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“I Don’t Ever Want to Cheat on a Woman Again”: Actor Michael Murphy on An Unmarried Woman, Altman and The American Experience

Jill Clayburgh and Michael Murphy in An Unmarried Woman

Actor Michael Murphy is perhaps best-known for his collaborations with Robert Altman, which practically spanned the director’s entire career. But, for a brief moment, he wasn’t known primarily for his turn as a political organizer in Nashville or other Altman roles, but for playing an adulterer. In two consecutive films — An Unmarried Woman and Manhattan — Murphy was the archetypal heel of the moment. That time has passed; Murphy is now often called upon to playspoliticians, judges and ambassadors, parts which take advantage of his patrician/WASP-esque appearance: he looks like someone to the establishment manor born.

Woman‘s place in film history is generally secure as a sort of seismic moment in Hollywood trying to finally catch up with feminism. Writer/director Paul Mazursky’s 1978 drama has Murphy confessing early to infidelity, leaving Jill Clayburgh to rebuild her life as a single, emancipated woman. The film screens tomorrow night, June 23, at New York’s IFC Center, on an archival 35mm print, and Murphy will be there for a post-screening discussion. (Tickets and information are here.) Over the phone, Murphy — insanely affable, as has been rumored — revisited this film, that villainous string, and what came before and after.

Filmmaker: When I was looking at your filmography on IMDB, I noticed that there was a gap of two years between The Front in 1976 and An Unmarried Woman in 1978.

Murphy: I know I’ve never gone two years without working. That’s odd. At any rate, the only thing I heard about [how I got cast in Unmarried] was that much later in the picture, [Jill Clayburgh] referenced a scene in The Front that she liked very much, so I assumed that she’d seen me in that. After The Front, I went back out to California for a while. I got called to go in and meet with Paul. We talked about this movie and he gave me a script, and then he called me and we made the deal. It was very simple, I didn’t audition or anything. I guess Nashville had been out by then. It seemed when I arrived in New York everybody knew me from Nashville. I was in pretty good shape by the time I met Paul. I had done a lot of movies and they knew who I was, obviously, or I would have been auditioning.

Filmmaker: There’s a quote in a People profile from the time where an anonymous person says he took details from his friends’ lives. Did he ever talk about those possible role models with you?

Murphy: Obviously there were people he knew who had had those kinds of problems, and he was a great raconteur. I can’t remember anything specific. He didn’t say, “This is the guy.” He really left it to me, like most good directors, to come in with my ideas and run with them, and if he didn’t like it he would tell me about it. I remember lots of sitting around, having dinner and drinking and carrying on and talking into the night, but it was a story that he’d written. He knew the world, he knew everybody, he — I’m sure — witnessed many strange things. Hollywood! Come on.

Filmmaker: Had you seen his previous films before you took the part?

Murphy: Oh, sure. I mean, I was anxious to work with him. I thought he was great. Even going back to his writing, he didn’t direct I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! but he wrote it, and I liked that picture at the time. I’d obviously seen Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and most of his pictures. He was a guy who everybody in the business saw his pictures, a popular director among people in the business.

Filmmaker: Did you feel, when the movie came out, like there was some kind of obligation incumbent upon you to discuss its social implications?

Murphy: It wasn’t the social implications so much, although that was part of it. I used to joke about being the first whining yuppie, and I think people used to think “Oh, here’s this rich guy, he doesn’t have any problems, he’s an upwardly mobile guy with the perfect life, and he goes out and screws around and manipulates his wife.” Once it came out, another of my jokes was that it ruined my social life — I couldn’t get a date for four years after that movie. That’s pretty true. People would see me on the street and grimace. I created kind of a stir playing that guy. Even men didn’t like him: “I’d never do that.” A lot of guys saw him, I think, as a kind of weak sister. He was a complicated guy. I defended my performance from time to time, but that was the character. I think the social thing was part of it, because I was playing a kind of upwardly mobile yuppie that a lot of people didn’t like, and then Alan [Bates, Clayburgh’s post-divorce boyfriend in the film] was a kind of groovy guy living down in the Village doing the Bohemian bit — although it cost plenty of money to live in the Village too.

