James Murray

Sometimes the early tragic death of a Hollywood actor can lead to immortality, as in the cases of icons James Dean and Marilyn Monroe–and, to a somewhat lesser extent, little Bobby Driscoll, who died a Skid Row bum in the streets, a victim of drug addiction. Not so for actor James Murray, whose death occurred in a similar fashion to Driscoll. Long forgotten, the young and highly insecure Murray was plucked from obscurity and given the chance of a lifetime, only to crumble ever so quickly. He was born in the Bronx, NY, in 1901. After appearing in The Pilgrims (1924), a three-reeler made at Yale University in 1923 in which he played John Alden, he trekked 3000 miles to Hollywood to pursue that elusive Hollywood dream. On the road west, he lived a simple, rather nomadic existence as a dishwasher, coal-shoveler and boxcar rider. He started off as most do in L.A.–taking bit parts and extra work, waiting for that big break. Director King Vidor was looking to cast the somber hero of his next silent picture, The Crowd (1928). He spotted Murray, who was working as an extra at MGM, near the studio casting office and arranged a meeting with him. Murray didn’t show up, either not taking the director seriously or not believing that Vidor was, in fact, King Vidor. Murray was hunted down, given a screen test and the novice actor was hired on the spot, considered by both Vidor and MGM executive Irving Thalberg to be one of the best natural actors they had ever had the good fortune to encounter. As John Sims, a common everyday kind of family man just trying to survive the game of life, Murray was frighteningly real and heart-wrenching, carrying the hugely demanding role without a hitch. He so invested himself in the part that many feel he never shook off the depressing character. The film was judged too heavy and raw for audiences to escape in, but the critics were enamored of the film and, especially Murray, and today it is considered a major masterpiece. Murray managed to turn in solid work in the next few years, never matching his excellence in “The Crowd” but certainly turning in credible performances. Such films as The Big City (1928) with Lon Chaney, Thunder (1929)–also with Chaney–The Shakedown (1929), Bachelor Mother (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933) served him well. Too much too soon, perhaps, for he was ill-prepared to handle the daily pressures of stardom and his inner demons quickly took over. He turned to the bottle for solace and release. By the early 1930s he was a chronic alcoholic who could barely hold down an acting job. He turned into a derelict, living on the streets and begging for change. By coincidence, he tried to panhandle Vidor in 1934, who offered him an acting job in his next film, Our Daily Bread (1934), but the actor vehemently refused to accept any charity. In 1936 Murray’s body was fished out of the Hudson River, having drowned after either jumping from, falling from–or being thrown off of–a pier. He was only 35. Vidor was so haunted by Murray’s tragic death that it provided the basis for a script he wrote which the director hoped would turn into a film called “The Actor” in 1979. Unfortunately, the project never got off the ground.

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