UCLA to honor the integrity and ability of actor Don Murray

Don Murray, 83, will be lauded Friday with screenings by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Don Murray is a man of convictions.

When he was 19 and working as an usher at CBS in New York City for $17 a week while attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Murray turned down an offer to sign a contract with Universal for a whopping $150 a week.

Don Murray: An article in the March 7 Calendar section about a UCLA film event honoring actor Don Murray gave the actor’s age as 83. He is 84.

“They could put you in whatever picture they wanted,” explained the genial actor, 83, over the phone recently from his home in Santa Barbara. And he nearly walked away again several years later when 20th Century Fox wanted him to sign a long-term contract after he was cast in his film debut as Marilyn Monroe’s love interest in the 1956 William Inge comedy “Bus Stop.”

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Though the studio initially told Murray “you can’t do the role” if he didn’t sign, the Fox executives ended up negotiating with the young actor, who had been a conscientious objector during the Korean War. He would make two films a year for the studio for six years and would be allowed time off if a Broadway play piqued his interest.

“I ended up buying out my contract before my six years were up because I wanted to do ‘The Hoodlum Priest,’ which I wrote, produced and played a leading role,” he said of the 1961 film drama.

Film scholar Foster Hirsch noted that Murray had a truly independent spirit.

“He didn’t play the game in the studio age. ...,” Hirsch said. “He never did get typecast and had great versatility.”

Still, Hirsch said, Murray’s choices were not always critically or commercially successful, so he didn’t become a household name like his peers including Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.

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Shannon Kelley, UCLA Film & Television Archive’s head of public programs, said Murray’s characters often have a Shakespearean sensibility. “He is often left morally isolated and bereft, but at the same time there is the tragic nobility to his characters.”

On Friday evening, the UCLA archive will pay tribute to the actor, who was Oscar-nominated for “Bus Stop” for his enchanting turned as Bo, a young wild rodeo cowboy who falls head over heels for a chanteuse (Monroe).

Over the years, Murray has starred in such films as 1957’s “Bachelor Party,” 1981’s “Endless Love” and 1985’s “Peggy Sue Got Married.” He also played Sid Fairgate from 1979-81 on CBS’ “Knots Landing.”

“An Evening With Don Murray” at the Billy Wilder Theater will feature the actor in conversation with Hirsch as well as screenings of the 1955 “Philco Television Playhouse” production of “A Man is Ten Feet Tall,” which also stars a young Sidney Poitier, and director Fred Zinnemann’s 1957 “A Hatful of Rain,” based on the hit Broadway play by Michael V. Gazzo.

The play and the film were controversial at the time because the drama explored drug addiction in soldiers returning from the Korean War. Murray plays Johnny, a Korean War vet who returns to his wife in New York City with a dependency on the morphine he had been given for an injury. Eva Marie Saint stars as his wife and Anthony Franciosa plays his brother, Polo.

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Fox’s head of production, Buddy Adler, informed Murray while he was making “Bus Stop” for director Joshua Logan that he had bought “Hatful of Rain”’ for him so he could play “the comedy part” of Polo, Murray said.

But Murray didn’t want to be typecast, especially that early his career. He wanted to play the addict.

So when the actor learned Zinnemann (“From Here to Eternity,” “High Noon’) was signed to do “Hatful of Rain,” he visited the veteran filmmaker and convinced him to give him the part of Johnny.

He took on an even more complex role — that of a closeted Ohio senator who is being blackmailed — in Otto Preminger’s 1962 political drama, “Advise & Consent.”

Murray didn’t have any trepidation playing the part. “I went in to meet with Preminger, and he asked me if I would be reluctant, as some stars had turned it down,” Murray said. “He said, ‘Do you think that playing a homosexual will hurt your career?’ ”

The actor reminded Preminger that he played a brutal Nazi commander of a POW camp in 1953’s “Stalag 17.”

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“I said, ‘Do you think playing a Nazi hurt your career?’ And he said, ‘Being a Nazi didn’t hurt my career.’ He was talking about his reputation for being such a dictatorial director on the set.”

But there was clearly a risk involved for Murray.

“Actors didn’t want to be branded in those days,” Hirsch said. “Let’s be honest, it’s still a factor. He wasn’t the first choice, but he was the absolute right choice.”


‘An Evening With Don Murray’

Where: UCLA Film & Televison Archive/Billy Wilder Theater

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Admission: $9



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