Eddie Murphy is not only known for being a great stand-up comedian and a great actor but he is considered one of the funniest comedians and biggest movie stars in the world. His biggest decade was the eighties but he has been full of surprises for every decade since.
Born in Brooklyn, NYC in 1961 and raised in the Bushwick Borough, his father died and his mother became ill when he was only eight years old and this led Murphy and his older brother Charlie through the foster care system, a time Eddie Murphy actually called critical to the development of his sense of humor. Although after a year in the system they went back to being raised by their mother and stepfather in Roosevelt, New York.
His professional career as a performer really started to launch in 1976 when he impersonated Al Green singing “Let’s Stay Together” at the Roosevelt Youth Center. Eddie Murphy had many show business idols when he was young, most significantly stand-up comedian Richard Pryor and actor Peter Sellers who inspired Murphy to develop his skills playing multiple characters. Luckily there were clubs nearby who hired him to perform regularly and he even played hookie from school to perform at these places.
But it was the 1980s when Eddie Murphy would enter super stardom.
When Murphy was chosen to be one of the new cast members of Saturday Night Live following the brief departure of burned out SNL creator Lorne Michaels and all of the original cast members, he was the player who stood out the most among all the freshmen, which was particularly significant given SNL was not at its funniest in the early eighties. Characters like Buckwheat (a grown-up version of the Little Rascals character), Mister Rogers parody Mister Robinson and Gumby (“I’m Gumby, dammit!”) were so hilarious that it was pretty obvious Eddie Murphy single-handedly saved SNL from cancellation.
Simultaneously he was becoming a popular draw at the box office as well. In 1982, Murphy made his big screen debut in the film 48 Hrs., which co-starred Nick Nolte and was a huge hit, and that decade was peppered with Eddie Murphy hits including the 1983 comedy Trading Places directed by John Landis and co-starring fellow SNL alum Dan Aykroyd, the 1984 buddy comedy Beverly Hills Cop which was Murphy’s first solo leading role and the highest-grossing film of 1984, its 1987 sequel Beverly Hills Cop II and the 1988 rom-com Coming to America starring Murphy as the crown prince of fictional African country Zamunda who travels to the U.S. to find a bride with humorous results.
At the same time as all this, Murphy was also a successful stand-up comedian, releasing the hugely popular Delirious as a TV special on HBO in 1983 and the film Eddie Murphy Raw in 1987 which had a wide theatrical release in response to the huge popularity of Delirious. In fact Raw is still the highest-grossing stand-up comedy concert film of all time making $50 million.
By decade’s end he was the biggest movie star in Hollywood. Although success was less frequent in the nineties. But he had a bit of a resurgence in the late nineties with a different crowd of filmgoers when he moved away from R-rated material and more towards family-friendly films. The Nutty Professor (1996), a remake of the 1963 Jerry Lewis film, was actually a funny and entertaining slapstick comedy with elements of sci-fi (in pure ’90s fashion) and Murphy won praise for his skills playing seven different characters. Chris Rock even said Murphy was robbed of an Oscar, although the film did win for Best Makeup.
Murphy followed that film with Disney’s Mulan (1998) in which he voiced dragon sidekick Mushu, Dr. Dolittle (1998) in which he played a man who can understand animals, Daddy Day Care (2003) about a father who starts a day care center out of his own home after getting laid off, The Haunted Mansion (2003) based on the Disney theme park attraction of the same name and the Shrek film series in which he voiced Donkey in all four films released between 2001 and 2010. He also created and executive produced the semi-successful stop-motion animated sitcom The PJs which aired from 1999 to 2001 on FOX (before moving to The WB for its final season).
All his adult-oriented films at this time performed poorly, with the exception of Frank Oz’s 1999 comedy Bowfinger co-starring Steve Martin, although in 2006 he won praise and awards buzz for his role of soul singer James “Thunder” Early in the film Dreamgirls.
For a long time afterwards, Murphy stayed out of the spotlight to focus on his family life, occasionally making public appearances like in 2015 when he won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, but he exploded back onto the scene in 2019 with the Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name, a biopic about blaxploitation actor Rudy Ray Moore that is my favorite film Eddie Murphy ever made and also safely one of my favorite films of all time. Best of all he promoted the film by returning to SNL for the first time since 1984 (not including his brief appearance in SNL’s 40th anniversary special). In addition to hosting, Murphy reprised all his most popular characters in spectacular fashion to the satisfaction of both TV critics and viewers who made it one of SNL’s most popular episodes.
Speaking of reprising roles, a sequel to Coming to America called Coming 2 America is going to be released on Prime Video in 2021. Murphy never planned to make a sequel but the stars were finally in alignment when a satisfying story was written, and many of the actors from the original, including Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley and James Earl Jones, are returning for the sequel alongside newcomers like Tracy Morgan, Wesley Snipes, Jermaine Fowler and Leslie Jones. If things go according to plan, Murphy will also return for a sequel to Beverly Hills Cop which is currently in the works.
I don’t know what to expect from Eddie Murphy next because his career is so unpredictable (he starred in some of the most popular films ever made but Pluto Nash was also one of the biggest bombs) but I know better than to ignore talent like his. He said that he took that long break from acting because he was happy with his life and didn’t feel the need to make movies anymore. And he is right because he is so loved by everyone for his talent that he no longer has to prove himself to anyone. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle even called him inspirational to their own comedy careers. So when he returns to acting you can bet it’s because he wants to do it. If that’s not the goal for all actors, what is? If Hollywood was a competition, Murphy has definitely won.