Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Joel Murray has been working steadily since the late 1980s, but his career arc has been particularly fascinating over the course of the past few years. After spending the better part of two decades scoring laughs by veering between characters who were neither the sharpest tool in the shed nor the classiest guy in the room—his role as Pete Cavanaugh on Dharma & Greg is probably the most well-known example of both of those roles merging on the Venn diagram—Murray surprised many with his portrayal of Freddy Rumsen on AMC’s Mad Men, a nuanced performance that earned him the opportunity to enjoy a rare leading-man role in the 2011 film God Bless America. Currently, Murray can be seen in the new horror comedy Bloodsucking Bastards, now in theaters and available on VOD.
Joel Murray: Ted is the boss of this small company, and he might not be the brightest boss in the whole world, because he goes out and—to increase productivity—decides to hire Pedro Pascal’s character, Max, who’s a vampire, to whip things into shape. And sure enough, the vampires do a good job, sales go up, and I’m happy. And it never occurs to me that he might kill me, I guess. I don’t know. He’s kind of an idiot. But an enterprising idiot.
The A.V. Club: How did the project come to you? Did they just come and say, “We’ve got a role for you”?
JM: Well, I knew the guys from Dr. God [Sean Cowhig, Neil Garguilo, Brian James O’Connell, David Park, and Justin Ware] from improvising at the IO West. I do a show called Joel Murray & Friends. One of the guys actually used to do the lights for us all the time, so that’s how I met him. And then O’Connell, the director, came up to me and said, “Would you be interested in doing this part?” And I said, “Yeah, that sounds fun.” I mean, it was a funny script, and I thought it was really impressive. Because, you know, the different improv groups I’ve been in over the years, none of them had the ambition to do anything but find a bar that was open till 4 in the morning, let alone write, produce, and direct their own film like these guys have done.
AVC: Did they give you any leeway for improv within the script, or did they try to hew pretty close to what was written?
JM: It would’ve been pretty hypocritical if they didn’t allow us to improvise. [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t remember the script supervisor ever coming over and telling me I had a line wrong, so that’s a sure sign that they’re giving you free reign. But that was a good feeling on the set, that you could do whatever you wanted. And if they’d wanted you to go back and do it verbatim, they would’ve done that. But I don’t remember that happening.
AVC: When it comes to indie films like this, are you generally approached and asked, “Would you be interested in this?” Or do you actively look for roles?
JM: It seems like with indie ones they seek you out. They know who I am and, yeah, they want to see if I’m interested in it. I like doing indie films. But, you know, I like working. I like being in front of the camera… or behind the camera, for that matter. I think it’s a muscle you’ve got to exercise. So I do people’s short films and people’s little indie projects and webisodes and odds and ends. You know, just to keep yourself in shape, acting-wise.
AVC: This isn’t your first horror film, but is it your first vampire project?
JM: First time with vampires, yeah. Nice bunch of folk.
AVC: They’re good people, I hear.
JM: Well, they’re at least better than some of the villains in Hatchet!
JM: That was a strange one. I got in with Adam Green—who’s a good friend of mine now—through… The DP on Dharma & Greg, I think, set me up with that role. That was weird in the fact that we shot it at Sable Ranch, so we shot from sundown to sunup every day. It was always dark and always raining in the film. And, you know, L.A. in the winter, it could be 40 degrees in the middle of the night, but these women would have to come in with these sprayers—like, garden sprayers—and hose you down before every take. And they were always, like, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I’m, like, “Yeah, I’ve gotten used to it. It’s been 20 days. Thanks, though. Ha, ha.” The weird thing, though, was that I was coaching Little League during the day sometimes, so I was pretty much just delirious. I was very much Walter Matthau at that point, just crabby as can be. That was fun.
And then Adam Green had me back in Hatchet II, where they found Shapiro’s camcorder, and they showed some of the video he had on it. And we shot these things around Adam Green’s house that were just sleazy, sleazier, and sleaziest, just of this guy trying to get young girls to take off their clothes, talking with naked girls and trying to get them to do things. It was horrid. I just had a voice-over in the sequel. It was a goofy day.
AVC: You weren’t officially credited in the sequel.
JM: Well, I, uh, wasn’t officially paid, either. So I think those go hand in hand. That sequel money you hear about? That didn’t stop at my house.
AVC: So was One Crazy Summer your first time in front of the camera?
JM: Yeah, that was actually the first audition I went on for an actual role. I had no idea. I was going for a callback, and they said, “No, the final callback is in Hyannis. You have to fly to Boston and go to Hyannis.” And I didn’t think there was a chance in hell I was going to get the part of John Cusack’s best friend over Jeremy Piven, who was John Cusack’s best friend. But he got the part of the bad guy’s best friend, and I got to play George Calamari. And all of a sudden I’m in Hyannis and they’re, like, “Well, no, we start now.” I’m, like, “I brought an overnight bag!” I didn’t think I’d be there for two-and-a-half months! But it was one of the better times I’ve ever had. It was quite a hoot. I became fast friends with Bobcat Goldthwait the first day, and I got to hang out with the beautiful Kim Foster. She was something else. She was a riot. But it was really fun. And Savage Steve Holland, the director, was only, like, two years older than me. He was really fun to work with, and he let me improvise a lot.
AVC: I hadn’t revisited the film in a while before setting up this interview and had forgotten that Uncle Frank was played by Bruce Wagner.
