Bill Murray likes to mess with people. He can't help it. He works everybody. Doormen, limo drivers, makeup people, publicists, talk show producers, waiters, talk show hosts, cameramen, sound men, cute little summer interns (who get complimentary noogies and an invitation for a joy ride on the Warner corporate jet), people on the street.

Everybody.

Cruising around Washington in his limo to a television station for the 790th of 87 million interviews about his new movie, "Quick Change," he grabs the car phone and starts dialing. Earlier in the day, he'd gotten tickets to a screening of the film for his driver's kids and was eager to check out their reaction.

"Chip? No, Skip? Does the name Leroy mean anything to you? Yeah, well you bring $500 in cash to the Vietnam War Memorial right now or you'll never see Leroy again. Huh? That's right, but your dad's bleeding pretty hard. Yeah. Also, he needs some tonic and some limes. And roll those limes before you cut 'em, okay? So they squeeze easier. Okay? All right, Chip. How come, don't you have a job? You're in the Marine Corps? Well, semper fidelis, bro ..."

All day it's like this. Patter. Ribbing. Put-ons. Sendups. Shtick. Today he's a one-man media blitz, moving in a kind of Virginia reel from radio interview to television talk show to print journalist, and the comic wheels never stop turning.

"They told me that you had to keep him moving," his in-town publicist says, opening up the possibility that the comedian arrived with a packet of operating instructions taped to his back, batteries not included. "Otherwise he gets bored and crashes."

Somehow, though, you get the impression that this is business as usual for Murray, that this is the way he works through his days, movin', groovin', like a comedy machine. He's altogether human, though. As a result, nobody's afraid to approach Bill Murray. The baggy jeans and slouchy Big Apple hat -- it's embroidered and comes from Thailand and makes him look like a kind of homeboy court jester -- are an open invitation for comment. As he walks down the street, people walk up to him, touch his arm and cut loose with "That's da fact, Jack" or "Who you gonna call?"

One wiseacre crouches low in front of him in mock amazement, arms spread out wide.

"Wow! CHEVY CHASE!!"

"I'm gonna get that guy," Murray says of this last remark, and in a few seconds he does.

"Tony Dow!? TONY DOW!!! I KNEW it was you."

The impression he makes on the street is not that different from the one he makes in his movie. He's better looking in person than on screen. His haircut is good (though when he steps in front of a camera he tosses it like a salad) and there's color in his face, so he doesn't have that dank, fungusy look of a troll that just crawled out from underneath a bridge. There's the possibility that if someone earlier in life hadn't taken a sledgehammer to his nose, he might actually have been handsome. He is anyway, actually. Kinda.

"Can I work on this a little?" the makeup woman asks, referring to the acne scar between Murray's eyebrows.

"I don't know. Are you licensed to perform surgery in this state?"

His clothes could be worse, but it's hard to say how. Overall they're an improvement over the sweat-ringed ensembles he wore as the demented greenskeeper in "Caddyshack," but only by a fraction. You know the cliche about someone's clothes looking looking like he slept in them? His clothes look like he was under the bed, not in it.

Sometimes his sense of fashion is aggressively dissonant. For one talk show he wore a high-contrast black and white shirt with something like stick figures of Laplander gods dancing across it and a black-and-white houndstooth sweater vest -- precisely the kind of outfit that sends TV directors into therapy. And sure enough, on camera, his upper body looked as if it had been rigged with strobe lights. You'd think he did it on purpose. Just to mess with them.

He doesn't deny that at times the put-ons can be a form of self-defense or a method of control. Careers, and truckloads of money, hinge on his movies. This kind of pressure makes movie executives very nervous, and nervous people make great targets. One time, he remembers, just after Coca-Cola had bought Columbia Pictures, a bunch of executive types came down to the set of "Ghostbusters," making it extra rough to be funny.

"Real actors -- and I put myself in that category, 'cause it's on the census form, I guess -- can feel it when somebody is on the set that doesn't belong there. You actually can feel them the way that Secret Service people feel a nut. They can feel the vibes. So these geeks from Coke would come in, look at you like you were some kind of thoroughbred and say, like, 'So this is one of our assets. That's Bill Murray, that's Dan Aykroyd. We own these now.' That kind of feeling.

