As soon as Bill Murray finished reading W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, he felt compelled to turn it into a movie. The book had such a profound effect on the actor that he dialed up his friend, writer/director John Byrum, at 4 a.m. and pretended to be the book’s main character. Murray was tired of being the funny guy and was ready to try a more serious role.
There was one minor setback. No studio wanted to pay for a serious drama about Larry Darrell's journey of self-discovery that takes place across Paris and the Far East. (The book is sort of like Eat, Pray, Love meets Wild Wild Country). In order to get the film made, Murray agreed to star in Ghostbusters—but only if Columbia Pictures would finance The Razor’s Edge. He even waived his acting fee for his passion project.
Directed by Byrum, The Razor's Edge was shot on location in France, Switzerland and India with a $12 million budget. Murray took on the lead role of Darrell, a former ambulance driver in WWI who shirks “real-life” responsibilities like an engagement and a job, to faff about in Asia. The project came together painstakingly slow. “They were kind of hoping something else came up, another comedy, or I’d have a motorcycle accident or lose interest,” Murray told The Victoria Advocate in 1984.
The day after production wrapped, Murray flew to the set of Ghostbusters. It was a jarring transition, he told Rolling Stone, “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Ten days ago I was up there working with the high lamas in a gompa, and here I am removing ghosts from drugstores and painting slime on my body.’” Though The Razor’s Edge wrapped before Ghostbusters, the phantom fighter comedy hit cinemas first and became a massive success. In its opening weekend in October 1984, The Razor’s Edge grossed only $2.4 million. It was a certified flop and garnered some fairly harsh critic reviews.
Despondent, Murray quit acting for four years. He briefly moved to Paris to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, not unlike his character Larry Darrell’s philosophical pilgrimage. "I lived in Europe for six months or so, and I was supposed to do a movie when I came back, and when I came back, and I saw the script that I was supposed to do, I didn’t want to do it,” he told Roger Ebert in 1990. "And that put me a whole season behind, and then I went through a kind of funny thing.”
Murray only returned to the silver screen when director Frank Oz asked him to make a cameo as Arthur Denton, a masochistic dental patient, in 'Little Shop of Horrors.' In an interview with MTV, Oz remembered that Murray was a little reticent to break back into the acting business. "I said, 'So Billy, you wanna do this thing?' He said, 'Yeah, but do I have to say the lines?'" Oz obliged and Murray improvised the scene, ad-libbing completely new dialogue with every take.