JM: Yeah! Yeah, he did better writing. [Laughs.] But that’s pretty awesome, isn’t it? He was a little bit method, too. He was a little bit creepy when we were shooting it. He was kind of into the role. I kind of stayed away from him. The temperature was about five degrees cooler near him, you know?
AVC: As first-film experiences go, that one seems like it might’ve been a little anarchic.
JM: Yeah, well, the first week… Basically, Steve Holland was saying, “We’re gonna fly you over to the island, and we’re gonna have a lobster boil on the beach and a bonfire, and I’m just going to kind of let you guys hang out and become friends.” And there were days of that. Like, four days straight where we did nothing but hang out. It was, like, “Steve, are we doing anything today?” “Nah. Not really. Having some lobster.” So, yeah, that was rough.
JM: You’re going deep. Ben Stiller actually used to play in my regular basketball game. I used to have a game at the Police Athletic League or whatever in Santa Monica, and he used to play in the game. Four or five of those guys in that pickup game were guys who played in my game. But that was kind of goofy to see Jim Carrey kind of coming out and be able to use his energy in a room the size of a basketball court. He was bouncing off the walls. [Laughs.] But it was kind of fun for us. We just kind of played basketball. But, yeah, I think I have one line: “Well, I guess that’s game.” That’s all I say, when he breaks the backboard.
AVC: Well, it was obvious that you really gave that one line your all. You really instilled it with frustration.
JM: Thank you. Thank you, yeah, it was well-researched. But it was fun working with Ben Stiller. He kind of took me aside at one point and said, “It’s like doing a $40 million Ben Stiller Show sketch!” I was just like [Skeptically.] “Yeah, okay.”
JM: Wow. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. Yeah, I was kind of excited when I got offered that part, and then I found out what it was. Basically, Ashton Kutcher is hitting on a girl in class while I’m showing a video and droning on, so there’s a movie going, but I’m pretty much in shadow the whole time. Unless you know it’s me, you don’t. You can’t even tell I’m there. It’s a shadow role.
JM: Wow, you are digging. That was one of the funner things I’ve done in my career, getting to play in a 1950s minor league ball team. And Marty Davidson, a great old director, directed that one, and Billy Petersen was the lead, and Virginia Madsen and Dermot Mulroney. And then we had all these guys from the actual baseball team, so we got to play ball all the time. We would go out and play these old Tiger stadiums ballparks around Florida, go to Clearwater and Tampa and all these little towns that had these stadiums. That was an absolute blast, because we were actually playing hardball at a later age.
I had a bad crew cut and glasses in that one, and I was maybe a little overweight, but they put me in a lot of wife-beaters with open shirts. It was not a good look for me. But that was an absolute hoot, and Billy Petersen was just a guy’s guy. When we’d get done, we’d go back to the hotel bar, and the playoffs and the World Series were going on while we were filming. So after we’d get done with work, we’d go and hang out at that bar, and Billy would just reach behind the bar and just grab a bottle of Jack and stick it in his belt and say, “This is mine!” We were pretty impressed. He was a man’s man.
AVC: When we talked to Virginia Madsen, she said that although she’d been cast as blond bombshells before, that was a case where she felt like she actually was a blond bombshell. Would you agree with that assessment?
JM: She was a blond bombshell in that one. And I don’t know if she and Billy… Well, we liked to think that she and Billy had an offscreen romance going on, too. That just elevated him even more in our minds at that time. She grew up in my neighborhood. She went to New Trier East, I went to Loyola, which was a boys school. Yeah, she was kind of dark-haired, kind of a Goth chick almost back then. I mean, I don’t want to be talking out of school, but… that’s what she looked like in high school! Yeah, she was cool.
And then we thought it’d be a good idea to golf back to Chicago, so we rented this big Fleetwood convertible. No, it wasn’t a convertible: it was just a big Fleetwood, with four guys, four sets of golf clubs in the back, and luggage. And because we had been in Tampa for a couple of months, everybody had bought hats. They make these big straw hats. So the back seat of the car was, like, literally 10 hat boxes packed up as kind of a divider in the back seat as we were coming home with our treasures. And we got about as far as Graceland before we realized that it was going to be snow all the way back to Chicago, so then we started dragging anchor, and we kept kind of circling back to, like, Biloxi. I don’t know, we just didn’t want to stop golfing.
AVC: When you mentioned growing up in Chicago, you reminded me: this question might have an obvious answer, but how did you find your way into acting in the first place? Was it because your siblings were already following that path, or was it incidental to that?
JM: Well, when I was in third grade, I was over at a buddy’s house, and his mom was trying to kick me out. “Okay, Joel, time for you to go now. Time for you to go.” I’m, like, “What are you talking about?” “Well, it’s time for you to go. The boys are going to an audition.” I said, “Well, you know, my mom works till 5:30. Nobody’s looking for me. So I could go on the audition.” And she kind of finally agreed… and I got a part in Oliver! And I think only one of her boys did, and one of them didn’t. And I think she was still angry about that one.
