Posted in: Actors, Interviews

“I had to risk not being liked in that scene” – Michael Murphy Interviewed

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

May 9, 1978 New York City

Judith M. Kass: Vincent Canby of The New York Times called your acting in An Unmarried Woman “an exceptionally complex performance as the husband whose emotional problems set in motion the events that make possible the Clayburgh character’s eventual liberation.” I’m specifically interested in the crying scene. Was that intended to get her sympathy or was that Martin’s genuine reaction to the situation?

Michael Murphy: I think that was a very complex scene. There were a lot of things going on there. I think he feels very badly about what he’s doing, but at the same time I think, yes, it is aimed at her. He feels so bad, he wants her to feel as badly for him as he feels for himself. I think her reaction to him when she gets mad is something he doesn’t expect. And so it had a sort of little twist to it. But people take it lots of different ways. I always felt that the scene needed to be sort of self-serving. I don’t mean that he was literally faking it; it was a very emotional moment, but at the same time it had that sort of semi-shallow feeling. I had to risk not being liked in that scene.

And in the whole film, because when he comes back to her and says ‘Take me back”

But there were ways to play that scene. I could have gotten more tearful and it would have been more sympathy-provoking. Paul [Mazursky] and I talked about it a lot. And you have the sense of the guy having kind of a seizure more than a tearful, sad quality.

And you wonder why he didn’t say something in the restaurant before when they’re making plans for the summer.

Yeah. He’s leading up to it.

Well, it is kind of hard to sympathize with the problems of a woman whose husband makes around $70,000 a year. Mazursky did say in an interview he didn’t want this to be the story of a real “victim.

Well, I’ve heard those complaints. I don’t know: I think that the people who are in that sort of upwardly mobile situation, middle-class people, their problems are just as genuine as people who have economic problems or whatever.

Their emotional problems are every bit as real.

I feel it’s a very valid subject to explore. I think a lot of people lead very empty lives in that strata and they don’t know why.

They have everything and what’s the matter?

I don’t think that this guy, Martin, didn’t love his wife. I think he had lots of other pressures and it’s very easy to come home and take it out on your mate when you’re dissatisfied, when things are not right in your life. It’s the American Dream. Here’s a guy who spends his life selling stocks and bonds and trying to make money and trying to climb, and having, I don’t think, a terribly satisfactory life. It seems to happen to a lot of people. You get to a certain point in your life and you think, “Jesus, it’s half over now and I’m not having a great time.” It’s very easy to get involved with someone sexually or get a little ‘Ummph!’ going somewhere from some other direction. I think it’s a very common problem for American men … and women, too.

• • •

You described Robert Altman and Martin Ritt—to go on to The Front—as being completely different in terms of their directing styles, and I’d like to ask you to compare those two with Paul Mazursky.

It’s kind of interesting in that Marty’s approach … he gets on the script and he was a former actor, as was Paul, and they get with it a great deal and they know what works in their own minds. On the other hand, the script is not terribly important to Bob. It’s important in terms of the storyline, but the actors always wind up improvising scenes and so forth. I think Paul kind of falls somewhere in the middle because he gives you a great deal of freedom and yet he’s very interested in the writing because—certainly in this film—he spent two years writing it. He would push to make those scenes the way he wanted them and then, as we progressed, he relaxed a lot about it.

He knew it was going to work.

Any of these pictures that are, I think, good, usually kind of wind up taking on a life of their own and Paul allowed that to happen a great deal. I felt that I would have liked to have more to do with my daughter in this picture, and Paul kept saying, “Well, you know, we’re telling a certain kind of story here.” But we expanded that little scene at the breakfast table which originally was nothing in the script. With Altman, he really goes all the way; just change the whole story to do something like that if it were working right. And it’s just a way of working.

Do you have any preferences?

Not at all. I’m crazy about all those guys. It all comes down to a relationship and how you trust one another, and the same with Bob. And they’re all three wonderful guys. Marty Ritt pushes you into a mold more than the other two guys, but I respect that.

Michael Murphy and Woody Allen in "The Front"
Martin Ritt's "The Front": Michael Murphy and Woody Allen

How was working with Woody Allen?

