Bill Murray’s Best Roles—Ranked
Where do your favorite performances fall on the list?
Few entertainers have ever become cultural icons on the level of Bill Murray. After more than 40 years in the entertainment business, he has become known as a beloved oddball whose mere presence makes every part he plays more interesting. He’s wowed audiences and critics in hilarious comedies and heartbreaking dramas, earning plenty of awards and box-office receipts in the process.
Murray has appeared in nearly 100 movies and TV shows since the 1970s, but we’ve ranked his most memorable performances of all those credits. Take a look at our list and see if it matches up with yours.
25. Tommy Crickshaw in ‘Cradle Will Rock’ (1999)
Bill Murray has proven himself many times as a lead, but it’s when he plays a supporting role amongst a bigger ensemble that he’s sometimes at his best. This was the case in 1999’s drama “Cradle Will Rock,” which was directed by fellow actor Tim Robbins and followed the real-life production of the 1937 stage show “The Cradle Will Rock.” In the film, Murray played Tommy Crickshaw, a ventriloquist who is conflicted about the fact that he must hide his communist politics in order to continue a career in entertainment. It was a pretty serious role for Murray and he showed his depth and vulnerability, especially in a crushing scene where Tommy reveals his true self to a shocked audience.
24. Kenneth Bowden in ‘Wild Things’ (1998)
The role of a sleazy lawyer whose office is inside a Florida strip mall sounds exactly like the kind of thing Murray was born to play. He nailed that part in the 1998 thriller “Wild Things.” It was another example of Murray’s effortless ability to slip into a smaller part among other big-name actors and steal scenes from them. Kenneth Bowden was only in a few scenes of this twisty, sexy film, but he made the most of them. Murray’s slick performance is another reason why “Wild Things” is an underrated gem of the ’90s.
23. Bill Murray in ‘Zombieland’ (2009)
Murray has played fictional versions of himself several times, including his surprise role in 2009’s “Zombieland,” which has to go down as one of the best cameos in movie history. In the film, Murray had survived the zombie apocalypse by applying zombie makeup to himself in order to safely travel around Hollywood, blending in with the undead. When the main characters of the film stumble upon his mansion, one of them mistakes Murray for an actual zombie and shoots him. As he dies, the legendary actor is asked if he has any regrets, and he mentions his role in the animated movie, “Garfield” — a part that did not make it onto this list.
22. Bill Murray in ‘Space Jam’ (1996)
In our humble opinion, Bill Murray never played a better fictional version of himself than when he was in “Space Jam.” In this live-action/animated crossover, Murray played himself as a friend of Michael Jordan, who helps the legendary baller win a hoops game alongside Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other “Looney Tunes” icons. Murray is at his low-key and sarcastic best in this part, appearing earnest in a situation that’s completely wacky. This was the movie that brought him an entire new generation of young fans, just as his role in “Ghostbusters” had done a decade earlier.
21. Steve Zissou in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ (2004)
Murray has done some of his best work for offbeat writer-director Wes Anderson, and this is the biggest role he’s ever played for him. In this 2004 comedy, Murray played the title role, an underwater explorer and nature documentarian who makes it his mission to find an elusive shark that ate his partner. The film had a loaded cast that included Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston and Cate Blanchett, but Murray dominated the action as the beleaguered Steve Zissou. Lovers of Murray’s more-recent roles in indies count this as one of their favorites from a rich period in his career.
20. Larry Darrell in ‘The Razor’s Edge’ (1984)
Audiences today are used to thinking of Bill Murray as an actor with equal range in the worlds of comedy and drama, but in 1984, the world wasn’t quite ready to see him that way. “The Razor’s Edge” was an extremely personal project for Murray: he wrote its script based on the 1944 novel of the same name and marked his first role in a dramatic film. He starred as Larry Darrell, a transient man who tries to find meaning in his life following his scarring service in World War I. The film wasn’t exactly beloved by critics and bombed at the box office, but it was an important turning point in Murray’s career, artistically, and showed a side of him that would be praised in decades to come.
19. Frank Quinn in ‘Get Low’ (2010)
One word that’s often used when describing Murray’s acting style is “effortless,” and that was the case for his work in 2010’s “Get Low.” In this drama, he played a down-on-his-luck funeral director who jumps at the chance for some easy money by helping a mysterious man plan a living funeral for himself. The film was acclaimed, earning an 85-percent Fresh score from critics at Rotten Tomatoes, but much praise went to star Robert Duvall. Murray was equally strong in his supporting role, with Roger Ebert writing of his performance, “After you get to a certain point with an actor, you don’t much care what he does, you just want to watch him doing it.”
18. Baloo in ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016)
Bill Murray hasn’t done much voice acting during his long career, but his work in Disney’s 2016 remake of “The Jungle Book” was a rare exception. He provided the voice of Baloo, the laid back and fun-loving bear who befriends the movie’s human main character, Mowgli, in the wilderness. Baloo is the kind of character everyone would love to have as a pal — which sounds a little like the actor himself! With a 95-percent Rotten Tomatoes score, “The Jungle Book” is one of Murray’s most acclaimed projects ever and it wouldn’t have been so beloved if not for his perfect rendition of the classic song, “The Bare Necessities.”