So I started doing plays young, and then when I was in high school, I was trying out for baseball, and I was lacing up my cleats for the second day of the tryout, and I looked across the parking lot, and I was, like, “What are all those girls doing over there?” “Oh, they’re trying out for the school musical.” I said, “Well, what’s that?” They said, “It’s West Side Story.” I said, “Well, I’m going to put my other shoes back on. See you fuckers later!” [Laughs.] And that was it: I gave up the baseball career, I got a part in the play, and I did plays all through high school. I was captain of the football team and leading a musical: I was Joe Hardy [in Damn Yankees] in my senior year. So I had the bug.
And then I tried to go to college and tried to walk on and play football, and that lasted a day. And then I picked up a flyer and tried out for Bus Stop, and I got a part in Bus Stop at Northern Illinois, despite irate calls from guys in the middle of the night going [In somewhat of a surfer-dude voice.] “I don’t know who you think you are, you aren’t even in the theater department, and my friend Dwayne was up for that part, and he would’ve been so much better than you…” I’m, like, “Hey, pal, it was an audition. I got it. Sorry. Whatever.” So I was kind of on my way then.
And then when I went to Loyola Rome, I hooked up with my good friend Dave Pasquesi on the flight there. I was sitting next to a guy who had a guitar between his knees, and I ended up going to the back of the plane and talking to the stewardess and talking to this guy who turned out to be Pasquesi. Back then, the flight was, like, 14 hours or something crazy, and we just kept drinking beer until the stewardess at one point said, “There’s no more beer. You’ve drank all the beer on the plane.” So we decided to go to cognac, I think. But Pasquesi and I were in the Second City together, we did some talent shows, and we actually kind of panhandled and did bits in Rome, trying to get money. He used to juggle and I’d sing.
And then when we got back, a friend of mine said, “We’ve got to go to this class with Del Close,” who was kind of an improv guru that taught Belushi and Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and all those folks from Saturday Night Live as well. So we went to a class at Del’s, and Pasquesi and I went up and did a scene, and he was very happy with it. And he said, “You know, your brothers have been very good to me over the years, Joel. I’m going to give you a scholarship.” [Hesitates.] “But, you know, I really like that Pasquesi, so what do you say I give you both a half-scholarship?” So I went from having a full ride to improv classes to a half-ride. But Dave and I stuck together from then on, and we were eventually on the main stage at Second City together, so that was pretty cool.
AVC: Tim Meadows told me about his origins with Del and how he ended up in that main cast with you and Pasquesi.
JB: Yeah, well, we kind of got Del to come back. We had a coup. We were kind of young turks that got him back, to work with us and all the Del-lites: Chris Farley, Meadows, myself, Pasquesi, Joe Liss, Judy Scott, and Holly Wortell. It was really a fun time. So I got into that, and then I basically got hired off the stage one night to be in a show called Grand, a sitcom with Michael McKean and Bonnie Hunt, John Neville and John Randolph. I’ve lived in L.A. since then.
JB: I was the millionaire’s idiot son. Jethro Bodine with an education and good clothes. But that was pretty fun. I’d just come out to L.A., and I think we only did 26 episodes. Two half-seasons, or something like that. We were on after Cheers. I don’t know how we failed. But the network kind of came in and messed it up the second season, changed things around, and it kind of lost its way. But that was fun.
Norris had his own cable show called Don’t Think with Norris Weldon, and I’d sit in kind of a caftan outfit and basically just sit there with my eyes wide open and space out. “Join me, won’t you?” Yeah, it was fun. And to come out and have almost all my scenes with John Neville, who was in [The Adventures Of] Baron Munchausen, which you’d probably know him from, and John Randolph, who had been around forever… I mean, those guys had 100 years of experience between them, and here I am, it’s my first real TV gig. It was pretty cool to get to be with those guys.
JB: A one-off, but I was Hal’s friend, so I got to work with Bryan Cranston, a super nice guy. I think we ended up remodeling a room of this house or something like that, maybe tearing down a room in somebody’s house that we didn’t like. But it was fun hanging out with Cranston. He’s a riot.
I’ve got two quick Cranston stories. One time we were playing in a celebrity softball game with this actor—I can’t think of his name—had a titanium baseball bat in, like, a felt sack. And he would get up, and he’d hit a home run, just hammer a ball over everything, and he’d come back, he’d pick up the bat, and he’d put the bat right away back in the felt sack. And I go, “Hey, hey, hey, hey! What’s with the bat?” And he goes, [Uncertainly.] “Oh, all right, so you can use it, but pick it up right away and put it back here.” And sure enough, I get up, and I hit a home run that was rising as it was going over the scoreboard. It was mammoth. So then I turned Cranston onto it. And I said, [Solemnly.] “You’ve got to be a brother of the bat. Pick it up right away and put it back.” And sure enough, he gets up—left-handed—and hits one over this row of trees. It just kept going. I mean, thank god none of us hit it directly back at the pitcher. We could’ve killed somebody. We had a lot of fun that day, me and Cranston.
And then the other story… AMC, you know, was both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and when Cranston won the Emmy, he had no idea. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he was going to win for Breaking Bad. So he comes up to me and goes [Does a perfect Cranston impression.] “Joel, I’m going to get my wife and children, and I’m going to put them in a car and send them home. And then you and I are going to get violently fucked up.” And we did. [Laughs.] We succeeded on that one. I think we ended up closing the Tower Bar, across the street from the Chateau Marmont, at whatever hour that might’ve been. It was a very good victory party for him that night.
