Saturday, 25 April 2015

It's all about the Murney... Murney... Murney... - an interview with Christopher Murney



My appointment was in room 605 at the Hotel Earle, a seedy old dive in an even seedier district of LA... It was a good place to meet, no one would question what we were doing... Or why... No, this place was just perfect...


I picked up the key from the desk clerk, a rat-faced little jerk who you wouldn't trust with your wallet - let alone the bag I was carrying - and made my way out of the lobby... Rat-boy called after me, "Hey, be careful up there bud" He shouted with a seedy, tooth filled grin "There was a fire up there a while back, charred walls, you don't wanna' touch."
Man, I didn't want to touch anything in this place let alone the walls...

I got to my floor, he wasn't wrong, the walls were burnt to a crisp, Jeeze, they looked like someone  had taken a blowtorch to them... What the hell happened here? The musky smell lingered on my tastebuds... I found myself hankering for one of Smoky Joes famous smoked b-b-q rack of ribs... Maybe I'd pop down there after I'd finished here... I always loved a big plate of meat after I'd finished a job, weird I know... But in my line of work you had to have a release... It's not exactly a picnic doing what I do, you know... 


A strange looking guy passed me in the hall, tall fella', glasses, a haircut that wouldn't look out of place in an ornamental garden... but he paid me no attention and looked harmless enough, so I let him pass without another thought... But the big lug at the end though, standing against the back window of the corridor? Now he did look like he could do some damage, cop? I thought, maybe? Best not get in his way then, I didn't need the attention. I felt my pocket, my piece was in there safe until it was needed.


603...604...605... I reached the room, mentally preparing myself for the task ahead I put the key in the lock... Should I knock? I thought, he was expecting me... I had a key... But was it rude to just walk in? I decided to do both, I gave a small rap with my knuckles to the door, took a deep breath and pushed... The room was a decent size, had a bed, a desk and a door to what I hoped was a bathroom - I was going to need that to clean up later - but the decor was old and way past it's best, the bed linen was there... but greying, with obvious stains and small holes burnt by cigarettes, dust filled the air like a smoggy day in Chicago. 


And there, sitting by the desk, confidently speaking into a microphone attached to a reel to reel recorder was the guy I was here to meet... 

"Testing one two… Testing one two… Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers…"

 This man was Christopher Murney.


Christopher Murney (born July 20th 1943) is an actor and vocal artist, born in Rhode island, his attention was drawn to a more academic path before discovering a passion for acting. He has appeared in a myriad of films and TV, including Kojak, Remember Wenn and of course The Coen bothers 'Barton Fink'.   


He turned to face me, smiling he reached out his hand for me to shake... A gentleman, I thought... This man was real smooth... He knew why I was here, he knew that it would not be pretty, But he still shook my hand... 

'So you wanna' do this now, in here?' I asked, hoping he might suggest hitting somewhere public first, a bar or maybe even Smoky Joes?... But no here was fine he said and produced a bottle and two shot glasses from the drawer... Brave guy... 


What's with the recorder? I asked, he told me he wanted to do an interview before, I was up for that, had a million questions to ask him, but also assured him that it was only putting off the inevitable... He understood, but I was suspicious, why was he was trying to make friends with me? Maybe he thought I would change my mind? But that was never going to happen, I had already been paid for this job, it was pennies from heaven and I had an other half with very expensive tastes to look after...  


I took a seat on the bed, placed my case on the floor beside me and lit a cigarette, hell it's was probably the best place to sit, if I dropped some hot ash, it would just be another hole and hell I was going to be making a hell of a hole in Murney's head in the not to distant future anyway, I didn't really need to worry about the laundry... I took a long draw, gladly accepted the glass he was offering me and to make him, and me, more comfortable I started by asking him about his family... I mean, I couldn't just go in and do the job on the guy without getting the skinny on him first...


"All three of my kids are in the business..."  He told me
Really? I replied Cool,

Julia performed as Elphaba [Wicked] on Broadway very early on in the run. Since then she's done other Broadway shows and currently has her own album out "I'm Not Waiting".  My son has a series that Steven Spielberg is the exec on…
Wow… Nice!
... Called Public morals which is a period piece, set in 1967, ...  which really dates me, because now I can be referred to as a period piece!

And my youngest daughter is a producer …
My eldest who is playing Elphaba in Wicked went to school with some of the guys who produced the show and I used to work with the husband of the book writer, but that was years ago…. My 'Slapshot' [Universal 1977] days!"

OK, so now to bring out the big guns... Metaphorically speaking of course...

So tell me then...How did it all start for Christopher Murney?


"I grew up on the ocean and originally wanted to study oceanography.. But I just wasn't smart enough… But in order to do that - and probably still -today - you had to be proficient in chemical and biological [sciences] and I just couldn't cut it because I didn't want to study that hard, or for whatever reason, so I left that and went to study astronomy for a while… I went from one extreme to another! Then left that and went to the university of new Hampshire and studied for a bachelor of science and business... And then I was going out with a girl in school, she was in wardrobe and talked me into auditioning for the merchant of Venice.. I did...  and then after that I thought 'This is fun! I like this!' and I just kept doing it… and 55 years later here I am…"

So did you actually ever study acting?
"I did, I ended up getting a dual degree at the university of New Hampshire, but after I found the theatre I thought 'OK, I’ll get the bachelor of science', but didn't really care for it that much and got the bachelor of arts and theatre, then went on to get a master of fine arts at Pen state in acting and directing."

And did you do any ‘Joe’ jobs before breaking it in the biz?
"Fortunately once I left Pen state I was in a graduate theatre , so I taught theatre to people who had no interest in being in the theatre and tended bar... but that was because I was married then and had a child... so I was a bar tender but also in the theatre at the same time. I was the founding member of the actor’s guild of Louiville Kentucky (ATL) and never stopped… I’ve been fortunate, very fortunate."

And there was The Taking of Pelham 123 [United Artists 1974]
"My first film!"

I love that movie... So exciting! 
"For me it was just my first film, I was just terribly excited to have that! And I’ve been fortunate in doing some cult and iconic films... That film and 'Slapshot' which has become quite a cult film for sports aficionados... and an urban film called 'The Last Dragon' [Tristar 1985] which is kind of a send up of kung foo films…"
Jeeeze, I said chocking on my drink, I thought that was for real?!
"It’s a send up... you have characters like ‘Sho Nuff’ and ‘One Dum Goy’ … But it’s now been 35 years I think, … 30 years? I think it’s 30 years ago we did it... 85' maybe? But it became an urban hero film because it was fun... it was very funny... but it was gaudy... it was Motown... That was the genesis of it… So it’s a silly film."


I took out my note pad and noted it down, I spent a long time alone in my job, so movies were  a lot of the company I kept and a good recommendation was always worth checking out... Talking of movies I couldn't go on without talking about Barton Fink and the Coen Brothers...


"I really liked working with them..."

I'd heard that they both directed, but only Joel was credited, I wondered if this was really the case?
"Yes, they did, in essence... Although they were both working together on set.
They know exactly, going in what they want, so once they get it, if it’s early enough,
they’ll say 'So do you wanna’ try for something?' and you go, 'Ok, sure I’m
happy if you’re happy'

And you'd work with them again?

... And yes, I’d like to work with them again."

And what do you do for the audition for a Coen brothers film? Do you remember?
"You know I don’t... and I don’t think I went back [again], I think it was just once; I went in and they were not there, I just went on tape and then they hired me and that was that."

This sounded similar to my line of work, I rarely met who guy actually needed the job doing, only the poor mook who I was doing the job on... If you catch my drift?
So, I asked stubbing out my cigarette and drowning the last drop of my drink, what John [Goodman] and the others like?
"John [Goodman] was… is a great guy, I knew him from Broadway, he was great to work with and we shot that scene where I get my head blown off 3 or 4 times because it was the last shot of the day and because obviously they were firing up the hallway! And if they didn't get exactly what they wanted it was because they couldn't see it immediately... They didn't have the gift of instant replay, so they would go and look at the dailies and say, ok we didn't get it so we’ll go and do it again... and so we had to do it 3 or 4 more times. 
I had a great time doing it and I enjoyed it… I had a lot of fun."

And John Tutorro?

"John was great, I knew him from the city also, terrific guy and a friend. One of his children was actually born during the filming of Barton Fink as I recall. John was a very nice man… But everybody was on that shoot… Steve Buschemi started out on that…

Yes, what a fresh faced boy!
"Yes.. Yes, we all were!"


And did you go out and socialise with the guys? 
"Yes we did because John was from NY… I mean John Tutorro … I can’t remember where John Goodman was living? I think he was living in LA because he was probably doing Roseanne at the time? But we all stayed at the same hotel when we were filming there... I think John and I got together once or twice after that but now I haven’t seen him in 10 years or so… He’s directing now too."

Yeah, I'd heard that...

So I asked - aware of what I was about to do myself - Was it fun dying on film then?!
"Ha! Yes! Well yes, in that film and in some others, maybe not so much, but certainly that one was a lot of fun… because they go a little further… In case you haven’t noticed!

Oh yes…
The Coen brothers like to go a liiiiitle bit further than everybody else."

Yes, they certainly did... But thank god for that, or we wouldn't have the genius movies like Barton Fink to enjoy.


I got up to stretch my legs, grabbing the bottle and pouring myself a shot, I walked around the room... Leading me to my next question.

So the sets? Tell me about the sets? Were they all fake? 

"The literal hallway was a set; it was down in Culver city. We did some on location, some interiors, but the sets were built in a studio… One I think was in San Pedro, the burning scene, because they had to do that in a quite a large hallway – I mean they had to build the hallway in a large building, everything was contained .."

Well I suppose it had to be… I thought.


I quickly downed that last glass and, with a nod from Christopher poured another, hell I didn't know how generous he was going to be and I wasn't gonna' say no, I'm no mug you understand... I'm a professional. I took my drink and walked over to the window, the dirt made it hard to see, but you still just make out the punks and the lowlife on the street... Not a part of town I usually frequent, not the part of town I really wanted to stay too long in... The quicker I got this over and done with and was sitting in Joes eating ribs the better, but the guy was so damn interesting...  I continued with my questions.
So you were in films like 'Last exit to Brooklyn'... A classic... An iconic masterpiece... Do you ever stop and think 'Wow... That was me?'
"You know the ones… For instance ‘The last dragon’ is [memorable] because it has a following, and they do testimonials to them; They call me and I go to them and speak, or just meet with fans.
‘Slapshot’ is one that I do four or five golf conventions a year because it’s such an iconic film among sports fans, those are the ones I’m reminded of... The others I don’t think about until someone, like yourself, thank you very much, that mentions it and I go ‘oh yeah, that is right, that’s a great film’, so I don’t think about those, but I’m reminded about the others."

So Ok, If I was going to remind him of that what about reminding him of 'The Secret of my succe$s'[1987] and Michael.J.Fox?
"Michael Fox, yes. Wonderful man... Wonderful guy! People always ask me how was Michael fox and I say you know I haven’t worked with a pecker head yet! Pardon the expression! I’ve been very fortunate to work with some wonderful people who have been just… "

He seem to pause with appreciation for his fellow actors... This was a great guy... Could I really do what I came here for? 

"Michael was terrific to work with… we had a good time…

And Paul Newman! He was a joy – to beat up! He was a joy!"


Paul Newman... I forgot about Paul Newman...
"I really did enjoy working with Paul Newman. He became my sort of hero, I just loved his altruism. Its not the fact that he had and maintained a sense of fame, but its what he did with that fame, a rather exceptional human being."

Good Looking as well..?
"Well there was that too I understand."

So, what was it like when your wife met him? Did you ever dare introduce them? 
"She never did meet him – no. we filmed that in..."

He stopped for a second, mid sentence... I thought for a minute that he might have had a heart attack and I could avoid doing the job... But then as if nothing had happened he started talking again...


"Oh no! She did meet him once, at a party, a birthday party for a mutual friend, and he was ever the gentleman. He like his beer and had a good time, always the gentleman."

And you are too, I said helping myself to another drink...  

You did so much cool TV too... There was M*A*S*H, Miami Vice, the Equalizer!
"It’s funny, I don’t remember even shooting those, because when you’re doing episodic television, you’re not the lead and because you’re not a regular you just try to find your feet and get your character and run with what everyone else is very familiar with... The set... the crew... each other... You on the other hand, as a guest, are not... So you just try to find your focus and centre... Then it’s over and boom, it’s done! But if you are a regular in a series, then you have a chance to remember and reflect… or if you’re doing a feature for a period of time then again you have that."

And taking about being a regular, there's the show 'Rememeber Wenn'
"That was AMC’s first scripted show about a fictional radio station in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in 1939 – [we did]40 I think over 4 years. There was a progression, it was about this struggling radio station and it was a sweet, sweet show... I really loved doing it, but we shot it one camera film and it was gruelling! We were shooting 14-16 hour days every day. 


And it was nominated for many awards.
"We had SAG nominations but the hierarchy at American Movie Classics changed hands, somebody went out and some else came in and that happened and they just dropped it. They didn’t even tie it up – it was quite a shame. There was a great uproar, but you know…"

what a bitch, I thought... So how did you find out?
"Well actually I had left, during my last season I said I couldn't do it any more because I needed to increase my income, they didn't have a lot of money then. I had done it for 3 or 4 years already and said 'OK, lets move on with this or do something with it'... The steam was going out of it by then, so I heard about it from someone else, who called and said they dropped the show. Like I said, it was brutal hours to do a single camera"

But why a single camera?
"They shot it on 16mm and blew it up so the looks would be consistent with that 40s looks, so there wasn’t a 35mm…"
Ok, that did make sense. 

And what about The Equaliser?!
Rudy Bagler was a character which was sort of a semi regular so I did get to... you know... go in and do an episode or 2 episodes and I’d leave... then I’d show up like a bad penny and do a couple more... So I do remember. It was great fun and it was in NY, before a lot of TV was being shot in NY, so it was terrible exciting for me."

And Kojak?!

Kojak came to NY for short period of time and the Kojak I did was all shot in Manhattan.

So what was Telly Salavas like?
"I remember one time he was having trouble with his line, so he taped them right over my head and I had gotten beaten up, I was in jail - I was a bad, bad guy - and he couldn’t remember his lines, he didn’t have time to study then he plastered them right over my head! As i'm lying unconscious on the floor, he's kind of squinting at them when he was doing his closeup – his lines taped to my bloody head. He was fine, he was…that’s one story I remember about Telly."

I lit another cigarette, with the smoke and all the dust the room was feeling more and more like London all the



time... I wondered had he spent much time in England?
"Well I have, I was over for 2 months when I filmed Phyllis Dixey. Phyllis Dixey was a stripper during WW2 – she was to Europe what Gypsy Rose Lee was to the States. She was married to a man by the name of Gent Jack Tracey and Lesley Ann Down played Phyliss, I played her husband Jack Tracey... Jackie Tong was in it and Michael Tuckner directed it and it was for Thames Television"

what did you think of England?

"I loved it, we filmed in London and we filmed and a lot of it in Blackpool because most of it was during the winter and instead of going to Hull or Somerset or different theatres that we normally would have done - they travelled all over England and in Europe - they went to Blackpool and filmed in the different theatres and little music halls in there. I loved it, I had a grand time, it was in the late 70s."

Time to get back to the real Christopher, I thought... I was beginning to like this guy and with what I had in store for him that's one thing I didn't want to do... I tried so hard not to get close to my clients, as I said I'm a professional. Maybe there was something in his past that would change my mind?
"Well I grew up in New England and lived there most of my life,  we lived in Kentucky, where we didn't have that much. I was there for 2½ years directing plays and doing plays."

So LA or NY?
"I’m an East coast person, I like NY, I like the ocean. They have the ocean out there too but I love the changes of seasons."

Will you always live on East coast now?
"Well at this stage of my life, I think it would be nice to go away for a couple of months to the Dominican Republic for instance, the beach, or St Croye or..we don’t know. I do a lot of voice work, narration, promos and characters and I have a studio in my house at the lake, so I can work with ISDN lines and work right at of there, anywhere in the world in real time, so I kind of like working... I cant imagine not working, it may come but hasn’t hit me yet." 

And another one... Film or theatre?
"I love the immediacy of doing theatre... I love the 1 on 1, the give and take... The problem
with theatre is a week can get wearing on you and I don’t miss that as much, I haven’t done any stage in 10 years. I don’t miss it yet, although I’ve never say never, but right now I like the freedom of doing what I'm doing... I'm doing an independent film in June and it's easy to do, independent films are great... First of all everyone has their act together, they know exactly what they need because their money is an issue, don’t waste time on messing around, work's very intense and I enjoy doing that. They’re young directors and writers and that’s fun... that is fun for me. 
[The] stage? I love the rehearsal process and I like opening night and about the first week and I go home [and think] boy here we go, then its hard work."

So far, and to my utter frustration, there was nuttin'... He was still as charming, and as likeable as ever and a real gas to boot... I finished my drink and checked my pocket, it was still there, ready to use...


So what would you have done if you had never met that girl and joined the theatre?
"I probably would have been in trouble. I don’t know the answer to that but fortunately that wasn't the case. I met that girl ended up working together."

Right, what about his wife and family? I'd been digging and digging, but this guy was clean as a whistle... There must be something... There must be..
"All the kudos really goes to her – she’s married to a legalised schizophrenic and that’s what an actor is... She just rolls with the punches and then eventually everything calms down, but she’s been the rock and that been almost 50 years."

Damn, even his wife loved him....
So, did your wife and kids come on set?
"They did join me in England when we did Phyllis Dixey towards the end – most of the time, no because the set can be so intense, often times because of time restraints she just never bothered... it wasn’t a good time for her, sit around and watch everybody work, she’d rather be doing something herself, which she did, she's been involved in an after school program for years in Manhattan, running about 400 kids in an actors school since 87'."

So even his wife was great... Damnit to hell... What about the kids? I wondered what they thought of their father and his job?
"They grew up with it because [they] saw me as they grew up, so to them it wasn’t odd at all. My oldest saw me on stage and grew up with that and it was not unusual for me to be on television, or to hear me on TV or radio or whatever, so it wasn't an odd thing for them. As a result, that’s why they figured they might as well go into the theatre too because what the hell, I was having a good time..."

And are you encouraging?
"No, nor did I discourage – there was no feeling, as you probably realise if you’re going to go into the theatre, its an vocation; you just have to have the drive and accept that you must have to do whatever because its going to sustain you... but more importantly, its going to feed you, that’s what it does. So I didn't discourage them because if it didn't work out, they would find a way into another venue. They would eventually find their way... like we all do"

A good dad too... was this guy for real?!


Right that was it, I couldn't take it anymore... I checked my watch, my glass had been empty for the last few minutes and that was too long, I was starting to get tense... Plus I was starting to like and respect this guy... But I had already spent the dough, so I had to do it ...  I instructed him to turn off the tape recorder... If I was going to do this at all, I was going to do it now and not on tape, what I was about to do was not exactly on the level... Hell it was darn right off the scale illegal and I didn't need the Feds catching a whiff of my activities...  I scanned the room for a good place, on the bed, yeah, that would be best... Christopher looked calm and collected, he didn't even look scared... I opened my bag and

took out a sheet of plastic and spread it on the bed... Christopher asked if it was all really necessary, but I didn't want to get blood everywhere I said... That's why I chose this place... It was dirty enough in the first place... No, a  clean job, quick tidy up and I was gone... Ready for ribs...

I instructed Christopher to lie on the bed and get prepared... I changed into a long coat... Hell I didn't want to get bloody on me either... That would look suspicious... Mind you I could always blame it on BBQ sauce...

But before I started I thought I'd better get in one more question
... It wasn't like he could talk after I'd finished now... Could he?

So, did you have a back up plan, you know, if acting hadn't panned out?
"No I didn’t – as a matter of fact, I remember years ago when I was doing Mack and Mabel on Broadway and they asked me that very question, they thought I would fall back on business management or hotel management and I said no, I don’t think I will, I don’t think I'm going to leave what I'm doing, there’s no reason for me to go into anything else. I'm fortunate enough that they keep asking me to work. He said “well why did you go on the stage to begin with?” and I remember saying to him “well its less crowded up there, so that’s the way I've looked at it all my life, its less crowded up there."

Right... Enough chat, I got my equipment out of my bag and set it out on the side... Time to get to work... I looked in the mirror, tied back my hair and checked my make up... I looked good, my dress was a little crumpled from sitting, but the creases would fall out easy, I slipped on my protective goggles and mask... I turned back to Christopher... 


'If I make it swift and quick it shouldn't hurt' I assured him 'Now put your head back and open your mouth'... 

I stood by the bed and leaned over him... Oh my god... This really couldn't have gone on much longer...  His assistant who had called me was right, this had to be sorted right away... I reached inside my pocket and pulled out my special tool and with one swift movement reached in a yanked out that infected molar... 

He screamed in pain, tears filling his eyes... I gave him an icepack for his jaw... Ha, I thought, that would teach him, I'm betting he would't forget to pay his health insurance again...........


R. LadyLand, DDS. Dentist to the Stars.


For more information go to:

His imdb, Website, Wikipedia page... or just Google!

No comments:

Post a Comment