Bill Murray: 9 of His Greatest Roles

Bill Murray | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Bill Murray | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Any comedy-nerd worth their weight in Arrested Development references understands the importance of Saturday Night Live to the comedy industry. Since 1975, that franchise has launched an untold amount of film careers for famous funny people, from the curmudgeonly Chevy Chase to so-creepily-talented-she-might-be-an-alien Kristen Wiig. Some careers (Will Ferrell) have been more everlasting and celebrated than others (Victoria Jackson), but one existentially hilarious beacon of brilliance shines brighter than the rest: the eternal flame that is Bill Murray.

Look, I’m not here to pit SNL stars against one another in a Hunger Games style fight-to-the-death for the title of “best career.” Who is anyone to scrutinize the lives of hardworking comedians from different backgrounds who are suddenly thrust into the spotlight? There’s literally no way to compare Gilda Radner to Chris Kattan without sounding cruel (it’s like apples and old yogurt). Not to mention, the competition is pointless since the winner is so clearly Bill Murray. With four decades of success under his belt, no other SNL star has been more everlastingly beloved than Murray, and each chapter of his career has been more entertaining, intriguing, and brilliant than the last.

From Emmy-winning sketch comedy star to Golden Globe-winning dramatic actor, Murray’s career is ever evolving. In celebration of his ability to remain relevant where so many others have fallen, let’s look back and remember the roles that defined each phase of his career. Here are the roles that made Bill Murray into the star that we know and love today.

1. The SNL Years (1977)

Murray’s time at Second City improv brought him, like many others, to the sketch comedy show in its second season. As the replacement for Chevy Chase, Murray immediately stood out as a fresh comedic talent with a fun absurdity about him who could command a laugh seemingly at whim. Two years later, he was a bona fide movie star.

2. Carl Spackler in Caddyshack

While 1979’s Meatballs was Murray’s first starring role, 1980’s Caddyshack is important in that it that cemented his cinematic relationships with director Harold Ramis (who would later direct Murray in the iconic Groundhog Day and costar with Murray in Ghostbusters). Caddyshack sees Murray doing what he would do best for the next few years: bringing nuance to broad comedy and playing stupidity with goofy aplomb.

3. Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters (1984)

Consistently remembered as one of the greatest comedies about busting ghosts ever made, Ghostbusters outdid most of Murray’s previous films at the box office, and, to this day, has maintained a rabidly dedicated fan base. Peter Venkman was a little more grounded in reality than the more cartoonish characters he had been playing prior, but Murray’s mastery of the line between intelligence and buffoonery is on full display. Not surprisingly, it earned him his first Golden Globe nomination.

4. Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge (1984)

If you’re a person, living or dead, then chances are high that you never saw this movie. The Razor’s Edge was Murray’s first attempt at becoming a serious dramatic actor, and the results were mixed, at best. Murray isn’t bad in it, per se, but his dramatic chops aren’t nearly as honed as they would become 20 years later with Lost in Translation. This movie’s impact on Murray’s career, however, is undeniable. It was actually quite the passion project for Murray, and he only agreed to film Ghostbusters in order to get the studio to finance The Razor’s Edge. So on one hand, we have this movie to thank for Ghostbusters; on the other, the poor reception from critics and audiences sent him into reclusion from Hollywood for the next four years, and he didn’t really return until 1988’s Scrooged. 

5. Phil in Groundhog Day (1993)

I mean, it’s effing Groundhog Day. Who are you if you don’t know about Groundhog Day? It’s arguably Bill Murray’s best comedy, and easily Harold Ramis’s best directorial effort. More importantly, it’s the apex of Murray’s post-Razor’s Edge phase, when he was still committed to playing most things for laughs. Scrooged is great and Ghostbuster’s II is okay, but they’ve got nothing on the philosophical complexity and downright hilarity on display in Groundhog Day.

6. Bill Murray in Space Jam (1996)

Great movie? Oh dear, no. GREATEST MOVIE? A thousand times yes! You may be either too old or too young to appreciate this cinematic classic; as someone who was fully within Space Jam’s age demographic when it came out, I can tell you that this movie introduced Bill Murray to an entirely new generation of young people. Like both generations before us, WE LOVED HIM! Before Space Jam, I had only known Murray as that obnoxious guy from What About Bob? (I was nine, give me a break). Note to famous people everywhere: If you want to stay famous for more than two decades, then do what Bill Murray does. Appear in a highly successful film marketed to young people every five to 10 years in which you play yourself; recruit fans while they’re young and you’ll have them for years!

7. Herman Blume in Rushmore (1998)

After two decades in the spotlight as a strictly comedic actor, Wes Anderson finally gave Murray the opportunity to explore his darker sensibilities. While Rushmore isn’t a straight drama, Murray’s unnerving and nuanced performance as the pompous Herman Blume laid the groundwork for him to dive head first into meatier, more serious roles (it also got him his first Golden Globe nomination since Ghostbusters). This was the turning point for Murray — the moment where it was obvious he wouldn’t be doing anymore Space Jams.

8. Bob Harris in Lost In Translation (2003)

In 1984, Murray politely asked audiences if he could be a serious actor, and the answer was a resounding, “No.” Twenty years later, he responded to that “No” with, “Screw you, I’m doing it anyway,” and teamed up with Sofia Coppola to create Lost in Translation.  The role not only won him critical adoration and his first Golden Globe, but it forever changed the industry’s unwillingness to take him seriously. Now when audiences think of Bill Murray, they think of emotional depth, shrewd intelligence, and stone faced hilarity, and it hasn’t changed much since.

9. Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)

Much like Space Jam, Zombieland once again casts Bill Murray in the role he was born to play: Bill Murray! His brief, uber-meta cameo in this breakout horror comedy reminded yet another generation of audiences that Bill Murray is hilarious, while paying homage to his illustrious career for the rest of us who already loved him. It also set the tone for how the industry has regarded Murray for the past few years: as a freakishly hilarious god among men who deserves our utmost respect and nerdily intense dedication. Everybody loves Bill Murray. I mean, everybody! Woody Harrelson puts it best: “six people left in the world, and one of them is Bill Fu***ng Murray!” Apocalypse aside, that would be AWESOME. Who wouldn’t make him recreate scenes from Ghostbusters!? What are you, a zombie?

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