This week brings a red-band trailer for God Bless America, a comedy directed by Bobcat Goldthwait that appears even darker than his last movie, the nearly pitch-black World’s Greatest Dad. While the latter starred Robin Williams, the lead in God Bless America is Joel Murray, a beloved actor around the Slate office for portraying Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men. He was also a regular on the first season of Shameless, has a bit part in Best Picture favorite The Artist, and appears alongside Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, and other familiar faces in the forthcoming Lay the Favorite, one of the highest profile pictures at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
All of this much-deserved success highlights a notable cultural development: The Murrays have surpassed the Baldwins as America’s great set of acting brothers.
That the Baldwins have until recently held the title seems to me indisputable. It was passed to them by the Carradines some time in the 1980s, and they have, I think, held it since.
There are notable pairs you could argue for, of course, chief among them the Bridges, Jeff and Beau. But quantity matters in this imaginary contest. The Wilsons—Owen, Luke, and Andrew—have a shot at the acting-brothers crown eventually; for now, though, Owen is not quite the icon that Alec Baldwin or Bill Murray is, and Andrew has yet to have a real standout part.* Any discussion of acting families must mention the Barrymores, but that dynasty has been spread over generations, and is really a different phenomenon altogether. (As are acting sisters and brother-sister pairs, like the Deschanels and the Gyllenhalls, respectively.)
What’s surprising about the Murrays’ rise to fraternal thespian supremacy is that it has seemingly gone unnoticed. While the Carradines and Baldwins have their own Wikipedia pages, the first result you get when searching “Murray brothers” on Wikipedia is tennis player Andy Murray (“Murray’s brother, Jamie, is also a professional tennis player, playing on the doubles circuit”). The Wilson brothers, meanwhile, have a fairly professional-looking fan page. But if you want to get the skinny on the Murrays, you have to go to the website for Murray Bros. Caddy Shack, a restaurant co-owned by Ed, Brian, Bill, Andy, John, and Joel.
Brian Doyle Murray may be most recognizable for his part opposite Bill in Groundhog Day, but he’s got a long list of credits as both a writer (SCTV, SNL, Caddyshack) and actor (recurring roles on Get a Life, Yes, Dear, and The Middle, along with movies and lots of voice work). John’s credits are scarcer, but they go into the mix, too.
Added up, the tally for the Murrays is still smaller than the Baldwins by a large margin. But while quantity matters, it is not the sole criterion. Brian and Joel are doing quality work. Bill continues to make interesting career choices (in 2012, he’ll do another Wes Anderson movie, play FDR, and appear in the Roman Coppola/Charlie Sheen project).
The alpha dog of the Baldwin clan, on the other hand, is treading water, doing his usual excellent thing on 30 Rock while branching out into podcasting. And his brothers have made a series of unfortunate decisions, many of them involving reality TV.
The torch, in other words, has been passed.
* Given his excellent work with Luke and Owen (and even Andrew) Wilson, his great relationship with Bill Murray, and his obvious interest in brotherhood, how much longer do we have to wait before Wes Anderson puts Bill, Brian, and Joel in a movie together? Make it happen, Wes!