Arts & Events

A Not-to-Be-Missed Film Retrospective: A Tribute to The Amazing Career of Don Murray

Gar Smith
Friday July 11, 2014 - 07:47:00 AM

"Don Murray." If a bell rings when you hear the name, you are probably (1) a die-hard fan of ancient, edgy, noirish cinema and (2) more than 50 years old.

I don't believe I ever actually caught any of Don Murray's performances but I always associated him—erroneously it turns out—with a string of serviceable B-movie productions. Au contraire, Roxie Theatre programmer Elliot Lavine points out. "Don Murray was as big a star in the late 50s as Paul Newman." He starred alongside the likes of James Cagney, Eva Mary Saint, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton and James Earl Jones. Now, after two decades of oblivion, San Francisco's Roxie Theater has resurrected 14 of Murray's greatest films for a three-day run on July 11-13. As a bonus, Murray himself—still energized and whip-smart at the age of 84—is coming along for the party!

A "Very Special Weekend with Don Murray" will serve as a rich cinematic prequel to the scheduled November release of Unsung Hero, a new feature film on Murray and his extraordinary career. Directed by Don Malcolm, Unsung Hero, recounts how one of Hollywood's great careers wound up derailed by the politics of the day. "What happened to him is one of the truly baffling events in Hollywood history," says biopic director Malcolm. "It's a story that's just begging to be told." 


One of the highlights of the Roxie's retrospective will be a special screening a new, fully restored 35mm print of Call Me by My Rightful Name (1972), Murray's long-lost tale of an interracial love triangle. 

"We're excited to be able to provide the Roxie audience with the best possible reintroduction to a film that has been otherwise lost to the public for nearly four decades," says Malcolm. 

"Don Murray took off like a rocket after his appearance opposite Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop," Malcolm notes. So why is Murray and his film legacy such a mystery to modern film lovers? As Malcolm has come to understand, Don Murray just "wasn't interested in movie stardom as practiced in 50s Hollywood…. His stage training and his personal convictions—pacifism and altruistic service—set him apart from the way things worked in Tinseltown. He did things his own way—and he paid a price for it." 

Murray developed an abiding interest in the struggle for racial equality. As early as the 1950s, Murray appeared opposite Sidney Poitier in a live TV drama called "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall." The story involved the collision of two dockworkers from different racial backgrounds who nonetheless manage to forge a friendship in the bruising, working-class arena of the Manhattan waterfront. 

Murray's filmography bristles with off-beat performances in edgy films. Lavine emphasizes how Murray's career choices increasingly revealed a boat-rocking "commitment to cutting-edge roles that dealt with controversial social issues." In A Hatful of Rain (1957), Murray appears as a heroin junkie hiding his addiction from his wife. In Advise & Consent, he's seen as a closeted gay Senator (a topic that no one else seemed willing to touch for another generation). 

One of the coolest treats in the Roxie's MurrayFest is Sweet Love, Bitter, a little-known 1966 flick co-starring Murray and a young comedian named Dick Gregory. Gregory plays a Charlie Parker-like jazz artist while Murray is a sheltered, down-on-his-luck college professor. Robert Hooks and Diane Varsi were daringly cast as an interracial couple (a taboo subject in the 50s and well into the 60s). 

"It's a powerful film that—like many works that cut too close to the bone—was chopped up by its producers and virtually left by the side of the road after it was completed," Malcolm fumes. 

(Note: Gregory and Hooks are scheduled to join Murray (Hooks in person, Gregory via Skype on the Roxie screen) after the screening of the film on Saturday, July 12.) 

"What happened to Don Murray's career in the 1960s is a metaphor for what happened to the United States in those years," in Malcolm's view. "People have forgotten that he was on the cutting edge of independent filmmaking in the early 1960s with The Hoodlum Priest (1961). To come to the Roxie and see the promise and the achievement in that film will provide the audience with a sense of how Sixties filmmaking lost something when Don Murray had so many doors slammed shut on him." 

"Don Murray had a fabulous string of performances in the late 50s and early 60s but they rarely, if ever, get screened," Lavine laments. "It's both vexing and perplexing, and this festival will rectify that situation."  

The retrospective will spotlight several of Murray's most rarely seen films, including The Confessions of Tom Harris (1968), Call Me by My Rightful Name (1972), the 1976 neo-noir Deadly Hero (with Murray as a cop whose homicidal shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude throws his life into a tailspin), and the still-controversial Endless Love (1981). 

The force of Murray's onscreen performances is undeniable, says Lavine. The actor "has always been fascinated by characters whose lives are at a point of ultimate impact. You can feel the tension building on the screen. Frankly, it often makes audiences squirm." 