Filmmaker: After An Unmarried Woman, you did Manhattan and then you said that for the next four years you got offers for nothing but adulterous husbands and cheaters. You also said you didn’t work for a year because you were so sick of it, and then you finally broke down and made a two-part CBS miniseries, The Rules of Marriage, directed by Milton Katselas, in which you had that part again.

Murphy: I wasn’t thrilled about it; I had forgotten all about it. Milton, that guy was worse than any of these adulterers I’d played. I didn’t like him very much. Milton was very hands on. I can’t remember exactly why I did it — maybe I hadn’t worked for a while and felt I needed to get back to work. Let’s say when I did that movie, as far as I was concerned, that was enough already of that kind of stuff. At least with Mazursky — I mean, Mazursky’s a very talented man and he had a very good script. I was a kind of a springboard to get Jill to spring out into a freed-out kind of life. A woman on her own, that was the message of that picture. The script was good enough that once we started playing it, the marriage took on a lot more interest. It became a bigger part of the movie than any of us thought it would. It became very interesting. I don’t know if part of it is because Jill and I had a kind of chemistry — we liked each other, we played well together — but it became quite prominent in the first half of the movie. The Katselas thing was pretty much just a TV movie. It was just a job. And I don’t like to do that, I try to avoid that stuff, but there was some reason I did it. I don’t know why! It wasn’t a lot of fun.

Filmmaker: Looking at your career in chronological order was interesting, because there’s a pretty clear division between this first part of your career where you played a lot of bad guys, culminating in Cloak and Dagger, and then you were cast as an ambassador in Salvador and went on to play an improbable number of ambassadors, senators and so on.

Murphy: Most of that stuff came about because I wanted to work with the director. I wanted to work with Oliver. I read these scripts. I read the script for Salvador and thought, “This is a good script! This is something worth doing.” He was somebody that was worth working with. He hadn’t made his bones then really in Hollywood, but everybody knew he was going to. He was writing a lot of very interesting stuff. Right after Salvador, Platoon came out and put him in the stratosphere. You want to work with those kinds of guys if you can.

Filmmaker: At the same time, you went back to television sporadically, where you started out, with Hard Copy and some other short-lived series. At the time, in interviews you were very down on TV — how hard it was to get a show off the ground, the amount of time it took. Do you feel like the process of making TV has become more efficient or pleasant?

Murphy: Some of the shows now are fine. It’s just like anything else, it depends on the people who are involved. Many times on television, I thought the stuff I did was very worthwhile. I moved to Canada right after Hard Copy. I’d come back down, but the best-written roles that I’ve had were in Canadian films, oddly enough. Because they’re like the Brits, they like older guys. You don’t get cut off at the knees when you’re 40. I didn’t want to live in California, I was married and had kids by then. My wife is Canadian and wanted to raise the kids up there and I thought that was fine. And I’m glad I did it. I think the only movie that did anything down here in the States was Away From Her, and I think that’s because Julie Christie was in it, so we got a good American run, but most of the stuff lives and dies in Canada. I’ve done a lot of pictures up there, really stuff I like better than the American pictures I’ve made. I mean, I’ve made some good American movies, but…

I don’t think I did that many TV guest spots. I did the Law & Order thing, because I knew all those guys, and everybody in New York does those shows. Those are very well-done: they run you in and out of there, they know what they’re doing. I went out to California only a couple of times to do guest spots on regular television shows, and I didn’t like it at all. You’re on somebody else’s turf, the whole thing is set in granite. The business had changed a lot after I moved out from California and New York, and seemed to me to be much more corporate. Some AD with a headset would come up and say “Go sit in your room, we’ll tell you when we want you.” It was very different when I used to work out there and it was more of a familial situation. And look at the directors: Altman, Aldrich, guys like that, it was always very familial. Somehow that got lost. Everybody was looking for a job and networking. I don’t know, it kind of turned me off. The Canadian thing reminds me more of what it used to be like making movies in the States. You just go along. I mean, I’ve been in it now for over 50 years, and I think I’d have to look it up, but I don’t think I’ve had a year off, ever. So something got left off of IMDB; I don’t look at that but I will.

