March 01, 2004 12:00 PM

Lost in Translation might have been lost in turnaround without Bill Murray. Director Sofia Coppola wrote the Best Picture-nominated movie—about a has-been actor filming a whiskey commercial in Tokyo—with only Murray in mind for the job. It took her eight months to persuade him to take it. Even as the start date neared and she was in Japan, “she didn’t know whether he would show up or not,” says her director dad, Francis. “I told her, ‘You know, Sofia, you’ll never get him to say yes, so just send him the costumes and fitting schedule.’ ” Fortunately Murray turned up—and literally put his back into the shoestring-budgeted film. “I’d say, ‘Bill, we’re going to get thrown out of this location,’ ” says producer Ross Katz. “And he would go over to the owner of the location, throw him over his shoulder, and say, ‘Come on.’ He made people laugh.”

The laughs are no surprise to fans who have watched Murray, 53, since his ’70s stint on Saturday Night Live. But with his Best Actor Oscar nomination for Lost, he has come a long way from noogie patrol. The father of six sons—who keeps Hollywood at a distance, preferring to golf and coach Little League in the New York City suburbs—won critical kudos for ’93’s hit Groundhog Day and dark-edged turns in ’98’s Rushmore and ‘0l’s The Royal Tenenbaums. In Lost, “Billy was a little more subdued than in some movies,” says his brother Andy, “and people probably figured, ‘He’s actually acting now. He’s not being a comedian.’ ”

Nor is he just a comedian at home in Palisades, N.Y., where his imagé is closer to Jimmy Stewart than John Belushi. Murray, whose sons range from 2 to 21, “is very patient with the kids,” says fellow Little League dad Carl Canzona, a grocer. “My son Joey, he wasn’t too great. Bill pulled him aside and showed him how to hit and throw. Now every time we see a [Murray movie], Joey says, ‘Hey, that’s my coach!’ ” Murray and his wife of six years, costume designer Jennifer Butler Murray, 40 (Bill and his first wife, Margaret Kelly, were divorced after a 13-year marriage), are so at ease among their neighbors that once when they were riding Bill’s BMW motorcycle in town and spotted a biker party, they joined it. “He walked in and said, ‘Do you mind if I hang out here?’ ” says one awed guest, Dean Schembri. “He’s like, ‘No one’s going to beat me up, are they?’ He just hung out for about two hours.”

Murray has been known to be testy on movie sets; he was dropped from the film Bad Santa because the filmmakers “lost their patience” with him and clashed with Charlie’s Angels costar Lucy Liu, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY reported. “When he’s in a bad mood, I’d rather be on the other side of the world,” says Andy, who grew up with Bill and eight other siblings outside Chicago. “When he’s in a great mood, there’s nobody else I’d rather be around.” He was at ease on the set of Lost, coaching younger actors and ad-libbing uproarious lines. “He would bounce stuff off me and I’d try to field it,” says costar Scarlett Johansson.

Might Murray’s witty Jan. 25 Golden Globe acceptance speech—”Too often we forget our brothers on the other side of the aisle, the dramatic actors…. Without them, where would our war, misery and psychological dramas come from?”—have Oscar voters pulling for a repeat performance? Murray, now in Italy shooting Tenenbaums director Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, knows he’s at a disadvantage compared to such drama kings as Sean Penn—even though, as he puts it, “it’s not so hard to make people cry. They’re closer to tears than laughter.” His brother Andy says Bill isn’t counting on a statuette. “He is playing it really low-key,” Andy says, “because it’s like Charlie Brown and the football.”

Kyle Smith. Molly Lopez in Palisades, Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles, Pete Norman in Venice and Rebecca Paley in New York City