17. Frank Milo in ‘Mad Dog and Glory’ (1993)
Seeing him playing a darker and less likable role than he’d previously done, “Mad Dog and Glory” is one of the most interesting moments in Murray’s career. He co-starred with Robert De Niro in this dramedy, but the roles those actors would normally have played were reversed. Murray played Frank Milo, a tough gangster who also dreamed of being a stand-up comic, and De Niro played a timid police officer who’d never used his weapon before. The movie wasn’t much of a hit, but it let audiences root against Murray for once and earned him some praise from critics.
16. Bunny Breckenridge in ‘Ed Wood’ (1994)
The 1990s were a definite turning point in Murray’s career, as he became a much calmer presence on screen and gravitated toward more dramatic films. His work as a supporting player in the acclaimed Tim Burton movie “Ed Wood” is a prime example of this change in styles. In this offbeat drama, Murray played Bunny Breckenridge, a man who helped the title character make his movies and happened to enjoy dressing in women’s clothing. The part was not played for laughs and Murray was totally straight in his performance, going against his usual brand of smart-alecky, scene-stealing comedy. Bunny became one of this manic movie’s most calming characters thanks to Murray’s grounded performance.
15. Jeff Slater in ‘Tootsie’ (1982)
Very early in his career, Murray landed a small role in the Oscar-winning film “Tootsie,” and he quickly showed why he would become one of Hollywood’s go-to talents. He played Jeff, the roommate of star Dustin Hoffman’s character, and completely stole the few scenes he was in. Perhaps the most impressive fact about Murray’s work in “Tootsie” is that he improvised nearly all of Jeff’s dialogue, putting those skills he’d honed at “Saturday Night Live” on display in a widely acclaimed movie for the first time.
14. Jack Kennison in ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (2014)
Murray has done very little television work in his career, mostly sticking with movies, but he earned major acclaim for his brief work in the 2014 HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge.” He played a widower who bonds with the tough-minded title character by using his dark wit to mask his grief. Despite only appearing in a few scenes, Murray won an Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series, giving him his only Emmy for acting so far. He also earned a Golden Globe nomination and was praised for being so natural and smooth in a role with plenty of hidden depth.
13. Vincent MacKenna in ‘St. Vincent’ (2014)
Murray was also nominated for a Golden Globe for his lead role in 2014’s “St. Vincent,” a dramedy that seemed tailor-made for his style. In the film, Murray played Vincent, a misanthropic, alcoholic military veteran who strikes up an unlikely friendship with his neighbor’s young son. “St. Vincent” was yet another signature role for the actor and saw him at his rebellious best, almost like an older version of some of the great characters he had played as a young man. Many critics expected he’d be nominated for an Oscar for his work in the film, but shockingly, he was snubbed.
12. Frank Cross in ‘Scrooged’ (1988)
When Bill Murray made “Scrooged” in 1988, it marked his first starring movie role in four years. His star power was at its height, and he again proved his talents in this modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Story.” Murray played a ruthless TV executive who gets visited by ghosts who show him the harm he’s doing to the people in his life. This was an early example of Murray playing a character that most viewers would root against, but thanks to his natural charm, it was hard to stay too mad at him. “Scrooged” has since become a popular Christmas staple, especially for people who are tired of the standard feel-good holiday flicks.
11. Bob Wiley in ‘What About Bob?’ (1991)
There are probably only two actors that could have played the lovable-yet-irritating Bob Wiley to perfection: Bill Murray or Robin Williams. It was Murray who played the part, and it ended up being one of the actor’s most memorable roles. Bob is a hopelessly neurotic man who crashes his psychiatrist’s family vacation, leading to plenty of tension and laughs. “What About Bob?” showed Murray at his most over-the-top funny in any role since “Caddyshack.” Few actors would be able to keep a character that’s so annoying on paper from being hated by the audience, but Murray pulls it off with ease and successfully makes co-star Richard Dreyfuss seem like the real jerk of the story.
10. Tripper Harrison in ‘Meatballs’ (1979)
This was where it all started on the big screen for Murray. His first starring role would set the tone for the type of renegade heroes he would make a career out of playing in the following 40 years. “Meatballs” saw him playing Tripper, a smart-alec counselor at a cheap summer camp who takes a lonely kid under his wing. He’d have much funnier roles ahead of him, but most of the attributes you think of when you imagine a Murray character were present in Tripper. It just shows how much of himself Murray is always able to inject into any role.
9. Don Johnston in ‘Broken Flowers’ (2005)
The mid-2000s saw a career resurgence for Murray, who started taking on more dramatic roles and working with more artistic filmmakers. One of the highlights of that period was 2005’s “Broken Flowers,” which earned him plenty of praise. Murray starred as Don Johnston, a retiree with a colorful romantic past who revisits former lovers after getting a cryptic letter that says he has a child. It’s one of Murray’s most subtle movies and performances, with New York Magazine writing that “his performance is at once enormously generous and fiercely, concisely witty.” That’s quite the juggling act.
