The Lost Roles of Bill Murray, Part Two
It’s the one-year anniversary of “Lost Roles,” the column where we take a different comedian, comedy writer, or comedic performer each week and dive deep into the movie and TV projects they almost became involved with but didn’t. This column began with “The Lost Roles of Bill Murray.“Even though that piece detailed over 25 roles Murray almost played, there were still enough left to easily fill another post.
As you may know, Bill Murray’s never been keen to the fakeness of the movie industry, so much so that he fired his agent and manager years ago and only takes offers via a voicemail system that’s hooked up to a 1-800 number that he checks infrequently. This has had the intended effect of keeping some distance between Murray and Hollywood types, but it’s also caused him to miss out on a lot of big movies. Let’s examine the various roles Bill Murray wanted but didn’t get, flat-out turned down, and the projects that fell apart completely, including the 80s version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the abandoned Rob Schneider sketch comedy movie, and the roles that Dan Harmon, Amy Poehler, and Judd Apatow would kill to have him play.
1. The War of the Insect Gods (unproduced, in development 1979)
The role: Deadly Ed
Michael O’Donoghue, the dark, demented original head writer of Saturday Night Live who was largely responsible for setting the show’s tone, had trouble getting his scripts produced after leaving SNL. O’Donoghue wrote several unfilmed screenplays that were deemed too out-there for the American public. One of them was The War of the Insect Gods, an homage to cheap, sleazy ’50s sci-fi movies in which he wanted Bill Murray to play Deadly Ed, an exterminator defending mankind from an invasion of giant mutant cockroaches. This was long before Ghostbusters, but the project obviously bears some similarities. When talking about the project in 1979, O’Donoghue had this to say:
“Billy is who I want to play Deadly Ed. Cause he’s both a romantic lead and he’s a little sleazy. He looks like that exterminator kind of guy. And yet he’s a guy who can take on heroic proportions and look like an attractive American hero, which is what that range is. In fact, he is ideal for me Billy for what I want in that.”
O’Donoghue authored the script with Emily Prager, Mitch Glazer, and Dirk Wittenborn, a trio of writers he worked with on Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. Like Mondo Video, War of the Insect Gods was originally pitched as a TV movie but it was turned down by the network. After the option of making a TV movie turfed out, O’Donoghue decided Insect Gods should be a feature film and aimed to direct it himself. He planned for Dan Aykroyd to make a surprise cameo and for Emily Prager, Joan Hackett, and Carrie Fisher to also star at various points, but the project never came together due to its dim commercial prospects. Michael O’Donoghue insisted on shooting the whole thing in black-and-white to add to its nightmarish tone and xeroxed squashed roaches into the script pages. Along with the movie’s expectedly dark tone, this was enough to scare studios and investors away from producing War of the Insect Gods.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The role: Indiana Jones
Who got it: Harrison Ford
When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were looking for the right actor to play Indiana Jones, they cast a wide net, considering a dissimilar array of actors for the part. Lucas initially resisted the idea of hiring Harrison Ford, explaining that he had just worked with the actor on his previous two movies, American Graffiti and Star Wars. Lucas explained his thinking by saying, “I don’t want him to be my Bobby DeNiro. I don’t want to have every movie I make star Harrison.” This was Lucas’s dig at Martin Scorsese for his habit of repeatedly casting DeNiro in his films. According to Moviefone, Bill Murray was considered to play Indiana Jones, along with other seemingly ill-fitting choices like Tom Selleck, Chevy Chase, Jack Nicholson, and Steve Martin. Lucas and Spielberg picked Selleck, but his commitment to the TV series Magnum, P.I. prevented him from signing on, and George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wisely cast Harrison Ford instead of a comedic actor like Murray, Chase, or Martin.
3. Lost in America (1985)
The role: David Howard
Who got it: Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks didn’t originally want to cast himself when he was developing Lost in America, a comedy about a yuppie couple who quit their jobs and set out to travel the country in an RV. In 1983, Brooks offered the lead part to Bill Murray, who was interested but said he wouldn’t be available for two and a half years. Brooks couldn’t wait that long and chose to play the part himself. While Albert Brooks delivers a funny and memorable performance in Lost in America, it would have been great to see two of our greatest comedic minds team up and make a movie together. Murray would have been worth the wait. He was coming off of mega-hits Stripes and Ghostbusters at the time and would have given a major boost to Lost in America‘s box office, which would have made it easier for Brooks to get his movies made in the future. Albert Brooks is lovely and one of the most talented guys around, but he didn’t have the star power that Bill Murray did in the mid-80s.
4. Gung Ho (1986)
The role: Hunt Stevenson
Who got it: Michael Keaton
Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy, two of the biggest names in comedy at the time, both turned down the starring role in director Ron Howard’s Gung Ho. Howard hired his frequent collaborator Michael Keaton instead. The lead character in Gung Ho feels like a perfect fit for Murray, and it’s exactly the kind of cocky, goofy wise guy he exceeds at playing. Gung Ho was filmed, though, during Bill Murray’s four-year exodus from Hollywood after the failure of his first dramatic role in The Razor’s Edge. Murray spent a lot of this time in France; the only movie he made between 1984 and 1988 was Little Shop of Horrors, in which he had a small but memorable cameo.
