You won’t find Murphy’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It should be there, according to Murphy, but who listens to him, anymore, aside from me? He’s a nonentity, an old crank who’s been on social security for years and supplements his income with what little extra work he can find in Hollywood. Marie and I have spotted him in crowd scenes—here a dottering old Arab, there one of the geezers in the background in a nursing home. He never gets a line, but I’ve caught him throwing in a silent grunt or two, gratis.
He has a bad leg from his days as a stuntman, which, with old age, has become a problem to him; and I occasionally run into him on Hollywood Boulevard, limping along on a cane, long ratty hair down to his shoulders, looking a little like Howard Hughes, and wearing a dirty old toga, or some other incongruous costume, perhaps on his way to or from a mob scene, or perhaps merely wearing what he has to wear, a scarecrow Father Time among the seamy-side hip-hop rappers, junkies, and baby prostitutes of modern Hollywood, a ghost from the golden days.
In fact, the last time I ran into Murphy, it occurred to me that I might be able to make something out of his story of a Hollywood rise and a Hollywood fall.
I’m mulling this over.
What got me inspired about the project, the potential project, was not so much that the scenario, the outline of events, was unique for Hollywood in those wonder years, but that what caused Murphy to fail was built in to his character, not a character he played on the screen, invariably heroic, but his own personal character, what there was of it. For the first time, my mind crossed the matrixes, and I connected Murphy with Greek tragedy—no, I must go easy, that’s really a bit much—let’s say, with the tragic flaw, the Achilles heel, that brings down the Greek heroes. I guess I couldn’t see him like that before because I didn’t much like him, but there has been a several decades march of time since his glory days, and now all I see is a pathetic old man, no better than he ever was, I suppose, but harmless and on his way out.
The Glory Days?
In the late Thirties, Murphy and Marie were a couple of ambitious kids from Brooklyn who eloped more from the alphabet poverty of the New Deal Depression than they did into the natural hopes and dreams of a picket-fence-and-babies marriage, and went West, not to pick grapes like the Oakies, but to become movie stars. A good-looking young pair of wildcatters, I guess they thought they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. “Pure arrogance,” Marie says. “Ignorance on my part, and pure arrogance on Murphy’s.”
They worked odd jobs at odd hours, anything they could get—Murphy actually did pick grapes for a time—and put all their money into their tuitions at the Hollywood Dramatic Institute, where Murphy quickly gained the notice of the directors.
He had the kind of looks that startled. He was six-feet-four, broad shouldered, and, for all the observable power of his physique, had a waist like a girdled girl’s. What the directors saw in him was not a brilliant actor—Murphy was not brilliant at anything, though he was adroit at everything—but a potentially valuable property, and they did everything in their power to improve his natural assets, including his speech and voice, which were uncultivated—to this day Murphy can convince you that he was to the manor born, if he so desires. He can also be as rough as the street kid who came out here, and perhaps even more vulgar, for time has desensitized him.
He was cast in showcases where he began to be noticed, and it soon became evident to Marie that there was only one career between them that was worth pursuing.
In those days, Marie admired everything about Murphy, and some things with good reason. He had physical, if not intellectual, intelligence, and the boy from Brooklyn could ride, rope, and shoot from the saddle in no time, which is how he got into stuntwork. I’d say that Murphy had a quick but shallow mind, which in those days Marie took for something more—emotional depth, seriousness. But Murphy was not a serious actor, he was an actor who wanted to be a star. His end in view was a life of money and fame, which is fine, but Marie mistook him for a serious artist, and set to work in earnest, as a waitress, supporting herself and Murphy, while he continued his career.
His physical daring led to work as a stuntman, and that in turn to bit parts, which was where his career stood at the onset of the Second World War. The knee injury, acquired when Murphy fell from a horse, made him 4-F, and the scarcity of attractive young men began to make life easier for him. Soon he was playing second leads, then, occasionally, leads, in dozens of shoot ’em-up, grade B films on Poverty Row, where, if you worked hard and often enough, you could make a living.
Poverty Row was a factory. Films were made in three weeks, in two weeks, in one week. Nobody waited for a finished script. Sometimes hacks like myself would stand by the director and feed words to the actors. The idea was to keep things moving, turn things out. Sometimes the stories didn’t make sense, but if you kept the action going nobody seemed to notice. That was how I got to know Murphy, and at first we hit it off. He was the kind of guy who even appealed to men, the hero type, the kind all of us want to be when we’re kids; but I soon began to see what a flawed character he was.
