Eddie Murphy: Living the Dream

updated 02/26/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

Eddie Murphy is famous for his wicked smile and inimitable laugh. But on the Los Angeles set of Dreamgirls last year the 45-year-old comedy legend seemed, frankly, glum. Anguished by the end of his 12-year-marriage to former model Nicole Mitchell (they have five children), there were days when "he'd come to [work] and have to leave," says Dreamgirls director Bill Condon. "What he was going through, it was just too difficult."

Now it seems Murphy is happy at last. From 48 Hours (1982) to Shrek 2 (2004) his comedies have grossed an astounding $2 billion-plus worldwide; but Murphy's performance in Dreamgirls as James "Thunder" Early, a James Brown-type singer bent on self-destruction, may well be the role of his lifetime. It has already earned him a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors' Guild award–and he's the front-runner for this year's Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. And even though his latest comedy, Norbit, isn't getting critical acclaim, it is a hit at the box office. And, what's more, he's got a new red carpet date to share the good times with: Tracey Edmonds, 39, a TV producer and the ex-wife of music mogul Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Edmonds has kept Murphy "glowing," says Norbit director Brian Robbins. "I'm so happy for him. To see where he was a year ago and to see him now–what a difference a year makes, huh?"

Indeed, before Edmonds, Murphy was seeing Spice Girl Melanie Brown, but that relationship ended in acrimony. Brown, who is eight months pregnant, has claimed Murphy is the father of her child. He has denied it and wants a paternity test. Murphy had also gone through a tumultuous divorce from Mitchell—which led to custody issues over their children Bella, 4, Zola, 7, Shayne, 12, Myles, 14, and Bria, 17. (The couple have since agreed to joint custody.) Ironically the turmoil in his life actually helped Murphy's performance in Dreamgirls. "He said, 'God I wish I was making just the most incredibly dark drama because I can bring it all to the role,'" says Condon. "He was eager to take the pain he was feeling and expose it, not hide it."

The result is a gripping portrayal that, says costar Jamie Foxx, made Murphy "dangerous again." Since then, says Norbit costar Thandie Newton, "It's like he's starting over." The man Dreamgirls pal Jennifer Hudson calls "very timid and shy" has been enjoying quality time with Edmonds, whom he met through friends. At the Sundance film festival in January, "they were in amazing spirits, laughing and sweet," says an observer. Neither is in a hurry to settle down–"We're having fun"–Edmonds, who has two sons with her ex, told PEOPLE. But an unusually candid Murphy accepted his SAG award on Jan. 28 by thanking her for "fixing everything that was broken."

"For him, professionally and emotionally, he's in a fantastic place," says Robbins. What's next? The Brooklyn-born actor plans to work on a long-cherished project–making a fourth Beverly Hills Cop–and he's relishing his first Oscar nomination no matter what happens. "I've just been happy," he said recently, "nonstop happy since all this has been happening." And as Robbins notes, "It's about time."

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