He grows mock serious.
"Let it suffice to say I will never, ever, make another major motion picture with him again. And I mean that."
Scree/Screech/Chucky/Scooter was not Murray's first choice for the role. Actually, he preferred Punxsutawney Phil, the nation's most famous barometer of spring, who is lifted by the scruff of his neck out of his temperature- controlled log every Groundhog's Day in Western Pennsylvania and forced to look for his shadow.
Phil, says Murray during a recent interview, was thrilled with the prospect of appearing in director Harold Ramis' movie, which explores the virtues and inanities of one of our silliest celebrations. But because the filmmakers chose not to film in the town of Punxsutawney for logistical reasons (the town square there was deemed too small and drab, and so the company filmed in the cozier Woodstock, Ill.), Punxsutawney's founding fathers decided to play hardball and banned groundhog Phil from participating.
"Phil was fabulous," says Murray, who visited the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day festival two years ago to prepare for the movie and actually shook the town mascot's paw while soaking up the atmosphere. "He's treated like royalty and is very well-behaved. A true professional. And so when they couldn't get him - a creature who has been hand-raised since birth and is very tame - what did they do? They went out into the woods and caught this Scooter, a groundhog who hated my guts from day one."
Scooter was indeed a nightmare. This became obvious after one of the movie's key scenes.
Murray, as nasty TV weatherman Phil Connors, has been dispatched by his station to Punxsutawney to do yet another Groundhog Day remote. He can't wait to get out of there, and yet just as he's leaving town, he's snowbound by a blizzard. The next day, he wakes up to leave, only to find that . . . it's Groundhog Day all over again. The pattern repeats itself around a hundred times, and finally Phil Connors realizes his fate: He's caught, perhaps forever, in a Groundhog Day time warp.
Convinced that the town groundhog is to blame, he kidnaps him and goes on a suicide mission. In this scene, Murray is seen driving 100 miles an hour with the goofy founding fathers in hot pursuit. Scooter, incidentally, is at the wheel.
"Don't drive angry," Murray ad-libs to the little monster, and from there, we cut away, thus saving us from the sight of gallons of blood.
Scooter - not keen on receiving driving tips - bit Murray not once, not twice, but three times.
"Ha!" says Murray seconds after re-living the horror of Scooter's ferocious bites. "You think being a movie star is all glamour, huh? Well clearly, it's one of the most dangerous - and painful - professions in the world."
The truth be told, Murray, 42, doesn't need to add a beast like Scooter to the comedy mix to make his work seem a little out on the edge. He's always been this way, ever since his manic days on TV's Saturday Night Live, and during the course of his 15-year film career, which began with Ivan Reitman's Meatballs.
Unlike his comic contemporary Robin Williams, whom you can physically see working for the laughs, Murray - with his rubbery face, gross-out witticisms and sly winks - seems to draw guffaws almost effortlessly. In hit films such as Ghostbusters, Stripes, What About Bob? and Caddyshack, he has crossed the boundaries of good taste many a time. His characters are usually lounge-lizard types infused with a great deal of off-the-cuff ad-libs and enough humanity to make them seem likable.
Phil Connors, at the beginning of Groundhog Day, is a lot like Murray's other glib creations, but halfway through the film, the actor begins to tread unfamiliar waters. As his character learns that the only thing that can save him from repeating the same day forever is loving someone more than himself, Murray becomes romantic, sweet, a dreamboat.
Although Murray has played love scenes in some of his other movies, Groundhog Day is the first film in which he has attempted to do them straight. And he loved it.
"See," he says, "the thing I really like about this movie is that it gives me a chance to show off a side of me that no one has seen. I really am, you know, a hopeless romantic, and that's no joke.
"This movie opens up a whole new career for me: the romantic leading man. It proves that with the right story, the right clothes and good lighting, anything is possible. I'm actually considering doing Calvin ads next. Marky Mark has nothing on me."
The genesis of Murray's new comedy began in a very strange way. Novice screenwriter Danny Rubin submitted Groundhog Day to Harold Ramis as a writing sample. But Ramis, after a quick read, was so taken with the script that he decided it was going to be his next picture. And so he called up Murray, who he thought would be perfect for the role of the nasty, eventually thawed weatherman.
"I read it," says Murray, "and I thought it was just extraordinary
because at it's core it really said something: It was an interpretation of the myth about how we all repeat our lives because we're afraid of change. I thought it could just be the funniest thing ever."
But Ramis had other ideas. "Harold, you see," says Murray, "felt that it would work best if we centered on the romantic aspect between Andie's character and myself. (MacDowell plays Murray's news producer in the film, who, unlike the weatherman, thinks the festival is the most charming thing ever.) Harold thought that is what could make it successful, the idea that true love can save you from a life of monotony. But I disagreed. I wanted to center on the wild comedy. Well, the film works, so he was right and I was wrong."
Murray, when asked what day he wouldn't mind repeating for the rest of his life, and which he would dread revisiting over and over again, grows uncharacteristically serious. He thinks for a long time and then answers, ''Well, the most joyful day of my life certainly was the birth of my son. And the worst day I ever had was the day my father died. It's kind of weird, those polar opposites, huh? But that's how life is. The day my dad died was the worst I can ever remember. I was 17 and I was just at a point in my life where I really needed him. I needed his support and his advice. And he passed away. Add to the fact that it happened a couple of days after Christmas, something that made it even more difficult.
"I guess what this movie taught me, if anything," he says, "was that you have to go out and seize the day. Live every day to it's fullest, because you never know how many more of them you're going to get."
Murray is applying this life advice to his own career. In the last couple of years, Murray - who used to churn out a movie every few months - has been taking it easy. He made Quick Change and What About Bob? but other than that has largely been inactive.
"It's definitely time to pick up the pace," he says. "See, I'm very particular. I pass on everything. And as a result, I sit around a lot. Being a movie star is a stupid gig. You work for maybe three months a year, and the rest of the time you sit around waiting. But now, I think I've got to start working more, and I'm doing this by writing when I'm not filming. In the past three months, I've gone nuts. I'm working on three projects and I'm going back to the theater."
Now in an adventuresome mode, Murray is testing other facets of his talent was well. Although the romantic scenes in Groundhog Day were a stretch for him, they were nothing, he says, compared with the challenge of making the forthcoming Mad Dog and Glory. In this gritty, offbeat drama, Murray again tries on a new hat: that of a screen villain who terrorizes good guy Robert De Niro.
"This is a film I'm really excited about," he says. "I've never done a character like this before. It was a real different thing for me playing an irredeemable madman. And it's a stretch for Bobby, too: He plays a mouse."
Murray has attempted to play it straight in films before, most notably in the seriouso The Razor's Edge, a commercial and critical disaster. But even though he may experiment with dramas now and again, Murray says that he has finally come to terms with what his true calling is.
"My movies used to bother me somewhat, I have to admit," he says. "I would see them and think, 'Hey, there's no real political subtext here, all there is is jokes.' But people come up to me on the street all the time and say, 'Thanks for the laughs - they really help.' And finally, I've realized I can be content in that. Being funny, I've realized, is my function. And if I have to accomplish this by being terrorized by a mad hedgehog, hey, so be it."