Friday, January 12, 2007

Lunchbox Heroes: Brian Doyle-Murray 05.09.00

He ain’t Spackler, he’s his brother

From Bruce Lee to Hong Kong Phooey… lunchboxes have long been a way for kids to authenticate their favorite stars. But just because you’re older doesn’t mean you have to get gypped. You shouldn’t have to miss out now that you like Fred Ward more than Fred Flintstone, D. B. Sweeney more than H.R. Pufnstuff. This is a column dedicated to bestowing lunchbox honors upon stars that deserve a closer look.

Brian Doyle-Murray is not a household name. He’s more of an “Ohhhhh…That guy!”, recognizable because you’ve seen him a million times and you’ve always liked him, but who is he? If he is identified, it’s typically as Bill Murray’s less famous older brother. But Brian Doyle-Murray should be acknowledged as a consummate talent in his own right, a wonderful actor and a brilliant comic mind.

The Comedy of King Faisel
Brian Doyle-Murray began his career at the renowned improvisational theatre Second City in Chicago, alongside cast members Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis, John Belushi and Gilda Radner. Doyle-Murray and his ensemble were recruited by the National Lampoon magazine to write and perform The National Lampoon Radio Show, recording several albums of cutting-edge comedy material and touring the country with theatrical revues like the legendary Lemmings, a biting satire of the Woodstock generation.

It was with his fellow Radio Show compatriots that Doyle-Murray got one of his earliest gigs in film, providing voices for the animated feature Shame of the Jungle with Belushi, Radner, Bill Murray and Christopher Guest also pitching in. Shortly thereafter, Doyle-Murray (with brother Bill and Guest) was cherry-picked to write and perform on show called Saturday Night Live. SNL lasted about a season, before unceremoniously disappearing from the air forever, lost to the annals of time.

Another show on another network was, surprising to everyone, the raging hit of the season. That show, featuring many of Doyle-Murray’s partners-in-crime from Second City and the National Lampoon, quickly became a fixture of late-night television and celebrated its 25th Anniversary this year. Saturday Night would change its name the following season to Saturday Night Live--that title now available since the Howard Cosell vehicle which beared it was defunct. Doyle-Murray would eventually join the cast, but not before hooking up with Harold Ramis to co-write one of the most influential comedies of his generation.

Ahoy polloi!
Harold Ramis had written back-to-back successful comedies in Animal House and Meatballs, parlaying their box-office into an opportunity to direct. Partnering with Doyle-Murray, they created the outrageous class clash Caddyshack, meshing the radically different comic stylings of Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Bill Murray into the perfect comedy movie.

Although the Ramis/Doyle-Murray association continues to this day, their pairing hasn’t always proved fortuitous. Post-Caddyshack, Doyle-Murray appeared in the hilarious cameo role of Kamp Komfort Clerk in Ramis’ directorial follow-up, the John Hughes-penned Vacation, but was conspicuously absent from Stripes and Ghostbusters.

However, Doyle-Murray did co-write Club Paradise with Ramis (and plays one of the few funny parts in the movie, Voit Zerbe) but, unfortunately, a hammy Robin Williams turned what could have been a funny film into Club Paradise Lost.

After that stinker, Doyle-Murray abandoned writing entirely in favor of acting, appearing in a character role upon character role in films from Second City and National Lampoon compadres Ivan Reitman, Dave Thomas and John Hughes. While most of the movies were forgettable, Doyle-Murray provided many of their most memorable moments in mirth. He even returned to collaborated with Ramis as Buster in Groundhog Day and Walt in Multiplicity.

The Brotherhood of Murray
As Brian Doyle-Murray left for the greener pastures of radio, TV and film, he convinced his younger brother Bill -- at the time a hot dog vendor -- to audition for the Second City and convinced the producers of the Second City to subsequently hire him. Within a few short years, Bill’s star had risen to its zenith in Chicago and he decided to follow in Brian’s footsteps by joining the National Lampoon’s touring show.

Brian and Bill were scarfed up by Howard Cosell for his late-night variety show, Saturday Night Live. However, when that show died a dismal death, Bill was drafted as a Not Ready for Primetime Player on Saturday Night, while Brian was hired as a writer. With Bill’s charismatic mug in the public eye week-after-week, it wasn’t long before he became SNL’s next Next Big Thing. In the meantime, Brian was drifting into the quiet obscurity that comes with being a writer.

Regardless, Brian and Bill would work together throughout their careers as actors, beginning with Caddyshack, in which Bill played the major role of Carl Spackler, while Brian played the bit part, Lou Loomis. In Bill’s first dramatic film, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maughan's The Razor’s Edge, Brian lent his support as the lead character’s ally, Piedmont. The whole family teamed up for the comedic update of A Christmas Carol, Scrooged; Brian and brother John Murray playing Bill’s siblings, while youngest brother Joel appeared as “Party Guest.”

Get a Life!
As he entered middle age, Doyle-Murray began to emerge as a dependable character actor, balancing between film and television, comedy and drama. He was a series regular on Chris Elliot’s cult TV comedy “Get A Life” in addition to half a dozen short-lived half-hours. He also guest starred in countless sitcoms, including Seinfeld’s finale. He was uproariously funny in Wayne’s World and Waiting for Guffman and serious as a heart attack as Jack Ruby in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

But still, he remains anonymous in the arena of celebrity. He deserves full credit for playing the silent champion in support of his more flamboyant mates. Truly, he is a Lunchbox Hero.

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