“T here’s this little box that African-American actors have to work in, in the first place, and I was able to rise above that box.”
— Eddie Murphy, Rolling Stone (Nov. 10, 2011 issue)
We don’t consider Eddie Murphy as a pioneer because he never overcame anything. Or so we thought. Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson and Oscar Robertson overcame the worst kind of prejudice imaginable. Muhammad Ali did the same and became part of the Vietnam movement. Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby broke ground for African-Americans in their respective fields and paved the way for everyone who followed. Richard Pryor pushed racial boundaries while barely containing his seething anger about them. Eddie? He was just funnier than everyone else. That’s it. His color mattered, but not as much as it could have. Eventually, he transcended race the way Ali and Jordan did, and Will Smith does right now. We came to think of him as Eddie and Eddie only.
Over the last 30 years, Eddie enjoyed too much success and made too much money; his career became governed by a higher degree of difficulty, almost like we collectively started squeezing his strike zone in 1989 and never stopped. Ask anyone under 35 what they think of Eddie and they’ll probably say, “Hasn’t been funny for 15 years.” Ask anyone from 35 to 50 what they think and they’ll say either, “One of the funniest ever” or “Loved that guy, wish he stopped making so many shitty movies.” We don’t argue about Eddie, we don’t celebrate him, we don’t really do anything. You’re not exactly going out on a limb by praising Eddie Murphy. It’s much more interesting to say he sucks, or that he isn’t nearly as good as he once was.
Eddie could have shaped that discussion by giving more interviews, making a viral video or three, grabbing meaty supporting parts in indie movies, returning to stand-up clubs, or doing anything else to shed that “hasn’t been funny in 15 years” rap. Even an occasional Saturday Night Live hosting gig — something he could have ripped off in his sleep — would have done the trick, but Eddie hasn’t returned to 30 Rock since he left.1 He swerved the other way publicly, taking seemingly safe roles and barely interacting with the media: partly to protect his privacy, and partly because of an embarrassing incident in 1997, when Eddie’s car was pulled over in the wee hours, in a relatively seedy part of Hollywood, with a transvestite prostitute in the passenger’s seat … and Eddie driving. He claimed to be giving her a ride (the “Good Samaritan” defense), few believed him, and we never really heard from Eddie again. He just kept cranking out those kids’ movies.
People blame David Spade’s vicious cut-down of him in a 1995 “Weekend Update” — a picture of Eddie in A Vampire in Brooklyn along with the joke, “Look, kids, a falling star” — and even Eddie admits that he was so rankled that he refused to come to any subsequent anniversary show. But people forget, Eddie left the show in 1984 and never hosted after that.
Well, until this weekend. At age 50, Eddie Murphy is making a comeback of sorts by co-starring in Ben Stiller’s new action comedy, Tower Heist. The consensus seems to be, “Fairly entertaining movie, but more importantly, Eddie is Eddie again.” You know, the Eddie we loved (and in my case, revered), not the dude from the kids’ movies. He even consented to a few interviews this time around, including a candid one in Rolling Stone that should have resonated more than it did. Let’s dive into Eddie’s IMDb page and figure out what happened to his career, why it happened, when things turned … and why we have so much trouble remembering it quite the right way.
STAGE I: THE COMET
“I bet you could figure out the combined grosses of people who came off Saturday Night Live in the movies — me, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd. I bet it’s like $15 billion. That show’s like Harvard for the comic actor. When you come off that show and get into the movie business, it’s like you’re moving into slow motion for a couple of years. You’ve been working like a crazy person in this pressure cooker, then you’re in the movies, just sitting in your trailer.”2
All these quotes in italics come from Eddie’s recent interview with Rolling Stone.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (1980-1984)
Eddie came to SNL right when black TV characters were being marginalized as tokens and parodies. That wasn’t always the case. In the mid-to-late 1970s, Fred Sanford (Sanford and Son), George Jefferson (The Jeffersons), James and J.J. Evans (Good Times), Benson (Soap), James Hayward (The White Shadow), and even wisecracking pipsqueak Arnold Jackson (Diff’rent Strokes) carried themselves with dignity, stood up for themselves, railed against prejudice, used humor to disarm uncomfortable situations, talked frankly about the plight of poor people and, over and over again, handed some insensitive white person his comeuppance. By 1981, that spirit had faded away. George and Arnold had been neutered. James, Fred and JJ were long gone. Benson had been defanged and spun off into his own show. The White Shadow was getting canceled, and only after CBS’ deplorable effort to rescue it by making it whiter.
You know which black characters got to stick around? People like The Love Boat‘s Isaac, a good-natured bartender who happily pointed at the camera in the opening credits. Heyyyyyyyyyyyy! I’m the token black guy! Would anyone like a pina colada? You always knew what you were getting from Isaac: He’d serve some drinks, laugh at everyone else’s jokes, and on those rare occasions when a black actress came on the show (say, Lola Falana), you knew Isaac was stepping in because God forbid a white character talked to her. Of the top twenty shows from the 1981-82 season, only one revolved around black characters (The Jeffersons) and only one other even featured a black character (The Love Boat). Of the quality dramas that year, only Hill Street Blues bothered to incorporate black characters — police officers Bobby Hill and Neil Washington, both relegated to supporting roles because that’s just how it went in the early 80s.
