At 12:39 p.m., a couple hours after my giant story about Bill Murray not calling me is published, the phone rings.
It’s Bill Murray. He is in New York on the way to the airport.
“I’m sorry you’re not here in this taxi on the way to JFK,” he says. “I’ve got some Swiss chocolate.”
I tell him I’ve been trying to reach him for weeks. That I had given up. He tells me he had heard that but he didn’t know what to say. He finally dialed my cell after nudging from former “Saturday Night Live” writer Jim Downey, a close friend of his.
I mention that the story is actually done.
“I didn’t read the article,” he says. “I don’t even know where the article is or when it came out. I was calling you on the chance you hadn’t written it because they all said I would enjoy the experience of speaking with you.”
So we talk. We talk about the Chicago Cubs, who he believes are going to turn it around, and musician John Prine, who I mention first, for no particular reason other than that I’ve been listening to him recently, and Murray, as luck would have it, perks up. He tried to actually get the Kennedy Center to bring in Prine for Sunday’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony. It didn’t work out.
“I thought it would have been a nice deal because John Prine can make you laugh like no else can make you laugh,” he says.
It is clear that Murray, as I’ve heard from some of his friends, is truly conflicted about receiving this honor. But he’s going through with it. Letterman, Ivan Reitman, Jane Curtin, Emma Stone — they’ll all be there to fête him.
“I really thought if I don’t answer the phone for awhile, maybe they’ll just move on to someone else,” says Murray. “But all these people called from everywhere. This is so great. Ugh. If this [NLCS] goes to a Game 6 or 7, which it is going to, I’m not going to be there. I’m going to be there [at the Kennedy Center] having people say, ‘Oh, he’s a funny, funny man.’ I’d much rather be sitting there in a good box seat at Wrigley Field. The game the other night was so much fun. It was delirium. And I was looking forward to more of that. I just have to have faith that they have a TV backstage. It’s very hard to find a transistor radio anymore.”
We talk about the timing of his call. My story – which I worked on for months, and included more than a dozen attempts to interview him – was published a few hours earlier. I tell him that it was a struggle to profile somebody without talking to him, but that, in the end, I felt as if the piece worked. I get a hint of what it might be like to pick the brain of a creative master, the man who has never been satisfied with just doing things the way they’ve always been done.
“I find that if you’re put in a box, you have to find something that you never would have found,” Murray says. “I find that to be almost always the case. Actually, always the case. I will figure out how to do that.”
I tell him I appreciated the kind words from Downey and Norm Macdonald, who Murray says both spoke highly of me. But that at a certain point, I was almost glad he didn’t call.
“I did fear you would call at the last minute and then I’d have to rewrite the whole damn thing,” I say.
“And then I did,” says Murray. “Sorry.”
“No,” I tell him. “It’s published. I can’t go back on it.”
“Then you can relax and enjoy the weekend,” he says.
If only. We talk more about the Cubs, but I already know that he has gummed up the works a bit, but in a good way: I now have to figure a way out of the box, how to tell the story of a subject who won’t talk for his own story until he will, and how he does it when you’re least expecting it.
“It’ll be all right,” he says, really talking about the Twain ceremony this weekend. “We’ll get through this. I’ve got to go now. We’ve made it to the airport and I owe this driver another piece of chocolate.”
And then, for reasons unclear, I mention that if he’s ever in Concord, Mass., where I live, he shouldn’t hesitate to stop by. Maybe we could go to Walden Pond or visit Emerson’s grave.
“I would love to do that,” Murray says, sounding sincere. “I would really love to do that. I’ll take you up on that.”