Part-time actor and full-time awesome person Bill Murray was one of the many performers of television sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live to jump to the big screen. He turned out to be one of the most successful people to do it, building an iconic career with roles that have ranged from average sweet guy to chaotic yet hilarious to plain odd. The fact that he can simultaneously do both emotionally deep and mortifying emptiness in the same role makes him constantly unpredictable and captivating to watch.
After starring in films such as Meatballs, Where The Buffalo Roam, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, Murray was ranked as one of the world’s most popular actors, but it wasn’t until the 90s that he was actually seen as illustrious, making career choices that screamed eccentricity and made him the quirky man who shows up at random karaoke parties that we know and worship today.
He has this larger-than-life quality that makes him appear to not care about anything in the slightest bit. His comedies aren’t always ones to laugh out loud to, but make us giggle and utter sounds that make our roommates shoot confused, worried looks at us.
On filming “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”, Wes Anderson said: “The great thing about Bill as a leading man is that’s he’s just a “guy”, but he’s got such a presence in real life – and it translates into what attracts people to him on screen. Most of the time I just try to stand back and let him do what he does.”
This list shows 12 films where people have let Murray “do what he does” in the most successful, mesmerizing ways. It doesn’t mean he hasn’t done it in plenty of other films, it’s just that these show him at his most prominent formats. They’re the roles that have personally made me consider him one of the best actors, entertainers and empathic people all at once to grace this business.
12. Meatballs (1979)
This summer camp classic was Murray’s first starring role and it portrays exactly what you would expect coming from his previous time on SNL. It was a defining moment for his career, as he succeeded to bring life to a character who could’ve been depthless if played wrongly. Instead, he made it the paradigmatic camp film by showing the audience more than his already known comic side, which is more than you can say about other big comedy stars from the 80s.
As camp counselor Tripper Harrison, it’s first shown in this movie how at ease he seems around kids, immediately granting him adoration. His mentor relationship with one of the kids, Gerner, makes us empathize with him, which is something that isn’t as easy to do with such a clichéd storyline with quite a few shallow characters customary in the genre (fat kid who loves food, geek, loners, etc.). The supposed authority figure is someone everyone wishes they had as a child or teen, a hip jokester to help through social anxiety and low self-esteem.
As a starting point, Meatballs gave Murray something to grow from, to adjust his often overwhelming comic moments to his most sympathetic times. This only underlines how important Murray’s contribution was. With a supporting cast of unknown people and a few plot holes, it’s the sweetness and lightheartedness of everything put together that makes it so easy to watch and appreciate.
11. Where The Buffalo Roam (1980)
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was a famous American journalist internationally known for the creation of “Gonzo” journalism, an experimental form of it based on reporters who involve themselves wildly in the action, so that in a way they become the main event. In this film, Murray plays Thompson and the bizarre relationship he had with Carl Lazlo, portrayed by Peter Boyle.
Commonly called “an interesting failure”, what actually makes it worth watching is how Murray humanizes Thompson to a degree so taunting that it’s said to have stuck with him ever since. You have to pay close attention to his seldom demonstrations of paranoia that truly catch a glimpse of the Thompson persona, but it’s there and it’s incredible.
The film shifts between comedy attempts to that kind of uncomfortable stance that makes us laugh out loud yet wonder why we’re doing it. One of its particular flaws is that it doesn’t give the audience a reason for the characters’ friendship outside of sharing drugs. On the other hand, it features a scene where Thompson is in a hospital room with a bottle of Wild Turkey attached to his IV tube, where his lunacy is almost palpable.
10. Kingpin (1996)
In one of his best comedic performances, Murray plays Ernie McCracken, a horrible human being and great bowler. A bowling alley, typically known in America as the natural habitat of losers and misfits, makes for a perfect set for the Farrelly brothers, and the whole film revolves around the idea that people with any life prospects shouldn’t be investing time or themselves in bowling.
Although Murray doesn’t play the main character here, he makes the lives of people around him miserable, and he does so while wearing black polyester. He plays a twisted villain, but one that could never actually be a real villain, the kind that makes us laugh from how completely clueless he is. The apparently vulgar, generic plot, turns out funnier with each punch line. Even being offscreen for a big part of the film, he makes up for it in the end, voraciously determined to prove himself.
9. Scrooged (1988)
In this modern take on “A Christmas Carol”, Bill Murray goes against three different kinds of ghosts that were not seen in Ghostbusters. That was actually (sort of) the tagline of Scrooged.
Supposedly a comedy but more of an angry approach to Charles Dickens’ work, it’s the Christmas film one would want Murray to play a part in. He’s Frank Cross, tormented TV network president whose Christmas is about to be awful. He’s detached from everyone who loves him, criticizes everyone at work and leads a lonely life watching TV and drinking vodka.
We follow Frank as he spends time wrecking both his life and his next big production, a live multimillion-dollar Christmas Eve performance of “Scrooge”. He constantly dismisses everyone’s good will or cheerfulness, making us feel like he’s actually shouting at the actors and that they’re actually surprised and hurt by it. Somehow though, he still makes for a loveable bastard.
It’s Bill Murray doing the deadpan we’re used to, cutting everyone’s lines with biting sarcasm. It’s a 100% cheesy towards the end, but it’s the cheesy we long for – a big sentimental speech said by one of Hollywood’s least likely actors to deliver such speeches. It goes from a good performance to a great one when you realize that you have to wait until the end to see him really blow your mind.
8. What About Bob? (1991)
Back to being the well-known professional goofball he is, Murray plays Bob Wiley in one of his best comedies to date. It’s focused around Wiley, a neurotic person with multiple phobias that vary from fear of elevators to the fear of touching things. In the film, his most recent fixation is towards his new psychiatrist, Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), immediately clinging to him, and at one point following him to his vacation home.
It portrays eccentricities at their best, going even further when Bob tries to convince his shrink’s family that he’s wonderful and that Leo is the opposite of it. In What About Bob?, Murray returns to his comedy roots in what may seem to be an attack on psychiatry, but is more of a deep satire. This is most noteceable in Richard Dreyfuss’ character, who plays the typecast psychiatrist whose world is shaken by this caricature of an intelligent yet mentally disturbed person.
7. Caddyshack (1980)
In Harold Ramis’ directorial debut, Murray plays an insane groundskeeper who goes after gophers with explosives and lusts after women golfers, making it very difficult to remember that he’s not even one of the main characters in the film. This nearly plotless comedy consists mostly of traded insults and slobbish country manners that kindly remind us that money isn’t always class. The Bushwood Country Club is full of terrible, obnoxious and racist people.
Carl Speckler, portrayed by Murray, has the fury of anyone who tries too hard to be successful at something – either it being his task or delivering jokes – which is essentially what makes it so good to watch. Bill Murray doesn’t need to try too hard to be funny, ever. Sometimes even his eyebrows are funny. The thing is, we see him ridiculed, but it’s like he has his own show in there. The entire action feels like a spontaneous outburst of comics, all in different directions. It doesn’t necessarily need a specific purpose or even to gather all characters because it works the way it is. It’s in the dialogue and the spirit, and it’s a must see.