JM: Perhaps my most rewarding role. I did 15 episodes of that, and some people say that Freddy was the only character on the show that had any redeeming qualities, really. He was a nice guy, he had a drinking problem, he got a bad deal… But that was so much fun. I mean, I had seen the show a few times before I ever auditioned for it, so my wife and I were already fans, and then I went in to read for it, and Matthew Weiner stands up, and… at first I thought he was another guy that I knew, but then he stands up, and he’s only, like, 5 foot 2 inches, or 5 foot 3 inches, or something like that, and I was, like, “Oh! That’s not the guy.” But he comes over, and he’s, like, “Yeah, you’ve got this sadness about you, man.” And I’m, like, “Nah, I’m pretty happy. Good wife, good kids.” “No, you’ve got this sadness.” “Okay, yeah, you’re right, I’ve got that sadness… that you’re looking for, right?” “Right!” So he gave me the part.
That was a great time to work on that show. Everybody was really cool. The actors were really fun, and they had an outdoor patio outside all the trailers, and when you got done working, you hung around for, like, six hours after you worked. You didn’t want to leave. You just wanted to stay there. And people did it every day! You’d do your scenes, and the next thing you knew you’d be drinking wine and playing board games. Literally, they would start a game of Risk or something like that, or play Head’s Up and all these other games, all the time. But it was really fun. And there was no better party than a Mad Men party. Those things were crazy. The beautiful actresses… It was fun to watch January Jones tie one on.
And everybody on the show really kind of drank and smoked as well, which came in handy, because we smoked 20 cigarettes in a scene. They were fake, and you just had to suck ’em back somehow. Fake cigarettes are somehow better for the crew. I never understood that one. But you had to suck on these things called Ecstasy, which are just nasty.
AVC: While there are obviously many memorable aspects to Freddy Rumsen, how does it feel to be remembered so strongly for having wet your pants on-screen?
JM: Well, you know, it was really hip in Chicago theater in the ’80s to pee onstage. I remember Jim Schrute did it in, like, True West. So I thought I was going to have to pee on cue. But, no, it turns out that they hooked up my pants with hoses and stuff, and they had a guy hidden away that did the actual peeing for me. I thought that was going to be my job as an actor, but, no, I didn’t get to do that. Yeah, that’s what people always say: “Oh, yeah, you’re the guy that pissed himself!” I’m, like, “Yes, thank you. That’s right. That’s me.”
The other thing about the show was… There was one scene where I played Mozart on my zipper. You can tell that this guy has been in his room just practicing this for hours. Supposedly the story is attributed to Alan Alda back in the day. He actually walked into a party and said, “Listen to this!” But I found that if you hold tightly on your pants and hold them up higher, it would actually give it a higher note, and if you loosened it, it was a lower note. So the sound guy said, “Well, let’s get some wild sound of your zipper. Let’s go to this stairwell here.” And I start doing it, and he goes, “Holy shit! You’re playing it!” And I go [Slightly offended.] “Uh, yeah! I’m a musician, man!” But I could actually play “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” on my zipper. Mozart!
AVC: You mentioned that some people have said that Freddy was the only character on the show who had any redeeming qualities. Appropriately enough, he’s also one of few who actually found redemption by the end of the series.
JM: Yeah, I think it kind of worked out for him, when I got to do that Cyrano kind of thing at the end. I’ve got AA people that come up to me all the time and say, “Hey, that was great, man. You told him, ‘You never have to have another drink again for the rest of your life.’ You never see people say that on TV, but I thought that was great.” I’m always kind of, like, “You know, I have a cocktail in my hand right now. I’m not really AA. That was the character. But thank you. Thank you for that.”
The last night of “Six Month Leave,” which was the episode where I pissed myself and they sent me on hiatus or whatever, there were a couple of writers who brought around some real booze at the end of the night, so we actually were hitting it, [John] Slattery, [Jon] Hamm, and I. So that final moment when he puts me in the cab and says, “Good night, Freddy,” and I say, “Goodbye, Don,” it was kind of tear-jerking at that moment. It was really emotional. I think the scotch might’ve had something to do with that. But the guy who was driving the cab was just this civilian who owned the cab—the old Marathon cab or Checker or whatever—and he was so excited. He was, like, “This is so great!” [Laughs.] He’d be telling us between takes, “It’s so touching! Wonderful! Wonderful!” “Okay, okay, calm down…” Yeah, that was always fun, working on that show.
AVC: This is easily the most random thing on my list and doesn’t seem to even be online anywhere to watch, but upon dropping a line to one of the cast members about it—Neil Flynn—he said, “I think you should ask Joel about it. He did a great job, and it’s a nice little film.”
JM: Wow. Well, it was written by the co-lead, Theresa Mulligan, and it was produced by some friends of mine, and we shot it all at my kid’s grade school, basically. We thought we were going to get that cheap, but it turns out the nuns really stuck it to us, because they needed a new generator. So we had to pay the school, but once we had that paid for, we shot all over this place, all these secret areas in the priests’ residence and stuff. It was really fun and really well done by the writer and the actors… and the director! It was a hoot.
And Neil Flynn was fantastic in it. He kind of was reminiscent of a young Harrison Ford in it. But everybody was really good. I got Melinda Dillon, the mom from Close Encounters [Of The Third Kind] to be in it, and also Richard Libertini. So that was cool. I’m a big fan of Dick Libertini’s. I think he’s very funny. If you ever saw the original In-Laws, he was the crazy dictator. He’s great.
