Muscling in on Movies with 48 Hrs., Eddie Murphy May Take Richard Pryor's Crown

updated 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

One November night in 1982 Eddie Murphy was lounging in his office at NBC in New York, whence he had streaked to fame as the comic muscle behind the resurgent Saturday Night Live. Came a pounding at his door. It was a platoon of lawyers and agents from Los Angeles. They began waving contracts and a check at Murphy. But Murphy, just at that moment, was watching Star Trek on TV. "Wait till the show's over," he told them coolly. The agents and the lawyers watched Star Trek. Then and only then did Murphy, whose first movie (48 Hrs.) had not yet been released, sign a contract for his third movie. Three years before, he had been lucky to make a couple of hundred bucks a week working obscure clubs in obscure Long Island neighborhoods. The check he now held in his hand from Paramount Pictures was for $1 million. And Eddie Murphy was 21 years old.

A few weeks later, after 48 Hrs. had opened as a surprise hit (grossing more than $5 million its first week), Murphy was lounging in his mobile dressing room on Fifth Street in Philadelphia. He was on the set of Trading Places, his second movie, which co-stars Dan Aykroyd. And if 48 Hrs. was indicative of how quickly Murphy had become a box office draw, the set of Trading Places showed to what extent the young black comedian has established himself as the king of the young comics. A cop was stationed outside Murphy's van to control the crowd; there wasn't one outside Aykroyd's. In the van, Murphy was stretched out on the couch, watching Bugs Bunny cartoons at 8 in the morning. "Bugs Bunny is genuinely funny," he said. "This is good stuff."

There was a knock at the door and Murphy went out to begin filming. His role in this movie—that of a poor black who strikes it rich in the white man's world—was originally written with Richard Pryor in mind. Murphy may have the last laugh: He's getting better reviews and box office receipts for 48 Hrs. than Pryor is for The Toy. It seemed as if Murphy had suddenly filled Pryor's job slot: that of a hip, angry—but likable—black comedian who is a hit with white audiences while retaining a staunch base of black fans. Murphy doesn't find success surprising. "I put a hundred percent into my comedy. You just gotta have no doubts. I think that even the ugliest bitch in the world can say, 7 want to be a model'—and be one."

What happens when fame hits with your first movie? Not much, if you're Eddie Murphy, who will be 22 on April 3. He takes it very matter-of-factly. He expected it, he predicted it, and says that if he had missed stardom, he would have become a bum—one extreme or the other. Six years ago he earned $25 for his first professional club date, in a joint near his home in suburban Long Island. Now he earns about $8,000 per episode on SNL, and his lucrative Paramount deal provides for his own production company. All that money buys nothing but his talent: Eddie Murphy kowtows to nobody. Once, a couple of years ago, when he was working a club in Florida, Murphy met Rodney Dangerfield in the men's room. Dangerfield told him his act was okay but what was he going to do with it? Murphy's reaction: "Dangerfield is a funny guy, but how old was he when he got famous? In his 50s? I ain't takin' his mother———' advice."

Murphy has always followed his own course. His late father was a transit policeman, and his mother, a typist, lives in black middle-class Roosevelt, Long Island. Eddie was not a particularly distinguished student, but when he discovered his gift for mimicry and comedy, he set his course for stardom and never wavered. He worked his way up through the clubs until the managers of the Comic Strip in Manhattan got him onto SNL, which he virtually took over. After 48 Hrs., the critics stood in line to proclaim his brilliance.

Back in his van after a quick car scene, Murphy flicked on the TV, shed his topcoat, and studied his three-piece-suited self in the mirror through laughing eyes—and finally shrugged in resignation. "I could never dress like this," he said. "I look like a lawyer. I like leather."

He did pop for the predictable Mercedes, then a Porsche. But otherwise his most notable acquisitions have been vacation trips for his mother and stepfather and his own modest house near them on Long Island. He doesn't drink, and hangs out with his best friend, Joe Piscopo from SNL, who says, "Eddie makes it worth coming to work." He also sees old friends from high school and a succession of non-steady girlfriends. "I'm a happy guy. I'm real secure with myself and I'm not into drugs and shit like that. My vices are cars and clothes and jewelry. This ring on my finger is my cocaine. You can't snort a ring, or else my obituary would be, 'Murphy was found dead with a ring in his nose.' " He laughs his infectious hyuck-hyuck laugh.

Fame, he says seriously, has chiefly meant that his recognition factor has gone way up. "It's scarier now. I can't walk down the street without somebody going nuts. My biggest defense is I'll take my Walkman and don't turn it on but put the headphones on and it looks like you're listening to your music and they'll just call to you and you just keep walkin'."

Fame has also meant a certain amount of jealousy on the part of the comics who are still working the clubs from which Murphy graduated. He has heard that some of them have started doing jokes about him onstage. That irritates Murphy. "As long as the public likes me, the comics can kiss my ass. They're always sayin' we're always gonna be brothers—until you make it."

Outside Murphy's dressing room there lingered a small crowd of autograph hounds, most of them black. One started shouting something about "get whitey." Murphy bolted out the door, going eyeball-to-eyeball with the man and giving him a stern lecture about the stupidity of prejudice.

He later dismissed the incident and appeared uncomfortable at the suggestion that he has become a role model for young blacks. "Role models have different heads, think differently," he said. "If anybody admires the way I live, fine. But they're not gonna tail on my life. If I like to do a certain thing, I'll do what I want. I don't think about it. It's like—all I'm doin' is tellin' jokes and bein' funny. I'm not tryin' to make a statement. If there are people lookin' at me, tryin' to get something out of what I say and what I do—fine. But I'm not doin' anything but tellin' jokes."

That night, as every night that he is on location in Philadelphia, Murphy had a room-service dinner in his suite at the Bellevue Stratford. He seldom goes out when he's away from home. Richard Pryor had called a few minutes earlier to invite Eddie to visit him in Hawaii. Pryor, once Eddie's idol, gave him the only advice he's ever followed, "Don't trust nobody."

Murphy picked at his filet mignon and played with the idea of what success means to him. "I still don't have what I want," he finally said. "I want to be more than big, I want to be tremendous. My goal is to be like—I wanna be like the Beatles, man. Like the Beatles were to music, that's what I want to be like to comedy. That's my goal."

He says that quite seriously. He is an ardent student of comedy and can do Gleason routines, Jerry Lewis routines, Cosby routines, on and on by rote. He has thought quite a bit about his current role. "It was written for Pryor," he says, "and it's funny to see Richard get f—ed over in a movie, in the way he reacts. He goes, 'Oh, shee-it,' and that's funny. And that's Richard's thing. But I'm not funny like that. When I'm being cocky, straightforward, that's when I'm the funniest. This character, I make this pathetic guy still have some guts left."

Murphy will almost certainly leave SNL after this season to concentrate on movies and record albums and public performances. He has taken a wry look at his future and it brings him up short: "I think in 20 years I'll be looked at like a Bob Hope. Doing these President jokes and golf shit. It scares me. I'd hate to be mainstream by 40."

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