I guess it was the incident of the ingénue that tipped me off. I’m hardly a prude—there must be one somewhere in this business, but I’ve never run into that rare bird—but I don’t like to be made to lie, and Murphy asked me to do just that. Somebody stole, lost, or misplaced several reels of film—the loss of film can be a disaster—and shooting had to stop. Murphy took advantage of the lull to go off with the ingénue. But first he asked me to stop by his home and tell his wife that he had to go on location for a couple of days, out to a false-fronted western town in the Mojave Desert.
“Why don’t you call her?” I asked him.
“No, I don’t want to talk to her. She can hear it in my voice.”
“Why don’t I call her?”
“Because it’s more convincing if she sees your face.”
I thought it was lame at the time, but I went along with it because I was curious to see what kind of paragon would put up with Murphy. What hadn’t occurred to me at the time was that Murphy was throwing me at her. It has since, and I’ve told Marie about it, of course, and she agrees. But she says, “Murphy will never know how grateful I am.” I think they were already through, even if they didn’t know it yet.
Marie and I hit it right off. She invited me in for coffee, and an afternoon-long conversation ensued. Naturally, we talked about Murphy. He had what it took to be a big star, she thought, but she was no longer under the illusion that he had what it took to be a big man. She was quite frank about it. “When I see him on the screen, it makes me wonder if Gable is really Gable, or if Errol Flynn is really as much fun as he seems.”
“Gable is really Gable,” I told her, “and Flynn is really fun. Stars can get into all sorts of trouble, but there has to be some real character there, or they won’t glitter on the screen. They call Hollywood the Dream Factory, but the camera is a truth machine.”
“Do you think Murphy’s got it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Because, if what you say about Gable being Gable is true, then maybe Murphy won’t be a star, after all.”
I saw that she was no longer in love with Murphy, if she ever had been. I also saw that she was losing faith in his ultimate success. I could tell, too, that she had heard that “on location” story before. I guessed that she had grown up during their marriage, and suspected that her investment in Murphy’s career might not be rewarded.
She had an optimistic eager nature which showed when she laughed or spoke of her early dreams for Murphy and herself; but, in general, she seemed sad and disillusioned. She was not quite defeated, but I could see she was thinking about throwing in the towel. That afternoon I fell in love with the eager girl who emerged occasionally from the saddened young woman. But I kept my feelings to myself.
Murphy no longer needed Marie. The trailer he had bought to be their home became little more for him than a dressing room, and she its attendant. And now that he no longer needed her, he no longer took pains to keep the knowledge of his amorous adventures from her. He even seemed to feel satisfied at the distress he caused her.
It also satisfied him to drop his heart’s current queen suddenly and finally and without explanation, so that the woman would wonder what had caused the break. The women who befriended him, he punished with confusion and doubt.
I asked him about his behaviour with regard to women, once, when we were having a drink together, and he seemed inclined to talk, and he told me that it was a payback to his mother, whom he both worshipped and hated.
It was a rare glimpse of his inner workings, and not a pleasant one. I took it that his mother had dominated his early life and then died, leaving him feeling deserted. He told me that in running off with Marie, he had deserted another girl, who was pregnant. The girl had killed herself. A sixteen year old. He had never told Marie about it. “What difference does it make?” he said. “She was a loser, or she wouldn’t have done it.” That was the period when I most disliked Murphy, when he was still on the rise and becoming more arrogant with every success. He seemed to me then to be a cruel and stupid man.
Then he met Sarah Orbisson. She was a former actress, sister of a legendary studio tycoon, independently wealthy, and currently married to Harry Orbisson, who had been producer on several films in which Murphy had had parts. Sarah was a large woman, tall and voluptuous, combining the Magna Mater and the siren. She had been a great beauty, but had let herself go, provoking her husband to call her “the cow.” Murphy disliked Harry Orbisson, and I had to agree with Murphy that Harry wasn’t a very pleasant person. But who was Murphy to talk?
The trouble between them started during the filming on one of the pictures they made together. Murphy had had an affair with a young actress who was Orbisson’s protégé, and Orbisson had had him fired. A couple of years had passed, the protégé had disappeared, and Orbisson had forgotten the incident; but Murphy had not. Murphy had a long and vindictive memory, and maybe that earlier incident played a role in what happened later. Knowing Murphy, it probably did.
By now, the Murphys had two children, both boys; and so, needing room, they bought a bungalow out in the hills. I arrived one evening to give Murphy some new lines. The kids were asleep and the place was quiet. We sat down together at the kitchen table, the script spread out before us. After a few minutes, I thought I heard Marie crying. The sound was so muffled, I wasn’t sure at first, but when she came in the room later to make coffee for us, her eyes gave me no doubt.