But it never got anywhere because they put this music in it, and it was, like, the Beach Boys and songs in there where it was, like, “Hey, did you get that cleared?” “Oh, no, not yet. We will.” But they never did. The producers kind of dropped the ball on that part of it. So it kind of just faded away. But I’ve got a box of, like, 200 copies of it in my garage if you need one. [Laughs.] So, yeah, if you’re worried about that struggle between nuns and priests falling in love and their inability to get married in the church, I can pass that on to you.
AVC: You mentioned Richard Libertini. You’d also worked with him on one of your other early TV series, Pacific Station.
JM: Pacific Station, yeah. Him and Robert Guillaume. Hippie cop and grumpy cop. Yeah, that was a good one.
AVC: It was short-lived, but from the couple of episodes on YouTube, it seems like it plays pretty well.
JM: It was funny. I thought it was really funny, actually. And Robert Guillaume was a hoot to work with, as well as Libertini. And Ron Leibman was hysterical, and the enormous John Hancock was my boss, and I later worked with him on Love & War as well. But like clockwork, Guillaume would blow up every Wednesday at 10 o’clock and just go off on the script. “How do you expect me to do this crap?” He would just blow up. I could literally book a tee time for 11 o’clock on Wednesdays, because I knew, “Well, at 10 o’clock he’s going to go off, I’ll be in the car by 10:30…” [Laughs.] It was great. And, you know, it was his way of making sure the scripts were all good. And they were! And I was cast as the idiot police chief that nobody could figure out why I had the job—it was obviously nepotism or something, because I had no reason to have this job—but the show was fun, and it was a fun part.
JM: What an unrewarding role. [Laughs.] I mean, it was so much fun to do. I did the pilot, and I was Allison Janney’s husband, and she was a joy to work with. And then she had another gig, so she couldn’t do it, and they replaced her with Joan Cusack, who was a joy to work with. She was a riot. And I got this weird role where my daughter hated me because I called her a whore after she started talking about her exploits at the purity ball, and I tell her, “Whores don’t get cars.” And she proceeds to sleep with Bill Macy on video tape and post it to all my church friends and all my contacts and all my work friends and embarrass me to the point that I committed the best suicide in TV history, I think: jumping in an ice hole in an ice fishing shack with a cinderblock around my feet. That was pretty good. Pretty dark.
But I’ve had that moment on a couple of shows where you don’t get your script delivered to the house all of a sudden for some reason, and you go to work, and they go, “Oh, yeah, it didn’t get delivered. You’ve got to get your script today from John Wells.” And you know. “Oh, no. Something’s up.” And he’s, like, “Yeah, we’ve got a great script for you. You’re not going to love the ending, but, yeah, great episode.” And then you know you’re done. But that’s how it goes sometimes. It happened on Mad Men, too. “Yeah, you’ve got to get your script from Matthew.” “Oh, crap.”
But Shameless was a riot. And we got to shoot the exteriors in Chicago. But we were there one February for a blizzard, and we got 24 inches of snow one night. And I was laughing at the L.A. line producers, who were drinking their white wine the night before. I go, “Well, what are you gonna do when this hits?” “Oh, we’ll get it shoveled out.” I’m, like, “You’ve never seen 24 inches of snow, have you? You don’t get it ‘shoveled out.’ You have to rent trucks to drop it in the lake.” They had to get a whole city block back to four inches. So basically the cast had three days off to just drink in Chicago. It was fantastic. It was really good. We were actually skitching on the back of bumpers on Ontario, one of the main arteries in and out of Chicago. We were skitching on the back of trucks. That’s how deserted the town was that night.
AVC: Speaking of Chicago, when we were talking about Del Close earlier, I neglected to ask the question I try to ask of all of his former students: If pressed, could you still do a Harold?
JM: Oh, yeah. I mean, like I was saying earlier, I still improvise with this group that’s—oddly enough—called Joel Murray & Friends, and we do Armandos, but we still do a Harold once in awhile, yeah. As long as people are brought up with the same rules and everybody’s trying to make the other guy look good, it works. When the other guy’s trying to make himself look good, then it doesn’t. Then it kind of falls apart. But, yeah, I could still do one. The rules are ingrained in my head. I still improvise with Ryan Stiles and Greg Proops and Jeff Davis. We do a live Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which is the polar opposite of a Harold. You know, it’s short, it’s games, and it’s very quick. Whereas a Harold is very slow, and you’re waiting on it.
JM: Well… [Long pause.] Yeah, that’s a good one. Here’s a weird trivia-question answer: I was Six’s father on Blossom—Six was Mayim Bialik’s friend, Jenna Von Oy—and we named her Six because that’s how many beers it took me to sleep with her mother and knock her up. And marriage ensued. Yeah, that wasn’t a big role. It was a one-dayer. And I was fine with that.
AVC: And yet it’s a role that lives on in infamy amongst Blossom fans.
JM: Well, the real Blossom trivia freaks, anyway. Which I don’t think there are any. Or I don’t know, maybe there are. Who knows?
AVC: Not that you had a big part or even a real name: you’re credited on IMDB just as “Guest.”
