Bill Murray’s friends share tales before his Mark Twain Prize ceremony

Bill Murray acknowledges the crowd gathered at the 19th annual Kennedy Center's Mark Twain prize for American humor awarded this year to him Oct. 23 in Washington, D.C.  Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

The program honoring comedian and actor Bill Murray Sunday night at the Kennedy Center has been scripted and rehearsed, the jokes and applause lines planned out just so.

But before the curtain rises on the ceremony for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, there is the red carpet, where Murray’s assembled friends (mostly A-list and famously funny) can get loose in front of the cameras.

This involves telling Bill Murray Stories — and it seems everyone who knows the eccentric, elusive star (and a few strangers who happened to be in the right place at the right time) has one of these tales of random acts of Bill Murray-ness.

There was the time he suddenly showed up at a birthday party for his “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman with a tiny accordion as a gift. “He found out that I had taken lessons as a kid,” Reitman says, adding that Murray had inscribed the instrument with something the man he bought it from had told him: “This was once owned by a really nice person.”

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“It was touching,” Reitman says.

Jimmy Kimmel remembers Murray’s obsession with making sure he and his friends stay hydrated during long nights out. “For every round of drinks, he would order a round of water,” the late-night host says. On one of those nights, when Kimmel and his wife got into their car at about 3 a.m. to head home , they heard a knock on the window. His wife opened it, and it was Murray. “He had like four bottles of water, flat and sparkling, and he threw them in the window and ran off.”

“Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Hader doesn’t have a story, exactly, just a sweet recollection of meeting Murray at a bar, where the veteran comedian offered him advice (“relax and have fun and don’t take things too seriously”). But asked what Murray and his memorable SNL nightlife-guru character Stefon would do if they hung out for a day, Hader imagines the ultimate adventure: “They would set something on fire, and Bill Murray would end up dead.”

The famous folks who know Murray give the sense that he’s a blast to be with. Actress Sigourney Weaver confirms this hunch. “He’s such a pro, but he always feels like he’s having fun,” she says. “If he’s not having fun, he’s not going to be doing it.”

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“It” being anything from a movie to a ceremony at the Kennedy Center, apparently, as Murray has said that he considered ignoring the Kennedy Center’s message informing him of the prize.

And then Murray himself turns up, and before strolling up to the assembled journalists, he stops to talk to fans who have positioned themselves in the Kennedy Center lobby hoping for a glimpse. Only then does he make his way down the gauntlet of press, taking time to chat with anyone with a question. So much for elusive.

We finally get a moment with him, and he recaps the highlights of his time in Washington: A glimpse from the Blue Room of the White House out to the Washington Monument (“It actually gives you goosebumps — your heart leaps when you see that representation of the American ideal”) and spending time with Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor (a slightly less strange pairing than Stefon).

Murray confesses that he doesn’t have a speech prepared for the show, so there will be nothing in those teleprompters, a detail that adds a bit of anything-can-happen frisson to the otherwise choreographed proceedings.

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But then he offers a tidbit that might be the blockbuster of the night. Murray is known for being nearly impossible to contact — he has no publicist, no assistant, just an 800 number that he might or might not answer. But getting the jackpot Murray Callback might be easier than you think. Asked what makes him return a message, his answer surprised. “If they have good manners, that’s probably the number one determinative,” he says. “If they are calm and relaxed . . . and they’re not pushy and intense.”

In other words, just be cool.

And though Murray is the evening’s reluctant honoree, he’s refreshingly humble.

“I’m dreading the niceties, but the people that are going to speak are funny — they’re pretty talented and they’re not going to disappoint,” he says. “The audience is going to be thrilled — I don’t think it matters that I’m there.”

The Twain prize ceremony will air October 28 on PBS.