"This," Murphy told PEOPLE in a blunt, one-hour interview, "is an act of kindness that got turned into a f—king horror show."
Murphy, 36, has been accused of nothing illegal. But what he calls "this" was the kind of thing that helps stand-up comics pay their mortgages and causes movie honchos—who have $70 million riding on The Nutty Professor star's next film, Doctor Dolittle—to reach for the family-size bottle of Rolaids.
Murphy blames his troubles, in part, on insomnia. His wife, Nicole, 29, and children, Brea, 7, Miles, 4, and Shayne, 2, were out of town visiting her mother. He was in Los Angeles filming Dolittle. "My wife was in Sacramento," says Murphy. "My kids were in Sacramento. I'm in this big house by myself wide-awake. So it was like, let me go get something to read." A Hollywood newsstand vendor near the area of the incident said he did indeed sell the comedian a couple of periodicals in the wee small hours of May 2.
According to Murphy, he then climbed into his Toyota Land Cruiser, and, while driving west along Santa Monica Boulevard, "I saw this Hawaiian-looking woman and said, 'What are you doing out here?' She said, 'I'm working.' " The comedian says he then offered her—actually a man named Atisone Seiuli, 20, a prostitute—a ride home, and he/she accepted. Murphy told reporters, "I said, 'You shouldn't be doing that [soliciting].' And badda-bing.... I'm never giving anyone a lift again." More than two miles after the pickup, undercover cops, who had been watching Seiuli, pulled Murphy over. Seiuli, who had broken probation by failing to take an HIV test, was arrested. (He later admitted the violation and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.) Murphy was free to drive away.
Murphy maintains that, odd as it may sound, the late-night Samaritan is a role he often plays. "What people don't know is, for years and years at night I'd get in my car, I'd drive all over Manhattan, I'd give derelicts money," says the comic. "I'd stop and talk to homeless people. I'd go to corners where there are prostitutes and give them $5,000 and $10,000 to go home and get off the street.... When I'm doing something charitable, I'm not doing it for publicity. You won't see it in the paper, a big giant check blown up, smiling. When I do something, it's out of the goodness of my heart." He says that on the night of the incident, he had given a homeless man $1,000. "I get a good rush knowing that I'm doing something good and knowing, here's a person who's on the bottom." Seiuli, he says, was just someone else to help. "It was late," says Murphy, who talked freely and at length during the PEOPLE telephone interview, occasionally overriding attempts by his lawyer Marty Singer, who also participated, to restrict the scope of the interview. "I thought Atisone was a girl. That's not even the issue. It wasn't like I was looking for someone. It was a person I assumed was a girl at the corner." He says that, in some ways, simply having a prostitute in his car made him uncomfortable: "I'm obsessive-compulsive with cleanliness," says Murphy. "After I got home, I wiped off the door handle and the stuff that person had touched."
Not everyone accepts Murphy's story at face value. For one thing, when stopped, he was some distance past Seiuli's reported residence. Additionally those familiar with the locale said that for Murphy to ask Seiuli what he was doing on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue at 4:45 a.m. is like asking a cinnamon cruller what it's doing at Dunkin'Donuts. "For the most part, Santa Monica is known for its homosexual prostitute trade," says Sgt. Robert Harms of the Special Problems Unit at the West Hollywood Sheriff's station. "Transvestites, transsexuals and other males work those areas." Women prostitutes prowl nearby Sunset Boulevard, where Hugh Grant made a date to remember with Divine Brown two years ago. Murphy denies knowing Seiuli, whose cousin Ioane contended the pair were already acquainted. Nonetheless, Murphy admits, "It's embarrassing. I'm not sitting around depressed going, 'Oh, people are going to think I'm not Eddie anymore, I'm not a man.' I know I'm a man. I'm a man." And his wife, Nicole, he says, "was shocked at first.... She was, like, 'Oh, Eddie, this could get twisted in all kinds of ways.' " Murphy says he has no doubts that his marriage is strong enough to withstand the run-in with police. "Since we've been married I haven't so much as touched another person. I go to work, and I come home." But he grumbles about seeing his name swept up in a tabloid twister. (Before the week was over, Howard Stern had found a transvestite, calling herself Diamond, who said she once had a dalliance with Murphy.) Says Murphy: "I know I'm not ever on the 50 most wonderful list... but I'm not a degenerate either." The day after the event, Murphy says, "I was really, really depressed. Then Sunday it kind of got funny. I was around comics and my friends. Keenen [Ivory Wayans] said to me, 'Knowing you, this is the absolute worst thing that could happen.' And we laughed for a half hour."
One current business associate says an emotional Murphy told colleagues he realized the incident was no laughing matter. "I believe we all know what he was doing, and what he wanted to do," says the associate, who continues, "I think he could be a self-destructive guy reaching out for help and about to blow up. But he said he's not going to do that. He knows he's in a second-chance phase of his career, and he's not going to blow it."
Like Grant, Murphy, who's getting paid $17.5 million for Dolittle, was far from his significant other when the police pulled him over. He wed ex-model Nicole in 1993, and they live with their children in Bubble Hill, a $3.5 million, 22-room mansion in Englewood, N.J. Nicole Murphy couldn't be reached for comment. Murphy told PEOPLE in 1992 that he mostly stayed home with his family and watched TV. "It's just a person getting older, and after a while going to a disco ain't so much fun," he said. Then he added that he had founded a charity called the YEAH Foundation, which Murphy says is in New York City.
Charitable work aside, Murphy's escapade was certainly a gift to comedians. At one of the Los Angeles comedy clubs where Murphy used to hold court, one old acquaintance predicts the funnyman will find a way to laugh it off. "Watch him make an act of it. 'Live on the Santa Monica Strip: Eddie Murphy in a hula skirt.' "
It's too soon to tell whether the incident will hurt his resurgent numbers at the box office. Call it Divine intervention, but Grant's fame soared after his arrest and subsequent public apology. "If I had a movie coming out this weekend, it would probably open bigger than anything I've had out," says Murphy. Perhaps, but it doesn't always work out that way: Just ask a guy who's providing one of the animal voices for Doctor Dolittle—Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens.
LYNDON STAMBLER, JEFFREY WELLS, PAULA YOO, BRENDAN BOURNE and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles