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Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

Los Angeles, California

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John Murray was destined to be in the film business. His father (John W.) plied the grip trade at Hal Roach and MGM Studios beginning in the 1930s. It wasn’t long before John Jr. got his first look behind the gates. Learning about the good times and the bad, Johnny recalled standing in line at the Local 80 office on Melrose (with his father and 100 other out-of-work grips) for bags of groceries given to help the union families through the strike of 1937. “I knew then,” Murray said softly, “that Local 80 was special.”
After graduating from high school in 1941, Murray worked “war-support” jobs at Douglas Aircraft and Pacific Electric until he enlisted in the Merchant Marines in 1943. Upon war’s end in ’45, he returned to California to pursue a career in Hollywood. Starting as a permit-grip (pulling hangers in the perms at Hal Roach Studios), Murray was sworn to Local 80 in 1947, and by ’49 was working regularly at MGM. “I did the high work cause I had to,” the retired key grip recalled, “but I didn’t care for it much.”
Learning his craft during a near decade at MGM, Murray was ready when he landed a gig on the picture South Pacific. Questioned about his first big shin-dig away from home, he spoke of second unit work with DP Stanley Cortez. “We started by reinforcing the island’s bridges to support the film’s 18-ton crane,” he began. “Four months later, I was still in Hawaii and loving it at $125 a week! We earned every penny though,” Murray said with a chuckle. It was hellishly hot and Cortez, being the devil for detail, had them moving reflector platforms in the water chasing the light, trying to keep 400 extras lit for the big master shots.
Progressing with the expansion of television production in the early 1960s, Murray saw his share of classic small-screen fare. Hired as an extra hammer on shows like Border Patrol, Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Peyton Place, he eventually got a lucky break — the chance to key a feature — Rebel Rousers. Lensed by Laszlo Kovacs, it was an early 70s bad-ass-bikers-out-for-kicks flick, starring Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern.
Throughout the decade, John Murray ascended to the working list of Hollywood key grips with two Martin Scorsese films, Mean Streets and Boxcar Bertha. One success followed another and lead to the biggest boon in Murray’s career – the opportunity to key the James Coburn thief-tale, Harry in Your Pocket, helmed by DP Fred Koenekamp. “Something just clicked with Fred and me,” John said. “As a boss, he was a bit domineering but knew what he wanted, which made for a good professional relationship between us.” More Koenekamp projects followed — from Irwin Allen’s Towering Inferno to Fun with Dick and Jane and The Hunter; whatever Koenekamp did, Murray was there. In fact, over the course of 14 films done by this DP, both Murray and gaffer Gene Stout were together for every frame Koenekamp shot. “We were practically the Three Musketeers,” Murray joked. “We had a one-minded pursuit to get the job done.” Specifically, Murray recalled a cantilevered camera platform (40 feet long and fireproof) rigged over deadly molten lava for a set-up on Islands in the Stream. “Nowadays,” he smirked, “they would probably CGI all this stuff.”
As to grip-sage, Murray offered these wise words. “Watch the ego,” he said, “and always pay attention to the work at hand.” From masterpieces like Save the Tiger to The Poseidon Adventure, this key grip paid attention. Enter his name in IMDB and you’ll see two pages of film history that confirm his place among the ranks of the best key grips of his day.
One thing you don’t get from the readouts, however, is the gentleman Johnny Murray. These days, you only acquire that by sharing breakfast with the guy early Sunday morning at his favorite cafe on Capistrano Beach. More coffee please.

Written by Jim Udel

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