Friday 16 February 2024

In memoriam: Don Murray (Telegraph 14/02/24)

Don Murray, who has died aged 94, was a seasoned American stage, film and TV actor who earned BAFTA and Oscar nominations for his debut movie role as Beauregard “Beau” Decker, the unworldly cowpoke who treats Marilyn Monroe’s singer Cherie like cattle in the grabby Fox melodrama
Bus Stop (1956).

Ripped from William Inge’s Broadway sensation, the story was just seamy enough to ensure box-office success, and the tall, athletic, conventionally handsome Murray found himself squarely at its centre. “Hollywood’s newest hunk of man!” boomed the film’s lustiest trailer. Yet it was fanciful casting, by Murray’s own admission: “No-one could have been less equipped for the job. I was a New Yorker who’d never ridden a real horse and had tackled football players but never a 500-pound steer.”

As Murray maintained, Monroe was “very supportive”, even while succumbing to nerves herself: “We did a bed scene, she was actually naked under the sheets, and I could see her body covered with this red rash. She got so nervous that she’d break out… and she had to cover it with make-up. She had done so many films, and yet she was so frightened.”

He worked consistently thereafter, earning his Walk of Fame star as early as 1960, without ever becoming a household name: “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. I did the exact opposite.”

Initially, he sought out ambiguous parts in trickier projects: a morphine-addled veteran in A Hatful of Rain (1957), the student pulled into the Irish Troubles (and armed conflict with professor James Cagney) in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), the closeted Senator in Advise & Consent (1962).

By the 1970s, Murray was settling into patrician roles, notably the authoritarian Governor Breck in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the fourth in the enduring sci-fi series. As dealership owner Sid Fairgate, he was an early pillar of Dallas spin-off Knots Landing (1979-93), only to quit after two seasons.

In the Eighties, he played dad to prominent younger stars: Brooke Shields in Endless Love (1981), Helen Hunt in Quarterback Princess (1983), Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). He earned a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1994 for an episode of ABC’s issue-driven Afterschool Special strand, playing an ageing rancher resisting relocation to a nursing home.

Murray announced his retirement from acting in 2001, before a touchingly unexpected comeback as Bushnell “Battling Bud” Mullins, former prizefighter turned chipper manager of an insurance firm beset by supernatural forces in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). He’d travelled some way from Bus Stop: as the show’s detective hero Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) declared in Murray’s final scene, “You are a fine man, Bushnell Mullins. I will not soon forget your kindness and decency.”

Donald Patrick Murray was born on July 31, 1929, the second of three children to Fox choreographer Dennis Murray and his wife Ethel (née Cook), a sometime performer with the Ziegfeld Follies.

The following year, the family relocated to New York, where the young Donald attended East Rockaway High, excelling in gridiron, track athletics and theatre club. He studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, making his TV debut as Biondello in a 1950 adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, opposite Charlton Heston as Petruchio.

After graduating, Murray made his Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, but his career was paused as military service loomed. As an Anabaptist Christian – guided by a strictly pacifist doctrine – he was spared the Korean War; he was instead posted to an internment camp in Naples housing those displaced during WW2, where he helped build a school and taught the locals basketball (“I had the toughest time getting them to use their hands, instead of feet!”).

Following honourable discharge in 1954, he founded the non-profit HELP (Homeless European Land Program) with his first wife, the actress Hope Lange; they raised $100,000 and bought a plot of land in Sardinia to establish a farming community for refugees. Murray returned to the region in 2013, when he was made an honorary citizen of Simaxis. One resident told Murray’s actor son Christopher “if it weren’t for your father, I’d be a grain of sand.”

Murray’s faith informed his directorial debut The Cross and the Switchblade (1970), a drama about the real-life bond between a pastor (Pat Boone) and a gang member (future CHiPs star Erik Estrada); later efforts – such as Elvis is Alive (2001), which found the King working as an Elvis impersonator in Paris, and Breathe! (2008), a subaquatic thriller written by another son, Mick – were less favourably reviewed.

With the passing of Tony Curtis in 2010, he became the last of Monroe’s leading men still extant. He signed off by returning to the range, cameoing in low-budget Western Promise (2021).

He is survived by his second wife Betty, whom he married in 1962, and five children, three from this second marriage, two from his earlier marriage to Lange.

Don Murray, born July 31, 1929, died February 2, 2024.

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