So on Saturday Night Live (and television in general), 19-year-old Eddie stood out … to say the least. For its first five years, Garrett Morris had been SNL‘s weak link, its least funny cast member, someone who seemed fifteen years older than everyone else, someone who never fit in … and, of course, someone who was black. Great. Viewers never latched onto any Garrett character except for his Chico Esquela; the show’s writers never respected him, repeatedly making him dress in drag and even humiliating him by casting him as the monkey in a Wizard of Oz sketch (which would cause an Internet riot if it happened now). According to 1985’s fantastic SNL book, Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad (now out of print, because God forbid we could read it), a deeply depressed Morris started freebasing to cope with his unseemly plight. That only caused their writers to bury him even more. For a cutting-edge comedy show that became such a pop-culture phenomenon in the late 1970s (and a ratings smash), it’s kind of startling how white SNL really was. Only the show’s diverse musical acts and Richard Pryor’s electric hosting job in 1975 — dead honky — saved it from any real criticism. During the show’s first seven seasons (139 shows in all), only five blacks hosted the show: Pryor, Ray Charles, Cicely Tyson, O.J. Simpson and Bill Russell. Five!
By sheer coincidence, a show that desperately needed diversity stumbled into one of the most talented young celebrities who ever lived … and on top of that, someone created by God to appear on that show every weekend. I can’t even think of an athletic parallel. He’s the most talented SNL cast member ever, the only one to host the show when he was starring on it. Of the biggest stars in SNL history — Eddie, Ferrell, Myers, Dana Carvey, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Sandler, Billy Crystal, Bill Murray, Aykroyd in some order — only Eddie broke into show business on the show.3 He was a cast member at 19, the show’s meal ticket by 20, a movie star by 21, and a full-fledged superduperstar by 22. Tell me when we’ll see that again.
I can’t count Robert Downey Jr. Sorry.
Eddie never catered to SNL‘s mostly white audience, that’s for sure. His most popular running sketch was “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” which was basically Mr. Rogers in the projects (and almost always ended up with him escaping the police). His most popular “Weekend Update” character was Raheem Abdul-Muhammed (who vented about various injustices while always finding a way to play the race card). His most popular running characters were Mr. Robinson, Velvet Jones (a goofy pimp) and Dion (a gay hairdresser who wanted to sleep with various black celebs). His most popular celebrity imitations were Stevie Wonder (someone who had always been off-limits in the black community), James Brown and Michael Jackson (two other black icons), Little Richard Simmons (just a genius creation) and Buckwheat (the retroactively offensive Little Rascals character). His edgiest sketches always involved Eddie tapping into the black/white thing: like “Images” by Tyrone Green (a poem by a convict about killing white people) or “Kill the White People” (Tyrone’s rasta band singing that song in front of an all-white audience).
Watch these clips on Hulu or YouTube now and they won’t feel groundbreaking. Back in the early 80s? You can’t even imagine. With Pryor battling a career-killing drug problem4 and The Cosby Show still just a pitch on a piece of paper, only Eddie kept America from relying on white people and British people for laughs. His second-finest moment: the watershed “Buckwheat’s Been Shot” series (an inspired parody of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan), when Eddie played Buckwheat and his creepy assassin, John David Stutts. His finest moment: when Stevie Wonder hosted the show right as Eddie was doing a wicked (and slightly controversial) impression of him at comedy clubs. You watched that show live thinking, “There’s no way Eddie will do Stevie in front of Stevie, right?” … while secretly hoping he would.
From 1981 to 1985: Bustin’ Loose, Some Kind of Hero, The Toy, Superman III, Brewster’s Millions.
It happened in a sketch with Joe Piscopo (playing an agent) bringing Stevie (playing a celeb impersonator) to audition for Murphy (who was a music executive) … with the catch being that Stevie’s character billed himself as the Stevie Wonder Experience. So Stevie does his Stevie “impersonation” and botches it horribly. Murphy interjects, “No, no, you’re doing it all wrong,” then proceeds to slip on a pair of sunglasses as the crowd goes batshit. And he does Stevie with Stevie standing right next to him.
I was 13 when this happened. You can think I’m crazy, I don’t care, but the most exciting TV moments of the early ’80s were (a) this sketch, (b) Letterman taking his show to L.A. and having Carson as a guest, (c) Michael Jackson singing “Billie Jean” and doing the moonwalk on the “Motown 25” special, (d) Reagan getting shot by Hinckley, (e) Roddy Piper smashing the coconut into Jimmy Snuka’s head, and (f) the premiere of “Thriller” on MTV. No other arguments can be accepted. Anyway, Eddie brings the house down with an impression of Stevie singing My Cherie Amour. Unbelievable. Crushes it. With Stevie standing right there. The crowd settles down and Stevie “tries” his impersonation again … still terrible. Eddie’s turn. He nails Stevie a second time. After the crowd settles down, the scene shifts back to Stevie for one last “attempt.”
