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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The Murrays were not the only family in the neighborhood that faced the trials of a large household. A few houses down lived the Zanzucchis, with a pack of kids who were either friends or foes of the Murrays, depending on the day. “I had eight children and Lucille had nine,” recalls Lena Zanzucchi, whose son Vince is still close with Joel Murray. One day the boys would be coming over for dinner; the next they’d be at each other’s throats.

The Murray siblings remember run-ins between the families that sometimes bordered on all-out brawls. “There were stitches, lots of stitches,” John says. Vince bonked Joel on the head with a garden hoe, and Peggy suffered a gash after being pushed onto a pile of rocks. Arlene Steinhoff, who baby-sat the first five Murray children, says she remembers asking Bill how to tell the two families apart. “The Zanzucchis have spaghetti stains on their shirts,” he said.

“I had no trouble with [the Murrays],” Steinhoff adds, “but they were rascals-full of vim and vinegar-and I’m using the nice version of the phrase.” Indeed, Bill’s English teacher at Loyola Academy, Father Reuter, once told a writer that Bill was “brilliant, but a terrible student.” His rambunctiousness also got him kicked out of the Boy Scouts and off his Little League team. “He was always a rebel,” says Lena Zanzucchi. “You could tell by his Nehru jacket and tennis shoes he wore to high-school graduation. If there was one thing you knew, it’s that he was going to do what he wanted.”

* * *

The brothers would have given anything for their father to see the success that “vim and vinegar” would bring. But their careers wouldn’t begin to blossom until years after his death in December 1967. “When he died, it was the worst pain I’ve ever known in my life,” Bill recalled in an interview. “I didn’t think God would take the father of nine kids.”

As it turns out, the father’s passing may have opened a door, at least for one Murray sibling. Brian had been attending St. Mary’s College of California when he got word of his father’s death and quickly returned home. “He dropped out to come home and try to help Mom out,” says Ed. He initially landed a job in downtown Chicago as a peanut broker, but spent his nights hanging out at The Second City. Eventually, he tried a workshop there. Soon after, he joined the troupe full-time. In 1973, Bill followed. Like Brian, Bill was struggling to find direction after his father’s death, but his path turned even bumpier. He tried school at Denver’s Regis College, but during his first year he was caught smuggling nearly nine pounds of marijuana through O’Hare. He received probation from the authorities, but found himself out of school and casting about for work. Like Brian, he began taking Second City workshops. John Belushi spotted his talent and took him under his wing. “At one point there was talk of [Brian] going on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Ed says, “but he said at the time that he was too busy; ‘Why don’t you get Billy?’ The rest is history.”

“If Dad hadn’t died we might all be working at the lumberyard,” says Joel, who has also pursued a show business career. “But because he had, Brian was freed up to chase this dream he had of joining The Second City.” As much as the brothers say they wanted to be like their father, they knew they wanted a different career path. “You watch your dad work all the time at two jobs, run himself into the ground, and die young,” says Joel, “and you realize how lucky we are to make a living doing what we’re doing.”

The father’s death forced Lucille to provide for the family, and she went to work as a mailroom clerk at American Hospital Supply. But losing her husband also liberated her in some ways. “We didn’t realize what a sense of humor Mom had until after Dad died,” says Nancy. “She had a dry wit about her,” adds Joel. John recalls when he made the mistake of pleading with his mother to let him play hockey, like many of his friends. “Hmm. Hockey,” he recalls her saying in a deadpan voice that he didn’t know whether to take seriously. “That’s the game where the parents get up and drive their kids to Minnesota before work, then go back and get them; and where they have to have those expensive skates and hockey sticks and all that expensive equipment. That’s hockey, right? Well, see that basketball? See that driveway? See your five brothers? Now get out of the house.”

Lucille saw and enjoyed several years of her sons’ success, before her death from cancer in 1988. Fellow Second City cast members like John Belushi and Gilda Radner used to stop by the Wilmette home to visit their new second mom. It wasn’t until Bill and Brian bought her a new furnace, however, that she declared their career legit. After that, she was hooked, says Ed. “She loved being the celebrity mom. She dyed her hair blond-she always had light, almost bluish hair, and she dyed it this bright blond. So we started calling her Goldie. It became sort of a joke in the family. . . . She had dyed her hair, got a mink coat, and was sitting on the veranda [of her rental condo] in Fort Myers, wearing her mink in 80-degree temperature talking about ‘my son the stockbroker’ and ‘my son the chef’ and ‘my son the actor’ and ‘my daughter the nun.’”

Today, when the family members talk about their different directions, their voices betray not a hint of resentment at the successes of Brian and Bill. They admit, however, to having been shocked when noogies became a phenomenon. “We just couldn’t believe it,” says Laura. “I mean, [Bill] was just in the kitchen giving us those, and now there he is suddenly doing it on national television and getting standing ovations. I actually felt sorry for those other cast members any time I saw him doing that, because they were painful.”

For all Bill’s natural ability, Ed believes that one of the sisters saved the future star at a crucial time. “Billy had a tough time on ‘Saturday Night Live’ at first,” Ed says. “We just watched the [TV] special on the first five years, and they showed the scenes with Billy actually begging people to laugh at him because he was about to lose his job.” Struggling to find a winning character, Bill finally scored as a lounge lizard singing into a soap-on-a-rope. “That’s true,” Bill told Rolling Stone in 2003. “I would sing my guts out in the shower and I turned it into a sketch.” Ed believes the idea came from Peggy, who exchanged the kitschy gift with Bill every Christmas-including the year before Bill’s ‘SNL’ début, when Peggy gave her brother a soap bar shaped like a microphone. “I doubt it was the exact same one he used on the show, but I have no doubt that’s where the idea came from.”

* * *

As the years passed, the siblings moved away, one by one. For a while, Ed tried his hand at radio broadcasting (“I wanted to be the play-by-play man for the White Sox"), but eventually he realized that his skills lay in finance. Today, he is a senior vice president and financial adviser with Morgan Stanley in California. The next oldest, Brian, continues to have an active career in movies and TV, both as an actor and a writer. He currently stars in the TV show “Yes, Dear” and provided the voice of the Flying Dutchman in the movie SpongeBob SquarePants; Joel appeared on “Dharma & Greg” and is now on “Still Standing”; Andy found his calling in restaurants, and, with his siblings as partners, recently opened the third in a line of Murray Bros. Caddy Shack golf-themed restaurants in Florida and South Carolina. Nancy performed some 150 one-woman shows across the country last year and plans to do nearly that many again this year. Peggy moved to another Chicago suburb, where she lives with her husband and talks with at least one of her siblings every day. John is a writer and actor. Bill has continued to be the family’s biggest star, earning an Academy Award nomination for Lost in Translation and continuing to crank out movies, including The Life Aquatic, released last year. Laura, the youngest sister, married and now lives in the childhood home, which she bought from her siblings.

The family members still return once in a while, most recently when all of them gathered two years ago for a wedding at St. Joseph, their old church. That visit was a particularly happy one, Laura says. Ed showed the kids the big weeping willow out back. Other brothers pointed out the former site of the oddball basketball court. They strolled the grounds of the former convent, now empty and awaiting conversion into condominiums after having been bought by the Village of Wilmette. And, of course, they bought ice cream at Homer’s. Before the wedding, dressed in their suits, the brothers brought out a few golf balls and played on the old makeshift course. Afterwards, Bill-Billy-began weeding in the front yard, pulling up crabgrass around a small sunset elm the mom planted not long before she died.

In recent years, Laura has remodeled the house. She turned her parents’ downstairs bedroom into a den filled with books and framed photos of the family, including one of her, Billy, Peggy, and Nancy posing with Santa Claus. A hallway was knocked down to open the place up. The family room built by the father was refurbished. “I didn’t want [my husband] feeling like the ghosts of Murrays past would be always haunting the place,” she says.

The dining room, however, remains largely the same-tiny, with oak floors and a new table with leaves that can be put in if a big group comes to dinner. It seems impossibly small now, certainly too small to fit 11 people, but that never stopped the Murrays. Besides, the room hasn’t seen that many people in a long time, and may never again. That’s OK, Laura says; it holds memories enough for many lifetimes. A couple of brothers or sisters will probably stop by when they’re in town, she says, hang out, maybe trade a few stories and be glad to be back where it started, back home.

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