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Bill Murray is a character both onscreen and off. When he’s not inventing hilarious personalities for much-loved movies like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and What About Bob?, the comedy legend is famous for making hilarious cameos in peoples' real lives, whether it's running a cash register in Martha's Vineyard or sampling goodies at the airport. (There’s an entire website — and an entire documentary — devoted to chronicling those kinds of Bill Murray stories.)
But who is the real Bill Murray? Actress P.J. Soles believes she caught a glimpse of him during the making of the comedy classic Stripes, which premiered in theaters forty years ago on June 26, 1981. Midway through the Ivan Reitman-directed movie — which featured a murderer's row of hilarious actors, including Harold Ramis, John Candy, John Larroquette and Judge Reinhold — there's a pivotal scene where Murray's wiseacre army recruit, John Winger, and Soles’s no-nonsense MP, Stella Hansen, have a sweetly romantic moment in a ranking officer's kitchen.
And the star of such seminal movies as Carrie and Halloween tells Yahoo Entertainment that their mutual affection was palpable on set as well. "Bill and I had a real chemistry there," Soles remembers. "I finally got him to calm down and to portray a little bit of his inner self, which he seems to like to hide with all his comedy antics." (Watch our video interview above.)
According to Soles, that entire encounter was improvised after a rainstorm scuttled a planned outdoor sequence where Stella and John would have their first kiss. "We were supposed to be sitting on a hillside, looking at the stars, but it was pouring," she says. "So we went inside, and Bill opened the refrigerator in the kitchen and took out a carrot. I said, 'What are you going to do with that?'"
Having previously directed Murray in the 1979 comedy hit Meatballs, Reitman knew that something special was about to happen. "Ivan said, 'Bring the camera in here,'" Soles recalls. "He also told me, 'No matter what [Bill] does, just tell him no and then reach a point where you give in.' So that what was on my mind: I just tried to keep [the scene] going.”
"I'm an organic actress — I like seizing the moment, so that scene is an aspect of how I like to perform," Soles says. "It was like doing a dance where the steps aren't laid out for you and you're just dancing together. The whole scene was just, 'All right Bill, you’ve got something on your mind and I'm just going to follow you.' And luckily it went to a good place! There was something real in his eyes, and when I say 'Yes,' the way he looks at me is so sweet. I've never seen that look on his face in any movie, so I'm very proud that I brought it out of him."
And their chemistry was felt off-camera as well. Soles reveals that during the making of Stripes, Murray would frequently ring her up for late-night booty calls, even though she was married to Dennis Quaid at the time. "He would call me up every night and say, 'My car is waiting outside to bring you to my house — c'mon, one night'" she says, laughing. "I said, 'No, Bill, I’m tired! I want to look good onscreen. We girls have to look good in the morning.' He persisted, but it was funny."
Soles says that she never seriously considered accepting his invitation and even joked about the calls with Quaid. (The couple divorced in 1983, two years after Stripes arrived in theaters.) At the same time, she acknowledges that there was a very real "flirtation" with Murray on set. "He's definitely a very sexy guy — he’s got charisma. He’s very funny when he wants to be, but the moods are kind of a dealbreaker."
We spoke more with Soles about Murray's mood swings — as well as military hijinks and mud wrestling — in honor of Stripes's 40th anniversary.
Yahoo Entertainment: You had just done Private Benjamin the year before — was that one of the reasons why Ivan Reitman came to you for the Stripes role?
P.J. Soles: I think possibly possible, but it’s more likely that they saw me in Carrie or Halloween or Rock 'n' Roll High School. It's funny because when I found out I had the part, I went to Western Costume and they said, "Oh, we have your uniform from Private Benjamin." And obviously, I still fit in it a year later. They just changed the name patch from "Wanda Winter" to "Stella Hansen," and gave me an armband! So that was cool.
They had apparently seen 300 girls for the role, and Ivan had found Sean Young [who plays Stella's fellow MP, Louise Cooper]. I had just done this movie called Soggy Bottom, USA with Don Johnson in Marshall, Texas when I flew in for a screen test [for Stripes]. I did a cute scene with Harold Ramis and everyone laughed. As soon as I landed back in Texas, my agent called and said, "You got the part!" It's kind of weird to do movies back-to-back because you don’t get a break, but it worked out great.
