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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is Bill Murray NYC's New Party Boy?

Why is 58-year-old actor Bill Murray popping up unannounced at Williamsburg house parties and hanging out with twentysomething hipsters? Sarah Horne explores the mystery of the scene's most unlikely, late-blooming It guy.

The actor joined a table of comely young strangers (from left: Jessica Haigh, Sophie Donnelly and Sophie Ellis) at Chelsea's Half King pub in October.

Photo: Sophie Ellis

The actor joined a table of comely young strangers (from left: Jessica Haigh, Sophie Donnelly and Sophie Ellis) at Chelsea's Half King pub in October.

At around 3:30 on the morning after Halloween, two dozen twentysomething hipsters linger at a loft party in East Williamsburg. The kegs are dry, but die-hard stragglers are still dancing drunkenly in the main room. Dave Summers, a 29-year-old grad student at the Bank Street College of Education and one of the party's hosts, has dressed as a cloud for the night—his baby-blue T-shirt and baseball cap covered in dozens of white cotton balls. While several guests have come as Sarah Palin, one is in a furry yellow duck costume. Another is Bill Murray's character from the 1980 film Caddyshack.

Suddenly, one of Dave's guests runs over to tell him: "The real Bill Murray just walked in the door."

"You're joking," Dave scoffs.

"No, really, he's here."

Bill Murray with his ex-wife Jennifer

Photo: J. Vespa/WireImage

Bill Murray with his ex-wife Jennifer

Still not entirely convinced, but worried the actor might leave if there's no booze, Dave runs to a nearby bodega to grab some beer. When he returns, the shopping bag breaks in the hallway. As errant bottles roll across the floor, suddenly there's Bill Murray—leaning down to help collect the beer and even sticking one in his shirt pocket.

Soon the 58-year-old actor—dressed as himself, Dave and his friends presume—is trading quips with fresh-faced Ivy League grads in the loft's hallway, while drinking a bottle of Modelo Especial. Eventually Bill even hits the dance floor and displays some decent moves. "It wasn't like he was John Travolta or something," said one observer afterwards, "but it wasn't embarrassing."

The whole scene is kind of goofy and light-hearted until a young male guest approaches Bill, who is probably his dad's age, and says, "I think you're making bad life choices." It is as if someone has told the emperor he isn't wearing any clothes. After the dancing, and the beers, and a weird conversation with Dave about the joys of sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows (inspired by the cotton ball cloud costume), the Oscar-nominated star cordially thanks his hosts and slips away into the night. The next day, guests trade photos of Bill on the dance floor. Everyone, including the Hollywood star, pretty much looks wrecked.

Later, Dave found out that Bill had been party-hopping with the band MGMT, the hot Brooklyn duo featured on the November cover of Spin, after attending their concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg that night. "There he was in my apartment, just having a good time like everybody else," Dave says now, still amazed. "I felt something between excitement and incredulity that he was there—and that my party must be pretty fun
because he didn't just leave."

Bill Murray alongside old party pal and SNL castmate Dan Aykroyd.

Photo: NBC/courtesy Everett Collection

Bill Murray alongside old party pal and SNL castmate Dan Aykroyd.

But the weirdest part of the experience is not that Bill showed up at some random ragtag Halloween party, but that it's only one of several out-of-place encounters New York City hipsters have had with the actor in the past few months. From hanging out with rock bands to hitting on twentysomething women at bars, Bill seems to be going through his own unique midlife crisis. He's not a boozy, sweaty party hound who gets caught on camera cheesing it up with pretty young girls (see: Mel Gibson, Bono); rather, he's more like a ghost in the night, who shows up out of nowhere, engages in utterly random conversations and then exits gracefully—leaving witnesses to wonder what the hell just happened. Deadpan, detached and seeming a bit lonely, Bill Murray is NYC's most unlikely new party guy.

This has been a rough year for the actor. In mid May, Jennifer Butler Murray, Bill's wife of 11 years and the mother of four of his young sons (he has two more boys from his first marriage to Margaret Kelly), filed for divorce on the grounds of his "adultery, addiction to marijuana and alcohol, abusive behavior, physical abuse, sexual addictions, and frequent abandonment." In divorce papers obtained by TheSmokingGun.com, Jennifer went on to claim that one of America's most beloved comedic actors had hit her in the face during a November 2007 argument and said she was "lucky he didn't kill her." Their divorce was finalized on June 13 and Bill remained at the couple's home in Palisades, New York, about 20 miles north of the city.

Bill foreshadowing his real-life future in a scene from Lost in Translation

Photo: Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection

Bill foreshadowing his real-life future in a scene from Lost in Translation

In recent years, the star who honed his comedic chops on Saturday Night Live, and in madcap films like Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day has entered a darker phase of his acting career. And while his slightly offbeat broad comedy established him as a bankable Hollywood star, it's Bill's more recent "blue period" that has truly earned him credibility. In the Wes Anderson films Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Bill gave unsettling performances, playing weathered misanthropes (or, to put it another way, bastards).

Sometimes that edge has benefited him: His mournful performance as the washed-up movie star Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation earned him an Academy Award nomination. Three years ago, Bill told a reporter for The Guardian in Britain that that movie had resonated with him: "You are always away from home, as a film actor....You can't sleep, you put on the television in the middle of the night when you can't understand a word, and you make phone calls back home which don't really give you the comfort they should. I know what it's like to be that stranger's voice calling in." In a scene from that movie, Bill's character follows Scarlett Johansson, playing a young stranger who he has just met in a Tokyo hotel, to a karaoke party filled with Japanese scenesters half his age. He does shots and croons Roxy Music's "More Than This."

