HEBRON -- Ben Murray doesn't miss Martin Sheen or his wild son, Charlie, or glitzy Hollywood’s fast-paced and unpredictable lifestyle.

For the performance of his lifetime, Murray has chosen the hometown stage of Deshler, a Southeast Nebraska town of 900 people.

"It feels like home. My parents live there. I already know people. It's like I never left," he said.

Murray traded what some might regard as a promising acting career to join his dad, Joe, in the local law firm of Germer Murray & Johnson. He’ll take the state bar exam in July.

As an actor, Murray made several appearances in “American Dreams,” but it turns out that life wasn’t his dream.

Fans of the "The West Wing" might remember Murray as Curtis Carruthers, a personal assistant to President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) during the series’ sixth year on television.

Murray, 38, recalled his first day on that set, reading through a script with Sheen and the show’s stellar cast.

"Everybody at the table had an Emmy but me," Murray joked during an interview in the law firm's Hebron office.

Murray didn't win any major awards during his eight years of acting, mostly on television and in commercials. Other credits include: “Heroes,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” an episode of the medical drama “E.R.,” “Crossing Jordan,” plus the films “Stonebrook,” “Universal Remote” and the Disney feature “Phil of the Future.”

He did, however, do something most only dream of doing: He left his hometown to pursue a Hollywood dream.

But first, he went to Chicago.

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Murray had wanted to be a comedian.

He’s always had a knack for jokes, for funny speeches. After college stints at Dana and Chadron, he found himself performing stand-up comedy during open mic nights at Duffy's Tavern in Lincoln and working as a bouncer at Guitars & Cadillacs nightclub.

In 1998, he moved on to the Windy City, taking comedy classes at Second City and The Improv Olympic. He did stand-up at clubs and worked as a bartender/bouncer at The Sports Corner Bar & Grill near Wrigley Field.

He didn’t do much bartending.

"I wasn't any good at it. No one trusted me to make drinks. They would put me out front to throw out the drunks," said Murray, who stands an imposing 6-feet, 5-inches tall and looks the part of a football lineman.

He left Chicago for Hollywood after an aspiring-actor buddy came back from Los Angeles and told Murray he’d never be able to make it out there either.

Murray took up the dare.

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Murray got a loan from a Deshler bank to help buy a clunker, drove it to Los Angeles and rented an apartment in crime-ridden North Hollywood.

"It was a terrifying place," Murray said. "I got my back window shot out."

He sent out 300 postcards (he couldn't afford big glossy photos) to casting directors. They bore his mug shot and the words: New actor in town. Non-union. Seeking commercial work.

He got four auditions.

His first break was a Pepto-Bismol commercial shot on a Mexican beach, which paid him a $100 per day living expenses. 

"Literally, I had no money. I had to beg a ride to the airport. I could not afford parking at the airport," he said.

The commercial didn't go well. He kept looking into the camera -- a no-no.

"A local Mexican held up a flag so I could get my sight lines. I had no idea what to do," said Murray, who had never been in front of a camera. "I added an extra half day to the shoot."

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But that commercial netted Murray some much-needed cash, an agent and a Screen Actors Guild union card. 

He did more commercials -- Sprint, Chrysler, Betty Crocker and Jack in the Box. He did a Coors Light beer commercial with Kid Rock and Michael Bay, the director of "Transformers."

Murray never became a household name -- not even in Deshler. He remembered a time in Las Vegas when he was recognized -- by middle-aged women.

He met Rodney Dangerfield, Jim Carey and Stockard Channing.

"I spent Christmas at Charlie Sheen's house," he said laughing. "That was when he was on the wagon."

Murray married Rachel in June 2004, and they left Hollywood after daughter Ella Violet was born.

He’d tired of the traffic, the smog that affected their daughter’s health and the uncertain paychecks.

"In LA, you're just in competition with everyone. There's no connection. There's no community," Murray said. "I wasn't having any fun. It just didn't seem worth it any more. ... We needed a real life."

He got his bachelor's degree in theater performance from Northwest Missouri State University and was accepted into the University of Nebraska College of Law. He graduated in May, and the couple recently bought a home in Deshler.

His wife, who grew up on a South Dakota ranch, has a master's degree from Kansas State University in theatrical design. She most recently taught speech at Southeast Community College in Lincoln.

Murray said he doesn't miss LA or acting.

"Not really. I thought I would. I miss the money you get -- a phone call you get saying you got the job. That's it. I don't miss anything else," he said. "I feel like I can relax here.”

There’s not much need for acting in Deshler.

“They know everything about me. I don't have any skeletons."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.


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