"And at times like this, I had a little ritual that I liked to perform," he continues. "I'd just stop and come over and socialize with the guests. Just stop everything and say something like, 'Excuse me, so what the hell's Atlanta like?' After a while, an assistant director would come over and say, 'Mr. Murray, we're ready.' And these guys, the one thing they do know is that it is costing about $1,500 a minute for them to talk to me. About the third time somebody comes over, I go, 'EXCUSE ME! WHEN I'M READY!!' doing a fake star tantrum, and these guys are just frozen, because they realize that on the daily report it's going to read, 'Eight minutes, Bill talking to Coke executives.' The fear of that had these guys running for their lives out of the building."

In the movies, Murray is a symbol of everything slothful and unhealthy. He slouches when he walks, mumbles when he talks. You'd swear he sleeps upside down. If his body is a temple, he's let the corridors fill with unemptied trash cans and covered the walls with spray paint. He's unscrupulous and cynical and downright strange -- the poster child for wretched excess and insincerity.

You don't even want to think about his diet.

Murray didn't invent irony, but he is its master -- irony and all of its subsets. His comedy isn't based on jokes, it's based on perspective. In delivering a line, he flips the universe on its ear and tickles it silly. His favorite attitude is one of playful disengagement; he ambles suavely alongside every situation, commenting on the action but never lending himself completely to it.

In this he has a handful of precursors -- Bugs, Groucho, W.C. Fields -- and only a scattering of peers. He attracts our interest through droll understatement. Instead of pounding his lines into us, he slips them across on a velvet cushion. He's comedy's Mel Torme. Except seedier.

The public's first real blast of Bill Murray came on "Saturday Night Live." He joined the cast in January 1977, filling the slot left open by the departure of Chevy Chase, and, contrary to the general impression, he was far from an instant success.

After bombing on a few shows and feeling that he had nothing to lose, he went on the air with what is now known as the "New Guy" speech. In it, he admitted he was afraid he wasn't cutting it.

"I'm a funny guy, but I haven't been funny on the show," he confessed. Asking the audience for its support, he went straight for its softest parts. "I'm a Catholic. I'm one of nine children. ... I was raised in Wilmette, Illinois, a small mining town north of Chicago. That reminds me of something funny. My father died when I was 17. That's not what was funny -- he was funny. People always said to me, 'Ah, you'll never grow up to be as funny as your dad.' And now he's not around to see me be not as funny as him."

(The biographical data is correct. He is one of six boys and three girls. His father, a sales rep for a lumber company, died of diabetes when Bill was 17.)

The speech didn't make him a star -- it would take at least another season and the emergence of characters such as Nick the Lounge Singer, Todd DiLaMuca and his "Weekend Update" movie critic-gossip columnist to accomplish that -- but it did save him from being fired. "Saturday Night Live" was his launching pad; some of his best friends, living and dead, were made there (when he talks about Gilda there's genuine emotion in his voice), and in general, he looks back on his three years on the show with fondness.

During the hiatus between seasons, Murray started making movies. In 1978 he took a role in "Meatballs," which was written by Harold Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman. He followed that by playing wild man writer Hunter S. Thompson in the generally atrocious "Where the Buffalo Roam," then worked again with Ramis (who was directing this time) in "Caddyshack" and then, in 1981, joined Reitman and Ramis again to make the service comedy hit "Stripes."

For his next movie project, Murray went looking for something different: With his friend John Byrum, he decided to make a movie of Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge." To get Columbia Pictures to back the project, Murray had to agree to star in a picture that he had already turned down, a little thing about a motley band of misfits who save New York from rampaging ghosts.

The two movies traveled vastly different roads. While "Ghostbusters" -- which teamed Murray once again with Ramis and Reitman, and with his old "SNL" buddy Aykroyd -- achieved phenomenal success and made him one of the most bankable comic talents in Hollywood, "The Razor's Edge" caused barely a ripple, except perhaps to provoke stories of rampant star egotism and self-indulgence.

Murray describes the experience as a disappointment, but he's philosophical about it as well, pointing out that not many people get to spend serious time in the Himalayas (where part of the film was shot) and suggesting that the trip brought benefits to his life that made the success or failure of the film irrelevant.

If Murray felt burned by the way things worked out, he's not saying. But at the very instant "Ghostbusters" propelled his career to its highest point, he walked away from Hollywood. For four years he said no to everybody, choosing instead to live for a year in Paris with his wife, Mickey (who's also from Wilmette), and their son, Homer (whose full name is Homer Banks William Murray, after the Chicago Cubs' Ernie Banks, who hit homers for a living). While he was there, their second son, Luke, was born, and Murray studied at the Sorbonne, read and indulged his passion for sports by acquiring a partial interest in the Salt Lake Trappers, a minor-league baseball team. Also, he tried to figure out whether he actually liked making movies.