It was just great and we had a terrific relationship from the beginning and I think it shows in the picture. We weren’t faking it. We’re going to do a picture together this summer. I’ve never worked in a picture of his that was directed by him.

And it’s going to be called Woody Allen Film until it gets a title?

No titles, right. He’s writing it now.

How about Elia Kazan in The Arrangement when you played the priest?

Working with him was interesting. That was one of those roles that was years ago [1969] when I was really just starting. It was a big picture. Brando was going to do it and then Kirk Douglas came in and Faye Dunaway came in. It was a couple of pictures after Bonnie and Clyde for her, so she was very hot. And it had that aura around it of a hot picture, and he [Kazan] was such a big deal.

And everything kind of fell apart.

Yeah, it didn’t seem to work too well, but it was one of those interesting pictures for me because I was hanging around a lot. I only had three or four scenes to play in the picture and I had an opportunity to hang around and watch for six weeks. Kazan encouraged it. It was one of the few pictures that I’ve made, that I had a kind of ominous feeling about while we were shooting it. It was very strange.

You didn’t have that feeling about shooting Brewster McCloud?

Bob is so enthusiastic it kind of rubs off on you. See, the stuff I was involved with with Kazan was very tough. It was semi-autobiographical. I was playing in scenes where his father was dying in the hospital, and he gets himself into those moods. So that it was very tough for him. Bob, on the other hand, no matter what he’s shooting, it’s “This is the best picture I’ve ever been in.” You have to remember that this was in the Sixties and everyone was doing their “groovy movies.”

And Haskell Wexler was making Medium Cool and all that kind of thing.

Yeah. And we thought this [Brewster McCloud] was going to be really terrific. And some of it I thought was very good and some of it was pretty silly.

And then MGM went and dumped on it.

Bob described it that way. It was during that period when Jim Aubrey came in and was selling the back lot. Bob had made the deal just before Aubrey came in, and he was very hot, having just done M*A*S*H, so they gave him total freedom. And then the picture bombed and then Aubrey and those guys decided from then on there was going to be a lot of studio/producer control and no more of this auteur business. The picture kind of went in the groove there before Aubrey got very powerful at MGM, for his short tenure there. But on the other hand, I don’t know if that picture would have ever caught on with the public. But it was very badly released. It was put in a theatre in Los Angeles, for instance, that no one ever goes to. It was terrible. There’s a theory about movies. Mazursky says, “Look, if a picture’s good, people are going to find it.” But I think it can be helped.

Well, the Museum of Modern Art does a show every so often called Re-view where these films can get seen or reseen: Or some critic says, “Hey you gotta see Pretty Poison.” I don’t think the fans necessarily ferret these films out.

The other night I went to see Winter Light down in the Village. I met Sven Nykvist and he was telling me lots of stuff about it and he said the picture was made for $100,000, has never seen a profit, and the theater was packed with people. I think in New York and places like that, there’s a real interested moviegoing public.

I also wanted to ask about working with Peter Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? How was that?

Well, I was one of the suitcases. It was a very funny script. A lot of people liked that movie and it was a really big hit. I knew that picture was going to be a hit. I went to a screening at Warner Brothers and the place was full of the executives’ kids; and it had been so long since I’d seen children with adults in a theater during that period, I said “Oh this’ll be really a big one.” If adults and children can both sit through it, it’s not one of those Disney things. There’s a big market for this and, sure enough, it just went through the roof. I read that script and it was very funny.

[Robert] Benton and [David] Newman.

And Buck Henry doesn’t hurt. I think I worked on that picture for over four months and all I did were sight gags. There was no dialogue.

Did you come and go?

No, I was there all the time. ‘Cause that character kept popping up. We did two long locations in San Francisco, one of which was only for that chase sequence, which was shot after we did all the other stuff. We went up there at the beginning of the picture and did the exteriors, then we came back to Burbank and did the interiors, and then we went back there a second time and did that chase sequence; so it was very involved. But with some working situations, I’m not always crazy about the way the picture comes out, I’m not always crazy about a lot of things that happen during the filming. But by and large, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve worked with interesting and generally good directors, and the experience is always pretty interesting. Bob Aldrich [The Legend of Lylah Clare] is a wonderful guy.