Only this time, Fake Stevie suddenly turns into Real Stevie and belts out an a cappella version of My Cherie Amour that was like … I mean, I can’t possibly describe how good this was.5 Nobody could bring it quite like Stevie in his prime. When he nails the last note, the crowd erupts like someone made a midcourt shot to win an NCAA Tournament game; if you watch the tape, even Piscopo breaks character and lets out a delighted yelp. That’s how remarkable it was. I know he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a musical icon, but I can’t imagine Stevie Wonder ever brought the house down quite like that. Eddie pushed him there.
I hate that this isn’t on the Internet except for Hulu Plus. It’s criminal. Hulu needs to designate the best 25 SNL sketches and free them from behind the wall, if only for comedy’s sake.
Of course, Eddie never breaks character. He waits for the applause to die down, waits for an extra second and finally says, “No, man, it still sucks.” Huge laugh. Perfect ending.
At that specific moment, you would have bet anything that Eddie Murphy would be one of the biggest stars in the world someday. Nobody had felt that way about a black entertainer before. Within two years, Eddie would flee the show, star in three smash-hit movies, become a millionaire and even record a cutting-edge comedy special for HBO. We put Dwight Gooden’s Mozart-like 1985 season on a pedestal because of his age (20). Same for a 19-year-old Magic jumping center in the 1980 finals and demolishing the Sixers, Mike Tyson winning the heavyweight title at 20, even 22-year-old LeBron dragging a crappy Cavs team to the 2007 finals. Eddie Murphy had an entire career before he turned 24. We should probably mention this every once in a while.
STAGE II: THE APEX
“My significance in film — and again, I’m not going to be delusional — was that I’m the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen. That’s why I became as popular as I became. People had never seen that before.”
48 HRS (1982)
One of the great movie experiences of my life. We went on opening weekend in December (me, my mother, my stepfather and a friend) to the old Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The crowd couldn’t have been more jacked up — it was about 70 percent black and 100 percent pro-Eddie. If you remember, Eddie didn’t appear on-screen for the first 15 minutes. When he finally showed up (the scene when Nick Nolte’s character visits him in jail), there was an electricity within the theater unlike anything I can remember. People were hanging on every line, every joke, everything. At the end of the scene, when Nolte storms off and Eddie screams, “Jack! Jack! (Defiant pause.) FUCK YOU!,” someone who had already caught a few showings stood up on cue and screamed “FUCK YOU!” with Eddie. And it went from there. The scene when Eddie rousts the redneck bar practically caused a riot. Bullshit, you’re too fucking stupid to have a job. People were doubled over. People were cheering. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Look, I’m biased: I have watched 48 Hrs more times than any other movie. (It’s not close, actually.) I know every line. I love Reggie Hammond, I love Ganz and Billy Bear, I love the Bus Boys, and I even love that irascible racist with a heart of gold, Jack Cates. So it’s tough for me to talk about it rationally — it’s one of the most ripped-off movies of the last 30 years. (Think how many wisecracking buddy-cop movies or black/white-didn’t-like-each-other-right-away movies have been made since 1982.) But this couldn’t have been a smarter first movie for Eddie, and just when it couldn’t get any better, fate intervened: Nick Nolte was supposed to host SNL on the movie’s opening weekend, partied too hard, had to cancel … and Eddie hosted in his place … and crushed it. At that specific point, Eddie Murphy’s stock was like Apple’s right after the first iPad came out.
A crucial career move because of the salty language, the edgy content and the comedy itself (it’s on the short list of “funniest stand-up specials ever”). Eddie taped this for HBO right as HBO was starting to become HBO — they played the show constantly, and really, I can’t remember another reason to watch HBO in 1983 unless you were hoping for late-night nudity. I cannot defend Eddie’s gay-bashing other than to say that, in 1983, nobody knew any better. I remember laughing at every one of those jokes without even a shred of guilt. When the gay community protested, I even remember thinking they needed to lighten up and get over themselves. Seven years later, when one of my family members came out, I thought differently. It’s tough to re-watch those specific parts in 2011; there’s no question. But in 1983? That may have been the funniest hour I ever spent. I remember going away for one holiday vacation, bringing the Delirious cassette with me and listening to it, James Brown and Ice Cream Man dozens of times over the course of a week.
Something bigger was happening, of course: From 1982 to 1985, our “cutting-edge” comedy tastes undeniably shifted from the Carson/Pryor/Carlin/Martin/Imus generation to Eddie, Howard Stern, Letterman, SNL (revived by Eddie, then by the Crystal/Short/Guest season) and every up-and-coming comedian on Letterman’s show (Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, etc.). By 1985, poor Carson was starting to feel like a dinosaur. Eddie was more responsible than anyone.
TRADING PLACES (1983)
The movie that made it clear (a) Eddie wasn’t a fluke, (b) Eddie would become Hollywood’s biggest star sooner than we thought, (c) Dan Aykroyd could survive without John Belushi, and (d) the next time an actress feels pigeonholed by a specific genre (like Jamie Lee Curtis and horror films), she should just make a comedy and show off her fantastic boobs. And you know what? The movie holds up shockingly well 28 years later — there’s absolutely no reason to remake it. One crucial point: Trading Places was released on June 8, 1983. Within a week, it became clear that Eddie needed to leave SNL. Like, as soon as possible.6
This led to SNL changing its contract structure and making it so any cast member had to stay for five years no matter how well their career was going. Now it’s six years.
