Not everyone can say that they got to kiss Marilyn Monroe, and then be nominated for an Academy Award for his work.
Although that could have been the highlight of his acting career, and propelled him into the entertainment world with other handsome leading men, movie and television star Don Murray, of East Rockaway, has always marched to his own drummer. He was always challenging himself. And he refused to conform to what Hollywood and the public expected of him.
What many people don’t know about Murray was his insistence to take on challenging roles, playing against type. And even lesser known to the general public — until now, at least — is his humanitarian efforts in Europe.
Murray’s life and career are revealed and profiled in Midcentury Production’s documentary “Don Murray Unsung Hero,” a film that was previewed at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington last month. Directed by Don Malcolm, it is billed as “The Exemplary life and extraordinary times of America’s least-remembered movie star.”
Murray, 87, was unable to travel as planned to New York from California because of health reasons, but was available for the event on Skype, with his son, Mick, seated beside him. He also took questions from the audience. Malcolm was in Huntington, as well as Don’s other son, Chris Murray, and film historians Foster Hirsch and Jud Newborn.
“I am honestly speechless,” said Murray’s son, Chris, after viewing the documentary. “Some of the things I’d actually heard about … but to see it put together and presented in this form — it’s history, it’s entertainment, it really knocks me out. I really can’t thank Malcolm enough. It’s the best home movie I’ve ever seen!”
The documentary highlighted Don Murray’s upbringing in East Rockaway, including his time at East Rockaway High School, his acting career, and his humanitarian efforts working with refugees in camps in Italy — who were still there a decade after World War II ended.
“What’s great is to be part of something that’s your favorite subject,” said his son, Mick Murray. “This, for me, was very emotional ... I feel humbled by it, and very lucky to be a part of this industry. My father’s works have always been evolving, and at the core is this human being… just a beautiful guy.”
“The pressure to conform was always there for him,” said Malcolm. “But Don Murray wouldn’t do that.”
Memories of East Rockaway
Murray attended East Rockaway High School, class of 1946, and has fond memories of his time there. “That’s where it all began,” he told the Herald through Skype, reminiscing about Rock Rivalry. “The writing, the directing — I don’t know of any other school that has that. I was very lucky to be brought up in East Rockaway. It’s a great community.”
Paul Riker, who graduated with Murray and who now lives in Florida, reminisced that Don had starred in their senior play – but had also directed it. Riker said that he [himself] had a very small part in the play. After the performance, he said that Murray came over to him and said (with just a touch of surprise in his voice), “You remembered your lines …” Riker indicated that was the end of his own short acting career. He also remembered riding on the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan some years later, seeing Murray, sitting with him and chatting about their old school days. Don was performing in the play “The Rose Tattoo” at the time.
Murray turned down scholarships (he was an excellent runner and played semi-pro basketball) to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After graduating there, he soon made his Broadway debut in the 1951 play, “The Rose Tattoo,” playing the part of Jack Hunter.
Listing himself as a Conscientious Objector, Murray served instead as a volunteer overseas during the Korean War, working in German and Italian refugee camps. Because of his humanitarian work there, he was invited (but had to turn down) an invitation to the White House by Dwight D. Eisenhower to discuss his service and the possibility of creating a Peace Corps (which didn’t come about until John F. Kennedy’s administration.)
When he returned to the U.S. in 1955, director Joshua Logan cast him opposite Monroe in “Bus Stop,” The role made Murray an instant movie star. But instead, he accepted an eclectic mix of roles. “I always wanted to something different than I’d done before,” he said.
When asked if he was happy with the choices he’d made, Murray said,
“Well, there are some things I would have done differently … I think I could have done better … I made mistakes.” But, Murray said with a laugh. “But my friend Payton Price says that Don Murray could fall into a vat of manure and come up dripping gold leaf.”