It had some interesting people in it, too—Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine.

Peter Finch and I became lifelong friends on that film, and when I heard he was going to be in it, I was thrilled. And then when he turned out to be as terrific a person as he was an actor … I would have walked through the lobby to be in a picture with him, and I learned a great deal from him. He was a wonderful man; he’s one of my favorite people…. Very few days go by that I don’t think about him.

• • •

You mentioned once that Montgomery Clift was one of the people who turned you on to acting.

I first saw A Place in the Sun, I believe, when I was a kid in grammar school … junior high … I don’t know. But something kind of visceral happens when you look at these movies…. I grew up in Hollywood and I’d been around actors. There was nothing very interesting to me about all of that. I used to love to go to the movies. It was in the pre-heavy-television days. So I’d go to the movies every weekend and kind of think about that stuff all week. They used to have these theaters out there called The Hitching Post and they ran these westerns. I used to get on the Wilshire bus every Saturday in full cowboy outfit and everything—caps, gun and stuff—as did 300 other kids. We’d all go down to The Hitching Post and watch the latest Wild Bill Elliott western, and then these guys would come over from Republic Studios, or wherever, and they’d have a raffle. When I was a Cub Scout we’d go on trips to the studios. I had a lot of exposure to movies and movie people, but I remember seeing that film [A Place in the Sun], and I’m not sure I was even sophisticated enough or old enough to really get all the ramifications of what was happening. But I was so touched by that guy’s dilemma, and then, in retrospect, I was so touched by him. And then the same thing happened with Dean and Brando. I was always as a kid moved by the performances because I believed, and that doesn’t happen too often. Then you go through periods of your life when you try to do what those guys did, which is a big mistake; but I certainly have been influenced by those guys. And then I look at guys today, like Nicholson today is a terrific actor, and he does very large things on the screen and gets away with them because, like these other actors, he’s very believable. He’s always honest. He’s never lying to you up there.

Getting back to your Hollywood childhood Tell me what strange thing your father did for a living.

After the war, years ago, my father was in a big army surplus operation in Los Angeles. He was a vice president of a big company called Western War Surplus Stores. (I think they still have them out there.) It was the late Forties and in those days it was an enormous business. Actors and directors in those days were having those big dos out on their lawns, and so my father started out by supplying these enormous tents, or cover the lawn, or the swimming pool. And he’s one of these eccentric guys who, if you want a pink swan for the pool, knows where to get it. And the result can be lots of friends in the movie business. He and Ralph Bellamy were very close, and when Ralph started the Racquet Club, my dad found him a big army stove. So as a result I got to meet Cooper and Bogart and all those guys. I was a little kid but their faces were always around.

Went to Edward G. Robinson’s house and he’d turn the sprinklers on the roof if 1 wanted to hear the rain on the roof. It was really fun; eccentric behavior. It seems to me a better time in Hollywood. It’s gotten vulgar, sort of, now. There was always a sense of humor about it when I was a kid. It was a nice place to live out there. And it was cheap compared to New York. You could go out there and live in some kind of château for not a whole lot of money. The living was easy, but nowadays you hear these stories about people going out to Hollywood and taking a flight in some real estate agent’s helicopter and looking at the grounds. I got a kick out of a recent story in The New York Times where an Arab family moved into Beverly Hills and painted their place lime green and put a bunch of statues around—and it’s great, let’s be up front with it, you know. The neighbors are up in arms.

• • •

You were a high school teacher for a while. Where and why?

When I first went back to Los Angeles after I got out of school, I substituted for a couple of years and then I taught drama and English, really to keep body and soul together. I’ve always been very lucky in that I’ve been able to keep body and soul together, but I kind of supplemented my income in those early days. And it was good for me because in this business it’s very easy to sit around and another year goes by.

There was an interview by Ann Guarino in a February Daily News from which I’m going to quote: “I know how to be a star and I’m not going to do it.”

I said that?

She says you said it, and that you prefer being a character actor. So why won’t you try to go the star route?

