Unsung Hero: Don Murray

by Tim Sika

In 1956 actor Don Murray exploded onto movie screens as Beauregard “Bo” Decker: the swaggering, handsome, gauche cowboy who romances low-rent chanteuse Marie (played by superstar Marilyn Monroe) in director Joshua Logan’s Technicolor Cinemascope film adaptation of the celebrated William Inge stage play Bus Stop

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Tall, with a wiry athlete’s physique and school yearbook good looks Murray made Hollywood stand up and take notice in this, his feature film debut, holding his own alongside one of the screen’s most alluring, magnetic, and photogenic performers, and surprisingly, but nonetheless triumphantly, nabbing an Academy Award® nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the process.  Monroe, in what is arguably her best dramatic screen performance in a benchmark film now regarded as the first film that proved she could act, and fresh from a year of study at The Actor’s Studio, was ironically bypassed by her peers at Oscar® time.  (The oversight was purportedly caused by the 20th Century Fox studio’s reluctance to promote the star as an “actress.”)

But based on this auspicious screen debut, it was logical to assume that like Monroe, Murray was destined—or certainly an A-List candidate—for Hollywood stardom.  And his background only seemed to contribute to that assumption.

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He studied acting right out of high school, (East Rockaway, Class of 1947) at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts.  In 1951 he made his Broadway debut as Jake Hunter in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.  His refusal as a conscientious objector to serve in the Korean War resulted in a hiatus from acting, where Murray spent the next three years of that war assisting war casualties and orphans.  (Known as one of Hollywood’s most principled citizens he has often turned down films out-of-sync with his political and social positions and helped sponsor others who did the same.)

Murray returned to acting in 1954 onstage opposite Mary Martin in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth.  It was here that veteran stage director Joshua Logan—just coming off the hit film version of another William Inge play (Picnic  starring William Holden and Kim Novak)—spotted Murray and cast him opposite Marilyn Monroe in the plum role of a naïve, rough-around-the-edges cowboy in obsessive pursuit of a café singer whose feelings were anything but reciprocal creating what is generally conceded to be his best-remembered screen role.

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In 1957 he collaborated with director Delbert Mann and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky on the character piece The Bachelor Party  which featured Murray playing—to very good notices—the lead ensemble role of hard-working, married bookkeeper Charlie Samson, who throws a bachelor party along with four other co-workers for a colleague on the cusp of marriage.  This was followed that same year by the hard-hitting—and even more critically acclaimed—role of Johnny Pope in the Fred Zinnemann-directed drama A Hatful of Rain  where Murray knocked it out of the park as a morphine-addicted Korean War vet trying to hide this dark secret from his wife and domineering father.

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Two years later he once again he proved he could act side-by-side with the best of them, going toe-to-toe with mega-watt-screen star James Cagney in Shake Hands With The Devil  (1959), in what was at the time, a controversial political drama about the Irish Republican Army.

And other films like The Hoodlum Priest  (1961)—a social drama which Murray produced, contributed to the screenplay and starred in, based on the real life story of Father Charles Dismas Clark, a Jesuit priest who ministered to adolescent criminals on the streets of St. Louis and Otto Preminger’s trenchant political drama Advise and Consent  (1962) where the actor braved the role of a United States senator from Utah being blackmailed because of his homosexual past—continued to provide unassailable evidence of a canon of film work that was cutting edge, fresh and, although perhaps only momentarily connecting with the cultural zeitgeist of the time, clearly elicited a tangible degree of critical and audience approval the year of their respective releases.

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Blessed with an ideal “look” for the movies, Murray was always strikingly memorable in whatever it was he undertook to play onscreen.  He is an actor, with whom the camera has always seemed to be, for want of a better phrase, besottedly in love.  His physical instrument (in both his early as well as later work) seemed tailor-made for film, and his screen acting never fails to leave an indelible visual impression upon the viewer—particularly in the films previously mentioned—but  also in later character roles like the canister vacuum cleaner salesman in Happy Birthday Wanda June  (1971); and the evil dictator Breck in Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes  (1972)  And there always appeared to be something underneath his appealing exterior which boasted an All-American face characterized by an element of the unspoken, unsaid, or undeclared. Perhaps this can all be summed up in the phrase “star quality” or that “little something extra” that Moss Hart wrote about, but whatever it is, Murray has it. In addition, his screen persona reflected a sensitive, but solid confidence rooted in a pronounced but at the same time subtle masculine gracefulness very similar to—and reminiscent of—the smooth and suave elegance of a Gene Kelly dance routine.

So what happened to Don Murray’s career?

Why then does Don Murray—an excellent screen actor who has repeatedly appeared in a wide variety of high profile projects, and continued to work steadily and continually throughout the last several decades in high rated TV dramas like The Borgia Stick  and onstage as Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago , and who should have been as big a screen star as Paul Newman—lack name recognition unless you are a movie buff, university film professor, or a Knots Landing aficionado?

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“A Special Weekend With Don Murray,” an ambitious retrospective of his work at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater (July 11-13), will endeavor to address some of these questions.

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In addition, the actor/filmmaker will be the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Unsung Hero  (scheduled for a November 2014 release).  Directed by Donald Malcolm, Unsung Hero  (clips of which will be shown throughout the weekend retrospective) sets out to rectify and put into historical perspective the filmmaking legacy of Don Murray, how his film accomplishments related to the times in which they were unfolding, and will presence, acknowledge and address the significance of a high-quality career which deserves to be more widely known.

