Rex Murphy (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 2, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

The setting alone seems at odds with the curmudgeonly outport persona whose every utterance seems to carry the cadences of the sea.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 2, 1996. Partner content is not updated. The setting alone seems at odds with the curmudgeonly outport persona whose every utterance seems to carry the cadences of the sea.

Murphy, Rex (Profile)

The setting alone seems at odds with the curmudgeonly outport persona whose every utterance seems to carry the cadences of the sea. In the calculated chic of an eatery in Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel, the landscape beyond the window rises in thickets of concrete and glass, and the only swells in sight are those in pin-striped suits pushing away from their power breakfasts. But as waiters whisk the last crumbs from the white damask, the maître d' leads the way to a corner table with a proprietary air. "That's Mr. Murphy," he nods at the familiar figure decked out in unexpected sartorial splendor - an elegant cerulean shirt and tasselled loafers. In fact, no introduction is required. In the two years since Rex Murphy burst upon CBC-TV screens with weekly regularity, dispensing his pungent diatribes in a puckish deadpan and polysyllabic prose, he has become the unlikeliest of Canadian celebrities - a quirkily untelegenic presence who has defied the canons of conventional programming wisdom to etch himself upon the country's consciousness.

At The National, executive producer Tony Burman, who turned Murphy's spotty, two-decade-old flirtation with mainland stardom into a weekly showcase, reports an unprecedented response. "There's no other regular feature that provokes as much feedback," Burman says. "Some viewers may disagree with him, but he still strikes a chord, maybe because there's so much qualification and caution in the rest of the media. With Rex, you know he's basically leaving the bullshit at the door."

But that public embrace came as no surprise to those behind his radio gigs. In Winnipeg, where Murphy's weekly stint as TV critic for CBC's Definitely Not the Opera provides him with a launching pad to lampoon society every Saturday, executive producer C. William Smith affirms that "he's hugely the most popular thing on the show." Last season, two-thirds of the roughly 450,000 listeners polled declared that they tuned in just to hear Rex Murphy's rants. "Some people call it howling at the moon," says Smith. "But in a world that's fairly sound-bitey, he's in a sense literary, a throwback to another time." In Montreal, where Murphy has anchored CBC-Radio's Cross Country Checkup each Sunday for the past two years, senior producer Susan Mahoney has seen her gamble in hiring him pay off with nearly 100,000 new listeners and a mailbag that has more than doubled. "It's the smartest thing I ever did at the CBC," she chuckles. "Rex gives the impression he'll listen to any opinion, even if it might have been deemed politically incorrect in the past."

Some speculate that therein lies the secret of what one headline writer termed "Rex Appeal": Murphy's affinity for what he calls "ventilating." It is an explanation to which he himself gives some credence. "We've avoided saying out loud things that are perfectly respectable to say out loud," he marvels, inhaling his umpteenth coffee between cigarettes. "I think the Reform party exists because we didn't ventilate enough opinions."

But at 49, having seen his previous calls to national influence ambushed by fate and his own long tussle with the siren song of alcohol, he remains wary of parsing his popularity too closely. "I can't analyse it too much because I'll get stumbling," he says. Still, if he dismisses his newfound ubiquity as "a bubble, the most precarious thing," that phenomenon is only likely to grow in size and risk. Next week, The National Magazine kicks off the fall TV season with a two-part exploration of Canadian identity called A Sense of Country, featuring Murphy as tour guide through the national landscape and psyche. The impetus for the piece was his own frustration as a Newfoundlander, unflinching in his sense of place, trying to discern a defining pulse in those occupying the remaining real estate. "The thing is," he notes, "it's the only real question: is this place a country or not? I said, 'Let's check it out.' There's nothing hostile in saying, 'Maybe we aren't.' "

But when CBC brass first got wind of the proposal, alarms went up. Was the benighted public network ready to entrust the eggshell of national unity to the man who once declaimed on camera, "I don't give a fiddler's high jump whether Quebec stays in Canada or whether it goes"? To the pundit who pronounced Charles, the future king, "that simpering, whingeing co-dependent of a prince: Forrest Gump with a tailor"? As producer Andrew Gregg recalls: "There was concern in the senior office that there'd be some ranting. Then one of the producers said, 'No, it's the other Rex.' " Explains Gregg: "The trouble is, he's gotten so good with the rants that people forget Rex is such a well-read, thoughtful person who is really a very good listener."

In A Sense of Country, that other Rex is on display, letting people like painter Mary Pratt do the opining. Unlike his stand-ups for The National, his own lines were not scripted. But only once do his passions poke through. The day before filming, Mahoney had driven Murphy to see Lake Louise for the first time. "It's not often," she recalls, "that you see Rex just speechless." The next morning, Gregg noticed that he "woke up mad. He was kind of crusty and fidgety. It was boiling up in him." Then, on-camera, the storm erupted in a soliloquy on a citizenry that has failed to appreciate its "blissful" geography. Bristled Murphy: "We at least owe it to the setting in which we find ourselves that we plumb to some degree of consciousness what it means to be here."

The speech remains the defining moment of the piece, but one that still worries its creator. "I'm damn anxious about this," he admits. "I don't know if I got it right." As preposterous as those pangs of uncertainty might seem in the country's cockiest quipster, in fact Murphy is not unlike the nation itself - a perplexing assembly of contradictions. A gregarious loner, he looks like a regular in Irving service station diners, which he often is, but he is also a fixture in the country's five-star restaurants, where he stuns friends with his knowledge of fancy French saucery. He can recite from Milton's Paradise Lost by heart, but seldom misses an episode of The Simpsons. Publicly boisterous, in private he is almost prudishly opaque. A showman who can expose his opinions to the world without hesitation, he guards his emotional life with a ferocity that leaves inquiries off-limits even to friends. "If you speak it out loud," he says cryptically, "you mutilate it."

In Newfoundland, he is known simply as Rex - a household word that sums up 30 years of provincial lore. But even there, few know that, befitting a man of many words, he began life as Robert Rex Raphael. Like much on the island, his birth date is the subject of dispute and a complex tale, but one thing is certain: the second of five children born to Marie and Harry Murphy, he arrived in the northeastern port of Carbonear some time in March, 1947, just as the island was in noisy fulmination over whether to join Confederation two years later.

From his mother came a reverence for learning and regular pilgrimages to the Carbonear library; from his father, an unabashed love of linguistic dazzle. "Harry only had a Grade 3 or 4 education," he says, "and I think it was an abiding grief all of his life." By the time he was 10, the family had moved to Freshwater, on Placentia Bay, where Harry had landed a job as a cook on the U.S. military base at Argentia. "He was always burnishing words around the house," Rex recalls. But more often, language was a gauntlet thrown down at the supper table - taunts to which young Rex was expected to rise. Now, he compares those sparring matches to Ping-Pong, but there is a sense in the telling that the game was not without scars. Intensely shy and always first in his class, Rex had skipped two grades and was humiliatingly short for his age. "I guess Harry knew people were going to say things," Murphy explains, "so he thought, 'Say them at home. Toughen him up.' "

But at 15, when he arrived at Memorial University still tongue-tied, Murphy finished the process himself: he signed up for a debate. "I forced myself," he says. "I'd do things like deliberately not prepare, so you'd be terrified to death. I had to be as extreme as possible so then your reflexes would be that much better." He drove himself through the cut and thrust of 49 debates. By the following year, his verbal dexterity won him a berth at a 1965 student union conference in Lennoxville, Que. There, he took on a formidable - and distant - opponent: then-Premier Joey Smallwood. "Joey was an iconographic presence," Murphy says, grudging respect still palpable in his voice. "There's never been anyone like him since."

Smallwood ran Newfoundland like his personal fiefdom, unchallenged, and at the time he was basking in U.S. press reports lauding him for granting provincial students free university tuition. In Lennoxville, Murphy denounced that claim as a fraud, explaining that most of the scheme consisted of loans due on graduation. In St. John's, Smallwood exploded on provincial TV, forbidding Murphy to set foot back in the province. So stricken was Marie Murphy that she took to her bed for a week. By the time her son returned, Smallwood was at Memorial University announcing - this time for real - free tuition for all. He had just concluded when a voice went up from the back rows: "Three cheers for Rex Murphy!" The same day, Murphy was elected president of the student union. In a single stroke, he had discovered two of his life's recurrent themes - politics and contrarian celebrity.

For many Newfoundlanders to this day, he remains a legend for that emblematic act of iconoclasm. Three years later, when he graduated with a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, the pair were still locked in public combat. In June, 1968, after embracing Pierre Trudeau's Federalism and the French Canadians with messianic fervor, he founded The People and Pierre Movement, designed to keep Trudeau out of Joey's clutches. "I figured out if Trudeau was to get any votes in Newfoundland," he says, "he had to screamingly disassociate himself from Smallwood." Dogging Trudeau throughout a 16-hour island visit, Murphy ambushed him in a motel stairwell. That "moment of great grace" turned into an hour's chat and a front-page newspaper photo. Now, the pundit who routinely excoriates politicians still speaks admiringly of the only leader whom he ever saw decline an invitation to play demagogue before an adoring crowd. "It's a rejection of the vanity of the occasion," he marvels, "and not many have the strength to resist it."

