What It Takes

What It Takes

George Peper, Bill Murray and Broderick Crawford

By Shawn Coyne | Published: January 6, 2012

For quite a while now (almost two years), Steve Pressfield and I have been tossing drafts of one of his manuscripts back and forth.  It’s just about ready to share. I think we’re on draft nine or ten, not sure. I bet Steve knows how many we’ve burned through, but he doesn’t bitch about it. He’s a pro.

Anyway, in a few months we’ll have a lot more to say about that book. For now I only bring it up because the concept of the book we’ve been working on reminded me of a story. And as Martha Stewart would say, “that’s a good thing.”

When I was at Doubleday, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the sports publishing program. The company had (and still does have) a leadership position in the arena. In addition to the usual sports fare that we’d acquire in proposal form from literary agents, we liked to be a bit pro-active and dream up projects that were unusual but potentially hugely commercial.

In the spring of 1998, I was on the phone with literary agent Scott Waxman. Scott represented and still does represent a terrific list of writers, many of whom I published back then. We were talking about one of his clients, the then editor-in-chief of Golf Magazine George Peper. George is as agile and entertaining a writer as Herbert Warren Wind but without the wind. The other thing I love about George is that he delivers what he promises, and usually on time to boot.

As just about all golf conversations eventually devolve into a quote off from the seminal work in the links-land oeuvre, Scott and I started talking about Caddyshack. Scott is an agent who is always closing.  He’d be a great character in a David Mamet play. It was then that he one-upped my terrible “Gunga galunga, gunga—gunga galunga” Carl Spackler imitation and told me that George was friends with Bill Murray.

My heart skipped a beat. You have to understand that Bill Murray is impossible to reach. He doesn’t have an agent. He doesn’t have a manager. He doesn’t have a publicist. He doesn’t have an entourage.

But he’s not impossible. He walks around like a civilian, buys fruit on the street, and dresses exactly like a guy who grew up in Wilmette, Illinois would. Those who recognize him do so about ten beats after he’s passed them by.

“Was that Bill Murray?”

“Nah…couldn’t have been…you think Bill Murray would walk around in a Nyack tee ball T-shirt?”

I called George and asked him if he thought Bill would consider writing a book.

He didn’t say no.

Rather “it depends on what the book is about…he’s not going to write anything usual that’s for sure.” About five minutes into spit-balling an idea for Bill, George figured it out.

“You know, Bill’s brother Brian co-wrote the screenplay for Caddyshack. He and Doug Kenny (legendary National Lampoon founder) based it on the Murray brothers’ days as caddies in Illinois…Maybe Bill would want to write about that?  We could call it CINDERELLA STORY…”

George pitched the notion to Bill in between grooving three irons at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club driving range… He didn’t say yes, but Bill agreed to have lunch to talk more about it.

After we ate—but not before I agreed to try the Zabaione Bill had ordered for his dessert—we worked out a deal.

Over the next several months, Bill faxed George and I bits and pieces of the book. Needless to say, the stories were formatted incorrectly. They were written single-spaced and every letter was uppercase.  Somehow Bill had permanently locked the ALL CAPS button on his Pleistocene-age word processor. But, they were brilliantly Bill Murray…Inimitable and Proustian in their depth of observation. They were laugh out loud funny at first but had that hint of melancholia that has become Bill’s trademark.

The guy’s a natural writer.

George and I helped piece the scenes together with interstitial narrative tissue, but every word in the book was Bill’s. Trust me…we went over every word…again and again and again.  I wake up some nights in a cold sweat thinking Doubleday’s managing editor is still waiting at the printer in Maryland for me to deliver the final manuscript.

I explained to Bill that we needed a photo insert to compliment the prose.

So he dumped what he found in his attic and collected photos that his brothers and sisters were kind enough to lend him into an old baseball bat bag. It was pretty full.  He’s one of nine kids. He called me and George and told us to come over to 30 Rockefeller Center to look ‘em over.  He was on Saturday Night Live that week and there was a couch in the host’s dressing room that we could use to sort ‘em out.

When I got there, Bill had a Lucinda Williams CD cranked up and was bobbing his head in rhythm to “I Lost it” while George sat a bit uncomfortably on the couch. George and I shook hands and Bill gave me a “what’s up” nod.  Then he offered me the beverage of my choice as he handed me the bag of photos.

We never got to them.

