayze right now. They're doing it. He's throwing her against the rocks'. Bill once called him from Russia."

A revelation from Bill

A woman named Anne contributed a tale to Billmurraystory.com about an encounter with Murray on a flight from Manila in the 1980s. "Close to the end of the flight," she wrote, "I asked if he would give me an autograph. He was kind enough to oblige me. Little did I know, he would give me an autograph that I would recite to people for years." She also uploaded a photo of the artefact, a

Philippine Airlines

letterheaded page with the following handwritten message: "Anne, Your dad sold black market crude rubber to the Japanese in WWII. I'm sorry. I'm very sorry. Bill Murray."

Bill goes driving

While attending the 2007 Scandinavian Masters golf tournament, Murray was stopped by Stockholm police after he was found driving a golf buggy in the city.Tournament organiser Fredrik Nilsmark said the golf cart had been on display outside the hotel in which Murray was staying when he borrowed it, seemingly to go to a nightclub. "I ended up stopping and dropping people off on the way like a bus," Murray explained. "I had about six people in the thing." While the driving of the golf buggy was not a crime, police became suspicious when they smelt alcohol on Murray's breath after pulling him over. Asked about the incident later that year, he said, "They assumed that I was drunk and I explained to them that I was a golfer".

Bill props up the bar

On billmurraystory.com a contributor called Jack recounted meeting Murray last summer. He was in a restuarant with friends when "one of the waitresses came up and told us that Bill Murray was drinking at the bar". They moved closer to get a better view. "Upon seeing him," Jack wrote, "I thought that he didn't look the greatest. In fact, he looked like he hadn't taken off any of the make-up he had on in Zombieland". Regardless, he was determined to talk to Murray. "I walked up to him and said something generic like, 'Mr Murray, I just want to say I'm a huge fan of your work'. He turned around, finished his drink, patted me on the shoulder and, in an almost whisper, said, 'Please, call me Dr Murray' and walked away."

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat