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Arts & Entertainment

A 'Bus Stop' on the way to fame: Don Murray and Marilyn, 50 years later

Christopher Murray's parents, Hope Lange and Don Murray, on their wedding day, 1956.
Christopher Murray's parents, Hope Lange and Don Murray, on their wedding day, 1956.
courtesy Christopher Murray

August 5th, 2012, another Marilyn Monroe Milestone.

Time to break out the peroxide, squeeze into the billowing white, or slinky red, cocktail dress and sharpen the dark brown grease pencil. Time for her fans to flock to Los Angeles from around the globe to visit her landmarks and feel her presence. Time to think about Jack and Joe, Arthur and Lee, and ponder "what would have been", had she not succumbed to whatever demons were chasing her, giving her tortured soul its final release from her Brentwood home in 1962. 

For me, it's an occasion of great joy, as well, but not because of my admiration for her.  It's because I know my father, Don Murray, will somehow be part of the celebration, and I will be standing by his side.

Dad was 26 years old when he costarred with Marilyn in Bus Stop, 20th Century Fox's screen adaptation of William Inge's classic play, directed by Joshua Logan. Billed as "Hollywood's newest hunk of man," he blew onto the screen like a Montana windstorm as Bo Decker, a rough-and-tumble cowboy seeking Rodeo gold and an Angel to bring back to his ranch, lassoing Marilyn's heart and a Best Supporting Actor nomination to go with it.

It's a wonderful film, and I could watch it a thousand times. Superb performances by some of Hollywood's most recognizable faces, including my mother, Hope Lange, as the young waitress in Grace's Diner, in her own screen debut. My favorite scene is a kind of inside joke where Mom is putting her valise in the over head rack on the bus and Dad gives her a mildly disinterested glance, saying to Arthur O'Connell "She's pretty, Virge, but she ain't my Angel."

She was, in fact, exactly that, for they were newly married at the time though, sadly, the union didn't last...

Anyway, on August 4th, Dad was invited to cut the ribbon at the newly renamed Monroe Forum, a lovely arena in North Hollywood's El Portal Theater, followed by the Opening Night of Marilyn, Forever Blonde on their Mainstage, starring Sunny Thompson.

(Don Murray with Sunny Thompson. Credit: Christopher Murray.)

It was a remarkable evening, in so many ways. Councilman Tom LaBonge showed up to present the artistic director with a Certificate of Recognition, but I don't remember a word of it for my eyes were riveted to the screen above the stage. They were projecting a soundless version of Bus Stop, and I was captivated by my own personal Trinity: Mom, Dad and Marilyn.

A remarkable performance by Ms. Thompson, not only in how she brought the legendary icon to life, but because every word she spoke came from Marilyn herself.

Remarkable words from my Dad at the ribbon cutting ceremony. As always, gracious, humble and genuinely appreciative of the extraordinary talent he feels she possessed; an abridged version of the tribute he'd written that was read at her gravesite in Westwood the next day:

In 1955, after Marilyn Monroe's blockbuster success in The Seven Year Itch, she broke her contract with Twentieth Century Fox Films and flew to New York to study acting at The Actors Studio. What!?! - the biggest movie star in the world is quitting movies to study acting? Nobody ever heard of such a thing. What could she learn that would give her more than she already had?

But Marilyn didn't want something more. She wanted something else. "I don't care about being famous; I just want to be wonderful." she said. She wanted to get away from her sex symbol aura and establish herself as a serious actress, capable of playing more than the beautiful bimbo.

But for me Marilyn had already achieved that. I first saw her perform when I was on Broadway in Tennessee William's The Rose Tattoo. She was on screen with Bette Davis, George Sanders and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, and proved herself a good actress, playing a bad actress.

The next time I saw her, I was a volunteer in a fore-runner of the Peace Corps, working in refugee camps near Naples, Italy. From my pay of $30 a month, I saved up 15 cents a week, to see a movie in the poorest neighborhood.

One movie I had to save up three weeks for was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was playing in the richest neighborhood and cost 35 cents.

Marilyn showed she was much more than a blonde bimbo. She danced well, sang with the voice of a sweetly purring kitten, and her smile was a sunburst on the screen.

After my service period was up, director Josh Logan chose me to play Marilyn's rambunctious cowboy lover in "Bus Stop". 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.

But Marilyn was perfectly equipped for her role as the honky-tonk singer who aspired to go to Hollywood and be "screen tested, optioned and everythin'", as she says in the movie. Emotionally, the role could have been part of her autobiography. It was apparent to the Fox bosses that she was playing it to perfection, but it was just as apparent to them that my playing the cowboy was a disaster.

"He's too loud, too boisterous, exploding all over the place. He'll chase people out of the theater. We have to fire him," they said. But director Josh Logan was adamant, "I don't want some 'aw shucks' cowboy in the role. I want Attila the Hun and that's what we've got." So I stayed in the role and was astonished by an Academy Award nomination. But still more astonishing, Marilyn's superb performance was overlooked. She was never nominated for an Oscar for any role.

But movie lovers all over the world have given her a greater honor – as the most incandescently unforgettable star in the history of movies. And  if you see her as the talent-challenged singer in Bus Stop, you'll see that, while move lovers like you have made her famous, she has achieved her greatest ambition and made herself wonderful.

However, the most remarkable part of the whole celebration, and the reason Dad didn't attend the Westwood memorial in person, is because the family was gathered at his ranch near Santa Barbara to celebrate another milestone: the 50th Anniversary of his wedding to my stepmother, Elizabeth, a beautiful, charming woman who's nearly as dear to my own heart as she is to his.

As I mentioned, August 5th, 1962 will always mark an occasion of great joy, for it's the day that Dad finally brought his true Angel home.