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Getting Bill Murray to Star in Your Movie Requires Patience and Detective Work

August 22, 2014

You know what’s more challenging than directing Bill Murray in a feature film? Casting Bill Murray in a feature film. The famously unpredictable comedy legend has a history of forcing directors to become amateur sleuths trying to track him down so they can pitch their scripts.  

Writer-director Theodore Melfi became the latest filmmaker to play a round of “Where In the World is Bill Murray,” when he pursued the star for the lead role of a grumpy-goofy old dude in the coming-of-age comedy, St. Vincent (watch the trailer below), which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival in September before opening theatrically on October 24. Melfi shared the hilarious account of his nearly year-long experience with Entertainment Weekly, beginning with a phone call he placed to Murray’s personal 1-800 number that goes directly to voicemail. “His voice is not on that answering machine,” Melfi says. “It’s just an old-school voicemail. I left a dozen messages and never heard a word back. I called for a month, month and a half, not every day because I didn’t want to annoy him, but you know, a couple times a week. I don’t even know if he ever got the messages.”

Turns out that Murray was getting the messages, but wasn’t about to put a premature end to Melfi’s trial-by-fire. Through the star’s lawyer, Melfi was told to send a letter — and, later, the script — via snail mail to a pair of East Coast-located P.O. Boxes. Roughly a month later, the director finally had his first conversation with his preferred leading man, when Murray actually called Melfi and proposed a meeting.  But scheduling conflicts delayed their sit-down for another few months, until Labor Day weekend in 2012, when, per Murray’s instructions, Melfi showed up at the LAX baggage claim at 9 in the morning and met the actor as he got off a flight. The pair hopped in a chauffeured car and, three hours (and one In-N-Out pit stop later), arrived at Murray’s house somewhere in the California desert. “He tours me through his house—one of his houses—and at the end of it he goes ‘Okay. This is great.  We should do the movie.”  

With St. Vincent in the can, Melfi can join the illustrious ranks of filmmakers who can boast about nabbing the elusive Murray—names like Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson. “We thought we didn’t have a chance to get Bill,” Anderson told Empire Magazine earlier this year about his attempts to cast the actor in his career-transforming turn in 1999’s Rushmore. “We were told we’d never hear anything.  But somehow he read the script and he was in.” And in a Masters Seminar at the AFI, Coppola remembers being so desperate to pitch Murray on Lost in Translation, that she phoned up one of her father’s old collaborators. “I called Al Pacino, because I heard he lives in the same town outside of New York that Bill Murray lived in.  And I call and he says, ‘Oh, Sofie, how are you,’ and I go, ‘I’m wondering if you know Bill Murray.’  Oh my God!  It was like, I can’t believe I asked Al Pacino.” 

For his part, Murray is unapologetic about making directors like Melfi put in a little—make that, a lot—of legwork to reach him. “I have this phone number that they call and talk. And then I listen,” he told GQ in 2010 about his 800-number tactic. “[Then] I just sort of decide.  I might listen and say, “Okay, why don’t you put it on a piece of paper?  Put it on a piece of paper, and if it’s interesting, I’ll call you back, and if it’s not, I won’t.” It’s exhausting otherwise. I don’t want to have a relationship with someone if I’m not going to work with them. If you’re talking about business, let’s talk about business, but I don’t want to hang out and bullshit. And I don’t like to work. I only like working when I’m working.” 

Watch George Clooney talk about Murray's 800-number with Yahoo Movies's Kevin Polowy: