Reminder: Your Celebrity Folk Hero Bill Murray Was Once Accused of Spousal Abuse


On Friday, Netflix released A Very Murray Christmas, a Bill Murray-crafted holiday special featuring a star-studded roster of guests that include outspoken celebrity humanitarians like George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, and Amy Poehler. The production (directed by Sofia Coppola) is cranky, morose, lonely, and somewhat charming—much like Murray’s public persona. In it, he scrambles to put together a Christmas variety show with a limited roster of friends and guests, many of whom don’t seem to like him very much.

This is something like a deadpan acknowledgment of a Hollywood fact: despite his cultivated image—a true PR triumph, even if it doesn’t always look intentional—Murray’s professional reputation is that of a man whose artistic abilities have rendered his notoriously bad temperament just this side of worthwhile. Harold Ramis once said, about his longtime collaborator: “You’d do a movie with Bill, a big comedy in those early days, just knowing he could save the day no matter how bad the script was, that we’d find something through improvisation.” Now, 35 years after Caddyshack, Murray’s instincts for both comedy and drama have made him one of the most revered actors working in film today.

But the mythologizing of his off-camera hijinks and on-camera genius have done a lot to erase the fact that the actor is known by those closest to him to be a cruel, difficult, and allegedly abusive human being.

You’ve probably heard the anecdote about Bill Murray charmingly crashing a couple’s engagement photos. Or when he confidently climbed behind the bar and started bartending at SXSW. But have you heard the one from 2007 about how he allegedly hit his (now ex-) wife in the face and “told her she was ‘lucky he didn’t kill her’”?

Classic Bill, right?

Via the Smoking Gun:

Bill Murray is a drug-addicted spousal abuser and serial adulterer who has abandoned his family, according to a scathing divorce filing by his estranged wife.
Jennifer [Butler] Murray alleges that the Academy Award-nominated actor’s ‘”adultery, addiction to marijuana and alcohol, abusive behavior, physical abuse, sexual addictions and frequent abandonment” led her in 2006 to move into a separate South Carolina home with the couple’s four children. A copy of Jennifer Murray’s court complaint, which was first reported by Charleston’s The Post & Courier, can be found here.
Murray contends that the comedian physically abused her on several occasions during their marriage (they were wed in 1997) and that the star hit her in the face during a November 2007 confrontation in her home. During that incident, the May 12 complaint alleges, the 57-year-old performer “told her she was ‘lucky he didn’t kill her.’”
Jennifer Murray charges that the actor would often leave town without telling her, and sometimes “travels overseas where he engages in public and private altercations and sexual liaisons.” She also claims that he “repeatedly…left threatening voice messages on the home telephone which the minor children have heard.”

(Along with her divorce filings, Jennifer Butler also requested a restraining order against the actor.)

At the time of the allegations, Murray’s lawyer stated, “I can say that Bill Murray is deeply saddened by the break-up of his marriage to Jennifer. They remain loving parents, committed to the best interest of their children.”

The pair finalized their divorce in 2008 and, according to the Telegraph, Butler withdrew her abuse allegation. In the court proceedings, she was awarded primary custody of the couple’s children and a lump sum of $7 million. Later, during a press conference for his film City of Ember, Murray commented that the divorce “was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my entire life” and “when you’re really in love with someone and this happens—I never had anything like this happen. It’s like your faith in people is destroyed because the person you trusted the most you can no longer trust at all… The person you know isn’t there anymore.”

Worth noting: I could not find any statement from Bill Murray denying that he abused Jennifer Butler. (One article claims he denied it, but does not supply a quote or link to a statement. I have reached out to Murray’s listed legal representation for comment via both phone and email. They have yet to respond.) While it’s easy to lionize the actor for trading blows with the widely-loathed Chevy Chase, it’s much harder to admire him when he’s allegedly hitting his wife in the face.

The case was reported on by Gawker, TMZ, Huffington Post, New York Daily News, People (linked above), and plenty of other widely read sites across the internet. Every couple of years, his name will appear on lists like this one by the Daily Beast: It’s Not Just Cosby: Hollywood’s Long List of Male Scumbags. Information about his allegedly abusive past isn’t buried or hard to come by. A google search for “Bill Murray abuse” brings up 43,000,000 results. And yet these incidents remain widely forgotten by the public and the people who continue to work with him.

Many of Murray’s nastier and more telling personality traits can, with the right spin, be easily manipulated to create an image of creative genius rather than a man who skirts the line between unpredictability and cold manipulation. (It helps that his famed difficulty on set is backed up by his often great final performances.)

Take this anecdote—as told by Harold Ramis—from the set of Groundhog Day:

“Bill had all these obvious resentments toward the production, so it was very hard for a time to communicate with him. Calls would go unreturned. Production assistants couldn’t find him. So someone said, ‘Bill, you know, things would be easier if you had a personal assistant. Then we wouldn’t have to bother you with all this stuff.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ So he hired a personal assistant who was profoundly deaf, did not have oral speech, spoke only American sign language, which Bill did not speak, nor did anyone else in the production. But Bill said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to learn sign language.’ And I think it was so inconvenient that in a couple weeks, he gave that up. That’s anti-communication, you know? Let’s not talk.”

There’s something admirable about Murray’s overall refusal to play the Hollywood game (he famously has a 1-800 phone number in lieu of an agent or PR representative)—until you realize who his stubbornness is affecting. It’s not studio executives who have to deal with him—it’s the film crew, his collaborators, and friends.

“At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set,” Ramis also remarked. “What I’d want to say to him is just what we tell our children: ‘You don’t have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.’”

Things got so bad on the set of Groundhog Day that Murray and Ramis—friends since the mid ‘70swould not speak for 21 years. (They eventually reconnected when Ramis was on his deathbed.)

In the Christmas special, Murray seems exceedingly self-aware. When he meets a bride (Rashida Jones) whose wedding’s been ruined by a Christmas blizzard, he offers to take a photo with her because “that really seems to cheer people up when they do that. They get big smiles.” Hanging up his cellphone after aggressively telling an unheard caller to never ring his number again, he tells his producers that the caller was his sister. Singing a duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Jenny Lewis, he takes her hands and shoves them in his armpits to keep her fingers from “freezing, turning black, and falling off” as she smiles passively and demurely.

The special is exactly the kind of weird, funny sadness that people have come to expect (and want) from Bill Murray, but dig a little deeper and you might come to realize that these creative choices reflect the life of a man who has extreme boundary issues and a tendency towards the cruel and emotionally abusive mistreatment of loved ones.

In a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Maya Rudoph relays a story about her first meeting with Murray, telling the host and audience about a backstage encounter at Saturday Night Live. Having never before spoken to Rudolph, Murray—without asking—picked her up, “slung me over his shoulder and carried me off like a fresh kill.”

Rudolph didn’t seem to mind too much, saying Murray “is a comedy dreamboat and a human dreamboat.” Kimmel and the audience didn’t seem to mind either, laughing along to the story uproariously. What we see is that Murray is hiding his worst characteristics in plain sight, and all of us only seem to want more.

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Image via Getty.

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