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Bill Murray’s French Connection

At the height of his fame, the star of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day called time on his movie career. Why? So he could study philosophy at the Sorbonne

Bill Murray got a big hand and lots of Cheers from crowd at the Paramount Theatre. Photo: Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images

It’s 1984 and you are Bill Murray (just go with it). You’re already a comedy icon who has made the successful transition from live performer with The Second City improv troupe in Chicago to TV with Saturday Night Live, to hit movies like Caddyshack and Stripes. And now you are closing out the busiest year of your burgeoning movie career. 

The four films of yours that have been released include one of huge personal importance – an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge which you both starred in and co-wrote. As for the other pictures, they include a movie that will elevate you to new levels of fame and financial success. Not that you particularly wanted to star in Ghostbusters. But when Colombia offered to finance The Razor’s Edge providing you made their ghouls ‘n’ guffaws extravaganza, you couldn’t say no.

Now, sitting on a huge pile of money and every hot script on the market, the world’s at your feet. But you are Bill Murray, someone who’s rarely taken the road most travelled. So it is that, instead of cashing in on the success of Ghostbusters, you walk away from acting. For four years! And what will you do while you’re away? Why enrol in philosophy and history classes at the Sorbonne, of course!

That Bill Murray swapped Hollywood for the Paris university at a time when he was pretty much the king of America’s movie capital seems a very Billy Murray thing to do. As poorly documented as his time in France is, this excursion was clearly more than an object lesson in contrariness. On the occasions the actor has talked about his time abroad, it’s with a wistfulness you don’t expect from the doyenne of deadpan sarcasm.

Revisiting the City of Light with The Australian in 2012, the Caddyshack star fondly remembered his days as a Sorbonette: “I spent the morning in a class of other idiots learning French, and then in the afternoon I went to the Cinematheque, and that was a fantastic life. At lunchtime I stopped by at a chocolatier, and I was always walking around with 150g of chocolate in my pocket. Offering a piece was a great way to start a conversation.”

The image of Billy Murray the chocolate-touting boulevardier is pretty irresistible. Still, those who’d chalk Murray’s interest in philosophy up to comic affectation would be well wide of the mark. 

“I think in all of us there’s a belief that there’s something bigger than ourselves,” he told the Irish Independent in 2009. “To think that we are the centre of the world or the only reason for its existence is sort of absurd.”

Which is the sort of pat guff any A-lister might up with, right? It was in Paris, however, that Murray discovered GI Gurdjieff, a Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic and advocate of a path to enlightenment known as ‘the way of the sly man’.

The Sly Man, Gurdjieff writes, is one who makes full use of “the world, the self, and the self that is observing everything.” That last point clearly resonated with both Bill Murray the man and Bill Murray the actor. To always be slightly apart from things, to look upon life askance, to undermine the seriousness of everything, even the plot of the very expensive movie you might happen to be making – Bill Murray is the Sly Man personified.

With there being an air of detachment to so many of his film characters, it’s important to stress that Bill Murray was never truly lost in France. For one thing he was there with his wife and child. For another, the couple welcomed their second son into the world while living in Paris. And while it’s romantic to think he spent all four of his years away from film-making in the French capital, the truth of the matter is that he was only a Parisian for some six to eight months. The rest of Murray’s exile took place in upstate New York.

Murray didn’t even entirely walk away from acting, showing up in London in 1985 to shoot a cameo for Frank Oz’s Little Shop Of Horrors. Nevertheless, the actor must have wondered the effect his lengthy absence might have on his popularity, his asking price, and all the other metrics by which Hollywood stardom is calculated.

That he wound up being paid $6 million to star in 1988’s Scrooged was all the proof anyone needed that Bill Murray was still a very big deal. If you thought that four years out of film and a hefty paycheque might quell Bill’s disdain for the filmmaking process, you’d clearly forgotten that this was a man so moody, friend and collaborator Dan Aykroyd nicknamed him ‘The Murricane’.

As actress Karen Allen explained to this writer in 2003, “Scrooged was a difficult shoot. Mr Murray was very polite to me. But there was a lot of time spent with him in his trailer and [director] Richard Donner at the door pleading with him to come out. There were some very, very long days.”

Of course, since then, Murray has forged a hugely successful working relationship with fellow absurdist Wes Anderson. So, might one claim that, Billy Murray the man whose love of film was cultivated by his sabbatical in France, has finally discovered a sort of spiritual Paris in the world of moving pictures?

Probably not, but its nice to think so, just as it’s delightful to imagine the look on the faces of those Parisians who, from out of nowhere, found themselves being offered Lindt on the Champs-Élysées by Caddyshack‘s Carl Spackler.

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