Bill Murray's persona is like apple pie, or ice cream, or puppies: universally likeable to the extent that not liking him feels kind of wrong. In movies from Groundhog Day to What About Bob? to Ghostbusters, he exudes an irresistible charm, doddering and smirking about like the goofy uncle you always wish you had.
So it should come as no surprise that at the Toronto Film Festival last week, in anticipation of his latest movie, St. Vincent, a entire day was devoted to him. On "Bill Murray Day," guests were treated to screenings of his classic films and an interview with the man, the myth himself.
For me, though, Bill Murray will always be something else: a guy who, when I met him many years ago, helped me learn a valuable lesson about life.
Here's the story: I was about 10 years old, and staying with my cousin in Malibu—that ritzy oceanside Mecca largely reserved for A-listers and their hillside palaces. My cousin definitely didn't live in a palace, but she and her mom did inhabit a decidedly posh neighborhood within minutes of a private beach in town. As such, celebs were everywhere—and as a starry-eyed pre-teen, the experience of visiting such a storied sandbox was decidedly awesome.
I saw Pierce Brosnan perusing a local art gallery and a screaming Tony Danza in front of his house who was openly berating—and blocking—a driver he thought was going too fast. But none of those brushes with fame matched my encounter with Bill.
My cousin and I were out for a bike ride, peddling through the streets near the beach, when I hit a rock in the road and went flying. The concrete scraped my knees, leaving me raw and bleeding; in a fit of over-exerted adolescent drama, I began to cry.
Suddenly, I heard the gentle voice of a man above me: "Are you OK?" I looked up, and there he was: Bill Murray, awash in the sunlight, saving me from my doom. He took my hand and hoisted me up, then crouched down to my level to ask if I wanted water, and to make sure I knew how to get home OK.
After we parted, I quietly started walking back to the house with my cousin, who immediately whispered in excitement: "Oh my god, that was . . . Bill Murray!"
And that was that. I had met Bill Murray.
Yes, I realize it's silly to give a shit about such a trivial thing—to care about what was, essentially, a nice man helping a little girl who fell—but there was something about it that stuck with me. Maybe it was because he could've easily kept on walking, but didn't, and he's so damn likeable in his films that it felt especially nice to know he's a decent guy in person, too.
But I think there was more to it than that. At that age, I had a funny idea about not only celeb-dom, but adulthood itself; I imagined that all grown-ups lived in a responsibility-free wonderland filled with late-night parties and orgies of food where they could eat anything they ever wanted. Within this exalted realm, celebrities inhabited the very top rung, going to the best parties and eating the best food. I wanted so badly to break free from my rule-riddled childhood, with its candy restrictions and 7-to-3 school days, and to be a cool, fancy-free adult like them.
Oh how I wanted to taste the freedom! Oh, in retrospect, how very wrong I was about adulthood.
In fact, you could argue that the way kids see adults mirrors the way most adults view celebrities. In them, we ascribe a fabulousness, a freedom and unbridled happiness that's ultimately not possible for anyone. But it's so very nice to believe it is.
When Bill Murray helped me up, the weirdest part about it was that it wasn't that weird at all. This wasn't some demigod, drinking martinis in a palace in the sky; this was a normal guy who, stripped from all the Hollywood glamour, seemed utterly, delightfully ordinary. My encounter with him marked the first time I realized that the real world doesn't always match the dream—and that that's OK.
So thanks, Bill Murray, for inspiring what I've come to see as a strange rite of passage. Now . . . when and where can I sign up for the next "Bill Murray Day"?