Born in The Bronx, New York, James Murray went to Hollywood in the 1920s to try to succeed as an actor. After several years of work, mostly as an extra, with little hope of a starring role, he was "discovered" by director King Vidor, who saw Murray walking by on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. Vidor was about to begin work on a new film and thought Murray might look right for the lead.
Murray, however, failed to show up for the meeting he arranged with Vidor, apparently thinking it to be a joke.
Vidor subsequently tracked him down, and Murray"s performance in The Crowd was lauded by both the critics and the public. Before his work in The Crowd, Murray had starred alongside Joan Crawford in Rose-Marie in 1928.
Despite success in subsequent Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films such as Lon Chaney"s The Big City and Thunder, Murray"s life soon took a turn for the tragic that eerily mirrored his role in The Crowd. Excessive drinking led to a scarcity of roles, and by 1934 he was panhandling on the street.
In an instance of extreme coincidence, he tried panhandling a man who turned out to be King Vidor.
Vidor offered Murray a role in his upcoming film, Our Daily Bread, but Murray turned it down, deeming it an act of pity. In all, Murray appeared in 36 movies. In most of his post silent era films, particularly those made during the last few years of his career, he was cast in uncredited bit parts or as an extra.
In 1936, Murray drowned after falling from the string-piece of a pier into the Hudson River.
The medical examiner determined that the cause was asphyxia by submersion, without ruling on whether it was an accident or suicide. He was interred at the Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New New York
Decades later, Vidor was still so haunted by Murray"s tragic decline that he wrote an unrealized screenplay about his life, "The Actor".