To hear Michael Murphy talk about Robert Altman is a little bit like discussing Jesus with St. Andrew — he was an early adopter to the faith, he was around for a lot of the best years of the ministry, and he is happy to talk about the man for as long as you like.
The 81-year-old Murphy — appearing via video at the 20th annual Texas Film Awards (March 12 at Austin Studios), where Altman’s Houston-shot, Murphy-starring "Brewster McCloud" will be presented with the Star of Texas Award — appeared in more of the director’s films than anyone else.
He shows up in the pre-fame Altman movies "Countdown" (1968) and "That Cold Day in the Park" (1969). Of the classic Altman ’70s era, Murphy can be seen in "MASH" (1970), "Brewster McCloud" (1970), "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971) and "Nashville" (1975). Murphy played the lead in Altman’s way-ahead-of-its time political satire for HBO, "Tanner ‘88," and its coda, "Tanner on Tanner." He also can be spotted in "Kansas City" and Altman’s TV adaptation of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial."
That’s not mentioning Murphy’s dozens and dozens of appearances for a slew of other directors. He shows up in everything from Martin Ritt’s "The Front" and Paul Mazursky’s "An Unmarried Woman" to Woody Allen’s "Manhattan" and Peter Weir’s "The Year of Living Dangerously." And, yes, he was in both a "Batman" movie ("Batman Returns") and an "X-Men" movie ("X-Men: The Last Stand"). Dude had a tremendous career across every possible genre and tone.
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But it’s with Altman that Murphy felt most at home as an actor. They met in the early ‘60s, when Altman was still making television.
"I walked into his office, and I just knew I was in the presence of somebody just really cool," Murphy said. "I spent an hour with him just talking, and he said, ‘Well, let's do something together,’ which kind of encapsulates his whole outlook."
Altman gave Murphy a small part in an episode of "Combat." When they broke for lunch on the backlot, Altman joined him. "He was treating me just like I was the star. And he said, ‘What do you want to say in a scene this afternoon?’
"I said, ‘What?’
"He asked me again, and we just frumped around and came up with this thing, nothing important, but we shot it that afternoon. And I remember leaving the set thinking, ‘God, this is so easy. This isn't like acting.’"
And then, in 1970, Altman made "MASH," his first smash hit.
"He could do anything he wanted after that movie for about a year and a half," Murphy said. "Most guys would be careful and hire the big-name actors and do something safe. But he was such a gambler, he decided to make this completely over-the-top picture set in and around the Houston Astrodome."
Even by the expansive standards of early-‘70s Hollywood, "Brewster McCloud" is a weird movie. Altman acquired Doran William Cannon’s script about a New York serial killer and scrapped virtually all of it, changing the setting to Houston and, Murphy said, sort of winging it in what was soon to become classic Altman fashion.
Bud Cort plays the title character, a weirdo who dresses exactly like Waldo of "Where’s Waldo?" fame and lives in a bomb shelter in the Astrodome (which then was about five years old and a genuine wonder of modern technology). He has a guardian angel of sorts (Sally Kellerman) who may or may not be an actual fallen angel. Brewster spends most of his time thinking about flying and attempting to build wings for himself.
There’s also a string of murders going on in Houston, which prompts the authorities to bring in Frank Shaft (Murphy), a straight-faced "Bullitt" parody who rocks turtlenecks, a shoulder holster and blue contacts so piercing they’re a distraction.
Rene Auberjonois provides interstitial commentary as an increasingly owl-like ornithologist. There is a pretty impressive car chase. Murder victims show up covered in bird poop. There are moments of genuine slapstick. A deliberately Fellini-esque circus closes it out.
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Murphy remembers Altman got the script and "there were all these things he liked about it. There was kind of the Icarus thing, and suddenly he got this idea about the Astrodome, which was being called the eighth wonder of the world back then, and how it looked like a giant birdcage."
And then there’s Shelley Duvall. After some folks associated with the production met her at a party, Altman put the then-non-actress in the movie as Suzanne Davis, an usher at the Astrodome who (spoilers for a 50-year-old movie) deflowers Brewster, which leads to his ultimate downfall.
"She's never been in front of a camera" at the time of filming, Murphy said, "and she almost walked off with the movie."
But Altman was an "absolute killer" at spotting talent, Murphy said. "I think Bob saw her kookiness and her eccentricity and her sense of humor. He would always give her really interesting parts, and, frankly, I think he thought she looked really good with Bud Cort. Both peculiar, both with these giant eyes."
For her part, Duvall says she just tried to do what Altman asked in the film. "It was easy," Duvall said via email. "Bob had a dynamic personality and was completely brilliant, so working with him was great."
After having the revelation about the Astrodome, Murphy said Altman went to Houston and was completely taken with the place. "He's just crazy about Houston, and the dome in particular," Murphy said. "You'd start wandering around the place, and it’s just endless, and there are these over-the-top luxury suites with phones next to the toilets. That wasn’t all that common then."
He added that the production of "Brewster McCloud" was exactly what movie nerds imagine an Altman production to be like.
"Bob’s revisions to the script weren’t completely done when we started shooting," Murphy said. "But he had this ’let’s just do it’ attitude. He wouldn’t just improvise dialogue. He was just led by the seat of his pants all the time, and he'd see something that would turn him on, and he would shoot it."
For example, Murphy ended up staying in one of the luxury suites in the Astrodome during shooting. "The suites had telephones next to the toilets," he said. "Now they're ubiquitous, but I certainly had never seen that. And Bob says, ‘Murphy, go there and sit on that toilet and make a phone call.’ And you don’t hear me saying anything, but he just wanted that in there, so he shot it."
As for the character of Frank Shaft, both Murphy and Altman knew that Steve McQueen was the guy to model him after. "I don’t think Bob ever saw ‘Bullitt,’ but I had, and he knew McQueen’s stuff, and if you want a super-cool cop and a car chase," a riff on "Bullitt" was the way to go.
"Brewster McCloud" was never part of the Altman canon the way "MASH," "3 Women" or "Nashville" were. But it has a cult within the Altman cult, and it’s certainly a classic slice of Texas as seen through a funhouse mirror.
Murphy, for his part, openly admits he spreads the Altman gospel whenever possible.
"I know I just light up talking about him," Murphy said. "I want his legacy to go on. As long as I'm around, I want to push people toward his work, because it was an interesting time, and he was such an interesting guy. You always hoped he had a part for you, because if he didn’t, you felt a little badly about it, and not because you weren't going to be in the movie, but because you knew you're missing out on a good time."
Editor’s note: After this story’s initial publication, Austin Film Society announced Michael Murphy and Kaitlyn Dever would not appear in person at the Texas Film Awards on March 12, instead accepting their honors via video. This story has been updated to reflect the change.