Bill Murray and Harold Ramis had just made Caddyshack, which famously had a drug-crazed on-set atmosphere. Were there a lot of drugs on the Stripes set?
We were shooting at Fort Knox, so I didn't notice any drugs! [Laughs] That’s not what we were doing — we were doing early morning runs with the actual troops. At least Bill and I were; sometimes Sean would join us. We were there for about two or three months, and everybody was always cold because it was snowing. If peach brandy could be considered a drug, that was always in Bill's pocket! He would say, "I've gotta stay warm." And we would be like, "OK, whatever you need."
Everybody always asks, "Was Bill funny?" No, he’s very moody. But Harold Ramis, hilarious. John Candy, hilarious. John Larroquette, hilarious! You couldn’t stop laughing, and then they’d call "Action" and you'd have to pull it together. My stomach always hurt from laughing.
In contrast to Private Benjamin, Stripes was a very male-heavy cast. Was it hard for you and Sean Young to find space among the guys?
Well, we were MPs, so they had to listen to us! But I understand what you're saying. I mostly hung out with Warren Oates [who played the drill sergeant, Hulka]: he was a lovely guy and we became good friends. Because it was so cold there, he always had these coats on and would take them off right before we were going to shoot something. Obviously, there was sexuality that had to be portrayed, but I think we also showed army life and all the different characters that were there. Now, of course, there would be more women in the army. I think it’s funny because it’s sort of like the Archie comics. They had Betty and Veronica, and in our case, it was PJ and Sean — the blonde and the brunette.
What did you hope to bring to the character of Stella beyond what was on the page?
Obviously knowing Bill Murray from Saturday Night Live, I had heard things about him and how hard he was to work with and that he really liked to ad-lib. I thought that would be fun, so what I wanted to do was bring a sort of strictness in my rank and my character. I wanted to make sure that I could portray somebody that was serious, not just the silly girl in the army. And also try to keep these guys in line that were always playing pranks. I tried to play the straight man, and I only broke ranks when we did the kitchen scene.
In terms of the script, there were a couple of scenes between Sean and I that we filmed, but then Ivan decided: "We're not going to make it about the girls, it’s gotta be about the guys." So he did cut out a few of the scenes that made me interested in the part. But he also fleshed it out in other ways, in terms of my relationship with Bill. So I think it still works: we’re in there enough that we hold our own.
This was Ivan Reitman’s first big movie for a Hollywood studio after breaking through with Meatballs. What was it like working with him?
Oh yeah, it was big. Bill Butler was a great Director of Photography, and Elmer Bernstein did the music. Who can forget that theme! I've got Stripes, the Halloween theme song and Rock ’n’ Roll High School with the Ramones. I'm very happy with the music that has been a part of my films! [Laughs] I just remember that Ivan liked the big, sweeping set-ups where there'd be a big crane shot or whatever. It was just massive. But I think Ivan was very happy: he didn’t say much, but if he laughed after a take, then you knew you had made him happy. And he thought Bill was just amazing: he probably wished he could have been Bill Murray.
There was so much in the film that was improvised, and that's Bill's forte. He was hired because he gave more to the performance than what was in the script. I think that’s probably what put him in those moods: he knew that he had to come up with something for the next scene. He always came through, but it's probably got to give you a lot of anxiety to know they’re counting on you to do better than what's in the script.
Were there times where his moods rubbed you the wrong way?
Not me. I’m an easygoing, patient person. Certainly he got to Sean: she got upset a few times, and so did the wardrobe woman. There were a few times where Bill would be in his trailer and nobody could get him out. And Ivan would say, "PJ, come on, can't you just tell him we're wasting time?" So I would do my best to bring him out. I'd go in there and say, 'You're getting a million dollars! You sit in here and we'll just wait for you, while you just count your money." [Laughs]
You have a topless scene with Bill in the extended cut of Stripes. Did he make you feel comfortable filming that scene on set?
He definitely did not make me comfortable! [Laughs] I was happy when they cut those scenes out, but when it was ten years later, they said: "By the way, there's a new DVD we’re putting out and we need your permission [to include those scenes]." In any event, I had to do a fashion show of one-piece outfits for Bill and Ivan, so I tried on about twenty and they picked the first one I put on. In any event, they had a good time doing that. It wouldn't fly in today's world!