Filmmaker: I don’t know if this is accurate, but I read that at the beginning of your career you were offered a part as JFK in PT 109, and you didn’t take it because you didn’t want that to be the primary association people had with you. For years, you refused to play JFK in anything, and then finally you did in The Island. What made you finally change your mind?

Murphy: Well, let me tell you about that. I was not offered the part in Part 109, I was offered a part. I’d never been in a movie. Oh god, this was a long time ago. They said, “OK, you can be one of the guys in the crew.” Time went by and nothing happened, and I called my agent and said “What’s going on with PT 109?” They said, “They just left for Florida yesterday.” “What do you mean they left for Florida? I’m supposed to be in this movie.” Oh, I was crushed. What they had done was, they had a lot of contract players at that time at Warner Brothers, and they just filled that boat up with guys they had under contract. That was kind of an interesting scenario, in that they tried — oh god, they tried — to cast everybody in Hollywood in that part, Warren Beatty and all those guys, and nobody wanted to do it, because Kennedy hadn’t been dead very long and he was so iconic.

So yeah, I’d get offered these parts to play him and I really didn’t want to do it. Then, I got to talking to the guy who did the one I wound up in, and I thought it was a very funny idea, and it was long enough after the fact. It wasn’t a serious Kennedy movie. He was living on this island with Marilyn Monroe, so it was kind of a comedy and I thought it was OK. But it pissed a lot of people off too! I don’t think it ever got a distribution deal. I was playing a guy jealous of Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn would put on his music. Some people loved it and some people couldn’t stand it. But I was used to that sort of stuff because of Altman, he was always out on the edge.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about some of these projects from the beginning of your career that there isn’t much information on. It says you have a small, uncredited part as an extra in The Lawyer, which was directed by Sidney Furie. It’s in a weird place in your filmography, after you’d started getting work.

Murphy: Yeah, he wanted me to come in and do this. It was a couple of days, and it was interesting, but I said, “Just don’t credit me.” I think because it wasn’t much of a part, I didn’t want to have my name in the papers or something and then be in one or two scenes. He was another guy who’d done another interesting movie, The Ipcress File, and I wanted to work with him. But I did a lot of that kind of stuff. If there was a director I wanted to work with and the project seemed pretty interesting, I’d slide in there and do that.

Filmmaker: You also did a 1972 TV movie with Rosalind Russell, The Crooked Hearts.

Murphy: I liked the idea because I was always playing these yuppies, and I got to play a cop who was trying to solve a murder in that one. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was in it. The director, Jay Sandrich, had done a lot of sitcom work in Hollywood. He was a pretty well-known director, and I thought, “It’s pretty interesting company, I’ll go up there and do that.” But I was mainly interested in that role, because I was trying to break out of that role of the guy in a nice suit. He was still in a suit, but it was a suit from Penney’s, and he had a gun, which I liked.

Filmmaker: You’ve played a lot of politicians and judges. At a certain point, did you just say “That’s fine, I’m going to go ahead and embrace this”?

Murphy: The political part of it or all the judges didn’t bother me at all, because those are just jobs. Obviously, you’re a college graduate if you’re playing those guys, but the politicians were just lawyers, but lawyers with stories to tell. I just didn’t want to play some guy who was cheating on his wife, doing that same kind of thing over and over again. Like I did with Milton — that was the one that really finished me off in that department. I said, “I don’t ever want to cheat on a woman again, Jesus.” Those parts were all heavies, manipulative guys. Now the judges I played: I was up in Canada playing a judge on a show, and it was just a great role. The guy was crazy, yelling at people and carrying on, and I loved playing him. So it isn’t so much the guy’s job, whether he’s a stock broker or a judge or a doctor or whatever. It’s just, what is he doing with his life? That’s all I was after.