5. Air America (1990)
The role: Billy Covington
Who got it: Robert Downey Jr.
When writer-director Richard Rush (Freebie and the Bean, The Stunt Man) was attached to helm the Vietnam comedy Air America, he wanted to cast Bill Murray as the younger pilot, and Sean Connery as the older pilot. Murray was interested, but the director was fired before production by the new studio head. Rush says that the movie was drastically rewritten and that the finished version of it is very different from what the Connery/Murray edition would have looked like.
6. King Ralph (1991)
The role: Ralph Jones
Who got it: John Goodman
Like many comedies from the 80s and early 90s, King Ralph was originally written with Bill Murray in mind. Murray had bigger fish to fry at the time, though. Around the time of King Ralph‘s production, he was starring in and co-directing the bank heist comedy Quick Change, easily the most underrated movie of Murray’s pre-Wes Anderson period. John Goodman instead starred in King Ralph, which became a bomb that hurt his movie career.
7. Veeck as in Wreck (unproduced, in development 1995-96)
The role: Bill Veeck
Bill Murray’s a proud Chicagoan, and playing White Sox owner Bill Veeck is a longtime dream of his. In 1995, he signed on to play Veeck in a movie based on his autobiography, Veeck–As in Wreck. Bill Veeck was known for his stunts, “including exploding scoreboards, players wearing shorts, coaches dressed as clowns and sending midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate.” However, he was “also regarded as the everyman who would enjoy his games sitting with the crowds in the stands and talk baseball with patrons at the local bars.” Ted Mann, then the head writer of NYPD Blue, signed on to write the script, with Chicagoan John McNaughton, who directed Murray in Mad Dog and Glory and Wild Things, also onboard. It sounds like a role that’s perfect for Bill Murray and one he’s plenty passionate about, but the project fell apart before production began.
8. Ghostbusters III (unproduced, in development late 90s to present)
The role: Peter Venkman
Dan Aykroyd has been trying to make another sequel to Ghostbusters for over a decade now, and Bill Murray’s been the main thing holding the project up. Ghostbusters III has always been planned as a passing-of-the-torch film with the old Ghostbusters appearing in a supporting capacity to a new generation of paranormal exterminators. Aykroyd wrote a few drafts of Ghostbusters: Hellbent, which involved the Ghostbusters traveling to a version of Hell that resembles Manhattan, in the late 90s, but the ideas from that script were since incorporated into a Ghostbusters video game. Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, two Harold Ramis proteges who wrote for The Office and also penned Bad Teacher and Year One, have been hired to write Ghostbusters III, based on a new idea. Just this week, news came in that Bill Murray isn’t interested in making the movie and Dan Aykroyd wants to recast his role. That was everyone’s main problem with the original Ghostbusters, right? Too much Bill Murray?
9. The Wedding Contract (unproduced, in development 2001-02)
Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver were set to reunite for this comedy that would have seen them playing an uptight Midwestern couple whose son marries that daughter of a New Jersey Mafia kingpin. Robert Greenhut, a longtime producer of Woody Allen’s films and classics like Dog Day Afternoon, Arthur, and The King of Comedy, was set to make his directorial debut from a script by Howard Franklin, a frequent collaborator of Murray’s. Franklin wrote and co-directed one of Bill Murray’s best movies (Quick Change), but he was also involved in two of his worst (Larger than Life, The Man Who Knew Too Little). It would have been nice to see Murray and Sigourney Weaver reunite, but this comedy sounds much broader than and tonally adjunct to the likes of Lost in Translation and Royal Tenenbaums, two films that saw Bill Murray pushing his career in a different direction and winning a lot of acclaim.
10. Press Your Luck (unproduced, in development 2003)
The role: Michael Larsen
Murray was set to star in Press Your Luck, based on the true story of Michael Larsen, who earned hundreds-of-thousands of dollars on the daytime game show Press Your Luck after memorizing the game’s patterns. Howard Franklin (mentioned above) was set to write and direct. While Franklin has done some solid work with Bill Murray, their movies together were the kinds of goofy comedies that Murray has spent the past 15 years trying to get away from by escaping into the arms of indie auteurs Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and Sofia Coppola.
11. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)
The role: Bosley
Who got it: Bernie Mac
Bill Murray played Bosley in the first Charlie’s Angels movie, but his aversion to sequels and problems with star Lucy Liu and director McG on the set of the first movie led him to jump ship when the second one came along. McG claims that Murray got mad and headbutted him (something that Murray denies) and there was also allegedly an on-set altercation between Bill Murray and Lucy Liu that involved Liu throwing punches at Murray after he questioned her acting abilities. In the sequel, Bill Murray was replaced with Bernie Mac, who I’m assuming didn’t headbutt anyone on set.
12. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
The role: Ford Prefect
Who got it: Mos Def
Long before a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie finally made it to screen, Ivan Reitman was developing the project in the early 80s. Reitman wanted either Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray to play Ford Prefect. Aykroyd sent him an early draft of the script to Ghostbusters instead, and everybody abandoned Hitchhiker’s Guide to make that movie, which turned out to be the biggest commercial hit for the careers of everyone involved.