BEST DEFENSE (1984)
You know someone became a giant star when they release a dogshit movie almost as a dare. You really like me that much? Well, I dare you to see this. You’re only allowed one of these — you could call them Mulligan Movies. Julia Roberts in Dying Young. Leo in The Beach. Eddie in Best Defense. Cruise in Legend. Sandra Bullock in The Net. It’s harder to make these now because of social media; if a movie stinks, the word gets out by Friday night. Not in 1984. I saw Best Defense on opening weekend and refused to believe these murky reports that it was secretly a terrible Dudley Moore movie with a few Eddie cameos. How could it suck? Eddie’s in it! Well, it totally sucked. Even though it was marketed like an Eddie movie, he probably appears in 15 percent of it. When he hosted SNL the following year, he joked about the movie, “What?! How dare you give me a script like this! Oh, THAT much money? Let’s go!” It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.
BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984)
Apex Eddie. Total command. Killer premise, killer execution, more than a few laughs, everything you’d ever want from a cop movie. Cop completed the best three-year run by a funny person: from 1982-84, Eddie was the funniest person alive by any calculation, as well as our single most popular celebrity other than Michael Jackson.7 It also unleashed one of the better movie-related “What Ifs”: What if Beverly Hills Cop had been made with the star who originally developed it … that’s right, the one and only Sylvester Stallone?!?!?!? My head just exploded.8
Check out the bottom of this 2010 mailbag for my “Funniest Person of the Year” rankings year by year.
Three years ago, I was watching Cop on one of the HD channels, and maybe it was seeing Jenny Summers’ come-hither smirk in high definition for the first time, but how did I never notice the smoldering sexual tension in the scene when Axel brings his old friend Jenny back to his Beverly Hills hotel room and she lays down on his bed and bats her eyelashes at him for a couple of minutes? For God’s sake, she did everything but take her clothes off and assume the missionary position, and yet Axel was more interested in ordering room service for Taggart and Rosewood. I don’t get it. Leading me to my $64,000 question: Was Axel Foley secretly gay?
In the first two Cop movies (Cop 3 never happened), Axel didn’t have a girlfriend, and we never saw him hook up with a single girl. In Cop 1, he convincingly pretended to be Victor Maitlin’s lover in a public restaurant. In Cop 2, he ruined what could have been a fantastic time for his buddies at the Playboy Mansion by starting a fight for no real reason with a suspected bank robber. In Cop 1, he made Taggart and Rosewood follow him to a strip joint, almost like he was overcompensating, then spent more time looking around the club than looking at the girls. In both Cop movies, he ably served as a platonic friend for Jenny and Lt. Bogomil’s daughter (without ever making a move on either of them); he clicked with two obviously gay characters (the ones played by Damon Wayans and Bronson Pinchot); and he loved playing a perverse cat-and-mouse game with Taggart and Rosewood (two guys). And he was willing to risk his job and his life to avenge the murder of his old “buddy” Mikey, who just happened to be coming back to “crash” at Axel’s apartment on the night he was murdered. We’re sure Axel Foley was straight? We’re sure?
When I brought this up in 2008, I settled this debate by saying that we’d have an official answer when Logo starts running either Cop movie. (That’s how we settled the “Was Bull Durham a chick flick?” argument years ago, when it started running on Lifetime. As far as I’m concerned, the ball is in Logo’s hands. They would know better than me.) Then the readers weighed in and repeatedly made the same point: In 1984, America wasn’t ready to see Axel Foley bang Jenny Summers in the Beverly Hills Wilshire. It’s the same reason they cut out Eddie’s sex scene with Charlotte Lewis in The Golden Child two years later, right? The whole interracial sex angle was too racy for a big-market movie in the mid-1980s. In 2011? There’s a 90 percent chance that Axel bangs Jenny in the Beverly Hills Wilshire … and a 10 percent chance he bangs Rosewood. But he’s definitely banging somebody. Anyway …
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (1984)
Eddie’s much-ballyhooed return as host delivers the goods. White Like Me becomes the piece everyone remembers … yes, Eddie poking fun at the race thing again. Still holds up. And just like that, he never came back. I still say this was his single biggest career mistake — every two or three years, no matter how many crappy the movies he was making, he should have been showing up at 30 Rock specifically to remind everyone that Eddie Murphy was still a funny motherfucker. Not taking advantage of that was a bigger mistake than Pluto Nash, Vampire in Brooklyn, I Spy and Imagine That combined.
PARTY ALL THE TIME (1985)
OK, here’s where things start to get a little goofy. Eddie had just spent the past four years becoming America’s second-most popular celebrity (trailing only Michael Jackson). He still hadn’t turned 24. Naturally, he thought he could do anything … you know, like make a no. 1 pop album. That’s how Party All the Time happened. America indulged it the same way that Seth MacFarlane’s party guests indulge his Sinatra songs. That’s great, Eddie! We love it! Um … you think you’re going to make a movie again soon? Only one thing redeemed this song: Rick James’ epic performance in the video.9 They need to make a provision in the NBA lockout settlement that three players per year have to play an 82-game season while wearing Rick James’ hair from the Party All the Time video.