Filmmaker: You’ve done the narration for a number of American Experience documentaries. Are you a history-oriented guy, or is it just good work?

Murphy: Well, I’ve certainly become one. I’ve been doing these for 15 years now. I fell into it. I got a call from a guy. They were doing a show called “The Irish in America.” It was a big PBS show that Disney had money in, so they had a big budget, and it was going to run for five nights, it was this huge thing. They needed a guy with an Irish name, so the guy who made it, Tom Lennon, had hired Brian Dennehy, and then Brian couldn’t do it, so now Tom’s scrambling for a guy with an Irish name. He’d seen me in a couple of movies, and he’d heard me on one of those books on tape. I was living in San Francisco, and he called me. He came and we talked about it and I cut a little tape for him. I did that show, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m doing three of them next week. I just love it! There’s so much that I learn every time I go in there, it’s just extraordinary. I’m doing a thing coming up about the West Virginia coal miners in the 1800s, and how Mother Jones went down there and tried to get them to unionize and organize, and all these bosses were saying “That’s not the American way! Americans don’t do that! You don’t need labor unions!” It’s so typical of what’s going on today, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and the middle class getting squeezed. It really resonates, and you realize that in this country things go on, and then they go away, and then they come back, and they they go away, and then they come back again. It’s like Vietnam — we didn’t learn anything from Vietnam, so we went in there and bombed Baghdad!

Filmmaker: Do you ever get tired talking about Robert Altman? You were in more films by him than anybody numerically, you’re associated a lot with his work, you’re called to talk about him often.

Murphy: He was an extraordinary guy. He was my mentor and got ahold of me right out of college. He’s the kind of guy that…I don’t know, any life tribulations, if you had any kind of problem, you could talk to him and he would just nail it in one sentence. It’s the way he directed, you know. We were doing McCabe. I went up there and I said “What do you want me to do with this guy?” And he said “Oh, he’s somebody’s nephew.” And I got it totally, that’s all I needed to know. He was some jerk who was going along with an older guy on this mission that neither of them wanted them to do. I don’t get tired talking about him, really, because we were friends for so long and he goes back in my life so many years, and I learned so much from him. He taught me in the best possible way: he let me do it, and he let me do it, and he brought me back and let me do it some more. He never put any pressure on me, he never put any pressure on anybody. That’s why everybody liked working with him. It was so much fun and so relaxed that it spoiled me in a certain way. He’s always in cahoots with his actors.

All those guys that I worked with, they were World War II veterans or had gone to Korea, but they were all adults. Bob was only in his thirties, but he was a man. He was a paternal figure in a weird way, and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that at 19 they were shooting at him; he wasn’t too concerned about any studio. It’s easier for me to talk about other people, frankly. I’d rather talk about Paul than myself. You’ve heard this actor shit over and over: “Oh, I did this part, this was this and that.” But I think looking back at all, I don’t remember half of the movies but I sure as hell remember the people I worked with. I think that’s kind of what it’s about for all of us. You may write some great story on something and get the Pulitzer, but at the end of the road you’ll remember all these people you’ve dealt with. That’s what keeps you going. I was lucky to have come up in a very interesting time, when they were making a lot of what they’d call independent films now at studios. The filmmakers really had all the clout, so you only had one person to work with — Marty Ritt or Aldrich or Altman or Mazursky or whomever — and it isn’t necessarily that way anymore. I found those guys to be very, very interesting. You go to work with Marty Ritt and he’d been blacklisted for 13 years, so we did a movie about the blacklist. And everybody on that movie had been blacklisted, practically, except Woody and me. It was an extraordinary experience. These were people who lived interesting lives.

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