Well, I’m in the business to act and interpret behavior. I’m not terribly interested in the glamour side of it. That’s all I was getting at. I think it’s sad to get trapped in that thing of having to be gorgeous. You put too much pressure on yourself and that’s not really what the business is about … worrying about whether you’re in People magazine or not. I know people in Hollywood who pay their publicists $1,300 a month to have their names plastered all over. I’d rather have a kind of low profile. All I want from the Mazursky picture is a little leverage so that I can work. It’s the job.

I understand there are two of those coming up: The Class of Miss MacMichael with Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, and Shenanigans with Ned Beatty and Burgess Meredith. Who directed the first?

Silvio Narizzano, who did Georgy Girl. It was made by Brut Productions, although it’s an English film. A lot of it had been finished when I got there, so it’s hard to say what 1 think of it. We did it in like seven weeks and I did, I guess, the last two weeks of it. The stuff I was involved in was OK, I think.

What about Shenanigans?

That was a big cast—Paul Sand, Richard Basehart, Arthur Godfrey. It’s a very eccentric picture. I saw all the dailies; how it hangs together I don’t know. It’s a picture I made a couple of years ago. It’s a funny script and the guy who did it—Joe Jacobi, a young New

York filmmaker produced and directed it—did it independently. He’s had offers from the studios to release it, but he hasn’t liked the deals and he’s sitting on it; going to release it himself the way Joan Silver does.

That’s good if he can bring it off.

I’d like to see him take on that system, so it’s taken him some time. Joan Silver’s terrific; I like her a lot. I got attracted to it because of Ned, actually. He and I have worked together—Nashville, The Thief Who Came to Dinner. I’ve known him a long time and I admire him a great deal; he’s terrific to work with. I do a lot of things with him and with Paul. It’s a sort of Watergatesque thing. It’s kind of a morality fable.*

• • •

Murphy in Altmanland: as the Strongman in the circus finale to "Brewster McCloud," between Sally Kellerman and William Windom

I’d like to talk a little more about Robert Altman because I know you connected with him early in television.

I started with him on those Combat shows when he was really finishing his career in TV. He was always a maverick; they were always firing him. Bob and TV was hilarious. He was really doing some of the best work. They could go out and shoot an hour Combat episode with a lot of shooting and running around on the back lot at Metro and they would do it for $100,000, and today they’re paying $300,000 for the episode. It’s just terrible, now. And then I did a pilot with him, Carroll O’Connor and I, called Nightwatch. At that time Bob was experimenting with fast film. It had a great look to it, a lot of handheld stuff. It was in that era [’64] and CBS in its wisdom took a look at it and said, “Whhhaa, what’s this?” so that didn’t go on and that was the last thing he ever did. I think they spun it off.

There is a film called Nightmare in Chicago (1964) that is on TV.

That was a Kraft Suspense Theatre episode that he did, and the network saw it and said they would like to base something upon that, and so he did this Nightwatch pilot. That was a very interesting project and would have been very, very good television. TV is so difficult….

I wanted to ask you about The Rat’s Nest, the play you directed off-off-Broadway.

That was a new experience for me. When I first came to New York, I met a couple of writers. They were nice young guys and we used to talk a lot, kick around ideas; and then I went back to California. One day a script arrived in the mail and I read it and thought it was terrific—very New York. It takes place in a bar at 5 o’clock in the morning. A lot of eccentric people are hanging around. When I came back to do An Unmarried Woman, I got involved in that and stayed on to do the play. We took it around and took it down to the Film Forum. They have a theater wing there, so we did it down there and it was very successful. I really directed it by default because there was nothing in it I could play. They knew me down there, and I had to participate in it in some way. I got talking to Woody [Allen] about this and he said, “Well, you should do this. You should be directing and you should take these chances. Even if the thing is an enormous disaster, you’ll at least learn something about yourself.” And I had worked with so many really good directors that there’s no mystery to that as far as I’m concerned. I really know how to direct. The problem with directing today is there’s so many terrible directors. It’s not a very complex thing to do. The most important thing is to create an atmosphere in which everybody feels good. I don’t mean to diminish the job, but so many people are very destructive. They want to get out there and throw the weight around. I’ve seen such destructive behavior on sets and I’ve been at it long enough to know, so it was interesting for me to apply that knowledge….

