Anyone who knows how Bill Murray operates won’t be surprised to learn he nearly turned down his first starring role.
“Meatballs,” out June 12 on Blu-ray, revisits the dawn of Murray’s big screen career. The film itself is a kid-friendly affair stuffed with obvious sight gags and stereotypical characters, from the blundering Spaz (Jack Blum) to the put upon camp leader (Harvey Atkin).
Murray’s presence is the game changer. It’s as if someone told him he was already a big movie star and he should act accordingly. He steals the slight movie, radiating a cockiness most movie stars don’t earn for years – if not longer.
The 1979 comedy cast Murray as Tripper, an irrepressible camp counselor trying to survive another summer of misfit kids. Tripper provides a dollop of narration via his camp broadcasts, but he’s really here to make us forgive and forget the cloying scenarios trotted out for our pleasure.
Tripper riffs about the “mystery” meat served at the camp, gives a wacky interview to a local reporter and flirts with a fellow camper like an overgrown school boy who knows he’s as charming as the ladies fear. He’s not a rebel in the traditional sense. He works within the system, but does so based on his own code of conduct. Or misconduct, as is the case when he aggressively wrestles a female counselor.
The film also marked the debut of Chris Makepeace, who would go on to star in the classic bullying drama “My Bodyguard.” Makepeace plays Rudy, the shy kid who blossoms under Tripper’s unorthodox bonding rituals.
Their on-screen pairing hints at Murray’s greater appeal. Beneath the gags and one-liners, Murray conveys a flawed but honest broker of human behavior.
“Meatballs” arrives with only a commentary track, and it was recorded for a previous DVD release. But listening to director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”) spill secrets about the creation of “Meatballs” makes it more meaningful than standard behind-the-scenes fodder.
Reitman was itching to direct his first film, something he mentions repeatedly, when he tried to lasso Murray into taking the lead role. Murray refused, even though he had very little industry clout and hadn’t even begun his prominent role on “Saturday Night Live” just yet.
The comedy actor eventually showed up on the third day of shooting, starting a film career which would see him graduate from clown roles (“Stripes,” “Caddyshack”) to sophisticated comedies (“Rushmore,” “Lost in Translation”).
It all started with a frivolous camp comedy named after an Italian side dish.