Heard of Eddie Murphy's Law? If Anything Can Survive on Saturday Night, He Will

updated 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

When he was first hired by Saturday Night Live 16 months ago, Eddie Murphy didn't know whether to live it up or down. "They told me I was a 'feature' player—that meant an extra, really," he recalls. "I should have been happy even to be part of the show, but I looked at the rest of the cast and—I'm not saying I was better—I just knew I was as good as any of the regulars." For the precocious suburban New York kid, now all of 20 years old, who a few months before had been playing the school yard and an occasional small club, the self-confidence is characteristic. So is Murphy's luck—his second-class status turned into a blessing when last year's show flopped and NBC fired producer Jean Doumanian and most of the cast. "It worked out good," notes Murphy. "When all the bad press came up, and everyone was getting their heads chopped, nobody noticed me."

That's no longer the case. In this year's resuscitated—and generally applauded—Saturday Night Live, Murphy has emerged as perhaps the most recognizable, and easily the most malleable, face. In addition to his wickedly adept—and less than worshipful—impressions of Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, Stevie Wonder and Jerry Lewis, Murphy has created such memorable new SNL characters as TV huckster Velvet Jones, Mr. Robinson, the ghetto's answer to TV's Mr. Rogers ("Can you say 'scumbucket,' boys and girls?") and the Little Rascals' Buckwheat, all growed-up ("I have a little sister named Shredded Wheat, a sister who's a prostitute named Trix, an older brother who's gay, Lucky Charms, and a mentally retarded brother, Special K"). "Eddie Murphy has stolen the show," announced the New York Times. Nonsense, Murphy demurs: "The show is good, and I just did a few pieces that happened to stand out."

"No one expected him to be this hot this quickly," says new SNL producer Dick Ebersol, "but when you have firepower, you go with it. We protect him from overexposure by not letting him do a character more than three or four times in a season." As for the ratings, Murphy says, "We're better than last year, and the public is beginning to realize that." NBC apparently agrees; last month it renewed SNL for 20 shows.

Away from the cameras, Eddie is a simple if split personality. "Richard Pryor is my idol artistically, and Bill Cosby morally," he maintains. "Pryor is a genius; he's the guy who made me want to be like this." On the other hand, "You never hear any garbage about Cosby. He has a happy home life. To have the best of both worlds would be ideal." It seems unlikely that the level-headed Murphy will suffer the fate of New York's other young comedy skyrocket, the late Freddie Prinze. "I don't drink, smoke or get high," claims Murphy. "I could afford cocaine, but I've never tried it because I'm afraid I might like it." His giddiest moments, in fact, follow his $4,500-a-week payday. "Give any 19-year-old kid $1,000 a week and he'll freak out," says Murphy of last year's take-home pay, which he squandered on a Pontiac Trans Am and expensive gifts. "I freaked out. I was lucky the show got pulled off the air last year. It gave me a chance to look at myself and grow up. Now I'm putting half my money in the bank—and I'm incorporated."

If he seems better adjusted than many comics, the reason may be that "what makes a lot of them bitter is that they have to pay dues a long time. I got my break when I was 19. I've got nothing to be bitter about," Murphy says. Also, unlike other comics, "I had a real good home life. I never wanted for anything, emotionally or materially." Eddie grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island with his mother and stepfather, a foreman for Breyers Ice Cream, and four step-and half-siblings. With a flair for one-upping classmates ("Your mother's got a wooden leg, with a kick-stand"), he landed his first showbiz job at 15 emceeing a youth club talent show. Soon he was spending so much time honing his stand-up act for local clubs that "the real joke was me on report card day," he recalls. "To get out of high school my senior year, I had to take 11th-and 12th-grade English, plus night school for social studies, plus summer school. I messed up real bad. I wasn't a slow student. It was just that I was in the lunchroom or the hallways telling jokes. I was going to be a star."

Instead, he wound up selling shoes in a local mall and working comedy gigs. Then, during a Florida show, "I heard that Saturday Night Live was going to use a black comic from New York City who was stealing material from me," he says. Murphy himself auditioned—six times—and got the part.

Though he recently moved out of his parents' house into his own one-bedroom bachelor apartment nearby, "He comes home and he's just as thoughtful as ever," attests his mother, Lillian, a telephone operator. As for companionship, Eddie says, unfettered by modesty, "I was always popular with the girls. Now it's even worse. But if I can tell a girl's blown away by what I do, and not that into me, then I stop seeing her." Marriage? "I can't see that until I'm in my 30s, but," he deadpans, "I am going to have some kids next year."

Although Murphy has no commitments beyond Saturday Night Live, he's confident enough to have sent back a movie script with Henry Winkler three months ago that required him to play "a nigger role, some irate black guy," and he nixed a Tonight show spot because, he claims, "they wouldn't let me sit down with the panel. I wasn't going to do my stand-up routine, leave, and then have some foot doctor come out and talk about his book. I'm not a star, but I'm not just another stand-up comic, either." If that's youthful arrogance, so be it. "I don't know what makes me tick, what makes me happy or sad, what goes on in my mind," says Eddie. "The only thing I'm secure about is that I'm funny."

From Our Partners