Times Staff Writer

Go ahead, be brave: Tell one of the stars of “Moving Violations” that he reminds you of funny man Bill Murray. He’s got a million cheap comebacks.

John Murray, visiting from New York, offered some examples during a recent brunch:

“We had the same parents.” “I’ve heard that before.” “I’ve given up denying it.” “Just tell me how much he owes you and I’ll write you a check.”


The 26-year-old chuckled, shrugged nonchalantly and made another pass at his Bloody Mary. “When some of my friends see Billy, they say: ‘You must be John Murray’s brother!’ ” Murray said with a laugh. “I always thank them for that.”

If the resemblance to brother Bill seems uncanny, he can top it: “You should see my fiancee (screenwriter Elizabeth Houghton). She looks just like me too.” (She does.)

Easygoing and excruciatingly funny, Murray has a lot to be laughing about these days. His first major acting role, in “Violations,” a send-up of traffic schools (also starring Sally Kellerman), was written and directed by Neal Israel (“Bachelor Party”). “Violations” won’t open until Friday, but Murray already has a multi-picture deal with distributor 20th Century Fox.

While there have been no preview screenings of the film, it seems safe to suggest that audiences will see many Murray traits--the Murray Mumble, the Murray Shamble, the Murray Lip Thrust and the Murray Whimper (whenever the Cubs’ recent pennant loss is mentioned). Such shtick runs rampant through the Chicago family’s genetic code.

He’s been compared to one sibling or another all his life, so being the third Murray (brother Brian-Doyle is the other) in films seems easier than being the eighth of nine children.

“Let’s see"--deep breath--"there’s EdBrian(Doyle)NancyPeggyBillyLauraAndyJohnJoel,” he recited--as only those with large families can do--when asked about his brothers and sisters. He then indicated their respective professions: stockbroker; writer-actor; nun; mother of three; expatriate living in France; bank employee; crooner for the ‘80s/chef; writer/editorial slave/bartender/TV writer/actor, and little brother (“he may be the funniest one of all”).

Murray surveyed the Saturday-afternoon scene at Joe Allen--giving it the Murray Squint (a combination of amusement, perplexity and disbelief)--and recounted an indeterminate number of stories, delivered with low-key but lethal humor.

Some comedic actors seem to be “on” even in the most casual situations. Murray, on the other hand, is a natural--his witty candor seems an unconscious behavior (probably that genetic code).

His brothers, he said, gave him scant advice when he started shooting the movie: “Brian told me not to do People magazine right away, and Billy told me to get rid of the red Chevette I was driving and get a real car.”

Humorwise, while “Violations” seemed to be right up the Murray alley, traffic school was another matter.

“I’ve never been,” he admitted. “I hate to drive.”

He meant that he hated driving in New York City, he quickly added. “I love to drive here. I roll up the windows and sing real loud. Everybody else does.”

“Violations” is Murray’s biggest role, but not his first: “In 1979, I drove cross-country with Billy after he’d finished ‘Where the Buffalo Roam.’ After a stop in Aspen, we drove nonstop to Mobile. At one point, somewhere in the middle of Texas, Billy leaned over and said, ‘You’re going 95 miles an hour. I have to be in Florida in a day and a half. What the hell’s the matter with you?’ ”

Murray flashed a so-what-do-I-know? look at his listener, before adding, in a classic Murray Mumble, “I said to Billy, ‘Oh, uh, sorry . . . I’ll put the car in fifth gear. . . . It’ll never happen again.’ I learned in that ride that it wasn’t worth the effort to be scared.”

Their destination was the “Caddyshack” set in Florida, where, Murray was given a production job, and didn’t continue on to New York as planned.

“It was a great job, but weird and horrible,” he recalled. “I can’t stand the waiting. . . . I still can’t.”

He can be found as an extra in half a dozen scenes in “Caddyshack,” but his brief acting foray (and others on “Saturday Night Live”) left him decidedly lukewarm about acting as a career (“I wanted to be a writer”).

He went on to write at Inside Sports (“The highlight of my career there was being assigned to find out how many hot dogs they served at Super Bowl II”) and for “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels’ “New Show,” until it was canceled.

While on vacation in Florida last year from his bartending job at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City, Murray met International Creative Management agent Andrea Eastman through a friend. “We tagged along with someone who was meeting her for dinner,” he recalled.

Eastman missed his last name when they were introduced and, after dinner, told him: “You know, you should be an actor. You kinda remind me of Bill Murray.”

Murray said he then delivered one of his cheap comebacks “and after she got her foot out of her throat,” she repeated her suggestion.

“What can I tell you?"--a Murray shrug. “Three months and two days after that fateful dinner, I got the lead in ‘Moving Violations.’ ”

Filming for his first day at work was at a La Puente doughnut shop.

“I was wandering around,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody’s name. They’d put a sign up saying: ‘Sorry for the inconvenience. There’ll be a movie shot today-- “Moving Violations,” starring Sally Kellerman of “MASH” and John Murray of “Ghostbusters.” ’ “

He rolled his eyes. “By mid-afternoon there were 2,000 kids screaming ‘Where’s Biiilll! We want Biiilll!’ They didn’t know who I was.”

With one film behind him, Murray’s attitude toward acting has changed . . . sort of. “As of right now, I’d be crazy not to do it"--a Murray Pause--"It’s got me this far. . . . I’m young and stupid and I got the world ahead of me.”

He grinned and told one last story before leaving. When he got the part, Murray did what any red-blooded American boy would do--he called his mother. Lucille Murray certainly was no stranger to having sons in show business, and this particular son felt that she was taking it all in stride.

“You’ve done well,” Murray recalled her saying. Later, as the conversation wound down, his mother had one final question:

“She said, ‘Now tell me, will this movie be shown in driver’s ed classes?’ ”