My illegitimate son Rembert Browne wrote on Grantland this week: “They should have retitled the video ‘Rick James Will Party All the Time With You, Whether Eddie Is Around or Not.’ Calling Rick James’ performance a ‘cameo’ is like referring to Brandy as ‘Ray-J’s sister.’ Rude Rude Rude. Rick is the star of this production and there’s nothing Eddie Murphy can do about it. Every time he’s on-camera, with that supersize curly fry mop shag of a hairdo, I think to myself, ‘This might very well be the greatest man alive.’”
2nd MTV VIDEO AWARDS (1985)
Why didn’t Eddie make a movie in 1985? I don’t know. This turned out to be his best achievement: hosting a relevant-at-the-time show (while wearing a terrible sweater) to protect his “funniest person alive” title, even introducing Run-DMC at one point, a moment that turned out to have a little more meaning than we thought. I remember thinking Eddie and Bernard King were the two coolest people alive in 1984 … and within a few years, people like the Run-DMC guys and the NWA guys started popping up, rap took off and Eddie suddenly didn’t seem so cool anymore. It happens.
THE GOLDEN CHILD (1986)
This might be a terrible movie and I’ve been in denial for 25 years. Here’s my defense: Eddie hadn’t made a film for two years, so by the time this came out, we were ready to laugh at anything. You know on Survivor when they haven’t eaten for days, then somebody wins a challenge and gets to eat a meal, and they’re just stuffing their face like animals? That was every Eddie fan with The Golden Child. It was Eddie food. We didn’t care about the quality.
BEVERLY HILLS COP II and RAW (1987)
Cop II ended up being the third-best movie Eddie ever made. Totally underrated. Still holds up. One of the few sequels that actually exceeded the original. (In particular, Rosewood and Taggart were fantastic.) And by the way, comedy sequels almost always fail … as Eddie would find out three years later. Can you name three comedy sequels that you liked? Meanwhile, Raw remains the no. 1 stand-up comedy film of all time even all these years later ($9.1 million opening weekend, $50 million domestically). I didn’t like it quite as much as Delirious, but only because it wasn’t quite as much fun — it’s a little angrier, a little more full of itself, a little less funny, and as far as vanity projects go, the opening credits of Raw make Party All the Time look like child’s play. I think Eddie was pretty much convinced he was the Black Elvis at this point. And why not? What evidence did we have that he wasn’t?
COMING TO AMERICA (1988)
Eddie’s last great movie, as well as his first foray into the whole “playing multiple characters” routine … and a really smart career choice. Coming to America feels different than any Eddie movie before it — a little softer, a little smarter, a little more family-friendly. When lumped with The Cosby Show, A Different World, Arsenio Hall’s talk show, Spike Lee’s movies, Michael Jordan’s Nike commercials and Magic Johnson’s swelling popularity, the message was pretty clear: Black people could make successful family movies, carry smash-hit sitcoms, take chances cinematically and sell shoes just like white people could. (In other words, farewell to the days of Isaac the Bartender.) And by the way, we just ended the most successful/funny/creative/original seven-year movie run any comedian ever had. Will Ferrell, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Pryor … nobody can touch Eddie’s stretch from 1982 to 1988. It’s morbid, but if you applied the Kurt Cobain Test here (in other words, what would have been the optimal time for an athlete or artist to drop dead as a career move?), had Eddie died in an airplane crash four weeks after Coming to America came out, we would have forever discussed him in reverential tones, cried that he was taken too soon and bemoaned every Eddie movie we never got to see (with every hypothetical movie being fantastic, of course). Real life doesn’t work that way. As we were about to find out.
STAGE 3: THE INEVITABLE SWOON
“You have to remember, there was no hip-hop back then, or hip-hop was just novelty music, and for years, I’m the whipping boy. Anybody that wanted to vent, I was the one. I got a lot of shit that wasn’t fair. The root of it was racist. If I was rubbing you the wrong way, at the core of it was some racist shit: ‘look at this arrogant nigger, two thumbs waaaaaay down.’ Then I wasn’t helping either. I wasn’t giving no humble pie: ‘Fuck y’all, suck my dick, motherfucker.'”
HARLEM NIGHTS (1989)
During Eddie’s ascension and peak, the man lacked any haters other than the gay community (who had rightfully turned on him). Even cynical dickheads loved him. At the height of his fame, Eddie always joked about how people worried about him burning through his money or throwing his career away.10 His success eventually derailed Eddie from a pure “funny” standpoint, but not for the typical reasons: Funny people need to be around people to stay funny. Poor Eddie was too famous. By 1989, Eddie was either holed up in his New Jersey mansion (surrounded by friends and family) or partying in Hollywood with Arsenio Hall and Magic Johnson (the self-proclaimed “Black Pack”). How can you notice funny things, pick up goofy quirks or find humor in various situations if you’re trapped in your mansion, protected in a club by bodyguards or dealing with an endless onslaught of ingratiating ass-kissers?11 Wouldn’t you lose perspective on anything and everything?