JM: [Stiffly.] I was actually “Party Guest #1.” And I’ve tried to get people to refer to me as “Party Guest #1” from then on. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a weird weekday one February—February 29th, in fact—where all four Murray brothers worked on the same picture: Brian was the father in a flashback, Johnny played a brother, and I’d auditioned for it and got the little part at the party. And it was kind of funny, because Johnny and I are doing a scene with our brother Bill, but none of us can acknowledge each other, because he’s a ghost. So that was kind of weird. It was nice to get to work with Billy, but I can’t see or hear him, and he can see and hear me but can’t communicate with me, and… well, anyway, it was awkward. But it was fun watching Carol Kane almost take his nose off with a toaster repeatedly, if you know the scene. It was frightening how close she came—time after time after time—to killing him.
AVC: Speaking of your brother Bill, you may have heard that we did an interview with Kelly Lynch where she told the now-infamous Road House story.
JM: That was you, huh?
AVC: Well, yeah, so this question kind of feels like an obligation: are you indeed one of the “idiot brothers” who calls her?
JM: You know, I used to work out at the same gym as her, and I used to watch her do, like, an hour of abs while I was on a treadmill. Yeah, I was a little surprised to be an idiot brother. [Laughs.] But I’ve polled some of the other “idiot brothers,” and my brother Brian has never seen the movie, so he’s never called and done that. And I think I’ve only seen it once, and I’ve never called and done that. But Bill has actually called, from different countries, pointing out that Mitch Glazer’s wife was getting it up against a rock wall. But it’s just Billy. The “idiot brothers” really weren’t involved. But, hey, if it made something funny for her to talk about…
JM: Dharma & Greg was five years, six blocks from my house. That was so good. That was really the gravy train with biscuit wheels. That was a lot of fun, and everybody was so happy to have that gig, especially the parents, to get a regular role at that point in their career. They loved it. But everybody loved being there.
I had gone to network for three different shows and not gotten them. I’d gotten shot down three times. And I was coming back from this one, and my agent’s, like, “Yeah, you didn’t get it. But there’s this guest star audition for a pilot…” I’m, like, “No. No. I’m done. I’m emotionally spent. I can’t do it.” “Well, it’s right by your house, or I wouldn’t ask.” And so I went and I read for Chuck Lorre and Dottie Dartland, and they put me in the pilot the next day.
So after all this jumping through hoops and getting told “you didn’t get it” and dealing with all this disappointment, I got this plum role, and it actually went. None of those other three shows got picked up, and I got the one that went. And they made me a series regular right away and they gave me the pilot money. So that was a true blessing, that one. I live in the house that Dharma built. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a good one. And I’m still good friends with Thomas Gibson. He and I play golf together and hang out a lot. He’s a good guy.
AVC: Good friends or not, that still must’ve been weird to turn up in a show as dark as Criminal Minds after having only worked with Thomas Gibson in comedy.
JM: Well, yeah, and to get to go nose to nose with Gibson and be yelling at each other. He called me up and told me, “Joel, there’s this part that the writer says we can give you that I know is going to get cut, so you get a free payday and then you can come back and get a better part.” And sure enough, it didn’t get cut, so I’ve never been back on Criminal Minds. [Laughs.]
The day I went to shoot it, I had an audition beforehand, and I guess the casting agent knew I had to go to this Criminal Minds thing, so there were probably three people in front of me, and all of a sudden she goes, “Okay, Joel, why don’t we take you next, since you have to go?” So I swallowed my gum—not a good move—and I did the audition. And I get in the car and I’m driving up to Santa Clarita where they shot, and all of a sudden I’m getting these horrible, horrible pains in the middle of my chest. And I’m, like, “Oh, God, this is a bad day to have a heart attack! I’ve got to go to work! And I’m in Santa Clarita! I don’t even know where a hospital is!” And I’m freaking out, and I’ve got to get to work on time, so I stopped at the In-N-Out Burger at the San Canyon exit, and I got, like, a big iced tea, and I just chugged five huge ice teas. And I could literally feel the gum move, and all of a sudden the gum went down, and the pain stopped right away.
So I got to the set, and they rushed me through makeup and rushed me out, because they said, “They’re ready to shoot you right away!” And they bring me out into the desert, basically, into this Gator ATV kind of thing and I get out there, and I’m, like, “Hey, uh, is there a bathroom around? I just drank five iced teas…” And they’re, like, “No, there’s not.” So I shot that pretty quick. Fortunately I got it over with before I Freddy Rumsen-ed my pants.
JM: It’s funny: so many of these character names, I had no idea. [Laughs.] Yeah, I auditioned for that and got it, even though my oldest son is a post-production supervisor’s assistant on Always Sunny, so he tries to say he got me the part. But I know I auditioned for it one time. But that was fun to work on, and those guys are a riot. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the improv game New Choice, but they do that while they’re shooting. They just keep changing the line and reversing and coming back in with a different line, and reversing and coming back. And when it finally got to my line, I was able to mess with them because I can improvise.
It was really fun to see how they worked. They were doing this deal where they shoot all of the episodes at once, so we were in a mortuary, but they had a couple of funeral scenes, so they’ll be doing one scene from episode three, one scene from episode seven, another scene from episode 15, and they do them all in a row. And they somehow have their head around them all, but I don’t know how they do it. They’re really bright guys who do that show… and gal! She’s really funny in person. She was doing a Canadian accent that episode and just kept making me laugh. She was so funny.
