Remembering Brian Murray

Patrick Wang on the late, great stage actor Brian Murray, who he worked with on multiple films, including his latest, A Bread Factory.

It was the middle of the meal when Brian stopped mid-sentence. Concern focused his gaze. “You look different. Something about you is different,” he said. A silence came that seemed like a prelude to some horrid diagnosis. Then he said, “You don’t look like a director.” Another pause. “You look like a friend.” Then came that wicked Brian Murray grin.

Brian had many friends. He had an astonishing number of close friends. And I often marveled how full of soul one must be to have as many soul mates as he. Many of his friends were fellow actors.

I was chuffed (Brian taught me this word) to be one of those fellow actors, to get to play a few scenes opposite him in my first film, In the Family (above). It was the first time we were to work together. He was as generous, as wily, as much a rock as the character he played in that film. I never wanted the scenes to end. We butted heads sometimes, froze on set sometimes, moved each other, and laughed. I remember once after a very emotional scene, the moment “cut” was called, Brian blurted out, “Why is my character always bringing you beverages? It’s like I’m your bloody butler!”

The second time we worked together was a special case and a special script. I began writing it when Brian and I were traveling together on a ship. Growing up in South Africa, Brian had a lifelong love for ships. He wished to travel on a ship once more. Neither of us used the words “one last time,” but they were in the air. Not solid certainty, but in the air.

Of the many debts I owe Brian, high on the list is that he helped usher in my love of the sea. I will always remember him estimating the tonnage of passing ships. I remember him pointing out Gibraltar as we passed, relating its history. And I remember, when the coast vanished, when we were out to sea, all the immense silences we shared.

In a rare moment, Brian would talk about knighthood. Had he continued his career in England, it was only a question of how long before he would have become Sir Brian. When asked why he chose America, he offered a simple answer: Edward Albee. It was one of his great joys that decades later he would work with Albee, his mentor and sacred monster, on new plays. And that joy had a twin in that he would get to share those experiences with two pals-of-his-heart: Marian Seldes and Tyne Daly. Mighty compensation for having bid farewell to Sir Brian.

Behind the scenes on A Bread Factory: (l-r) Brian Murray, Patrick Wang, Tyne Daly and Elizabeth Henry

But being a monarch of the pen, I decided it was not too late to bestow knighthood upon Brian. I wrote the role of Sir Walter for him in A Bread Factory Part One and Part Two. It was the first time I had ever written a role for a specific actor. He was hugely chuffed with the honorific. But the screenplay was another matter. He struggled for weeks how exactly to tell me, or whether to tell me at all, that he did not understand the script. He did not seek to correct me as others might, but he worried deeply for my fate of being misunderstood by others. He would play the role, but he wasn’t shy to exclaim, “Who on earth speaks like this?! How does one get these words out?” This, mind you, from a man whose career is associated with Albee and Tom Stoppard.

Then one night came the call. He had been studying his text, preparing his character. Somewhere between profanities, he confessed that he got it. He understood now. And new profanities buttressed arched praise. When you see the films, you will know he certainly got it. Not in his best health, Brian found the shoot hard, but I saw him come alive from the joy of working and from meeting a new company of his fellow actors. It would be his final performance, and what an indentation it leaves. I hear his final words ringing still, “God, you great shower and subtracter of beautiful things, leave me this one miraculous memory!”

The last time I saw Brian in his hospital bed, I brought him news that our films were soon to be released. Such joy came to him as I’ve rarely witnessed. If I had at times cared for him as a son might, he in that moment cared for me as a father would, with a selfless joy. I saw that the emotion quickly exhausted him. He apologized and asked to be allowed to sleep. His speech was drying and he began to cough. I took his empty cup to the kitchen to refill it. By the time I returned, he was asleep. I sat with him a while, then left.

A couple days later, I received news of Brian’s death. Memories traveled the years of our friendship, and they also traced and retraced those final moments. Through the jumble of emotions surfaced a small realization that made me laugh. It had come to this: in our final moments together, with Brian at death’s door, my final act would be to bring him a damn beverage.

Patrick Wang’s first film, In the Family, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and hailed as “an indie masterpiece” by Roger Ebert. His second film, The Grief of Others, premiered at SXSW and Cannes, and is being released in theaters from November 2. The making of the movie is documented in the interactive book Post ScriptHis latest, the duology A Bread Factory, is in theaters from October 26.