R.J. Cutler (‘Murf the Surf’ director) on America’s ‘first true crime story’: ‘As a nation we can be attracted to people we know aren’t telling us the truth’

Murf the Surf,” a four-part docuseries, based on the infamous jewel thief Jack Roland Murphy, will premiere February 5, 2023 on MGM+. It’s written and directed by two-time Emmy winner R.J. Cutler (“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” “BELUSHI,” “The War Room”) and executive produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.

At a recent screening for the documentary held at The Aster in Los Angeles, Cutler spoke with Deadline’s Matt Carey about the project. “I got a call asking if I had seen an article written in the New York Times,” the director explained. “It was tied to the renovation that was going on to the Museum of Natural History in New York. It told the story of this jewel heist that had taken place in the 1960s, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. These surfer-dude jewel thieves had captured the public imagination and became nightly news fodder. Americans gathered around the TV to see what was going on with the case. Two things struck me when I looked at the article. This was likely, and indeed turned out to be, the first true crime story in the age of American television. Second, about 20 paragraphs into the article, it mentioned that later in life Jack Roland Murphy had been convicted of murder. I thought, ‘Well that’s an interesting thing to mention later on.'”

As Cutler began to take a deeper dive into Murphy’s life, he realized, “Even though this is a story that began in the 60s, it played out over five decades until his death a couple of years ago. It is every inch a story for our times and for our moment. A story about the nature of truth in American culture and society and what it is about the snake oil salesman that has always attracted us. If ever there were a Trumpian figure to explore through a separate life and a separate narrative, here was Murf the Surf in all his glory.”

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“How truth can be manipulated, the battle to alter what seems to be immutable – as a nation we can be attracted to people who we know are not telling us the truth,” he continued. “What is it about that? What is it that draws us to these figures, often larger than life? They’re often larger than life and very telegenic. They seem to be made for the TV set. They’re very powerful in their commitment to a truth that they know you may not necessarily believe, but that they know comforts you.”

In October 2019, the New York Times published an article celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Museum of Natural History. One of the most momentous events to take place on site was an epic jewel heist, the biggest in American history, mastered by a band of suave “surfer dudes” from Miami in 1964. The key to the operation was Murphy, otherwise known as Murf the Surf, whose name was propelled into pop culture after the heist—creating a notoriety that would stretch far beyond the caper. What followed Murf’s meteoric rise is a spiraling tale of unspeakable crime, murder, deception, and mayhem which, to this day, remains shrouded in mystery.

This four-part documentary series will explore the tumultuous life of the man behind the legendary nickname. Featuring exclusive access to Murphy himself prior to his death in 2020, the series will address the blurred line between fact and fiction, faith and delusion, sanity and madness—raising the timely question of who and how we believe. 

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