Back in 1989, “Bleacher Bums” returned as a new production at the Organic Theater – which is within walking distance of Wrigley Field.
The powers-that-be putting the revival together reached out to the Cubs’ front office with a message something along the lines of, “Hey, if you want to come by, let us know. We’ll take care of you.”
I didn’t see the original production when it came out in the late 1970s, but the play was taped for PBS – and I loved it.
When the opportunity was offered to watch the new version, I jumped at the chance – not only because it was “Bleacher Bums,” but it featured a few people I’d seen. Dennis Farina, who was in “Crime Story” – and later a main character on “Law and Order” – was in it. Ron Dean, who was in the Steven Seagal classic “Above The Law,” was in it. And to top it off, Joe Mantegna – one of the original “Bleacher Bums” – was heavily involved. In fact, he was in attendance the night I was there.
But the actor who stood out for me was Joel Murray, who played the “idiot geek” Richie. He was funny as hell, and he was entertaining to watch.
Last time out, I wrote about Murray – a longtime Cubs fan – and his love of baseball and experiences as a golf caddy. If you missed it, here’s the story link:
Today … his time with “Bleacher Bums” …
How much fun did you have doing “Bleacher Bums?”
Joel Murray: “It was a great season (1989, a year the Cubs won the N.L. Eastern Division), and because we were in the cast, people would leave tickets at the box office for us. I might have seen 50 games that summer; it was crazy how often we went. You drank in the bleachers all day and then you go take a nap backstage – then you go do a show. I played Richie, kind of the idiot geek, and that was a role I didn't usually get to play. I originally auditioned for the cheerleader role and Joe Mantegna said, ‘Here. Read for this other thing.’ He gave me the part and it was great getting to work with Joe, who had done it originally. We had J.J. Johnston. We had Ron Dean. Jack Wallace used to hang out backstage. Dennis Farina.
“I mean, the stories these guys would tell were hysterical. Everybody was an ex-cop or an ex-con. Farina would tell these stories … ‘So we got this guy, I got my gun down this guy's throat and he's still lying to me, right? And the floor's so bumpy 'cause there's so many bodies under it, right? This guy finally starts talking.’ That's how stories would start. It was amazing for me to be a fly on the wall. I had a great time. Lou Milione played the blind guy and he and I had a lot of fun together. It was a great experience and The Organic was blocks from Wrigley.
“Later on when George Wendt came to do it, we'd get done with the show and I was putting up previews for the next Second City show. So I was doing the show and then going and doing the improv set at Second City, and I would put George Wendt on the back of my Vespa – and he had his leg in a cast. We would literally tie his leg to the crash bar on my Vespa and drive across to North and Wells to Second City, cutting up traffic on the sides. Anytime his heel would bottom-out, I could've shattered his leg – but we never did. But George and I both wanted to get to Second City, where we drank for free. He used to come watch the set and I used to come do it. It was a pretty exciting time.”
The play seemed so real to me. I could identify with the characters in the bleachers.
“The hard part was making the audience believe that there was a game going on and that we really were these people. But people knew their characters real well and that made us able to make it very real. Then we updated the script that year to include Mitch ‘The Pitch’ Williams and other people on the team. It was a lot of fun in that aspect.”
Obviously, it was a great cast of people to be working with.
“No kidding. I was very fortunate. J.J. Johnston … there was a scene at the end where he would poke me in the chest with his stubby fingers, and he would poke me all the way across the stage. Every night, without fail, my heels would be on the edge of the stage. He pushed me that far, right to the edge. He knew what he doing and it really worked. He was something else to work with.
“Dennis (Farina) was the greatest guy. Even when I moved out to Los Angeles, we'd go out and play golf together. He knew we were struggling actors and he was doing better, and he used to make some stupid bet on the last hole for like $100 or something like that; he would lose money to us every time on purpose, it seemed like.”
That must have been terrific for you.
“Yeah, for me. One other thing about the ‘Bleacher Bums’ was my brother Brian took over the J.J. Johnston role at the end. I opened it in May – in the beginning of baseball season – and I closed it New Year's Eve. I went away to do a Second City show in the middle of that – as well as get married and whatnot. But yeah, I came back and closed it up until New Year's Eve, I think was the last show. It was a hell of a run. It was a lot of fun. At the end, Brian and I got to do it together and he got to poke me across the stage. My heels would end up in the same spot, it seemed like.”
From a theater standpoint, had you worked with him before?
“At that point, I don't think so. We did go over once to do the Kilkenny Comedy Festival – and Bill, Brian, and I did a best-of-Second City with Dave Pasquesi and Linda Kash and Meagen Fay playing the other roles. That was pretty cool. We did Del Close's Hamlet, which not many people were ever able to put up and it ended in like a six-part harmony. It was phenomenal stuff. Brian was there, Billy was there, and I was there. It was really fun.”
On screen, have you done much with your brothers?
“No, just ‘Scrooged.’ We all worked the same leap day in whatever year that was, '88 or something. No, not much together. They haven’t given me a lot of work.”
You’re on an improv tour right now (with Whose LIVE Anyway). Do you feel like you're onstage all the time even when you're not on stage?
“No, I'm not one of those really funny people that's on a lot. I'm kind of dry. So yeah, I don't feel like I'm on. My son gives me grief because I'll converse with waiters and stuff and he's like, ‘Dad, why are you talking to him? You're just making him uncomfortable.’ I'm like, ‘I thought I was being humorous.’
“Anyway, thanks for the crowd response, son.
“I'm not ‘on’ that much, you know. I think a big deal with acting is the ability to enjoy the time off and not panic like a lot of people do. You have a good year as an actor, you've got 300 days off. You have a bad year you've got more days off. I like to enjoy my off time. I golf and I was able to coach all my kids in football, baseball, and basketball.
“You've got to not freak out all the time like some people do, because when you do go in for an audition you're so nervous and desperate that they can smell it. I like to go into an audition and give a vibe like ‘I'd really like to get back to the golf course right now. Thank you.’ “
If I got this right, you were the first voice of Chester Cheetah from the Cheetos commercials, correct?
“I was the voice of Chester Cheetah for eleven years. That basically bought my first house … it was a good gig.
“I must say, I’m not a fan of the new Chester. It's not sour grapes, it's just he's kind of a weird, mean, British guy now. There are too many Brits replacing American actors in the business to begin with, but I don't understand why you want a weird, mean Cheetah. I was a ‘Rhyming kitty in the heart of hip city until my common ease would surrender to the urge to but for the cheese.’ I was a cool cat. Now he's just weird. I don't know what they're doing with the Cheetos but I'm willing to go back at any time.”
Need a new house?
“Yeah, that was a good gig.”
It was really enjoyable getting to talk to you. Thanks to social media, you were fairly easy to track down.
“It's funny how people can get to you these days. My brother (Bill), nobody gets to him; he's got it figured out. Sometimes it's fun. I've actually gotten work off the internet, just strangers because I do this ... I always say when I'm golfing I take a picture like, ‘Looking for work.’ I've had people just contact me through Facebook messenger going, ‘If you're really looking for work, I've got this part in this movie you could do.’
“I'm like, ‘Yeah, okay.’
“It actually paid off a few times.”