Does it make you want to direct more?

I loved it. It’s a very exhilarating position. It’s a very powerful position and you have to be very careful, ’cause you have to sit it out and let people come up with ideas and not try to jam all of your ideas down their throats. It should be a good time, it should be fun, and unfortunately we are still faced with that work ethic thing. So sometimes people will make nervous wrecks out of people so that if the play’s a failure they can justify it. They can say, “Well, I worked hard.” Really, the idea behind it is to relax and take it easy. I’ve been on sets with Altman—and Mazursky (they’re both very similar)—where there’s so much fun going on…. Both these men have definite control of what they’re doing. They’re not just messing around, but it’s such an easy situation. I remember doing a picture called Countdown with Bob and everybody was having such a good time that Jack Warner turned up on the set, and the cameraman said, “I’ve been working here 30 years and I’ve never seen him.” He just came down to see what the hell was going on.

But then he changed the picture.

Yeah, they sure did. What they succeeded in doing was cutting Bob out of the picture. He had read that book [The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls] and he was very enamored of … not the space thing at all—what he was enamored of was that sense of competition, that military mind …

The only eccentric element I was able to find in that film was the little boy with the rubber mouse around his neck.

That’s an interesting story actually because Bob … Jimmy Caan said, “Let me take, this mouse when I’m going on the moon shot,” and Bob said, “OK,” so he sticks it in and he said, “I knew that mouse was going to come back to haunt me.” Because what happened was that after he finished the picture they’d fired him, and they were cutting it and Warner wanted the ending reshot. The original ending in Bob’s mind … They send him up to the moon because the Russians have landed and they send him in a rocket that cannot make the return trip. So he has to get to the moon and find a shelter and they’re going to send another rocket after him when he finishes. So Bob’s point was that it’s all so silly. The point of the picture was … so he lands on the moon and you pull back and you see ten miles away this shelter that he’s supposed to find, and you see him walk in the wrong direction. He’s going to be marooned up there. So Warner said that’s anti-American and we’re not going to do it, and what he did was, Bill Conrad [the television actor and star of Cannon, who was executive producer], he went out and reshot the ending without Altman, and you see the rubber mouse come out of the package, and Jimmy spins the rubber mouse and heads in the direction that the mouse’s head is pointing and finds the shelter, which had absolutely nothing to do with…. As Bob said, “I knew that mouse was going to come back and nail me.”

• • •

Just to change the subject, how do you feel you’ve been treated by interviewers?

By and large I’ve been sort of disappointed by a lot of the writing, because a lot of interviewers can’t write. First of all, it’s not monumental stuff to be writing about, so don’t imagine they have the best writers in the world doing it. They have to capture you, sort of. So it has less to do with what you have to say and more to do with how good a writer the person is, as to what’s conveyed. All of it’s sort of a tempest in a teapot ’cause we’re just making movies. I’d like to see the whole thing reduced way down. I’d like to see us going to theaters for $1.50. I’d like to see pictures costing a third as much as they do. I’d like to see it not be such a big deal.

It’s quoting a cliché to say that people need gods, but it’s still true.

That can still happen. I see the mentality of it spiraling in a downward way. We take it all so seriously … the archivists say, “What is the meaning of the pink hat?” It’s silly, and as a result I think you very often get the wrong people in the business.

Because they’re attracted by the nutty, glamorous side…

Exactly. The fame of it, and I don’t just mean actors, I’m talking about interviewers and critics, and everyone wants to be a star. I suppose when I started I was interested in that, but fortunately I met some bright people along the way, and I grew up about it. But it’s amazing the ego you run into on the periphery of the business. I’m not talking about the heavy stuff.

You’re talking about those real estate agents with helicopters.

Sure, they all have press people. I saw a thing on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, where he’s talking to Mike Silverman, a famous realtor in Beverly Hills, and he has a press agent to get his name in the papers. It’s atrocious.


* Ultimately the film was released through Warner Brothers. Six minutes were cut and the title changed to The Great Georgia Bank Hoax.

© 1979 Judith M. Kass

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.