Michael Murphy was born in Los Angeles, California, to Georgia Arlyn (née Money), a teacher, and Bearl Branton Murphy, a salesman. After a hitch in the Marine Corps, Murphy attended the University of Arizona, Tucson, and then went to U.C.L.A. for his California teaching credential. From 1962 to 1964, he taught high school English and drama in Los Angeles.
Murphy’s most notable appearance was as Woody Allen’s best friend Yale, the self-tortured adulterer, in Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan (1979). The two had acted together earlier in Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) and had become good friends. Surprisingly, despite the excellent performance Murphy gave in the film, Allen hasn’t used him again.
Murphy’s career as a first-rate supporting player began in 1962 and has continued for over five decades, with major parts in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), which he calls “the first of the whining yuppies,” Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), and Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986). He also has worked with such significant directors as Elia Kazan in The Arrangement (1969), Tim Burton in Batman Returns (1992), and Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia (1999). Murphy co-starred in John Sayles’ Silver City (2004), as a U.S. Senator who is the father of a gubernatorial candidate played by Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, standing-in for the pre-presidential George W. Bush.
Murphy is perhaps best known for his long collaboration with director Robert Altman that stretches back to the beginning of his career.
“I was right out of the University of Arizona,” Murphy reminisced during a 2004 interview, “and a friend said, ‘Go over to MGM and meet Bob Altman. He’s using a lot of young guys for this Army thing he’s doing.'” Altman was directing the World War II television series Combat! (1962), and Altman cast him in the show without an audition. “We became immediate friends. He told me, ‘You may not turn out to be a movie star, but you’ll get to do some interesting work.’ Bob was in his thirties when we met. He had been a young bomber pilot in World War II and was wise beyond his years. From the very beginning, he never played it safe when it came to making movies. He had amazing fortitude and guts.”
In addition to Combat! (1962) and the Altman-directed TV movie Nightmare in Chicago (1964), Murphy has appeared in seven theatrical movies directed by Altman between 1968 and 1996: Countdown (1967), That Cold Day in the Park (1969), MASH (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), and Kansas City (1996). Murphy has also appeared in Altman’s TV adaptation of Herman Wouk’s play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988) and in two cable-TV mini-series for him: Tanner ’88 (1988) and Tanner on Tanner (2004).
About Altman, Murphy says, “I adored the guy. If you were getting married or divorced, or, really, if anything momentous was happening in your life, you’d want to seek him out to talk about it. He was very strong when it came to life’s dilemmas…could always see the big picture…was always helpful. An extraordinary man.”
Murphy played the title role of Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner in Altman’s ground-breaking HBO series Tanner ’88 (1988), which was scripted by Garry Trudeau of “Doonesbury” fame. The fictional Tanner ran for president in the Democratic Party primaries of 1988, alongside George Bush (whom Murphy himself “plays” in Silver City (2004)), Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Pat Robertson, with some “guest appearances” by Ronald Reagan along the way. The “candidate” Tanner actually interacted on-camera with candidates Gary Hart, Bob Dole, and Jesse Jackson, and with the journalists Linda Ellerbee and Chris Matthews.
During the progress of the series’ eleven episodes, Tanner increasingly became alienated as the grueling political marathon went on. He was portrayed as an intellectual troubled by sound-bite politics and the public persona he was compelled to create for the media-fueled electoral machine that vetted the candidates for the public at the other end of the cathode-ray tube. Tanner eventually realizes he lacks the all-consuming drive to be a successful presidential candidate under such a system.
A caustic look at American politics from a liberal-left-anarchist point of view, “Tanner ’88” won the prize for best television series at the Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels in Cannes in the fall of 1988. The mini-series ranks among the best and most important of television programs. Altman-Murphy-Trudeau reprised Tanner with “Tanner on Tanner” (2004), in which the character did not run but commented on the political process and on the media circus accompanying the pursuit for the nation’s highest office.
About the cable mini-series, Murphy says, “Yes, Bob shows some of the nastiness behind all campaigns, but I don’t think it’s a polemic. In Bob’s case, you vote for the Democrat, but be careful of what you wish for. He is very cynical.”
In 2019, Murphy’s Jack Tanner found himself back on the silver screen in “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese”. In this movie, Tanner gets to go to a Dylan concert at the behest of President Jimmy Carter…a mutual friend.
Despite decades of solid performances in a plethora of movies, Murphy remains somewhat anonymous to the public at large. Arriving in a limousine at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival premiere ofSilver City (2004), he got out of the car and was unrecognized. When the publicists eventually realized he was a star of the film, Murphy was ordered back into the limousine so that he could exit it again, and the paparazzi could photograph him.
“I’m in this kind of fun position where I’m not especially recognizable,” Murphy said when recounting the incident. “This sometimes allows me to stand back and watch the circus…even though I’m a part of it it. You wind up with an interesting perspective.”
In 1988, Michael Murphy married the co-star of his short-lived television show Hard Copy (1987), the actress Wendy Crewson. She has also appeared with her husband in Tanner ’88 (1988) and in the theatrical films Folks! (1992) and Sleeping Dogs Lie (1998). They have two children, a daughter, Maggie Murphy, born in 1989, and a son, John (“Jack”) Branton Murphy, born in 1992.
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