Months later, we ended up laying out the insert sometime between 3:03 a.m. and 4:12 a.m. at a surprisingly comfortable suite at the Double Tree Hotel in Times Square. But that’s another story.

Cast member Tim Meadows came in to hang while he waited to be called to the stage for a hilarious The Ladies Man rehearsal. Bill made the introductions.

And then who walks in but Dan Aykroyd.

George and I nudged each other like a couple of nerds at a Star Trek convention. Soon Tim Meadows is asking the guys what it was like back at the beginning…when the show was just catching on.  Who was the best host? Who was the worst? How did it work?

Murray and Aykroyd looked at each other probably like Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin used to…with a sort of “should we open the vault?” expression. Then they both said:

“Broderick Crawford.”

George, Tim Meadows and I settled in for the story.  Bill and Dan share narration.

Midway into the second season of Saturday Night Live—1977—the creator of SNL, Lorne Michaels (just 32 at the time), hires Broderick Crawford as guest host for the March 19th show.

Which is weird.

Not crazy weird, but unexpected weird.

Crawford isn’t some schmoe of the street. With theatrical roots all the way back to a childhood career in Vaudeville, Broderick Crawford is an actor’s actor. He’s won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Governor Willie Stark (based on Huey Long) in the film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. But by ’77, twenty-eight years of dust has collected on that Oscar.

Crawford is most famous for playing a character named Chief Dan Matthews in a 1950’s television series called Highway Patrol. Michaels was taking a calculated risk, betting that the old thespian would bring something fresh to SNL. Crawford wasn’t “with it” like Buck Henry or Robert Klein or George Carlin. And he definitely wasn’t Candice Bergan.

Rather Michaels gambled that Crawford would push the writers and the cast out of their comfort zones. And when a live comedy troupe was forced to play it fast and loose, something interesting usually happened.

In 1977, twenty-four-year old Dan Aykroyd and twenty-six-year old Bill Murray aren’t at the show to see if something interesting will happen.  They need Saturday Night Live to succeed.  This was way before Meatballs or The Blues Brothers or Stripes or Trading Places. These guys are two paychecks away from couch surfing their way back home to a job at the local lumberyard.

If the show is cancelled, there’s little chance that the two struggling comedic writer/actors will ever get another shot to appear in front of millions of people every week. They’d just be two more unemployed actors in New York.  Worse than that, they’d be two ice-cold actors right off a failed TV show, not exactly the leading men movie studios vie to invest millions of dollars in.

In fact, Murray has already lost a big job.  He was in the original cast of ABC’s quickly cancelled variety show, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Now, he’s the “new guy” at SNL, fighting for survival…in search of camera time. He’d been hired to take the place of the one bona fide star the show had produced, Chevy Chase. He hasn’t come close to filling Chase’s shoes.

So in March 1977, Murray is struggling to find his voice. He isn’t making it on the show. But maybe Crawford as host will open up some sketch time…  The big guy isn’t going to be able to play in every scene…

Could Bill write something that would best spotlight his skill set? Now was his chance to actually get it on the air.

Meanwhile Dan Aykroyd is pumped. With an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, especially cheesy 50s television shows, he’s thrilled that Broderick Crawford is hosting. As a kid in Canada, he loved Highway Patrol and he’s already sketched out a skit that puts him alongside the burly legend. Aykroyd thinks that with decades of experience under his belt in radio, stage, film and TV, Crawford is going to be great live from New York on Saturday Night.

But there’s just one problem. Broderick Crawford has a reputation as a drinker. Most on the cast and crew like to drink too (among other things) so they think he’ll fit right in. But drinking isn’t just a hobby for Crawford; it has become his vocation.  To top it off, he’s scheduled to host the Saturday just after St. Patrick’s Day.  Can you say “bender?”

Crawford misses the table readings.  He misses rehearsals.  He rarely even makes it to Studio 8H.

He spends most of his time holding court at a bar/restaurant called Barrymore’s (named after stage uber legend John Barrymore).  It’s about thirty steps from Crawford’s favorite Broadway stage, The Music Box Theater and like any Irishman, Crawford’s feeling sentimental about the old days.

Production assistants are sent to coral him, but they never made it back.  Crawford’s magnetism and “just one more” Irish charm are too much for them. He even gets SNL’s resident short-filmmaker Gary Weis to walk with him around town.  They shoot a running monologue of Crawford serving up Blarney about the good old days when bartenders served booze in teakettles after last call.

