WASHINGTON — In an evening filled with jokes about Bill Murray’s elusiveness and quirky personality, it was David Letterman who provided the most touching moment as Murray was honored with the nation’s top prize for comedy.
Murray, 66, received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Sunday night at the Kennedy Center, joining several other “Saturday Night Live” alumni to win the annual award. After he was presented with a bust of Mark Twain, Murray handed it to a man in the first row of the audience and urged the crowd to pass it around.
Known for living outside the Hollywood bubble, Murray admitted he was uncomfortable sitting in a box with his family while more than a dozen of his co-stars and collaborators spoke warmly about his body of work.
“It’s really hard to listen to all those people be nice to you for two days,” Murray said. “You just get real suspicious.”
His acceptance speech followed a heartfelt tribute by the bearded Letterman, who made a rare public appearance since his late-night show ended last June. Murray was a guest on Letterman’s shows 44 times over the years, and the two grew close, even spending time together at Letterman’s vacation home in Montana.
After an appearance in 2003, Letterman told Murray that his then-infant son would be christened that weekend. An hour later, Letterman said, a package was delivered to his office containing a handmade Irish linen christening gown.
“That Saturday, my son, in Bill Murray’s christening gown, was christened at St. Ignatius in Manhattan, and we have this memory, we have this gift, we have this gesture for the rest of our lives,” Letterman said.
There were plenty of laughs at Murray’s expense in evening that took on the tone of a gentle roast. Jimmy Kimmel, Aziz Ansari, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Martin were among those who ribbed Murray for being aloof, unpredictable and difficult to reach — and somehow still lovable.
“I think you and I are about as close as two people can be, considering that one of them is you,” Martin said in a video tribute.
The show, which was taped for broadcast Friday on PBS, had one major stumble, courtesy of Miley Cyrus, who cursed repeatedly and made an excuse about smoking too many cigarettes after she botched the lyrics to a version of “My Way.” Despite not having a microphone, Murray came to her rescue, joking with the crowd from his seat as Cyrus and the crew set up for a second attempt at the song, which went more smoothly.
After getting his break on “Saturday Night Live,” Murray went on to star in some of the most successful comedies of the 1980s and 1990s before transitioning into more dramatic roles. He was nominated for an Oscar for his soulful turn as a washed-up actor in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”
He’s become a folk hero in the social-media era by turning up unannounced at wedding receptions, kickball games and house parties. He’s also a regular at Chicago Cubs games and celebrity golf tournaments.
This weekend, he got to meet President Barack Obama. And what did the two men talk about? “Putting,” Murray said before the show.
Murray lives in South Carolina, doesn’t have an agent or a publicist and rarely does in-depth videos. He famously forces people offering him scripts to call an 800 number and leave a voicemail. He said he would have been happy to skip the festivities surrounding the prize, especially if his beloved Chicago Cubs hadn’t already advanced to the World Series.
“If this could all have been done in a letter that I received, that would have been enough,” Murray told The Associated Press on the red carpet. “It’s hard to stand still for this. It’s a squirm-a-thon for me.”
The prize was first awarded in 1998 and goes to those who influence society in the tradition of Samuel Clemens, the writer, satirist and social commentator better known as Mark Twain. Other “Saturday Night Live” alumni who’ve received it include Tina Fey, Will Ferrell and last year’s winner, Eddie Murphy.
In his speech, Murray — the fifth of nine children — also paid tribute to his older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, who helped him get his start in improvisational theater. His brother had to be the breadwinner for the family after their father died, and Murray said it took courage for Brian to pursue his dreams.
“My brother had more guts than anyone I ever knew, and the only reason I’m here tonight is because of the guts of my brother Brian,” Murray said. “He’s been waiting a long time to hear that.”
Story: Ben Nuckols