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    Murphy's Interests

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    A familiar screen face for 50 years, Michael Murphy, who celebrates his 79th birthday today, takes his various screen personas in stride. As he told Filmmaker Magazine interviewer Vadim Rizov two years ago, when evaluating his rich gallery of characters in 13 Robert Altman film and television projects across 51 yearsor his iconic adulterers in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or sinister villains and shady, patrician politicians, “most of that stuff came about because I wanted to work with the director. 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 [for whom he did The Legend of Lylah Claire] or Altman or Mazursky or whomever – and it isn’t necessarily that way anymore. I found those guys to be very, very interesting.” Other interesting career choices are reflected in his three Twilight Time library titles. Following his fourth Altman picture M*A*S*H into theaters by just a few months came a decidedly independent, genre-bending foray that Murphy helped instigate. According to historian Gary A. Smith’s Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between, “college pals Michael Macready and Michael Murphy had the idea of making a low-budget softcore porn movie called The Loves of Count Iorga.” To secure the services of Robert Quarry to play the bloodlusting title character, the concept was altered to accentuate the horror and play down the sex. The result, co-starring Macready and Murphy as initially skeptical but ultimately committed battlers against the sinister Count and his three undead, diaphanously gowned wives, was the box-office hit Count Yorga, Vampire (1970, written and directed by actor Robert Kelljan), driving a profitable stake in audience interest by contemporizing the Dracula legend in modern-day, swinging Los Angeles. Murphy’s disbelieving Paul would ultimately become one of Yorga’s victims; in The Front (1976, for the aforementioned Ritt), Murphy was the victim of another insidious evil, the 1950s Hollywood blacklist triggered by the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He plays a talented television writer who finds his work options blocked due to his suspected Communist leanings; in desperation, he enlists his old school friend (played by Allen) as his “beard,” submitting scripts under his name and sharing a percentage of the paycheck. It was a sticky situation based on true events: Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and fellow cast members Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi suffered career ostracization during the 1950s, and Murphy could tap into a mother lode of personal experience of that dark period to enrich his keenly observed performance. A decade later, Murphy had notched a number of noteworthy turns as compromised characters when he was approached by Oliver Stone to play a conscientious but ultimately hamstrung U.S. ambassador in a politically charged piece that also arose out of a recent, morally dark past. “I wanted to work with Oliver,” Murphy told Rizov. “I read the script for Salvador (1986) 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.” In the stellar company of Best Actor Academy Award® nominee James Woods (as a reckless photojournalist whose moribund conscience is jolted by the carnage wrought on the peasant revolutionaries in El Salvador by the brutal military government backed with U.S. aid), James Belushi, John Savage and Elpidia Carrillo, Murphy scores as, what Roger Ebert cited in his Chicago Sun-Times assessment as, “a tortured liberal who speaks of peace and freedom while the CIA goes about its usual business right under his nose.” It’s entirely appropriate that Marine veteran Murphy, who worked with Altman more than any other actor and with whom fans of great movies by great directors have an enduring familiarity, has become the historical “voice” that’s narrated more than two-dozen PBS American Experience episodes. You can surf the prolific Murph in Count Yorga, Vampire, The Front (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26669/THE-FRONT-1976/) and Salvador (offered here: http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/27854/SALVADOR-1986/) on revelatory TT hi-def Blu-rays.