The Art Institute moment that saved Bill Murray’s career

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TORONTO — Bill Murray says Chicago literally saved his creative life.

The screen legend and Loyola Academy grad has a favorite story about his city. “I remember my first experience on stage. I was so bad that I just walked out afterward and onto the street,” he recalls — probably describing a Second City show, though he doesn’t state the venue.

“I kept walking for a couple of hours. Then I realized that I walked in the wrong direction and not in just the wrong direction from where I lived, but in the desire to stay alive.”

He headed for the lake.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to die, I might as well go over toward the lake and float a bit.’ So, I walked toward the lake and reached Michigan Avenue and started walking north. Somehow I ended up in front of the Art Institute and walked inside.

“There was a painting of a woman working in a field with a sunrise behind her. I always loved that painting,” he says. “I saw it that night and said, ‘Look, there’s a girl without a whole lot of prospects, but the sun’s coming up and she’s got another chance at it.’

The painting, “Song of a Lark” by Jules Breton, helped mend Murray’s heart.

“I said, ‘I’m a person, too, and will get another chance every single day.’ ”

The sun is shining brightly on Murray these days for his role in “St. Vincent” (opening Friday), which many say will make the pride of Wilmette a lock for a best actor Oscar nomination.

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When you play a drinking, gambling, cussing war vet who teaches life lessons to a little boy on film, it’s only natural that it gets a little attention. For the right actor.

“I got this role because they couldn’t get Jack Nicholson,” Murray tells the assembled press at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The first feature film from director Theodore Melfi is about Vincent, a curmudgeon who has that lovable edge. When a single mother (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), move in next door, Vincent’s life of doting on his mean cat Felix and a pregnant Russian stripper (Naomi Watts) turns upside down. He’s broke and offers to babysit.

“He’s not the kind of guy you want to watch your kid after school,” says Murray. “But suddenly, he has this kid in his life and he drags him with because he’s not changing his life.”

The film’s message is that life-changing saints walk among us. “I read this script and knew it helped me see life and what I could do with life a little better,” Murray says.

Not that Vincent is an obvious role model. “I thought it was a great message, but I knew with this film that we needed to avoid being schmaltzy,” he says. “You didn’t need to overcook the thing, and we didn’t.

“The movie has a lot of moves to it. It has a lot of gravity as well, which was interesting to me.”

The film almost didn’t happen for Murray, who is notoriously hard to find. The director actually sent him a letter on paper and called him weekly to ask him to take the part. “He wrote a nice letter, which is always a nice sign. You want to work with someone who can write a letter,” Murray says. “I asked him to meet me at the airport and go for a ride. We talked about the script for a couple of hours.

“We pulled up to In and Out Burger and I had a grilled cheese. Along the way, I decided to take the job because I liked Ted, and the people in the film sounded like real people.”

Some of his key scenes are with fellow Chicago suburbanite McCarthy, who grew up in Plainfield.

“We all had the same feeling about it. We didn’t want to push too hard and make it too sentimental,” she says. “It’s all underplayed, and it seems to hit hard because of that fact and the fact that Bill plays him like that guy you know.”

Murray knows that at 64 he’s in a new bracket for casting. “These kinds of movies are interesting to me now that I’m mature. I mean, I’m not a mature fellow, but I’m older,” he says.

“Working with younger directors like Wes Anderson or Ted, it’s obvious I’ll be the uncle or father. It’s kind of great because you work with these younger people with all this talent and you get to do something different.”

What’s next?

“If I keep living, I will probably play a grasshopper someday,” he muses. “Hopefully there’s some kid someday who played with grasshoppers as a kid and will write a script about it and cast me.”

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