Standing at a distance both from himself and the film industry his career has been shrouded in, Bill Murray is an ironic, coolly detached cultural icon who has come to inspire a whole new generation of like-minded individuals. Appearing in the films of multiple iconic directors, including Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch, he is a rare actor that toes the line between mainstream and independent cinema. Remaining an icon of popular culture to this very day, his true prominence came in the 1990s, appearing in Groundhog Day, Space Jam, Kingpin and more.
It was in Kingpin in 1996 when Murray may have been at the very height of his confidence, too, playing the infamous pro-bowler Ernie McCracken, a shameless misogynist who is the lifelong rival of Woody Harrelson’s Roy Munson. Despite his repugnant personality, however, Bill Murray makes his character strangely charming due to the sheer amount of confidence and alluring arrogance that seeps from his scraggly black hair.
Part of what makes his character quite so magnetic is the fact that Ernie McCracken is a figure born straight from the eccentric mind of Bill Murray himself, with the actor improvising a large majority of the characters lines. This is made all the more impressive when you consider that Kingpin is genuinely one of Murray’s most outstanding performances, producing some of the finest lines of dialogue in his illustrious career.
In discussion with Fast Company, the Kingpin directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly reported on how such improvisation played out on set, with Bobby stating: “Ernie was a great idea on paper but he didn’t really have the lines until Bill showed up. Bill had nothing to work with, it was kind of a thankless role as written and he turned it into just a beautiful character”.
Continuing, the director added, “Bill just threw all the pages away and just said, “I get it, trust me,” and we did and every line he came up with was better than the line that was scripted. ‘You’re on a gravy train with biscuit wheels.’ Like, where the fuck did that shit come from? It was genius”.
“You can’t really tell Bill how to be Bill because he’s gonna do it better than you can come up with. He’s a world-class improviser,” Bobby insightfully concludes. Such certainly explains why Murray’s character feels so natural in the film, a product of the strange Iowa bowling scene, a sport for which Murray also possessed a dab hand at. Bowling three strikes in a row on camera to a live audience all in one take is a feat of movie magic only the enigmatic Bill Murray is capable of.