JM: [Laughs.] “It truly has been a great life, George Bailey!” Uh, yeah, that was Bobcat’s directorial debut. I played the milkman. That was a small and un-pivotal role, but it was fun to be a part of it. And the day I actually worked, Bobcat was wildly sick. He had, like, food poisoning. And I remember I ad-libbed. I yelled at Julie Brown, “Hey, Madonna! Get out of the way!” And she’s, like, “You think I look like Madonna? Really?” And she went on to do that Madonna parody thing not long after that [Medusa: Dare To Be Truthful]. I’d like to take some of the credit for that.
AVC: Twenty years later, you worked with Bobcat for God Bless America. Was that a case where he’d wanted to work with you again in a larger capacity and it just took that long to find the right project?
JM: Well, he wanted me to be in [Sleeping Dogs Lie]. You know, the one with the dog? Where the girl blows the dog? And my agents at Gersh wouldn’t even let me read the script. The guy was so appalled by the girl blowing the dog on page two that he wouldn’t even give me the script until about three months after Bob sent it to him to offer me the part. And I finally read it, and I was, like, “Hey, my character’s a nice guy who gets laid in a broom closet by a really cute girl. I don’t see the down side of this one.” But they wouldn’t let me be in that.
And then when I went and saw World’s Greatest Dad, I was so blown away by how good Bob had gotten and how great that movie was… I think that’s one of the best things Robin Williams ever did. He was so great in that. And that Daryl Sabara kid was just amazing. He was such a prick. He was so good in that. So I was really jealous that I wasn’t, you know, in the Mighty Bobcat Players at that point. And then Bob was having back surgery, and he hadn’t seen Mad Men yet, so I knew he was going to be laid up for a while, so after his back surgery I brought him over lunch one day, and I brought him the first four seasons of Mad Men. And he said that in the middle of season two, his wife said, “Well, Joel could play Frank.” And Bobcat was, like, “My God, it’s so obvious. How did I not think of that?”
And he sent me the script, and I read the script, and I said, “God, this is phenomenal, Bob. Who do you want me to be? The guy in the office? This guy? That guy?” He said, “No, I want you to be Frank.” [Startled.] “Frank’s the guy.” “Yeah! I want you to play the guy!” I’m, like, “Hell, yeah!” I don’t get leads in movies very often. So, yeah, that was a hoot working with Bob. Such a nice guy.
AVC: Your young co-star, Tara Lynne Barr, was pretty great, too.
JM: She was phenomenal! And, you know, Bob always was, like, “Well, we’ll get casting, and we’ll get down to a few, and then you’ll read with a couple of the girls, and we can kind of see who’s got the best chemistry.” But when she came in and read, Bob’s, like, “This girl’s got the part. Don’t worry about it. She’s going to be great. You don’t have to meet her or anything like that.” So, yeah, she blew us out of the water. You know, for all the girls you could’ve gotten for this 17-year-old girl… You could’ve gotten a real weird, self-centered, chatty one. Instead we got this girl who was very interested in learning everything and listening, and she was just wonderful to work with. Really good.
We went back and reshot some stuff in Syracuse, New York to get more bang for the buck, to maybe make it look like a bigger movie. We shot some stuff in Syracuse, and we shot some stuff in Manhattan. And I realized at one point, I’m driving through the Lincoln Tunnel in a car with fake Virginia license plates with an underage girl and a trunk full of guns. [Laughs.] And a camera crew filming me the whole time. Illegally. Out of another car window, basically. And I felt like, “Yeah, what could go wrong here?”
JM: The original 30-year-old virgin. I used to go up to receptionists at offices all the time, and there’d be, like, a fat girl behind the desk going [In a sing-song voice.] “We have something in common…” And I’d be, like, “Uh, no, I don’t think we do. I’m a father of four, actually. I’m not a virgin.” “Oh.” That was a lot of fun, though. Jay Thomas was a riot to work with. It was Susan Dey the first year, and then we got Annie Potts. Annie Potts is a scream. She’s so funny in person. And Suzie Plakson I got to work with, and Joanna Gleason, who was phenomenal. Michael Nouri played the horrible actor on the show, which was the funniest part. And then I worked with both John Hancock—who I was on Pacific Station with—and then after he died he was replaced by Charlie Robinson, who was an original member of the Drells! You know, Archie Bell & The Drells? Small world. So, yeah, that was fun. And Jay Thomas was doing his radio show in the morning, and then he’d show up for work on our show, and some days he’d be on his kids’ Ritalin and would just be bouncing off the walls. He had no edit button whatsoever.
AVC: Did you have to endure any particular issues when the transition between Susan Dey and Annie Potts happened?
JM: [Laughs.] Well, it was funny. When Susan Dey was doing the show, there’d be lines that you’d get a laugh on in the taping, and all of a sudden you’d go, “Wait a minute: I didn’t get a laugh on that?” And then a couple of seconds later Susan Dey would say something and she’d get a laugh. And you’d go, “Wait a minute: she never gets a laugh. That’s my laugh! They moved my laugh to her line!” But Annie Potts got all her laughs. They didn’t ever have to move a laugh for her. She was a scream. So, no, there was no transitional trouble there. That was a good draft pick. A good trade.
