After toiling in television for half a dozen years, Don Murray made his big screen debut in Joshua Logan’s romantic comedy drama Bus Stop (1956). His role as a cowboy smitten with a singer played by Marilyn Monroe earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and made him a movie star at 27. He went on to make a number of high-profile films, including A Hatful of Rain (1957) and Advise and Consent (1962), but his career never quite reached the heights that Bus Stop promised.
Instead, Murray’s career became much more idiosyncratic and much more interesting. He worked on a number of his own projects, including writing, producing, and starring in The Hoodlum Priest (1961), an involving drama shot by Haskell Wexler with Murray as a priest struggling to keep juvenile delinquents on the straight and narrow, and writing, producing, and starring in Confessions of Tom Harris (1969), a truly eccentric drama in which Murray plays the titular character, a one-time vicious criminal who became a prison chaplain as well as Murray’s stand-in and stunt double after a conversion to faith. He also appeared in independent features, such as Herbert Danska’s Sweet Love, Bitter (1967), a downbeat drama set to Mal Waldron’s evocative score, in which Murray plays an alcoholic college professor in free fall who becomes friends with a Charlie Parker-like, junkie jazz musician played by comedian Dick Gregory.
All of these films and more will screen July 11-13 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater as part of A Very Special Weekend with Don Murray. Coordinated by Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine and filmmaker Don Malcolm, who is currently directing and producing Unsung Hero, a documentary about Murray, the program offers a broad range of Murray’s movie and television work. The actor, who turns 85 this month, will be on hand over the weekend along with other special guests.
Malcolm will also screen clips from Unsung Hero throughout the retrospective. In this Q&A, he talks about Murray, his career, and what inspired Malcolm to make a documentary.
Q: Was there a defining movie for you, one that made you think, ‘There’s a film here?’
Donald Malcolm: I would say The Hoodlum Priest really broke something open. Don was the writer of the script, the producer, and all of that. I said, ‘How could that combination of talent not end up doing more of that kind of work?’ I found out why later on as we got into it. I think it really galvanized him—it didn’t happen all at once—I went and did the research and found the things that were hard to find.
I suddenly realized there were two phases to his career, the one that was sort of in the wake of Bus Stop up through The Hoodlum Priest. Then there was the material that followed, which then became more puzzling, more interesting, and just made the story even more needed to be told. As I got to know Don, I got to understand his perspective on it. Then I realized there were aspects of what he had been doing and the type of person he was when he wasn’t making movies that made it clear there was another thread that can be told in the story.
Q: In his more personal work there seems to be an emphasis on social justice and faith, most explicitly in The Hoodlum Priest.
DM: There’s a point of connection between social justice and the benefits of religious faith, and understanding how to apply it and how to use it in one’s life without being doctrinaire about it…Hoodlum Priest is what I would call a combination of a social problem film and neorealism jammed together to make a very hyper-dramatic point, which I think it’s very successful in doing, but it is looking backward into a different style of filmmaking that I think Don became enamored with when he first came to Hollywood. Obviously, he had an idea of how he wanted that film to look and he found Haskell Wexler making B noirs. He signed Wexler and [director] Irvin Kershner to do it from that side of the camera for him.
Q: Did you have any problems tracking down material for the documentary? Obviously, there are the things you’re screening at the Roxie, but beyond that group of movies, did anything prove elusive?
DM: There’s tons of stuff we weren’t able to get and we’re still working on getting bits and pieces to show in the film. One of the areas that will be covered as part of the quartet of films we’re showing on Saturday that deal with race relations is the live Philco Playhouse TV show called A Man Is Ten Feet Tall where he is opposite Sidney Poitier. Live television experience was something that buoyed Don quite a bit, because his contract with Fox didn’t push him to do that many movies and he was having trouble finding movies, because they kept trying to find some variation of Bus Stop or cowboy or whatever. They never quite figured out how to market him or go with him beyond that, because he also had a mind of his own and said, ‘I don’t want to do that kind of work.’
Don never wanted to do the same thing twice. As he said, ‘I came to Hollywood and they said I needed to establish a persona that the audience could relate and would be a reliable thing for them to get behind. I did the exact opposite.’ Live television turned out to be a great way for Don and many other actors with similar predilections to stay working…The actors enjoyed the challenge of working in a live context. It was like doing a play one time in front of a national audience. It also kept them in the public eye, because those shows were popular. That sustained Don quite a bit and that is one of the areas of his career that is difficult to reconstruct sufficiently in the documentary.
Q: How much time have you spent with Don?
DM: Quite a bit. Quite a bit of time, quite a lot of discussion to understand his perspective and finding out about his development as a young man and how he came to form a lot of his ideals and beliefs. It was important to have the time and also meet some of the people who worked with him when he was doing the refugee project that he did in the late ’50s that was an outgrowth of him doing alternative service as a conscientious objector during Korea. That’s all part of the story, trying to get people to understand the kind of person he is and how that shapes a lot of work that he’s done.
Don said, ‘Are you sure that my story is really the one that should be told? Is it really all that bad?’ I said, ‘All that bad? You’re a stoic. You’re a survivor. You’re a guy that found a way to forget about be forgotten and found a way to live a life that had nothing to do with all the hype and the craziness that can go in being in that kind of profession.’—Pam Grady
For more information about A Very Special Weekend with Don Murray, visit roxie.com.