Now, with his real-life marriage in tatters, Bill seems to be perpetually stuck in his own version of Groundhog Day meets Lost in Translation—involuntarily repeating that excruciating yet endearing party scene, trawling for serendipity in the New York night.

A few weeks before Halloween, on the night before the October 7 New York premiere of his film City of Ember, Bill popped up again, seemingly adrift, at the Half King, the West Chelsea pub co-owned by author Sebastian Junger. Sophie Ellis, a petite brunette 22-year-old in town from London for journalism work-study, and two pretty young friends were having a quiet drink, when the actor walked in and unexpectedly joined their table, buying them two bottles of champagne. As Sophie remembers, "I suppose he was slightly flirtatious, but really, it was more like he obviously wanted a bit of a chat. He seemed a little lonely. We started talking about Mexican food and he said, 'Right, later this week I'll take you all out for Mexican food. I'll send you the best avocados in the mail so you can make fresh guacamole.' He was very gentlemanly, even though he looks quite grumpy—like a granddad." At the end of the night, he walked the girls out to the curb and hailed them a cab. "It was surreal," Sophie says. "I was like, 'Why are you here, talking to us?' " Before they parted ways, she and her friends posed for a photo with the actor.

Bill Murray living it up in Chicago in March

Photo: Will Byington

Bill Murray living it up in Chicago in March

Back in his SNL days of the late '70s, Bill used to hang out with his castmates at the Blues Bar, a NYC dive owned by co-star Dan Aykroyd. "[I would] stay until the sun came up. You had to blow off a lot of steam [after taping the show]," he told authors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller in the book Live From New York. Still, his partying was never as outsize as his comedic compatriots of the time, and since leaving SNL in 1980, any bad-boy behavior has largely stayed under the radar—at least until recently. In August of 2007, Bill was pulled over by police for allegedly driving a golf cart while under the influence of alcohol in Stockholm, Sweden. The actor had been in town for the Scandinavian Masters, and took the cart, which was parked outside his trendy hotel for the week, on a joyride to the Café Opera disco. The previous fall, he landed in Britain's tabloids when he followed a 22-year-old female university co-ed to a house party in St. Andrew's, Scotland, where he had been playing in a celebrity golf tournament. Students told the papers he helped them do the dishes when it turned out there were no glasses left to drink from.

Of course, the actor has never been your typical, guarded, Hollywood VIP. On the red carpet the night after hanging out with Sophie and her friends, Bill was taken aback when reporters asked him how he felt about Scarlett Johansson's new marriage to Ryan Reynolds, and he gave a typically uncensored answer. "If I were Scarlett, I would have hung on a little longer. She's probably been having a good time dating until now," he acerbically opined. "I wish she'd have called me. I'd have talked her down." Bill is also notorious for being one of the rare movie stars to work without a publicist or agent; scripts and interview requests are handled by his lawyer, and often go unanswered. If someone really wants him to do a movie, he has said, they'll find him. (Through his lawyer, Bill turned down an interview request for this story.)

Says Ben Widdicombe, an editor at large for Star, "He's witty and candid in his answers while his more Hollywood-ized colleagues merely repeat boilerplate about how great some director is." As for Bill's reputation for being gruff with reporters, Ben says, "I used to think he didn't like talking to journalists, but then I realized he just prefers talking to journalists who are 22 years old and working heels and a push-up bra." As for why Bill's suddenly become everybody's favorite party guy, Manhattan psychotherapist Rachel Moheban has an answer: "After divorce, some men just want a whole new life. It sounds like a midlife crisis, but I don't think it's worrisome. After being married for a long time, sometimes men just like to have some fun and feel free."

Whatever the reason, Bill's new proclivity for PYTs seems to be working in his favor lately. One 30-year-old magazine editor who lives in a fashionable building in the West Village says that when he took his dog for a walk at around 7:45 a.m. on Election Day, he spotted Bill—in a tennis visor and sunglasses—emerging from his lobby. "He looked like he'd spent the night in the building," speculated the source. "Despite his getup, I recognized that adorable doughy jawline, and thought, 'Hey, Bill Murray just banged my neighbor!' It was totally a booty call." For weeks after the encounter, the source eyed up every attractive woman in his building, wondering if she was Bill's latest conquest.

And the actor isn't limiting his lothario ways to NYC. On November 14, Bill dined at Sepia in Chicago with 27-year-old Crystle Stewart, the current Miss USA (also known as the unfortunate contestant who tripped during the Miss Universe pageant this July). The former model, who has said she "wants to dedicate her life to international philanthropy," obviously cheered him up. After the dinner, he sweetly kissed a gaggle of female fans outside the restaurant, seeming to bask in their affections.

Then again, perhaps he's just toying with us all. There's an urban legend that's gone round until no one is sure who it happened to, or if it happened at all. It was late one night, a few years ago, when a young man was walking through Union Square Park. He suddenly felt someone behind him, their hands over his eyes. When he turned in surprise, there was Bill Murray, his creased face leaning in close. Bill whispered, "No one is ever going to believe you," and then just walked away.

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