The 84-year-old Murray will appear in person for interviews and audience interaction throughout the course of the entire festival.

The Roxie Theater will also screen fourteen of Murray’s works—including the nearly lost interracial love triangle drama Call Me By My Rightful Name  (1972) and the little known landmark film Sweet Love, Bitter  (1966) about a troubled interracial couple involved with a jazz performer—over the July 11-13 weekend, and EatDrinkFilms spoke briefly with Don Malcolm, director of the forthcoming Unsung Hero  and organizer of “A Special Weekend With Don Murray.”

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Q: Don, what is the premise of Unsung Hero?

A: The premise came from the fact that Foster Hirsch introduced me to the work of Don Murray in 2009—and I became astonished at the discovery that there was so much more (of his work) that just wasn’t around anywhere.  And I wanted to discover why.  After doing that for several years and working with Don and doing a few other projects—such as a smaller film festival that we did in Santa Barbara—we got to know a little bit more about what happened and how that actually told us more about what happened to America in the time that Don’s career went off the rails.  There’s a metaphor there for how America went into a sort of paroxysm of divisiveness, the polarization of the country, and that began right around that time Don Murray’s career submerged.  It’s an interesting kind of connection point and it helps to sort of explain what happened in America at the same time so I thought that that would be a good way to try to put those two things together and also to tell the story of Don—and his own work that got lost in the shuffle as a result.

Q: How did Don Murray perceive his own celebrity?  Did he ever talk about that?  Did he want to be a star?

A: Well, that’s a very good question. And I think it’s clear from the beginning that Don was a different kind of individual than many of his contemporaries and peers were—at least at the time—in 1955-56 he’s coming back from having spent two and a half years working with refugees in Italy and Germany and he’s got a different take on things than the average actor or movie star—and this really did color the way that he went about doing what he did.

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When he became successful in Bus Stop  he took to heart the fact that he had made a pledge to himself to help those refugees who had been stuck behind barbed wire for nearly a decade after World War II.  And when you think about it most of us don’t think about those things and it’s kind of astonishing to become aware of just how long those kinds of lingering problems go on.  Obviously we have many problems like that going on in the world today as well in totally different kinds of situations.

But it really meant something to Don and he committed himself to solving that problem at least to the extent that he could. And with that in mind he did not pursue stardom in the usual way and I think he was walking a tightrope act during that six or seven years he was at (20th Century) Fox trying to do both things.  And probably that obviously didn’t help him to sustain that level of success that he had originally, but that was a conscious decision at that particular point in time: if he could do something with some substance that had some commercial appeal…

Q: Tell us more about this “A Very Special Weekend with Don Murray” and its program content.

A: Well, this is something that we’ve been working on for a couple of years now in one form or another.  As we were working on Unsung Hero  we started to get the idea that it would be good to develop this program in a way that would cover as wide a set of works as we could.  And that was when I was able to spend time talking with my old friend Elliot Lavine who encouraged me to keep working on that idea, in addition to the idea that we could do something either after the film was done or in advance of it; and we decided that it made more sense to get the material out so that more people would be familiar with it; and as we did that work Don Murray himself became more and more interested in the idea of some of the film work that he had done in dealing with race relation issues and that brought us to the point a month or two ago where Don finally said, “Well, maybe you guys should just go to the vaults and we should look at that film Call Me By My Rightful Name  and see what it looks like and see if there’s a chance we could make a new print of it?”  Because that would be better than what we were digging up on it.  So we got him involved and at that point it became a good combination of efforts between Don and myself.

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Q: I had never even heard of that film.  In fact a lot of the films in “A Very Special Weekend With Don Murray” aren’t even listed in his IMDb credits or on the TCM database, which are both pretty comprehensive.

A: Well, I think you’re helping me make my point: that this material—well, it’s just consummately strange that someone who has so many high, memorable moments like The Hoodlum Priest—that film was a big success both at the box-office and critically and it should have been the thing that would have been the springboard for an ongoing independent filmmaking career, but it didn’t happen.  Yet over the ensuing years, Don continued to work and work prolifically.

You would never know but when Don Murray was growing up he wanted to be another Danny Kaye.  He wanted to be a song and dance man.  In the early seventies when he was still having trouble re-establishing his career after the TV series The Outcasts  he did several movies where he tried to re-invent himself as a character actor.  And when Don wasn’t able to re-invent himself as a director with The Cross And The Switchblade—the success of that movie actually made it harder for him to get work—he went back to New York where he starred in a play called Smith.

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One of the fascinating things we were able to find is a Tonight Show appearance that Don did in 1973 ahead of the premiere of the play on Broadway.  And it was a very fascinating little play which combined a very avant-garde narrative with old style Broadway songs and it was going to be a big hit but they were going to change theaters after its initial run and somehow they got completely knocked out of having that theater by somebody coming in and making a larger offer—so they were left with no place to go with it.

But Don as a song and dance man!  That would have been just a fantastic switchola for him.  But again fate intervened at his ability to have that happen.  It was taken away from him by forces outside of his control.  So all of that stuff will be covered in Unsung Hero  and I think it’s going to be real interesting.

 

Tim Sika is the host, producer of  Celluloid Dreams: The Movie Show; director of the Camera Cinema Club; DVD reviewer for The Ronn Owens Show (KGO NewsTalk 810 AM San Francisco); and President of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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