House of Cards

Nine bright kids, two harried parents, and a table a few sizes too small made for a raucous dinnertime at the Murray home in Wilmette. Turns out, growing up amid the wisecracks provided the best training a comedian could hope for.

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If a movie scene could capture the Murray childhood, it would be the opening to Caddyshack, co-written by Brian with Douglas Kenney and Harold Ramis. In his 1999 book Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf, Bill writes that the film “is really the gripping tale of the Murray brothers’ first experiments with employment,” based on the boys’ caddying days at the nearby Indian Hill Club in Winnetka. Caddyshack begins with scenes of a large family waking up to the day: swiping a piece of toast, banging on both of the bathroom doors, whining, complaining, shouting, laughing. The lead character, Danny Noonan, based on the oldest Murray brother, Ed, winces when his father threatens to make him work in a lumberyard and rolls his eyes when his dad orders him to pitch his caddying money into a jar.

“Grab a bowl of cereal. Wait for the bathroom. Come running down the stairs. ‘C’mon! C’mon!’ It was kind of chaos,” recalls Laura of those mornings at home. “That scene, with the mother waking up the kids . . . that was really us. Mom would stand at the bottom of the steps and start calling. ‘Billy! Brian!’ Then she’d start knocking on the wall, aggravating everybody else. If we weren’t budging, she was known to come in with a glass of water.”

Small as their Wilmette home was, the house represented a step up for Edward and Lucille Murray. The couple, both from Chicago, met while they were in high school-Edward at St. George and Lucille at St. Scholastica. They married on November 6, 1943, and had their first child, Ed, ten months later. Their three-room flat in Rogers Park was fine for one child. They even managed when Brian arrived. But when Nancy and Peggy were born, and the mother became pregnant with number five-Billy-the need for more room grew dire.

They settled on Elmwood Avenue in Wilmette in the summer of 1950, in a tidy Cape Cod home with a lawn scarcely bigger than a large putting green, directly across from a convent that housed the North American branch of the Sisters of Christian Charity. Even then Wilmette was one of those tree-lined North Shore enclaves that ooze money, though the village was far less developed than today. The Edens Expressway had only recently been built and the town’s most prominent landmark, the Baha’i House of Worship, had barely opened its doors after 40 years of construction. With parts of the surrounding land still unclaimed, a frugal family could afford a starter home-a small one, granted-just around the corner from St. Joseph School and Church, on a lumber salesman’s salary.

Large families were not uncommon in Wilmette then, and for the rapidly multiplying Murray brood, the location proved ideal, if still a bit small. It was “just a fabulous place to be a kid,” recalls Andy. “The convent had apple and pear orchards and a little forest kind of thing. A couple of times we’d be out there hitting golf balls and get chased off by the nuns.” Dominated by the grand, imposing convent building, the grounds included “graveyards, a farm, and a carillon that played the Angelus three times a day,” recalls Bill in Cinderella Story. The makeshift Murray “golf course” ran down a long, 20-foot-wide parkway dotted here and there with trees and telephone poles that you would have to hit to hole out. “We would play golf from pole to pole or tree to tree and from the front of the house all the way down Elmwood Avenue,” says Ed. “If you pushed [the ball] you would go down the street and you’d have to chase it for half a block. If you pulled it, it went over the fence into the convent across the street.” Occasionally, a flock of nuns, dressed in their signature bow ties, would return the errant shots. “They would just show up at the door every once in a while with a bag of golf balls,” says Ed.

The side of the Murray house featured a basketball court that required an intimate knowledge of various quirks to negotiate a clear shot. The house itself was out of bounds. The driveway both dipped and bulged so that you “had to know where to dribble,” says John. “Then there was a tree off to the right with a low branch, so you had to shoot line drives.” “I’m sure Mom thought it was the greatest thing,” adds Laura. “Because [the games] would go on all day.” One of the siblings’ fondest memories, she says, is of “Mom watching out the window with a half gallon of ice cream in front of her. She would eat around the edges, trying to look like she was watching. We all got a kick out of her sneaking bites out of the ice cream.”

The Murrays played baseball, Bill’s favorite sport, in the backyard under a weeping willow planted by the father. First base was a garbage pen the dad had built. The façades of houses served as the outfield walls. “There was always kind of a dirt track” for base paths, says Laura. “It worked for little kids.” Eventually, the weeping willow would grow so large that three men holding hands couldn’t circle the trunk, and John could hide on top for hours, a rare, blissful escape from the family chaos.

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Unlike the parents in Chicago’s other acting clans-the Pivens, the Cusacks-Ed and Lucille Murray were not show-biz people. The father was a tall, spare figure who made his living at J. J. Barney Lumber Company, which sat near the corner of Division and Halsted before closing down years ago. At one time, he had considered becoming a priest. But he was also given to small eccentricities like the pair of pistol-shaped cuff links he wore that fired blanks. To a person, the siblings say he showed a wonderful sense of humor, and both Bill and Brian have said it was his quick wit and uncanny timing that they emulated. Later in life, recalls John, when a family friend learned he was “Ed Murray’s boy,” she told him, “Your dad was the funniest man on the face of the earth.”

Throughout his life, however, he was plagued by diabetes, and the illness cast a shadow over the otherwise idyllic upbringing of the Murray family. A thin man to begin with, he often was left sickly and drained by the disease. “He just didn’t have much energy,” says Laura. “He would come home and he’d be so tired. He might play catch with the boys, but it was never ‘Let’s go for a bike ride,’ or ‘Let’s take a long walk.’ It just sapped him.” But he brooked no pity-in himself or in his children. “He couldn’t stand if you were pouting,” says Nancy. “He would mock you bad. He’d mock you so bad that you had to laugh. And it would make you mad ‘cause you didn’t want to laugh; you wanted to be mad.” It was a lesson not lost on his youngest daughter, Laura, who had polio as a child and had to wear a brace for many years and who still shows lingering effects from the childhood disease.

Lucille Murray dabbled with performing-she “had a good singing voice and did plays in high school and sang in the choir in church,” says Peggy-but, by and large, the deeply religious homemaker was content to let her children bask in the family spotlight. “My mother was an introvert and she was very glad to stay at home,” says Nancy. “She had a wonderful laugh, and every once in a while, you would see this glimmer in her eye and she’d be quite proud of some funny comeback.”

Some trace the roots of the family’s sense of humor even deeper-to their paternal grandfather, Edward Sr., who drove a CTA bus, favored snappy suits, and wore exotic bow ties, including a light-up version for holidays. “He had a pair of chattering teeth and that bag of laughs that keeps on and on,” recalls John. “He always had licorice packs, and set off firecrackers when you’d least expect it.”

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