Historic actor and activist Don Murray presented his classic film Bus Stop — his first film starring opposite Marilyn Monroe — to the New York Film Academy. After the screening, students watched highlights of Murray’s forthcoming documentary, Unsung Hero, which was followed by a Q & A.
Don Murray graduated from The American Academy in 1948. He studied method acting in New York City through the 1950’s, the same time as the greats: James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen. After graduating, Murray auditioned for legendary director, Joshua Logan, for Picnic, but instead of taking the role, Murray decided to take some time off to volunteer overseas.
When he returned he was cast in a play called The Skin of Our Teeth. Logan was in the audience saw him and decided to hire Murray a week before Bus Stop was to begin filming. Murray, a New York native who had never been on a horse, found himself in a rodeo scene on his very fist day on set.
Aside from some television programs in Los Angeles, and his theater studies, Murray didn’t have a lot of Hollywood experience. Because he’s been overseas, he didn’t even think of Monroe as a big star. Initially, Murray continuously turned down the lead role of Bus Stop down because the studio wanted him to sign an exclusive contract. Something, Murray was unwilling to do and called a “slave contract.” They eventually agreed on two pictures a year for five years and every other year he could go to Broadway.
Murray described his first love as musical comedy, of which he says Monroe was the best. “I never saw a straight play until I was out of high school. My mother was a Ziegfeld girl and my father managed stage musicals.” He took on his next role, Charlie Samson, in the Bachelor Party because it was an ensemble film. “It was like being in a jazz band,” Murray said. That year both Bachelor Party and Hatful of Rain took the second and third place in Time Magazine’s “Movie of the Year” list.
“I really didn’t appreciate films until I made my own, The Cross and the Switchblade, which I directed. Then I fell in love with movies. Because (before) I hated that there was no continuity (in filming). Always stop and go. I also didn’t like the star system. What (studios) would put up with someone because they were a ‘star’.”
During the Q & A, a student asked, “What is the one thing that acting didn’t teach you that you wish you knew?” Murray responded, “Your performance comes not only from the text in the script but the eyes of the director. I didn’t join the Actors Studio when I was invited because there was too much business. An actor would get a cigarette in their hands and suddenly the scene becomes about the cigarette.”
Murray’s most controversial role was in Advise & Consent where he played a closeted Secretary of State who comes under Senate investigation. The film was released in 1962 decades before its time. A student asked if he worried for his career when he took on the role. Murray responded with, “It was an acting role. It never occurred to me to wonder whether or not people would consider me a homosexual. It was an acting role and a wonderful script. It’s probably the best political film ever made. No, excuse me, All The President’s Men is of the same caliber.”
Another student asked, “Who did you admire coming up?”
“Well, of course, when I got out of the academy in ‘48, Marlon was on Broadway in A Street Car Named Desire and I’d never seen anything like that. In the audience, you could feel the heat of New Orleans. I was standing in back totally mesmerized by the whole play but specifically Brando. In films, I liked Clift Montgomery… And, also (I liked) James Dean. Not so much Rebel Without a Cause. But I thought East of Eden was fantastic. That was really Cain in the bible. Whose father, God, rejects his gift of wheat, but accepts Abel’s gift of slaughtered lamb. So he was playing Cain, and that was my part in Skin of Our Teeth. So we were basically playing the same part thematically. But that scene where he is confessing to his father really tears at your heart.”
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Mr. Murray for taking the time to come speak with our students and wish him luck on his next project, the Twin Peaks revival on Showtime.