But it was a very odd day, because Bill was in a very bad mood for some reason, so all of my antics on the bed trying to get him to come over. He came up with the idea of coming and jumping on the bed: that was his zany way of thinking that’s romantic. But he did come up with doing the trunk scene, which is really cute. At first I resisted, because he opened the trunk and said, "I'm going to get in here and get on top." I was like, "Don’t be ridiculous," but Ivan said, "Do whatever he said." And it worked, and it's hilarious. People wonder, "What did you do in there?" Well, I just laid on top of him and was hoping Ivan would say "Action!" [In the theatrical version, the trunk joke is featured at the end of an earlier love scene.]
Looking back now, do you think that nudity is a dated aspect of the movie?
No, I don't think it’s dated — I think it's funny. You know, there's definitely humor in it and it's nice to see them get together. It's worth putting out extended scenes of the Bill and PJ relationship, but you definitely can tell why they cut it out. It didn’t really make the movie to the place where it was supposed to go. Obviously, they make movies today that have a lot of sexual scenes: 50 Shades of Grey and all those things.
The last act of Stripes basically becomes a big action movie where Stella and John fight the Soviet army. Did you enjoy being a part of that?
It's funny, because we filmed a lot of the movie at Fort Knox, and then had Christmas break and then went back shot the rest in L.A. So the scene where we’re running around getting out of the truck and go through a door? Well, we came in the door a month-and-a-half later! Shooting out of order is always very weird. But it was really fun. In fact, when my dad — who is from Holland and was in World War II — saw the movie, he was like, "Yes, get the Russians, Pam!" [Laughs] So when I see those scenes, I always think of him.
Were you on set for the famous mud wrestling scene?
I was! I was curious, so I thought, "Let me see." Obviously that was the highlight for all the guys: it was a real Army R&R there. And John Candy… I mean, come on! He's so cute. Everybody just wanted to get in the mud bath with John. I didn't, but it was fun to watch. And it was also interesting just to see how nobody wanted to talk to me that day!
After Stripes, you and Bill were supposedly offered the lead roles in Splash, but that didn’t work out. Did they also consider you for Ghostbusters?
I think there was some talk of that, but I might have been pregnant at that point, so it was very brief. But the story of Splash is that [producer] Brian Grazer was this kid who was always running around the parking lot at all of the Burbank studios just annoying everybody. One day, he came running over to me and said, "I saw the dailies from that kitchen scene you filmed in Stripes! It's so cute — I've got this script called Splash. Could you read it and get it to Bill? I think you both would be perfect for it."
I told him that I was meeting with Bill the next day and that I'd read it and give it to him. So I read it, and thought that Madison, the mermaid, was just the cutest. I could definitely see myself playing her. So I met with Bill at a restaurant and gave him the script. He asked, "Is it a comedy?" I said, “Yes,” and he flung it across the room! As it’s sailing, I was thinking: "Please don’t hit somebody in the head or knock over a wine glass!" It landed on the floor, luckily. [Laughs]
So that was his response to that! I said, "Oh Bill, you're not even going to read it?" He said, "No, I'm going to do a serious movie after this. I’m done with comedies." And then he made The Razor’s Edge and was like, "You know what?" [Laughs] But I think Splash is great. It was Darryl Hannah’s movie, and was obviously meant to be for her and Tom Hanks. But I would have loved to have done a sequel to Stripes. I keep thinking that John and Stella could be retired, and our kids could be in the army. My son and his wife are in the Coast Guard, and I can't tell you how many people at conventions say they enlisted in the army to find an MP like me. So I think I've served my country!
Do you keep in touch with Bill or Ivan today?
The last time I saw Ivan was for the release of the extended edition of Stripes. We had a big party, and he wanted Sean and [me] to come. I think Harold came, too, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was there. We had a big poster signing for the incoming and outgoing troops and then had a screening.
But Bill, no. Years ago, I did a little film festival in Charleston, South Carolina and I put it on social media, because he has a bar there. I was like, "I know you live here, come by and say hi! Or, you know, send the car for me, OK." [Laughs] I think he likes to just have fun and remain in the shadows. He always tells everybody, "If you’ve got my number, then that's the way you get ahold of me," but I don’t have his number! But it would have been fun to see him again. I'm sure I would have gotten the same look out of him that I did on the stove.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo
Stripes is currently streaming on Starz, Prime Video and Hulu
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