8. Ernie McCracken in ‘Kingpin’ (1996)
Bill Murray hasn’t played many outright villains, but he did so with full force in the 1996 bowling comedy “Kingpin.” In it, he played Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken, a famous bowling champion who has an ego — and a bald spot — of epic proportions. Murray is so slimy and mean-spirited in the role that you have to simply marvel at the character. “Kingpin” wasn’t the most critically acclaimed film in Murray’s canon, but it definitely gave him one of his most unforgettable roles. Many viewers probably wished the entire movie had been about Murray’s supporting part.
7. Herman Blume in ‘Rushmore’ (1998)
“Rushmore” marked a major sea change in Murray’s career. It was his first of many collaborations with Wes Anderson, and it marked his move from major studio productions into indie films, which is mostly where he’d spend the second half of his career. In this quirky comedy, Murray played Herman Blume, a wealthy businessman who loathes his own bratty children and befriends one of their more rebellious, teenage classmates. For his dry performance, Murray won his first Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe, his first since “Ghostbusters” 14 years earlier.
6. Grimm in ‘Quick Change’ (1990)
This might be the most underrated of all of Murray’s performances. “Quick Change” saw him playing a man who easily robs a New York bank while dressed as a clown, only to have immeasurable problems trying to escape the city with the cash. Audiences weren’t exactly waiting around the block to see it, but critics loved Murray’s subtle performance and it has gained a cult following over the years. In 2015, Entertainment Weekly wrote that it was perhaps “the best” example of “his unique comedic sensibilities.” What makes “Quick Change” even more interesting is that it gave Murray the only directing credit of his career so far, showing how deeply involved he was in crafting it.
5. John Winger in ‘Stripes’ (1981)
When I think of Murray’s status as an icon for bristling against the status quo, his part in “Stripes” is the first that comes to mind. Directed by longtime collaborator Ivan Reitman and written by longtime collaborator Harold Ramis, this ’80s comedy represents one of the best creative environments Murray likely ever found himself. He starred as John Winger, a loser who joins the U.S. Army because he has no other prospects. It probably wasn’t a very memorable role on paper, but Murray made him one through his natural charisma, his heavy use of improvisation and his obvious chemistry with co-stars Ramis and John Candy. Winger is the type of affable slacker that Murray was born to play.
4. Carl Spackler in ‘Caddyshack’ (1980)
If you’ve ever heard anyone use the phrase “Cinderella story” and haven’t immediately thought of Bill Murray, then you obviously haven’t seen “Caddyshack” enough times. Of all the oddballs Murray has brought to life over the years, the country club groundskeeper named Carl Spackler has to be the strangest. He reportedly improvised all of Carl’s dialogue, which is mind-blowing considering that most of those lines are still quoted by fans to this day. It’s unclear if we’d like to take Carl out for a beer or have him locked away in an institution, but that’s the type of line that only a character played by Murray could walk so perfectly.
3. Bob Harris in ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)
If there’s one movie that changed the public’s perception of Bill Murray’s skills forever it was 2003’s “Lost in Translation.” His performance as a washed-up Hollywood star who goes to Japan to film a commercial was as deep and layered as anything he’d ever done. It earned him his only Oscar nomination to date and won him both a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award. “Lost in Translation” is also one of the highest-rated movies he’s starred in, according to Rotten Tomatoes, where it holds a 95-percent grade. This is the role that made people reconsider Murray as a heavyweight actor, rather than just someone who could make them laugh.
2. Peter Venkman in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)
The role of Peter Venkman from “Ghostbusters” will likely be remembered as Murray’s signature role. It made him into a legitimate Hollywood star, launched a blockbuster entertainment franchise and earned him his first Golden Globe nomination. “Ghostbusters” is also the highest-rated movie he’s ever starred in, according to Rotten Tomatoes, where it holds a 97-percent grade. Murray’s deadpan style was put on display for his biggest audience ever, and he was perfect in making Venkman into a slightly slimy but effortlessly likable hero for nerds everywhere. But we’ll rank one performance ahead of it in terms of the actor’s most memorable.
1. Phil Connors in ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993)
While his work in “Ghostbusters” is phenomenal, it’s still an ensemble film full of great performances and big-budget visuals. In contrast, “Groundhog Day” is a pure star vehicle for Murray’s talents and relies almost completely on his acting alone to be remembered as one of the all-time great comedies in history. He plays an egotistical meteorologist named Phil Connors who finds himself stuck inside a seemingly infinite time loop, reliving Groundhog Day from start to finish. This movie showed Murray as a romantic lead but didn’t dull his comedic edge a bit and gave him endless opportunities to show his range. “Groundhog Day” holds a phenomenal 96-percent score at Rotten Tomatoes and, in our humble opinion, remains the best example of Bill Murray’s gifts as an actor.