Murphy and I finished up.
Murphy went to the radio and turned it on full blast. Marie asked him to turn it down. “The children are sleeping,” she said. Murphy turned the radio down and apologized for his thoughtlessness, but the act had triggered something in Marie.
“They’re you’re children, too, you know.” she shouted. “Don’t you care about them? Don’t you care about anyone but yourself? You’re like a spoiled child.”
Murphy’s face went stony and red and there was heat in his eyes. Was he acting, I wondered, was this the opportunity he had been waiting for?
“How do I know they’re mine?” he shouted back. “Because you say so? Ha! The oldest one may be mine, but the other one could be his,” and he pointed an accusing finger at me. “He could have had this script delivered; but no, he’s got to bring it out here himself. Any damned excuse to see you! I know he comes out when I’m not here,” he said conclusively.
I was nonplussed. It was such an incredible accusation that I thought for a minute he was joking. But there was also insight in it, because, as I had realized from our first meeting, I was in love with Marie.
“How can you say a thing like that?” Marie cried. “You’re never here. And Felix is like a second father to the boys. You mustn’t love me at all to say a thing like that—you mustn’t ever have loved me!”
“That’s right,” Murphy yelled, “I don’t—never did, come to think of it—and why can’t you be quiet about it? You’re lucky as things are!”
“Now, hold on, Murphy,” I said, standing up, and Murphy whirled about and knocked me cold.
I woke up sprawled on the couch, with Marie sitting beside me, holding ice to my chin.
“He’s gone off,” she said. She looked at me for a long moment, then leaned over and kissed me. A few days later, Murphy moved out, and I moved in. The new situation pleased everyone. Marie filed for divorce, Murphy apologized to both of us and fully cooperated, and, eventually, Marie and I married. “No hard feelings,” Murphy said, shaking my hand, and I was certain that there weren’t any, at least on his part, because I was also certain that he had got just what he wanted.
At war’s end, Murphy was an established professional, but he was not making the progress he had expected to make. He had expected to be a star by now; but he was merely a working actor in a booming industry, one day a Stetsoned cowboy, and the next a trenchcoated detective in a series of forgettable films, some of which I wrote. His biggest hit to date was a film that was shot in three weeks: Fast Draw McGraw. The kids loved it. Murphy went out on a theater tour, appearing on Saturday mornings at theaters where they were showing Fast Draw McGraw. When the film was over and the kids were still shouting, he ran down the aisle in his buckskins, waving his hat and shooting blanks into the air. Any little boy of sixty can probably still remember him.
But Murphy believed himself to be a talented actor, and he wanted to use himself well. I had to admit that his self-assessment was correct. Murphy had the stuff of a star, at least the superficial stuff, the looks, the body, the manner, and the camera loved him. But nothing happened, or, rather, typecasting happened, and it looked like he was destined to be Fast Draw McGraw forever. That is, until Sarah came along.
Sarah showed a proper appreciation of Murphy’s talent, as well as of his face and physique, just as Marie once had. But Sarah had power, and, finally, through her influence, Murphy got a couple of relatively good roles under a new name and persona. They were secondary roles but in grade A films made at a major studio. The studio signed him for a long-term contract based on the notice he got in the parts, and it looked like he was finally on his way to stardom.
At last, he was out of Poverty Row! He felt himself rising again, buoyed by this maternal Ishtar. All his defenses fell. He admired Sarah’s brilliance, respected her judgments on the industry; and Sarah had beauty, if a little too much of it, education, which Murphy scorned but secretly admired (he was thrilled to discover that I had graduated from Princeton), and influence. He still felt himself to be commonplace, never having mastered off camera any of the polish that he was occasionally able to portray on it. And so he plunged on, with rising passion and recklessness, in pursuit of this tarnished bronze goddess; for now he was free to be with his wondrous Sarah, his Sheba, the matriarchal bosomy queen of his nights. But it was a hot, tropical love that Murphy had with Sarah Orbisson and the rainy season was setting in.
Of late, “the cow” had acquired another bullock. This should not have surprised Murphy, for Sarah had a dubious reputation to maintain, but it did. In my opinion, it has left him dazed until this very day, which proves to me that Murphy was in love—or was in something—with Sarah; and it was probably the first time in his life that he had been in anything with anyone, beside himself.
Rumors of her infidelities to Murphy were by now being constantly delivered to his ears, but he did not, would not, could not, believe them. Why, he asked me, and others, would she want anyone else when she had him? It was ridiculous.