12. Rob Schneider’s Hard R (unproduced, in development 2005-06)
Rob Schneider at one point was developing a sketch anthology movie in the vein of Kentucky Fried Movie, Amazon Women on the Moon, or The Groove Tube. Under the working name Rob Schneider’s Hard R, Schneider planned for this sketch movie to be the first in a series of films. Here’s Rob Schneider discussing the project in 2006:
“…there is a Hard R series of movies that I am going to make and that is the first one, (which) is a sketch movie kind of like Groove Tube…Bill Murray wants to be involved and I am going to try and get the Wayans brothers to do it. And Matt Selman.”
It seems strange that Bill Murray, one of the all-time greats, was planning on working alongside Schneider and the Wayans brothers. The answer as to why he was involved in this this project might lurk in the fact that Schneider had hired Bill’s younger brother John Murray to write a segment for the film. So, Bill Murray probably agreed to this just as a favor. Two other SNL alums, Norm Macdonald and David Spade, were also supposed to star, but the movie fell apart before production began. Oh well, these sketch movies rarely turn out good anyways, and I doubt Rob Schneider would have been the one to break that pattern.
13. Untitled Del Close biopic (2006)
The role: Del Close
Both Harold Ramis and Bill Murray studied under legendary improv guru Del Close. Ramis was prepping a Close biopic in 2006 and several drafts of a script had been written. When asked who he’d want to star in the movie, Ramis said Bill Murray would be perfect for the part. The likelihood of Ramis and Murray working together again is low, since Murray was displeased that Ramis didn’t want to take Groundhog Day in a more philisophical and less comedic direction and refused to speak to his longtime friend for over a decade afterwards. It seems like the two have made peace since, but don’t expect to see them reuniting for this one anytime soon. Ramis’s Del Close project has been dormant for a few years now, but it would be great to see these two put aside their differences to make a movie that would honor Del Close, a man who was a mentor to Ramis and Murray and multiple generations of prominent comedic actors.
14. Alvin and the Chipmunks (2006)
The role: Dave Seville
Who got it: Jason Lee
Bill Murray turned down the lead human role in Alvin and the Chipmunks years before it made it into production. Murray had already voiced Garfield in two half-CGI stinkfests, but at least he didn’t have to show his face in those. Jason Lee, a huge fan of Bill Murray’s, accepted the part and was very excited to have scored a role that was offered to his idol.
15. Guest starring on Parks and Rec and Community
The roles: Mayor Gunderson/Jeff’s Dad
Bill Murray is the cloth from which a lot of modern comedy is cut, so it only makes sense that the makers of two of TV’s most acclaimed sitcoms would want to pull him in for a guest spot. Community head honcho Dan Harmon revealed last year that he’s been pushing back the introduction of Jeff Winger’s father “in the hope that some miracle will happen” and he would be able to get Bill Murray to play the part. The character Jeff Winger is named after Bill Murray’s character John Winger in Stripes, and the two fictional entities share a fascination with delivering faux-dramatic halftime speeches.
The star of NBC’s other great Thursday night comedy, Amy Poehler, announced last year a campaign to convince Bill Murray to play the Mayor of Pawnee – another unseen character – on Parks and Recreation. Appearing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Poehler spoke to the camera in hopes that Murray would be watching, offering him $250 to do one episode of the show. You know what? I’m gonna sweeten the pot. I’ll add my own $250 to that offer, if Bill Murray will appear on either Parks or Community. Anyone else care to join the cause? Somebody make a Kickstarter.
16. Working with Judd Apatow
Bill Murray gave an interview to GQ in 2010, in which he mentioned that Judd Apatow has been trying to work with him. Here’s Murray discussing his feelings on the matter:
“I know someone who knows him [Apatow], and he apparently really wants to make a movie with me. And the only Apatow movie I ever saw was Celtic Pride. [laughs] That was the only movie I ever saw… It’s just brutal! Totally brutal.”
Celtic Pride, for those that don’t know, is a mid-90s comedy that Apatow co-wrote with Colin Quinn. The movie starred Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern as two Boston Celtics fans who kidnap a player from an opposing team (Damon Wayans). It was both a critical and commercial failure. It’s really unfair to judge Apatow’s comedic abilities on the basis of a 15-year-old movie that’s one of the few critically-derided works in his career, but Murray admits to being out of touch with the current comedy climate later on in the same GQ interview, confessing to never having seen a wide array of comedies that includes Clerks, both the US and UK versions of The Office, Seinfeld (Murray only saw the finale, which he didn’t like), Parks and Rec, and Community.
Judd Apatow has always actively tried to work with his favorite comedians of the previous generation, making a habit out of casting the likes of Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis, and Albert Brooks as the fathers of his protagonists. It seems like Bill Murray would be perfect for such a role, or to star in his own Apatow movie, but given that Murray’s familiarity with the biggest writer/director in comedy right now ends in 1996, there’s no chance of that happening any time soon. Come on, Bill Murray! Give the guy a call. Apatow’s grown a lot as a filmmaker since the Clinton adminstration!
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.