Born: 3 April 1961
Where: New York, New York, USA
Awards: 1 BAFTA, 4 Golden Globe nominations
Funny, they say, is hard. Funny floats in the ether and only the chosen can snatch it down. So, to be the funniest of them all is a challenge few can rise to. Steve Martin did it, Robin Williams too. On a more underground tip, there were the late greats Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. And, of course, there was Eddie Murphy, king of early-Eighties comedy and, amazingly, with the sequels to the enormous popular Dr Dolittle and Nutty Professor, still a major contender today.
Edward Regan Murphy was born in the Bushwick projects of Brooklyn, New York, on the 3rd of April, 1961. His father was a policeman. His mother, Lillian, was a telephone operator. Sadly, they divorced when Eddie was 3 and, even more sadly, his father was killed by a new girlfriend when the boy was just 8. Living with Lillian and his brother Charles Q Murphy (now an actor and screenwriter), Eddie stayed in Brooklyn till he was ten. Then Lillian, along with her new husband Vernon Lynch (a former boxer then employed as a foreman at Breyers Ice Cream plant)) took the boys, plus Lynch’s son (also named Vernon), to Roosevelt, Long Island. This was a predominantly white, middle-class area thats black population increased sharply throughout the Sixties and Seventies. It also spawned Howard Stern, Julius Erving and Public Enemy rapper Chuck D.
So Eddie, a natural mimic schooled in the streets and now the suburbs, expanded his repertoire of characters. Starting with Bullwinkle and Sylvester The Cat, he began to impersonate the stars of the day, as well as invent new characters of his own. At Roosevelt High School he’d carry a briefcase full of joke-books with him, and was often voted Most Popular Student, even winning over the teachers, who’d laugh as they sent him to the Principal’s office for his hilarious insubordination. As well as singing in a local R&B band (they’d steal supermarket trollies to transport their equipment), Eddie was damn funny, and he knew it. Heavily influenced by his hero, Richard Pryor, he worked on his monologues and impersonations — quickly mastering Lionel Richie, Bill Cosby, Al Green and Elvis Presley — and made his stage debut at the Roosevelt Youth Centre on the 9th of July, 1976.
As Murphy himself says, once he started, he couldn’t stop. He began performing regularly in youth centres and bars, taking $25-$50 a time, money he used to finance his enrolment at Nassau Community College, Garden City, New York. Very quickly, he made his name, soon appearing at New York’s Comic Strip. Then, at 19, came the big break when he was invited to become a minor player on the Saturday Night Live team. He didn’t stay minor for long. With an ever-expanding range of killer characters, he became the show’s most popular comedian. He was the street-smart hustler Velvet Jones, with his book I Wanna Be A Ho: he was the enraged militant film critic Raheem Abdul Muhammad: he was the jailbird poet Tyrone Green: and, most famous of all, he was the sour-mouthed celebrity Gumby.
His comedy launched him on a recording career. In 1982, there was Eddie Murphy, an album recorded live at the Comic Strip. The next year there was another, Eddie Murphy, Comedian, that won a Grammy as Best Comedy LP. He’d already been nominated for the hit single Boogie In Your Butt — he was, after all, a musician too. In 1985, he’d release the How Could It Be album, produced by Rick James and Stevie Wonder (Murphy also did a spectacular Stevie). This delivered a million-selling single in Party All The Time, and was followed by 1989’s So Happy, helmed by Nile Rogers and Cameo’s Larry Blackmon. 1993 would bring Love’s Alright, featuring collaborations with both Michael Jackson and Shabba Ranks.
Already a big name in the States, in 1982 his star went truly into the ascendant. Director Walter Hill, famed for The Warriors and Southern Comfort, had been casting for a partner for tough-guy Nick Nolte in his latest thriller, 48 Hours. Murphy was taken on, and the script rewritten to suit his sharp and often foul-mouthed patter. But one thing was missing. Having been mellowed by life in Roosevelt and his speedy success, Murphy lacked the rage necessary to play the touchy convict given a two-day release to help bust an escaped killer. Fortunately, he was taught the requisite tricks by acting coach David Proval (later to star as the extremely angry Richie Aprile in The Sopranos).
One sight of Murphy on the big screen and you knew he’d make it. Wrapped in shades and headphones and shrieking out a wince-making version of Roxanne, he was immediately in your face. Then, wisecracking like crazy, going head-to-head with Nolte, and subduing and taunting a bar full of disapproving whites, he proceeded to steal the show. Now, aside from two brilliant comedy videos — Delirious and Raw — it was films all the way. First came the smart comedy Trading Places, with Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis, then his first headlining role, in Beverly Hills Cop. As renegade detective Axl Foley (a part originally intended for Sylvester Stallone), he went down a storm, with the movie becoming one of the Top 10 grossers of all time.
There followed a couple of duds in Best Defence and The Golden Child, but then Murphy struck paydirt again with Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Coming To America, in the latter again playing a variety of roles. Keen to build his own entertainments empire, he now tried his own project, as director, writer and star of Harlem Nights. He’d often be credited with providing the story for his movies, as well as acting as executive producer — he actually took credit for Coming To America, then was forced by law to give the credit to columnist Art Buchwald.