It was difficult for Harry Orbisson to believe that anyone took Sarah seriously; for, as I say, she was notorious in Hollywood for vulgarity and nymphomania, and Orbisson’s only reason for staying with her was that her brother was Martin King, one of the most powerful men in the industry, a king-maker and -breaker, who had made Harry a little king, once upon a time, when Sarah had still cared for Harry. For his own part, Harry by now considered Sarah’s antics to be amusing and her sex-menagerie ludicrous.
Therefore, few things could have been more surprising to Harry Orbisson than Murphy’s attack upon him. It was an attack in the name of chivalry, gallantry, or whatever, for Harry had referred to his Sarah as “the cow” once too often to suit Murphy.
He committed this egregious act on the set of Murphy’s latest picture, The Tall Stranger, an adult western of Academy Award quality, if I say so myself, for I wrote the screenplay. I was also producing, though Orbisson would get the credit. This was the picture that was going to make Murphy a big star.
There stood Murphy, tall, rawboned, and angular. He was wearing a trail-driver’s costume and his by now signature beaten-up Stetson, and he looked the hero he was acting and probably believed himself to be. He grabbed Orbisson by the collar and shook him, all the while warning him not to ever use that word again with reference to Sarah, who was too good for him.
The set went silent. Everyone froze. I knew what a fool Murphy could be—I knew what he was capable of, as well. Harry Orbisson was not a big man physically but he was a studio giant, even not considering his connections. At this moment, it was still possible to gloss things over, and I called Murphy’s name in a warning voice:
But he was too deeply involved in his part, too much the tall stranger, and topped things off by laying Orbisson out with a powerful punch to the jaw, just as he had done me, once, and no doubt numerous others.
When Murphy was informed that Sarah considered him as already part of her past, and that she thought he should be punished for his assault on her husband, Murphy collapsed into bewilderment.
When weeks went by and she wouldn’t answer his calls he grew paranoid and depressive and made the wrong kind of headlines by turning out a famous Hollywood hotspot, doing several thousand dollars worth of damage. He was arrested, tried, and spent a few months in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Upon his release, he vanished into the desert with the bimbo who had been waiting for him at the jail, and didn’t turn up again for several months. “You’ve got to get a hold of yourself,” I said, when I finally ran into him, looking drunk and disheveled, on the street. “Go back east for a while . . . do some stage work.”
“I’m no stage actor,” he said. “I’m a movie star.”
But that was a delusion.
Murphy’s attack on Harry Orbisson cost him his career, for Martin King lifted a telephone at his brother-in-law’s behest, and Murphy was forever washed up in Hollywood.
But for once his career seemed to hold small interest for Murphy, perhaps because he didn’t realize the enormity and finality of his act, or perhaps because his ultimate interest was elsewhere. Only once since his Ma’s death had Murphy loved a woman, really loved her, and he had lost, lost in a horrible, annihilating defeat.
I met Murphy many times during the years when he was blacklisted, and during those years his version of his great misadventure changed. It wasn’t long before he was saying that he had known all about Sarah. “Just like all the rest of them,” he said to me one day. “Liars! They don’t know how to love a man. My mother was the only woman who ever loved me. Her love was pure gold.”
Sitting at home, sometimes, looking at pictures of all of us, Murphy and Marie and I together, Murphy as Fast Draw McGraw, Marie’s changing but always beautiful face, Murphy’s boys, my boys, who have families and careers of their own now—Marie and I have often pondered Murphy’s enigmatic misadventure.
“I think he really loved Sarah,” I’ve said.
But had he really loved her? Or had he considered her a means to an end? If I am ever going to make a screenplay of Murphy’s story, I have to decide on that.
“I think he was just using her,” Marie often says. “He used everyone, including you and me.”
“But Sarah used him, and threw him away.”
“I know what he’d say,” Marie says, “he’d say that he never loved her.”
And I guess I have to admit that Marie is right about that; because, judging by a recent conversation I had with the old goat, it has apparently become more comfortable for Murphy to think that he never loved Sarah, that he was using her, “milking the cow dry,” as he put it, and that it was only a damned fool impulsive mistake that prevented him from becoming a star.
E.M. Schorb's first novel, Paradise Square, is just being re-released by the Authors Guild in their Back-in-Print program, and was the winner of the International eBook Award Foundation’s grand prize for fiction at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2000. Later, A Portable Chaos won the Eric Hoffer Award for Fiction in 2004.
His work has also appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Quick Fiction, The Mississippi Review, Illuminations, The Chariton Review, GW Review, Slant, The Potomac Review, Gulf Coast, The New Laurel Review, The North American Review, and Gargoyle, among others. His story A Very Practical Nurse appeared in Offcourse #53.