Bill Murray is a legendary force, a Santa Claus-like figure who’s known to pop up when you least expect it and spread cheer to all. Murray has enjoyed an incredibly long stretch of relevance — much of it taking place on his own terms. From his humble beginnings at Chicago’s Second City to a star-making turn on Saturday Night Live to his impressively varied film career, he’s always won adoration. Murray’s most iconic roles — in Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, and Ghostbusters get most of the praise, but today we’re raising a glass to his smaller performances. In honor of his latest film, Rock the Kasbah, here are his five most underrated roles:
5. Space Jam (1996)
Only an actor like Murray can hold his own against a literal litany of cartoon characters. For any child of the nineties, Space Jam was a cultural cornerstone that included some of the biggest stars of the day, like Michael Jordan at the top of his game. But one of the movie’s biggest highlights is Murray’s role, who in a rare turn, plays himself. Murray would go onto star in other cartoon vehicles, including 2000’s forgettable Garfield — he signed on assuming Joel Coen of the Coen brothers wrote the script. (In fact, it was a very different Joel Cohen.) Regardless, Space Jam will always be an intriguing part of Murray lore.
4. St. Vincent (2014)
A more recent addition to the Murray cannon, St. Vincent is the perfect nineties comedy — except it was released in 2014. Melissa McCarthy and Murray both deliver excellent performances in a touching story about a wayward kid who befriends a begrudged and bitter Murray. Void of goofiness but containing a lot of heart, St. Vincent is proof that beyond light schtick, Murray is a special kind of actor who can bring just the right amount to depth to tricky roles.
3. Broken Flowers (2005)
Another brilliant film where Murray shines is this 2005 indie directed by Jim Jarmusch. After he appeared in Jarmusch’s 2003 short film anthology Coffee and Cigarettes, the two apparently hit it off. Murray starred in this dramedy two years later about a former playboy who meets up with his past lovers after discovering he has a son. The film is a continuation of Murray’s indie filmography, which initially began with 1999’s Rushmore and hit its stride in 2003; his turn in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation revitalized his career. His role in Broken Flowers received less attention than Translation, but it’s just as notable.
2. Scrooged (1988)
For whatever reason, Scrooged isn’t usually mentioned in the company of fellow Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but it should be. Directed by Richard Donner (after his one-two punch helming both The Goonies and Lethal Weapon), Scrooged was a modern take on the classic A Christmas Carol starring Murray playing to type as a grumpy TV executive who needs a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit to realize the error of his ways. Sure, it’s corny at some points and the story is somewhat predictable, but like everything Murray touches, he elevates the project just by being in it. In any other actor’s hands, Scrooged would have been a bore. Murray, however, makes it a must-watch. Plus, there’s a cameo by jazz great Miles Davis. Miles Davis and Bill Murray in one movie...how much cooler can you get?
1. Zombieland (2009)
It takes a quite a performer to steal an otherwise great movie in just one scene, but that’s exactly what Bill Murray does in this sleeper hit starring Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone. Coaxed into appearing by fellow co-star Woody Harrelson, Murray reportedly just spent a single day on set and wound up being the best part of the flick by playing himself and being in on the joke as other characters mention his most popular roles and catchphrases. For such a quick scene, the cameo is a testament to Murray’s elevating power and became yet another reason why audiences adore watching him on screen — even if he’s zombiefied.
Photos by All photos from Everett Collection