Abandoning the easy leading-man roles that could have padded his wallet (instead of his resume) marginalized Murray and his Hollywood career but, Malcolm maintains, the actor holds no regrets. "He has stayed true to himself, and he's one of the most genuine and most thoroughly decent human beings I've ever had the privilege to meet…. The Roxie audience will experience that when they have the chance to be with him in person." 

"A Special Weekend with Don Murray" comes with another bonus: A series of work-in-progress clips from Unsung Hero that will be screened for Roxie audiences during the course of the retrospective. 

The MurrayFest Schedule of Screenings 


From Unsung Hero "No Fix from the Past": A conversation between Don Murray & Foster Hirsch about A Hatful of Rain (8 min) 

A HATFUL OF RAIN (1957, 111 min.) 7:30 [35mm print] 

Eva Marie Saint, Don Murray, Anthony Franciosa, Lloyd Nolan, Henry Silva, William Hickey, Gerald O'Laughlin; directed by Fred Zinnemann 

From Unsung Hero "The Perfect Actors' Mini-Studio": The Bachelor Party (7 min.) 

THE BACHELOR PARTY (1957, 86 min) 9:45 [35mm print] 

Don Murray, Patricia Smith, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall, Carolyn Jones, Larry Blyden, Nancy Marchand; directed by Delbert Mann 

Special late screening 

SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959, 111 min.) 11:30  

James Cagney, Don Murray, Dana Wynter, Michael Redgrave, Glynis Johns, Cyril Cusack; directed by Michael Anderson

SATURDAY, JULY 12 (two separate shows) 

Episode of THE OUTCASTS "The Long Ride" (1969, 50 min.) 12:00  

Don Murray, Otis Young, William Bassett, J. Pat O'Malley; directed by Robert Butler. 

From Unsung Hero "Don Murray on Otis Young" (digital, 5 min.) 

CALL ME BY MY RIGHTFUL NAME (1972, 90 min.) 1:00 [Don Murray private DVD] 

Don Murray, Otis Young, Catherine Crosby, Kent Smith, Edith Atwater; directed by Michael Shurtleff. 

Don Murray in person interviewed by his sons Christopher and Michael 

A MAN IS TEN FEET TALL (1955, 50 minutes) 3:30 [Don Murray private DVD] 

Sidney Poitier, Don Murray, Martin Balsam, Hilda Simms, Michael Strong; directed by Robert Mulligan. 

SWEET LOVE, BITTER (1967, 92 minutes) 4:30  

Don Murray, Dick Gregory, Diane Varsi, Robert Hooks; directed by Herbert Danska. 

Interview with Don Murray, Dick Gregory and Robert Hooks (schedules permitting) to follow 

From Unsung Hero "The Kid Burned His House Down!" (5 min.) 

ENDLESS LOVE (1981, 120 min) 7:15  

Don Murray, Shirley Knight, Brooke Shields, Martin Hewett, James Spader; directed by Franco Zefferelli 

Interview with Don Murray 

From Unsung Hero "The Pacifist as Pugllist": Reflections and memories from Don Murray and his family (3 min.) 

THE CONFESSIONS OF TOM HARRIS (1968-72, 94 min.) 10:15  

Don Murray, Linda Evans, David Brian; dir. by John Derek and David Nelson 


POLICE STORY "The Big Walk" (1973, 51 min.) 12:00  

Don Murray, Dorothy Provine, Lynda Day George, Noah Beery Jr., Larry Wilcox, Jeff Corey, John Kerr, Regis Toomey, Tom Hayden; directed by Robert Day 

From Unsung Hero "The Making of a Deadly Hero" Conversations with Don Murray, Diahn Williams and Tom McGrath (3 min) 

DEADLY HERO (1976, 100 min.) 1:00  

Don Murray, Diahn Williams, James Earl Jones, Treat Williams, Conchata Ferrell; directed by Ivan Nagy. 

From Unsung Hero "Song and Dance Man" Don Murray's 1970s return to New York City (8 min) 

Interview with Don Murray by Foster Hirsch 

THE HOODLUM PRIEST (1961, 109 min.) 3:00  

Don Murray, Keir Dullea, Larry Gates, Cindi Wood; directed by Irvin Kershner. 

From Unsung Hero "The Power of Positive Confusion" (digital, 6 min.) 

ADVISE AND CONSENT (1962, 126 min) 6:30  

Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Don Murray, Walter Pidgeon, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, Peter Lawford, George Grizzard, Inga Swenson, Burgess Meredith; dir. by Otto Preminger 

Interview with Don Murray by Foster Hirsch  

From Unsung Hero "Don Murray on Marilyn Monroe" (digital, 6 min.) 

BUS STOP (1956, 96 min.) 9:15 

Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray, Arthur O'Connell, Hope Lange; directed by Joshua Logan