"For a while there, I was pretty sure I didn't like it," Murray reports. "At first, when I was on 'Saturday Night Live,' it was, you know, like a summer job. When you had to go away for the summer, you were with a bunch of people that you didn't necessarily know, and who weren't necessarily as good as the people you were used to working with. It's like being the new kid every summer."

What Murray didn't realize, he admits, was that film is a completely different form from television or theater. "It takes a while to really know what you're doing," he says. "By about the time we made 'Ghostbusters,' that's when I sort of thought, 'Well, this is pretty good, I don't mind this now. I like this because I can do this, and I'm pretty good at it."

Still, he says, he wasn't very happy with either "Ghostbusters II" or "Scrooged" -- not counting his demented appearance in "Little Shop of Horrors," his only movies since "Ghostbusters." Given the success of the the first "Ghostbusters" film, it's unlikely that "Ghostbusters II" could have been avoided. Still, Murray says, "Ghostbusters II" was disappointing because "we tried to do something and it didn't work. A lot of effort went into justifying making that sequel -- to make the theme about something. And in a way, the theme is there, but somehow it didn't work on the lower levels. ... I'm not sorry we made it. Better remorse than regret, you know?

"But it was always going to be like painting plywood. No matter how many coats of paint you put on it, or how great the paint is, it's still plywood. It's never gonna look right."

The whole point, Murray says, is to keep yourself out of situations in which you're just painting plywood. Take "Quick Change," for example. The budget was modest and the cast impeccable. There are no big chase scenes, no special effects, no gunplay, just characters rubbing up against one another and against the film's other major player, New York City itself. It's precisely the movie, Murray says, that he and his co-director, Howard Franklin, wanted to make. Solid comedy, he says, not an inch of plywood anywhere.

He didn't really want to direct, Murray says, and he's not at all sure he'd like to do it again. He had felt that Jonathan Demme was perfect for the project, but Demme was involved in projects of his own. Same for Sydney Pollack, who had directed Murray in "Tootsie." Same for everybody else they asked.

"Well, we asked Kurosawa and he was busy," Murray deadpans. "And Scorsese ..."

When it's suggested that he stepped behind the camera because that was where the power was, he says, "Sure, that's where the power is, I guess, but who wants it? It's so much work."

What it's all about, Murray explains, is attention span. "That's the thing -- that and coffee. My attention span now, I think, is getting to about 45 minutes, you know. Enough to direct, like, half a movie. So to make something bigger I've got to be able to pay more attention to more things."

As for coffee ... Murray's mind is beginning to unravel after about 12 straight hours of talk. But he goes on, undaunted, explaining the essence of show business, how the whole thing boils down to two elements: coffee and sleep. And how there are just a few guys who have a clue, and "you always want to move everything they do through all the people that have a clue. You know? You just want to keep movin' 'em through. You know? It's like illegal aliens -- you push 'em through Ellis Island, make sure they're stamped, they're sprayed, they're washed, they gotta have a name and know where they're going, you know? And that's the same thing with movies. You want to do the same thing. You want to move everybody through."

He realizes that he's starting to talk gibberish.

"I mean, now I've gotta do this movie 'What About Bob?,' and I'm beat. I'm exhausted. I'm tired. I mean, I've been working for two years. I am really tired. I'm a guy who likes to get lots and lots of sleep. I really like to sleep and I require a lot of sleep and I have not gotten it for two years. ... I can work as hard as anybody, but I do like to sleep. So for me to pull this 'Bob' thing together, I gotta do a lot of work. But I gotta sleep too, so ..."

For a moment, his voice trails off, but only for a moment. It's as if he's made a contract with himself not to stop talking until he sets foot on the plane for New York.

"Really it's sleep and coffee. Those are the keys in the movie business -- getting enough sleep and enough coffee. And you just keep doing that, you know, because that's all you can do ... because ... I really gotta get some sleep."

At the airport, he gives Leroy a bottle of champagne and the box of Belgian chocolates the hotel gave him. He's stripped off his sweater vest and changed his shirt for the third time today. Throwing his black duffel over his shoulder, he looks around as if he half expects another interviewer to walk up and start firing questions. In fact, he almost looks disappointed. Watching him lope out to his plane, you almost feel sorry for him. What if he's on that big jet all by himself? Then you remember that jets have at least two pilots.

Surely he can mess with them.