Profile: Coining it at the Murray mint: Sheila Johnston explores the dubious but undeniable appeal of Bill Murray

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What is it with Bill Murray? He frequently plays meanies - the anti-Christmas curmudgeon in Scrooged; the infinitely irritating neurotic who makes his shrink (Richard Dreyfuss) lose his rag in What About Bob?; a conceited weatherman in his new film Groundhog Day; and an eccentric, egocentric small-time hood in the forthcoming Mad Dog and Glory.

He keeps a low profile and has made little effort to cultivate the media: journalists refer to his 'brooding silences' (Rolling Stone, 1984) and a 'narcoticised uneasiness . . . enough to raise a thin film of flop sweat on the forehead of his interviewer' (Premiere, 1990). Nobody ever described his squashed-tomato visage as handsome.

But Murray keeps turning out a steady stream of comic hits and is becoming perhaps the most bankable and, perversely, the most engaging of the National Lampoon-ists. Pauline Kael, one of Murray's earliest fans, is still an unequivocal admirer. 'He's one of the best reasons for going to the movies now,' she said from her home this week. 'He's absolutely distinctive and original and apparently relaxed on screen.'

He was initially a reject from Saturday Night Live, the show that made the names of those 'not-ready-for- primetime players'. But when Chevy Chase dropped out for the second season in 1978-9, Murray was brought in.

Chase's catchline was 'I'm Chevy Chase and you're not.' Murray emphatically wasn't. In place of Chase's aloof, clean-cut persona, he sported bad hair, worse skin, an often regrettable dress sense and a general aura of scruffy degeneracy. But that, reckons Harold Ramis, who directed Murray in Groundhog Day and has worked regularly with him since 1969, is the essence of his appeal. 'Chevy is preppy and acts like he had a privileged childhood. Bill seems like he came from the streets. And I think the larger audience identifies with that.' It's a bloke-ish, blue-collar appeal that eluded groomed smoothies like Chase or Steve Martin.

But Murray was also possessed of something else which commended him to young, urban / university audiences - a sardonic, knowing irony. 'He seemed like something out of a swamp - cold-blooded yet sweaty,' wrote Kael of Murray's Saturday Night Live shtick. 'He seemed the shiftiest of comics and I didn't see how the smug, dislikeable aspects of his personality could resolve in a comic persona. Yet the more of him I saw the funnier he became. He's a master of show-business insincerity.'

At the same time, Murray was appearing in a string of undistinguished, but commercially formidable movies - his first starring vehicle, the dollars 1.5 million comedy Meatballs (1979), in which he played the head counsellor at a summer camp, took dollars 64 million. Stripes (1981), in which Murray was a hopeless army recruit, was another substantial hit. And he was attracting attention for supporting roles as the loony groundsman in Caddyshack (1980) and an avant-garde playwright in Tootsie (1982) - Dustin Hoffman expressly asked for Murray to play the part.

But it was Ghostbusters - a film he only agreed to on condition that Columbia would bankroll his first serious movie, The Razor's Edge - that made Bill Murray big. It was what has later emerged as the classic Murray vehicle. His characters are big city, (usually New York) hipsters, like his town planner in Quick Change, who is so pissed at the city that he dresses as a clown - 'the crying-on-the-inside type' - and robs a bank. In Groundhog Day his TV weatherman, sent to cover a folklore festival in Punxsutawney, sneers at the hicks - until he is caught in a mysterious time-warp that forces him to relive Groundhog Day again and again. It's no accident that Murray has done several fantasy pictures - Scrooged as well as Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, in which his jaded, seen-it-all-before cool in the jaws of the apocalypse was a cardinal feature of the movie's success.

He isn't shy of being objectionable. Eddie Murphy relies on a winking, grinning complicity with his audience, even when playing rogues. Robin Williams will only do cuddly these days. And those of Murray's peers who have essayed dark, ambiguous characters (Tom Hanks in Punchline, Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, Billy Crystal in Mr Saturday Night) have unfailingly bombed at the box- office. But Murray can play nasty with a laidback detachment that, as with his pathological gangster in Mad Dog and Glory, becomes oddly ingratiating - funny, even.

'People wanna be him,' Ramis says. 'I mean, I would not want to be the guy in Mr Saturday Night. Bill can be irritating but he's not unlikeable. And his dark side is sometimes not so much dark as unpredictable. He has that look in his eyes that tells you he could do anything at any moment and it makes him a real wild card. He's always potentially disruptive, as a character and as a person. And disreputable. Sometimes that can be heroic.' And the audience has bought it to the extent that, in the business, he's sometimes known as Dollar Bill.

In 1987 that success made Murray the inadvertent centre of a huge Hollywood controversy triggered off by David Puttnam, then head of Columbia. 'It bothers me that many stars take the money and run,' Puttnam said. 'You don't see people - for example, Bill Murray - putting back any dollars made from Ghostbusters.' That 'off-the-record' remark - hugely publicised - put the kibosh on a Ghostbusters sequel for over two years and alienated a host of Hollywood talent from Columbia. But why pick on Murray, whose dollars 5m fee would (as Charles Kipps points out in Out of Focus, his book on Puttnam) be cheap at twice the price?

'Puttnam might have been feeling the pressure to produce a second Ghostbusters film,' Ramis speculates. 'And I gotta believe that a producer like him would resent that. When you're used to making films in Europe, you could make 10 films for what one Ghostbusters cost. And you could make three films for what Bill Murray gets as a salary.'

Murray has tried more serious stuff but these attempts have been his worst flops - Where the Buffalo Roam and, notably, The Razor's Edge, to which J Hoberman's review in the Village Voice was a typical response. 'A leering goofball, even in deepest Tibet,' he wrote of Murray's efforts to play a character in quest of spiritual enlightenment. 'When he finally dons the saffron robes, he's like a conehead who's lost his cone.'

Ramis, however, makes a case for Groundhog Day as a move away from all that. 'What was called the New Comedy came out of the cultural revolution of the Sixties and the tremendous reaction against the corruption of American public life. And a comic insincerity was a common style - people saying the most obsequious things to each other without meaning any of it. Bill picked that up and he's brought it to a high art. But it's an overlay - what passes for his cynicism conceals a real honesty and a desire to get at the truth. Inside there's a very traditional American hero, of the kind we used to see played by Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda. I think Bill grew up on that influence and that right-thinking hero is buried inside him waiting to come out.'

'I wish he wouldn't,' says Kael of Ramis's bid to re-invent Murray. 'I think that's a terrible mistake. We don't need another Capraesque hero. That's one of the problems with Groundhog Day - it's charming but it has an old-fashioned quality. We like Murray because of his oddity and because he seems so fundamentally untrustworthy. There's something grungy to the soul that he knows how to work and it's wonderful.'

Kael's right: we should cherish Murray precisely because his persona refuses to buy into the phoney feel- goodery of too many Hollywood movies. He shines like a naughty deed in a bland and benevolent world.

'Groundhog Day' opens next Friday. 'Mad Dog and Glory' opens on 11 June.

(Photograph omitted)