He himself would later succumb repeatedly to the lure of politics, which he decries as "almost like drink." In 1975, to bedevil Smallwood, he won a Conservative nomination, which he later abandoned for lack of funds. Then, in 1985 and 1987, he ran for the Liberals - the first time losing by only 142 votes. After his initial abortive try, he went to work as a special assistant for Smallwood's successor, Tory premier Frank Moores; before the second, he served two years as chief researcher for the provincial Liberal caucus. Perhaps only in Newfoundland's byzantine political byways would that leave him without any partisan taint. In 1990, when CBC producer Bob Wakeham hired him for the provincial supper-hour institution, Here and Now, he could declare, "I never found Rex had an allegiance or a hard-on for any political party."

For Murphy, politics still amounts chiefly to an oratorical exercise. He rhapsodizes over Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address - "There are phrases that make you weep" - and scorns today's bland heroes of the hustings who hire ghostwriters to craft their rallying cries. "If they're not only not writing it, let alone thinking it," he fumes, "you have people who for four or five years haven't had a thought." Still, when asked if he would ever run again, he does not scoff. "If I thought I could do something serious, and seriously well, I'd do it," he says. "I've got all the nasty gifts. I could probably be as good a demagogue as anybody else."

Once, friends predicted that Rex Murphy was destined for the ivied towers of academe. At Memorial, he had been taken under the wing of George Story, the revered island scholar whose life work, Dictionary of Newfoundland English, published in 1982, finally gave the lyricism of outport speech legitimacy. For Murphy, Story became both mentor and friend - "one of the great acquaintances of my life." And before Story's death two years ago, Andrew Gregg remembers Murphy taking him to meet the professor in his smoke-choked campus lair. "It's one of the only times," Gregg recalls, "that I've ever seen Rex deferential and a little bit nervous."

But when Murphy returned from Oxford to do an MA in 17th-century poetry at Memorial, his thesis was waylaid by the tedium of finishing the footnotes. Broke, he stopped by St. John's private radio station VOCM to see a reporter friend named Gerald Korbai, who wangled him a job writing pithy editorials for a more mellifluous broadcast voice. "In those days, you had to have this homogenized tone," Korbai recalls. Then a producer dared put Murphy's unhomogenized musings directly on air, and his broadcast career was born. Over the next two decades, as he shuttled between politics and TV and radio mikes, Newfoundlanders tuned in to catch the former student firebrand once again skewering those in high places. Says St. John's producer Wakeham: "He can just slice you up and spit you out and you don't even know what's happening to you."

By the 1970s, the CBC's then-wunderkind Mark Starowicz - who had delighted at Murphy's antics on the short-lived TV satire Up Canada! - snared him for his nightly newsmagazine, The Journal. "In an apparently pompous style, he actually delivers an anti-pompous message," Starowicz says. The only trouble was that, at first, no one could make it out. Starowicz sent him to a Toronto diction coach, not to tamper with his down-home rhythms, but to slow down the shotgun delivery. Says Murphy: "I used to get more words in 60 seconds than anyone ever thought possible."

Still, the glory of his earlier days continued to give him the slip. "He'd always be on the verge of greatness," confides another friend, "and then he'd have an episode." Those episodes invariably involved alcohol and, some say, cost him his marriage to TV journalist Jennifer Davis, better known as Jennifer Guy, the former host of Newsworld's now-defunct Medical File. But he refuses any discussion of the subject or of their 18-year-old daughter, whom he no longer sees. Six years ago, Murphy finally quit drinking. "There was nothing apocalyptic," he says. "To this day, I've never understood the compulsion, but for me it was a consuming vice - the worst and stupidest thing I've ever done."

Not coincidentally, Murphy won another chance on Here and Now, a reprise that eventually led him back to the national limelight. But despite his coast-to-coast celebrity, Newfoundland remains the key to both his singular perspective and deepest passions. His 1994 documentary lament on the death of the cod banks, Unpeopled Shores, provoked nationwide emotion. And that same year, he was so moved by a U.S. novel set in a remote outport that he proposed a film profile of its author, E. Annie Proulx, who was on her way to a Pulitzer Prize for The Shipping News. Driving around Newfoundland's icy Great Northern Peninsula, they discovered a shared devotion to George Story's dictionary and the writing of Irish satirist Flann O'Brien. "From the moment they met," recalls Gregg, "they were like brother and sister."

Oddly, despite his verbal facility and literary compulsions - he reads on average six hours a day - Murphy has never worked up the nerve to immortalize his own writing between hard covers. "I find print a little more anxiety-generating than I should," he admits. He shrugs off his current vocation as "not serious work," but others disagree, speculating that it may be his most serious enterprise of all - prodding a recalcitrant country towards articulating its reasons for existence. At a time when the tug of regional loyalties threatens to unravel the national weave, it may only be a fiercely regional figure who can reconnect the faltering threads. Certainly, in the process, Murphy's newfound role - part court jester, part Don Quixote - is unlikely to induce a yawn. As The National's executive producer Tony Burman points out: "Very few Canadians turn off the set when Rex Murphy is on."

Maclean's September 2, 1996