Don Murray, the venturesome actor who earned an Oscar nomination for playing a rodeo cowboy smitten by Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop, then spurned Hollywood’s attempts to mold him, has died. He was 94.
Murray died Thursday at his ranch in Goleta, California, while listening to Pavarotti performe Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” his son Mick Murray told The Hollywood Reporter. “He left on the greatest dramatic note ever,” he said.
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Murray was also known for the interesting parts he went after in such serious films as A Hatful of Rain (1957), The Hoodlum Priest (1961) and Advise & Consent (1962).
Fresh off a starring role in a 1955 Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, Murray was sought by director Joshua Logan to portray Bo Decker, the naive Montana man who falls for the chanteuse Chérie (Monroe), in Bus Stop (1956). It was his first movie, and he was 26 at the time.
“No one could have been less equipped for the job,” he once said. “I was a New Yorker who’d never ridden a real horse and had tackled football players but never a 500-pound steer.”
(Also in the film and making her movie debut was Hope Lange, his soon-to-be wife. Murray once said that Monroe wanted Lange’s hair dyed light brown, not wanting to share the screen with another blonde.)
Fox execs insisted Murray sign a long-term contract before giving him the role, but he resisted and got the studio to agree to a clause giving him time off if he wanted to return to Broadway.
The restless Murray ended up getting out of his contract early to do The Hoodlum Priest — which he wrote, produced and starred in. In the film, he played a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life to helping delinquents in St. Louis. He got Haskell Wexler to shoot it and Irvin Kershner to direct it.
In Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain, based on the emotional Broadway play by Michael V. Gazzo, Murray portrayed Johnny Pope, a Korean War veteran who returns home to his pregnant wife (Eva Marie Saint) with a secret addiction to morphine. (Ben Gazzara had the role on the stage.)
Murray later took on an even more delicate role — that of an in-the-closet Utah lawmaker who is being blackmailed by a fellow senator — in Otto Preminger’s taut political drama Advise & Consent.
In From Hell to Texas (1958), directed by Henry Hathaway, Murray played a Bible-reading cowboy who goes on the run after he accidentally kills the son of a powerful rancher. Religion was a key element in many of his films.
It was Murray’s choice to steer clear of the path to typical A-list stardom. “I came to Hollywood, and they said I needed to establish a persona that the audience could relate to and would be a reliable thing for them to get behind,” he once said. “I did the exact opposite.”
Television audiences will best remember Murray as Sid Fairgate, the husband of Michele Lee’s character, on the CBS primetime soap Knots Landing. His character drove off the side of a cliff in the (literal) cliffhanger that ended season two in March 1981.
The son of a former Ziegfeld girl and a Broadway dance director, Murray was born on July 31, 1929, and raised on the outskirts of New York City, where he graduated from East Rockaway High School.
When he was 19, he worked as an usher at CBS for $17 a week and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He then made it into the cast of the original 1951 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ Tony Award-winning The Rose Tattoo.
Universal offered him a contract for $150 a week, but he turned it down. “They could put you in whatever picture they wanted,” he said, and he wanted none of that, choosing to work in live TV.
Murray was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, but he spent nearly three years working in German and Italian refugee camps in the Brethren Volunteer Service, a forerunner to the Peace Corps. He came back to the U.S. in 1955.
Later, Murray went toe-to-toe with James Cagney in Shake Hands With the Devil (1959) and played the positive-thinking Norman Vincent Peale in One Man’s Way (1964).
He also stood out as an alcoholic college professor in Sweet Love, Bitter (1967) opposite Dick Gregory; as a criminal-turned-prison-chaplain in Confessions of Tom Harris (1969); as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971); and as the villainous Governor Breck in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972).
Murray starred as a Civil War-era bounty hunter on the 1968-69 ABC series The Outcasts and co-wrote and directed The Cross and the Switchblade (1970), a true-life drama about a crusading New York minister (Pat Boone) that also featured Erik Estrada in his screen debut.
After years away from acting, he played insurance man Bushnell Mullins on the Twin Peaks reboot in 2017 — the part was originally written for a 45-year-old man — and starred in the 2021 movie Promise, with his scenes shot at his ranch.
Murray was married to Lange from 1956 until their divorce in 1961.
Murray wed former model Bettie Johnson in 1962, and he had five children: Christopher (an actor), Sean (a composer), Patricia, Mick and Colleen, who married artist and musician Chris Otcasek, the son of Ric Ocasek of The Cars. They all survive him, as do his grandchildren, Olivia, Delilah, James and Erin.
Feb. 7: Corrected the date of death and added details and additional survivors.
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