Aykroyd finally corners Crawford and tactfully explained his concerns.  If he isn’t in the studio, how will he learn his blocking? How will he remember his lines?

Crawford mumbles, “Don’t worry about it Kid. I’ll manage.”

Murray has even more at stake. He has finally written something that he thinks could get him out of playing supporting bit parts in other people’s skits. It could potentially establish him as a unique presence in the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” He was going to look the audience right in the eye and admit that he didn’t think he was being funny enough to stay on the show. But his bit isn’t scheduled to go up until halfway into the program.

If Crawford slurs his words and rocks like a drunk during his monologue, people will turn off their TVs. No matter how well Aykroyd or Murray perform, without a steady host at the helm, no one will see their work. Not good for them, not good for Saturday Night Live.

Saturday rolls around.

Crawford and Weis have put together a very compelling short film…a Vaudeville-era King Lear character (named Broderick Crawford) walks around a crumbling New York City contending with an unknowable future in an indecipherable present longing for a simpler past.

It’s funny, but melancholy, unique. It will fill critical minutes in the first half hour, enough to get to musical guests’ Dr. John, Levon Helm and Paul Butterfield’s all-star band’s first song. All they have to do is get Crawford through the monologue.

The show starts. Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Lorraine Newman and surprise guest Linda Ronstadt nail the cold opening. The rush from the band ensues.

But moments before his cue, Crawford is bobbing and weaving from drink, dazed. He’s so unstable, Michaels has agreed to place a high backed leather chair on stage to steady him and to have him skip the climb down the sets’ “loft” like steps. He just needs to wait underneath the staircase and walk the nineteen steps from backstage to center state, sit down, and then tell a short story about NBC in its radio days.

But the guy is pissed drunk. Aykroyd and Murray watch in horror.

But then, just as Don Pardo announces “Ladies and Gentleman…Broderick Crawford…” like a prizefighter with an ammonia capsule popped beneath his nose, just before the bell ring of a new round, the thousands of hours on the boards, on the sound stages and in the TV studios that Crawford has offered up for his craft in his fifty year career rally him.

The boys at Barrymore’s cheer as they watch their friend deftly navigate the bar’s television screen to tell a charming old story about being fired years ago by the very network giving him airtime now. Crawford is wonderful in the Highway Patrol skit and hits every mark.

Murray and Aykroyd finish the story.

“Pro…the guy was a Pro.”

Posted in What It Takes

9 Responses to “George Peper, Bill Murray and Broderick Crawford”

  1. January 6, 2012 at 5:00 am

    Great story Shawn! I kinda want to see the episode now, but I think I like your telling more than I’ll enjoy the viewing.

    So I’ll have to find something else to do while I wait to hear more about the book you and Steven are working on.

  2. Ulla Lauridsen
    January 6, 2012 at 10:46 am

    He was also a drunk. Sad, sad, sad. Nothing funny about it.

  3. Sonja Eaton
    January 6, 2012 at 10:52 am

    That was so much fun to read! You had me in suspense, Shawn. Loved it.

  4. January 6, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I would read anything you write, Shawn! You are an amazing story-teller. LOVED this one!
    Was listening to Howard Stern interview Bill Murray the other day and in addition to no agent, manager, publicist, entourage, he said he doesn’t do email.
    About his notoriety in showing up randomly at people’s houses, he said that is a perfectly fine thing to do as long as you are mannerly!

  5. Tricia A
    January 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks for this, Shawn.

    Yes, it’s sad that BC was an alcoholic, but aside from the great story, what I liked about this was that he could still be a pro in spite of that large flaw / (nearly) debilitating disease.

    Most of us have flaws of one sort or another. It is a ‘good thing’ to see we can be a pro without having to wait until we are perfect human beings. (In my case, at least, that would be a mighty long wait.)

  6. Paul C
    January 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I can imagine all the stories about John Belushi in Bill Murray’s vault.

  7. Mike V.
    January 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Beautiful story. In training circles, we talk of training to the point of “Unconscious Competence.” Training to the point that every move is done without conscious thought (i.e. autopilot). That’s what Broderick Crawford showed that night.

  8. skip
    January 12, 2012 at 4:38 am

    excellent. and thats the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic.

  9. January 18, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    What a great post. As both a huge fan of Bill and SNL, I couldn’t stop reading. Also, you just don’t hear enough stories of full functioning drunks on TV anymore.