A black ensemble piece, where Murphy got to work alongside Richard Pryor, the gangster-comedy Harlem Nights took a dreadful drubbing from the critics. Yet some of us found the movie — anarchic, cruel, fast and often sidesplittingly funny — to be Murphy’s best so far. Perhaps for some tastes he’d got too big, too fast. Perhaps it was just too black. Whatever, after Another 48 Hours, Murphy’s career stalled for some six years. His personal life was in turmoil too, he now admits fame when straight to his head. Having in the early Eighties been briefly engaged to biology student Lisa Figueroa, he’d since suffered paternity suits from Nicolle Radar, Paulette McNeely and Tamara Hood (with the last of whom he has son, Christian). Though in 1988 he’d met Nicole Mitchell and had a daughter, Brea, with her, followed by three further children — Miles, Shane Audra and Zola Ivy — he did not settle down with the family till some years later. They now all live in a 22-room colonial mansion called Bubble Hill (Bubble being slang for Party) in Englewood, New Jersey. Murphy has said he never knew whether the many women who pursued him really wanted him, or his money and status. Mitchell, a rich model from the age of 10, had a social position and jam-packed bank account of her own.
As said, the early Nineties were, cinematically speaking, horrible for Murphy. The Distinguished Gentleman, Boomerang, and Vampire In Brooklyn were all grim fare — desperate ideas, poorly executed. Even Beverly Hills Cop could not save him, the third instalment being a wretched affair. There’d be a couple more downers too, with Metro and Holy Man (a financial flop, but not a bad movie at all — Murphy certainly coming back into form). Really, Murphy ought to have been finished. Instead, he played to his strengths and came raging back. In a remake of the Jerry Lewis vehicle, The Nutty Professor, aided by some extraordinary special effects, Murphy played the painfully obese Professor Sherman Klump with aplomb and no little pathos. He also played Klump’s sleazy love-god alter-ego Buddy Love, and the whole of Klump’s family: his lecherous granny: his longsuffering mum: his crude dad: his thin-skinned brother, all of them. He spent 80 days in heavy make-up, famously not complaining once. The film was genuinely superb and a deserved mega-hit. Murphy found himself nominated for a Golden Globe (as he had been for 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop) but didn’t win. Incredibly, the only major prize this masterful entertainer has ever won was a Golden Raspberry for Harlem Nights.
Before he could truly enjoy his newfound success though, there was another hurdle to negociate. At 4.45 one morning in May,1997, Murphy — who couldn’t sleep and was on his way to the newstand — saw a woman in distress on Santa Monica Boulevard and offered her a lift. Or so his story went. The policemen who stopped him said the woman was a transvestite prostitute with a warrant out on her. There were no charges for Murphy, but the transvestite, 20-year-old Atisone Seiuli (known as Shalomar), told a reporter that Murphy had placed $200 on her leg and asked her what kind of sex she liked. Worse, other transvestites came out of the woodwork, claiming they’d had sex with Murphy. He sued both the Globe and the National Enquirer for $5 million, for slander, libel and invasion of privacy, then pulled out. The story ended sadly one year later when Seiuli was found dead on the street, dressed only in bra, panties and towel. Apparently, she was locked out of her apartment, attempted to use the towel to swing from the roof into an open window, and fell.
With the scandal over, Murphy continued upwards. Disney’s Mulan was a big hit while Dr Dolittle was even bigger than The Nutty Professor. Then came The PJs, a foamation TV series where Murphy provided the voice of Thurgood Stubbs, chief superintendant of a housing project. It was a huge hit that, with 22 million viewers, gave the Fox network some of its best-ever ratings. Next Murphy starred alongside Martin Lawrence in the incarceration comedy Life, and with Steve Martin in the critically acclaimed Bowfinger. Then came another monster hit with Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, and yet another when he provided the voice of a sassy donkey in the animated Shrek. Then there was Dr Dolittle 2 — Murphy not being one to shy away from sequels.
2002 saw Eddie in Showtime, playing a maverick rookie cop who has to team up with hard-bitten veteran Robert De Niro in a reality-based TV cop show, produced by Rene Russo. It was an above-average comedy, not unakin to 48 Hrs. After this came The Adventures Of Pluto Nash, where a clubowner in outer space battles the intergalactic Mob. Then there was I Spy, based on the Sixties TV show, where Eddie played a boxer helping the US government recover a missing jet (Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen and Malcolm McDowell co-starred). And there was yet more comedy in Shrek 2 (with Murphy handed a much bigger part after his success in the original) and The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, a man hugely influenced by Murphy.
With hits guaranteed for the next two years, and having received $20 million each for the Nutty Professor and Dr Dolittle sequels, Murphy can perhaps try again for that empire. He does give money away — to the AIDS Foundation, the Martin Luther King Jr Centre, various cancer charities, he donated $100,000 to the Screen Actors’ Guild’s strike relief fund — but he reinvests heavily in his own organisations. Having been burned so badly in the Eighties, he likes to surround himself with people he can trust too. His cousin Ray looks after him, his childhood friend Clint Smith is VP of his TV company, while Lillian and Vernon help out with Panda Merchandising, which controls the rights to Eddie’s products. What he needs most though, is a screenwriter he can trust. That way, and only that way, can this most gifted of performers shine for many a year to come.