JM: Oh, God, yeah. It was a Friday afternoon. My agent was, like, “Yeah, I’ve got an audition for you: Friday at 5 o’clock.” I’m, like, “Friday at 5 o’clock in Hollywood? What a horrible time! Are they seeing people at any other time?” “No, that’s it.” I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know. What is this?” “Well, it’s a French film.” [Hesitates.] “Well, it’s a silent movie.” [Hesitates again.] “Well, it’s a silent black-and-white French movie.” [Laughs.] And that weekend, everything was 3-D this, 3-D that. So I’m, like, “Really? A black-and-white French film, huh? Hmmm.” And I finally said, “All right, I’ll go to the audition.” I wasn’t going to go, but because I have a Vespa scooter, I figured I could scoot around traffic and I could get there and park in front.
And I went and, you know, you’re auditioning for Michel Hazanavicius, this French director, and it’s kind of just pantomime. He would say things like, [In a French accent.] “Okay, so now you’re looking off into the distance, and you see a bird fly over. Oh! I like the way you do that. Oh, good, good. All right, now, a dog is coming and wants you to go with him. But no! But you don’t want to go. You don’t want to go. Ah, very good, very good, yes, okay!” [Laughs.] So you’re kind of like Oliver Hardy, just silent-movie acting. It was the goofiest audition. And then when we shot it, there was no sound. Like, during takes and stuff, they’d be listening to Édith Piaf and drinking wine. Yeah, it was really kind of a fun set in that way. Myself, on the other hand…
I was in a wool suit with 1920s boots running wind sprints for two days straight and chasing this dog all over the place. That was pretty brutal. I thought about some of the other big actors who were at the audition. Weight-wise, I mean. Big actors. They would’ve killed them if they’d had to run as much as I did! Later I had to pull Valentin out of a fire and save the day, and I’m expecting a little French guy, but Jean Dujardin, he’s a big French guy. It wasn’t, like, LeBeau from Hogan’s Heroes. It was a guy my size that I had to pull out of a fire.
And it was a crazy fire, on a sound stage, with film burning. It seemed pretty toxic. And I noticed when I would go in the door each time, the dog would stop at the door and wouldn’t go into the room. It’d stop there, the dog that had gotten me to go save the day. The dog was smarter than I was. I would have to go in there and get him every time and drag him out. But the dog just passed away, I saw. I worked with three different dogs, so I said, “I hope it was the one I didn’t like!” [Laughs.] But there were three different Uggies, so I’m not sure which one passed away. Hopefully the two good ones are still around.
AVC: So what was the pitch like for The Sweet Spot? Because it seems like you just went into Comedy Central and said, “My brothers and I want to play golf and get paid for it.”
JM: [Laughs.] That was the best scam ever, I tell you. My friend Mike Maddocks worked for Comedy Central, and I saw him at a party at the El Rey Hotel—it was like a concert/party thing—and he said, “You know, they’re taking pitches right now. We’re looking for show ideas.” And I made it up off the top of my head. I said, “Well, what about my brothers and I go to a luxury golf resort, and we made up kind of a story around the legend and lore of each of these golf resorts, and we have a fictitious round of golf that we’re playing for a braggart’s cup or something like that. And it’s kind of part travelogue, part comedy.” And he’s, like, “That’s great! Yeah! Let me set you up with my boss!” And I pitched it to Debbie Liebling, like, on Monday. And we literally had the money in our bank account by Friday to start shooting the show.
We only did five episodes, but, God, it was such a good scam. There were two in Florida that kind of cross-pollinated with opening our new restaurant—the Murray Bros. Caddyshack in St. Augustine—so that was kind of win-win. And then we shot one in Wisconsin—where we used to vacation quite a bit as kids—at the old Playboy Club. The Intercontinental, I think it’s called now. And then we shot one in Palm Springs, and then we did one in Jamaica and brought all the writers down to Jamaica for no reason, and we got these villas and… we had a high time down in Jamaica. That was really fun.
And I’m working with these cameramen I’ve never met before, and I said, “Okay, so you’re on Billy, you give me a master, and then you’re on Johnny.” “Don’t worry, man, we’re all smoking the same dope.” “No, no, you see, I’m not smoking any dope. I’m directing a television show!” But sure enough, you’d get to editing and you’d find out that these guys would just turn their camera off every once in a while or run out of batteries. “Oh, yeah, man. Yeah, I wasn’t running on a lot of that.” So it was a mystery affair when you’d get to editing on that one. But that was a great pitch and a great run.
AVC: And, one would presume, a pretty easy sell to all of your brothers.
JM: Oh, yeah. And Billy every once in a while says, [Does a perfect Bill Murray impression.] “You know, I’d do that golf thing again. If you wanted to do that thing again.” So I’m going to find the right person to pitch that to again and go do that. That was really fun.
AVC: Head straight to Netflix. Surely they’ll green light it in a heartbeat.
JM: Well, I’m in the process of trying to sell it to this guy right now. Just to air the five episodes, so somebody can see them. Because Comedy Central fired Debbie Liebling, the woman who green-lighted it, right after we started, basically. So we were the red-headed stepchild. So they aired that show at, like, 8 in the morning on Sundays. It was supposed to be 2 in the morning stoner humor, and they aired them at 8 in the morning on Sundays and just burned them off, and that was it.
AVC: That’s really kind of astonishing.
JM: They had Bill Murray on their network, and they buried it. Interesting group of people over there. It was, like, “Oh, yeah, Comedy Central. Remember when they used to do comedy?”