The inherent racism tied to that concern was always implied, but never fully said. That was the difference between Eddie and someone like Pryor — he did everything with a smile on his face, but if you read between the lines, you knew.
One of Eddie’s Rolling Stone quotes was inadvertently illuminating: “Michael sat in the same hot seat as Elvis was in, the biggest star in the world … how can I put it? It’s like you’re not a person, your human-beingness is compromised. The stuff that everybody had to deal with, take that and magnify it by 1,000 — that’s where Michael and Elvis are sitting. It’s madness swirling around them at all times. On the surface, you’re coming off like you have it all together, and behind the scenes, you’re completely unraveling.”
My buddy Gus believes that movie comedians have a “funny” shelf life of seven years, almost like a carton of milk. When you look at what happened to Sandler, Carrey, Myers, Ferrell and everyone else over the years, it’s hard to disagree. You almost have to reinvent yourself at that seven-year mark and turn into something else (like Tom Hanks did). Maybe Eddie realized that, and maybe that’s why he thought it would be a good idea to star in and direct the unwatchable Harlem Nights. His intentions were noble: share a screen with two other African-American comedy icons (Redd Foxx and Pryor), branch out by directing it, make a period piece, take a career chance … I just know that I limped out of the theater afterwards and haven’t seen a frame since. The movie got skewered and it affected every choice Eddie made from that point on, despite what Eddie claimed in Rolling Stone.
“I’m never gonna go, ‘I want to do this role because it’s a challenge. I might not be able to pull it off, that’s why I’m excited about doing it.’ For someone to sit on the outside, talking about, ‘They need to push themselves,’ it’s so ridiculous. Push myself? I’ve had a whole fucking career already, these are the gravy years. I have more than distinguished myself in the movie business.”
Bullshit. Once upon a time, I think he wanted to push himself: That’s why Coming to America happened (a good push), and that’s why Harlem Nights happened (a bad push). He never totally gambled with another movie.
ANOTHER 48 HRS (1990)
Tough year for me: Rocky 5, Another 48 Hours, Godfather 3 and Larry Bird missing a dunk during a series-deciding loss to the Knicks in the Boston Garden. My whole childhood fell apart in 1990. And by the way, I will never forgive them for screwing up the 48 Hrs sequel so badly that it actually affects how you watch the first movie. Wait, Kehoe from the first movie was the bad guy all along? What? It’s inexplicable. I despise this movie. Eddie didn’t do himself any favors by plodding through it while carrying an extra 15 pounds; it was like watching his fat brother doing a Reggie Hammond impersonation. Let’s just move on.
Eddie’s first “comeback” movie. I’m a total Boomerang defender — Eddie felt like Eddie again, the story was funny, it’s an adult comedy (with sex scenes and everything), it’s one of the better “here’s what happened when you get whipped” premises, and most important, it features young Halle Berry and an in-her-prime Robin Givens. Robin Givens is so hot in this movie that, after you watch it, Mike Tyson’s abrupt downfall, eventual prison sentence and subsequent bankruptcy make total sense. Anyway, I would have bought Eddie stock in 1992. He had seemingly righted the ship. Or so we thought.
THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN (1993)
Not as bad as you remember … but not good, either. This one felt cheap, like they used all their money for Eddie and saved everywhere else on little things like the cast, director and production crew. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan had quietly grabbed the “Most Famous/Successful/Revered Black Guy” championship belt from Eddie and his friend Michael Jackson, and rap artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac were collectively hoisting the “Coolest Black Celebrities” belt. Eddie and Michael Jackson didn’t totally fit in anymore. Only they didn’t totally know it yet. Which led to …
BEVERLY HILLS COP III (1994)
The ultimate desperation move: running Axel Foley back a third time. I tried to watch this one recently, had one of those, “Wait, this is better than I remembered, was I too harsh on this movie?” moments about six minutes in … and 10 minutes later, I was shaking my head and flipping channels. I’m actually shaking my head as I’m typing this.
A VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995)
Eddie explains: “The only way I was able to do Nutty Professor and to get out of my Paramount deal, I had to do Vampire in Brooklyn. But you know what ruined that movie? The wig. I walked out in that longhaired wig and people said, “Oh get the fuck out of here! What the hell is this?” I wish he had told me that before I paid for the movie.
Vampire concluded a seven-year run that undid much of the cache of the previous seven-year run … which, again, was the greatest run by any comedian ever. How does that make sense? We certainly don’t approach sports this way. If Albert Pujols signs with the Angels for $250 million next month and doesn’t live up to that deal — an inevitable statistical swoon, followed by a few DL trips, the slowing of his bat speed and whispers that he’s three years older than he claims — it won’t change the fact that Albert’s first decade ranks up there with anything that’s ever happened in baseball. When the Rolling Stones released 30 straight years of forgettable albums from 1982 on, it didn’t change how we felt about everything before 1982. Why wouldn’t Eddie get the same leeway?
STAGE 4: THE NOT-SO-SUBTLE SHIFT
“I’ve been making movies for so long that now it’s all just one body of work. If you have a flop movie, so what? And if you have a hit movie, it’s ‘so what,’ too, it’s on to the next movie. If I do something and I die in it, at least I took a chance.”
THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996)
Smart career choice, terrific use of Eddie (the “multiple characters” thing again) … oh, and it made almost $274 million worldwide. So much for Eddie being washed up.
We’ll let Eddie explain (via Rolling Stone): “I had a bunch of movies that didn’t work. People were saying, ‘Eddie’s not good,’ so I was like, ‘Not good? Let me show you what I can fucking do. I’ll do something where I play all these different characters.’ It’s a trip, it seems like every five or six years, you have to do something to remind them that they like you. Then you get offered a bunch of stuff, because you were in a hit, and some of the movies might be shitty, but they throw so much paper at you that you can’t say no to it. The problem when you’re doing those flicks for a lot of paper, though, is on TV they show your hit right next to your flop, on there forever.”12
I can’t tell you how much I loved this interview. The lights were on these past 15 years but I never knew if Eddie was home, or if he understood everything that had happened to him. Clearly, he did. I almost got the feeling he wanted to say more than he did.
Just to be sure it’s gone, Eddie tries the “wisecracking cop in an R-rated action movie” ploy one last time. And fails. His career strategy falls into place: stop trying to relive the ’80s, start cranking out kids’ movies for a lot of paper.
DOCTOR DOOLITTLE (1998)
IMDb’s description: “A Doctor finds out that he can understand what animals are saying. And the animals find out that he understands.” (Grimly nodding.) This movie made $294 million worldwide.
HOLY MAN (1998)
IMDb again: “Eddie Murphy stars as an over-the-top television evangelist who finds a way to turn television home shopping into a religious experience, and takes America by storm.” Yikes. This one bombed ($12 million U.S. gross) and might be more unwatchable than any of Adam Sandler’s most dreadful movies with the possible exception of Little Nicky. Even worse, Eddie had disappeared from the public eye because of the transvestite incident — we could only judge him movie by movie, so when he released one this bad? You couldn’t shake the stink.
LIFE (1998) and BOWFINGER (1999)
Eddie in Rolling Stone: “I could have done a bunch of movies when I stayed as the Axel Foley or Reggie Hammond persona. But I didn’t want to be doing the same thing every time. Every now and then, you crash and burn, but that’s part of it.”
Post-1988 Eddie took more chances than you think, even if it didn’t totally seem like it. Life didn’t work13; Bowfinger did. He’s great in the second one. Maybe it’s not a top-five Eddie movie, but it’s unequivocally one of his best performances. As Dan Silver pointed out on Grantland earlier this week, Eddie played two different characters so well that it felt like watching two different actors. He absolutely should have been nominated for an Oscar (and wasn’t).14 You can guess what happened next.
I always thought Life was his retroactive response to Spike Lee killing him publicly for not caring enough about African-Americans in his movies (it’s basically an all-black cast).
Your Best Supporting Actors that year: Michael Clarke Duncan for The Green Mile, Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense, Tom Cruise for Magnolia, Jude Law for The Talented Mr. Ripley and winner Michael Caine for The Cider House Rules. Michael Clarke Duncan and Haley Joel Osment? Really?
NUTTY PROFESSOR II (2000)
DR. DOOLITTLE 2 (2002)
Kids, kids, kids! Eddie had a big family at this point — if you already did everything you ever wanted to do in Hollywood, and you were wealthier than your wildest dreams, would you be able to resist the urge to make big-budget movies for your kids? We should mention that the Nutty Professor sequel made $166 million worldwide; Shrek made $484.4 million (Eddie provided the voice of the donkey); and the Doolittle sequel made $176.1 million. If you rip Eddie for making kids’ movies these past 15 years, make sure you point out that nobody enjoyed more success cranking out movies for that genre … a genre which, by the way, became infinitely more important in the DVD/Blu-ray/PPV/iTunes “I need to throw something on to entertain my kids for 90 minutes” era. I would argue shifting this way was a good career move, not a bad one. But whatever.
ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH (2002)
I SPY (2002)
DADDY DAY CARE (2003)
THE HAUNTED MANSION (2003)
SHREK 2 (2004)
Rough stretch here with the exception of Shrek 2, even if Haunted Mansion and Daddy Day Care made a combined $346.7 million worldwide. Suddenly, we’re approaching the quarter-century mark of the Eddie Experience.
STAGE 5: THE GRAVY YEARS
“I turned 50 in April. I know this is a business where success is the exception not the rule. There’s nothing you could say — even if you don’t like me, you have to give it up. I’ve been around for 30 years. I think Stallone said it: you don’t do 25 years in this business being stinky.”
Yet another Eddie comeback, yet another special Eddie performance … yet another time when the Academy Awards robbed him. Eddie lost the “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar to Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), in what turned out to be his only Oscar nomination. He should have had three: Dreamgirls, Bowfinger and … (wait for it) Trading Places. You tell me, what was a better supporting actor performance in 1983: Rip Torn in Cross Creek, Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff, John Lithgow in Terms of Endearment, Charles Durning in To Be or Not to Be … or Eddie’s iconic performance as Billy Ray Valentine?15 That could have been one of those excruciating Chris Rock parts and Eddie singlehandedly saved it. He’s fantastic in it. Too bad the Academy ignores “funny” performances unless there were mitigating circumstances … you know, like someone dying in the movie. This is a whole other column.
Nicholson won for Terms of Endearment. And should have.
SHREK THE THIRD (2007)
MEET DAVE (2008)
Norbit made $159 million worldwide. Shrek made $484.4 million. Meet Dave sort of bombed, but not really ($50.7 million). Two for three, along with more paper and gravy. True fact: According to boxofficemojo.com, Eddie’s movies have grossed over $6.5 billion worldwide before adjusting them for inflation. Will Smith’s total: $5.735 billion. Denzel Washington’s total: $2.788 billion. I’m just sayin’.
IMAGINE THAT (2009)
Eddie in Rolling Stone: “Would the 27-year-old Eddie have wondered what I was doing in Dr. Doolittle? Or Shrek? No. Or in those Shrek movies? No. But you know, both the 27-year-old and the 48-year-old was like, “Why am in Imagine That?” That movie didn’t have a chance at the box office — it’s just me and a little girl and a blanket.” They should put this quote on the Blu-ray cover.
SHREK FOREVER AFTER (2010)
More paper, more gravy. Eddie to Rolling Stone: “After all these years, I’ve done well and I’m cool. I feel comfortable in my skin. I’ve saved some paper, everybody’s healthy, my kids are beautiful and smart, doing different things, it’s all good. I’m trying to maintain my shit like this and do a different project now and then.” Can you really mock him for this? And yet …
TOWER HEIST (2011)
There’s been a subtle Eddie renaissance these past few months: his decision to host the Oscars next February; his candid Rolling Stone interview; a few late-night interviews; even a well-reviewed performance in Ben Stiller’s new movie. Could Eddie enjoy one last run of mainstream relevancy? Could he rip off a few movie-stealing supporting roles, a little like how Nicholson kept things fresh post-50 with Broadcast News, Batman and A Few Good Men? Would Eddie have the balls to return to 30 Rock and host SNL for the first time in 27 years? Does he realize that two generations of people don’t remember when he truly mattered? Does any of this matter in the first place? Could you begrudge him for just being 50, rich and happy, for doing whatever he wants, for trying to “maintain his shit?”
Here was his best Rolling Stone quote (in my opinion, anyway): “I saw this documentary on Ronald Reagan and it was like, ‘Whoa.’ They say he came into the house, and he had the toy White House that he had taken out of the fish tank, and he goes, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with this, but I know it had something to do with me.’ He had even forgotten he was the president. No matter what you do, all that shit is getting turned into gobbledygook. In 200 years, it’s all dust, and in 300 years, it ain’t nothing, and in 1,000 years, it’s like you weren’t even fucking here. But if you were really lucky, if you really did something special, you can hang around a little longer.”
It all depends on your definition of hanging around. He’s right — all that shit is getting turned into gobbledygook someday.
But in the meantime, couldn’t we remember that gobbledygook a little more accurately? Why don’t we remember Eddie’s peak from 1981 to 1988 a little more reverentially? How he exceeded any other non-musician’s apex in my lifetime? How he meant more, did more, wielded the highest approval rating, earned a ridiculous amount of money, took the best chances, bridged classes and ethnicities … I mean, what else could he have done?
Why don’t we think about race when we think about Eddie? Why doesn’t Eddie get mentioned with Poitier, Cosby and Pryor every time? Why doesn’t it matter that every successful black comic or actor that came after him — Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, any of the Wayans brothers, Will Smith, you name it — profusely credited Eddie for influencing him?
Why doesn’t Eddie get more credit for flipping Saturday Night Live on its lily-white ass, reinvigorating it and becoming its only truly successful black cast member?
Why doesn’t Eddie get more credit for, as he puts it, becoming “the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen?”
Why doesn’t everyone ever point out that Eddie is the most successful comedian ever, by any calculation … and really, it’s not even close? That he’s one of the best stand-ups ever? That, before Eddie, only white actors were considered sure things at the box office? That Eddie made more money making kids’ movies than anyone ever? Doesn’t this seem … I don’t know … relevant?
I don’t know why we stopped caring about Eddie, why we never give him the benefit of the doubt, why we never consider him a pioneer, why we were in such a hurry to marginalize him. I just know that we don’t, and we don’t, and we don’t. And we did.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Alan Arkin died after shooting Little Miss Sunshine. Bill is delighted to report that Arkin is very much alive and he only died in the movie. Related: Bill is getting old.
Bill Simmons is Grantland’s Editor in Chief, the host of the BS Report podcast, the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball and the co-creator of ESPN’s Peabody-award winning “30 For 30” series. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Previously from Bill Simmons:
Bill and Jay’s YouTube Adventure
NFL Quarterback Power Rankings
Proactively Mourning the NBA
Behind the Pipes: Into the Arms of the NHL
Avoiding the Lockout and the Red Sox
We Need a Renegade Basketball League
A Running Diary of Game 162
Welcome to Amnesty 2.0 in the NBA
NFL Preview: It’s All About Continuity
Summer of Mailbag V: Passing the Buck
Summer of Mailbag IV: Dawn of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag III: Attack of the Mailbag!
The Glorious Return of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag: The Revenge