What the Hell Happened to Eddie Murphy?
By this point in the “What the Hell Happened?” series, a pattern has developed. The career usually begins with TV roles or modeling gigs. Then a big break, super stardom and a stint on the A-list.
Sometimes the celebrity rides on the top of the a-list for years. Other times, they come crashing down relatively quickly. Eventually, their time in the spotlight ends. Sometimes they flame out in a spectacularly public fashion. Other times, they just walk away.
Eddie Murphy’s story breaks from the formula. Sure, there is a rise and fall. But in Murphy’s case, there’s not just one.
Murphy rose to superstardom, slipped into irrelevance, reinvented himself as a family friendly leading man, had a scandal, dropped into obscurity, and then threatened to stage a come back multiple times without ever actually coming back.
Murphy started performing as a stand-up comedian as a teenager. In 1980, at the age of 19, Murphy joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. At the time, he was the youngest cast member in the history of the show.
In the early 80s, SNL was in its first real slump. It was actually facing the possibility of cancellation. Murphy and co-star Joe Piscopo were the sole stand-outs of the cast and arguably saved the show. Murphy became the show’s clear star with characters like Buckwheat, Gumby and Mr. Robinson. He also did a killer Stevie Wonder impression.
Murphy also has the distinction of being the only cast member to host the show while he was still a regular cast member. Murphy remained on SNL until 1984. Once he left, he would not return for over three decades. According to Murphy:
“They were shitty to me on Saturday Night Live a couple of times after I’d left the show. They said some shitty things. There was that David Spade sketch [when Spade showed a picture of Murphy around the time of Vampire in Brooklyn and said, “Look, children, a falling star”]. I made a stink about it, it became part of the folklore. What really irritated me about it at the time was that it was a career shot. It was like, “Hey, come on, man, it’s one thing for you guys to do a joke about some movie of mine, but my career? I’m one of you guys. How many people have come off this show whose careers really are fucked up, and you guys are shitting on me?” And you know every joke has to go through all the producers, and ultimately, you know Lorne or whoever says, [Lorne Michaels voice] “OK, it’s OK to make this career crack…”
While Murphy was still on SNL, he made his feature film debut in 1982’s 48 Hours.
I don’t think the impact of 48 Hours can be over-stated. It wasn’t just a smash hit. It practically invented a genre that would dominate the film landscape for the next decade. The buddy cop movie began with Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours.
Murphy commented on why the movie – in which Nolte’s character says some very politically incorrect racial slurs – worked:
You know why it worked then and the reason why it wouldn’t now? My significance in film – and again I’m not going to be delusional – was that I’m the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen. That’s why I became as popular as I became. People had never seen that before. Black-exploitation movies, even if you dealt with the Man, it was in your neighborhood, never in their world. In 48 Hours, that’s why it worked, because I’m running it, making the story go forward. If I was just chained to the steering wheel sitting there being called “watermelon,” even back then they would have been like, “This is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!”
Nolte was supposed to host SNL when the movie opened. But he partied a little too hard and had to cancel. Instead, Murphy – still a cast member on the show – took over the hosting duties.
Murphy was already a star thanks to SNL. But 48 Hours made him a movie star. Murphy was nominated for a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year. He lost to Ben Kingsley for Ghandi.
The following year, Murphy teamed with SNL alumn Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places.
Murphy played a poor conman who trades places with a rich Wall Street trader played by Aykroyd. Jamie Lee Curtis played a hooker with a heart of gold who helps Aykroyd deal with his new status quo.
Trading Places was directed by John Landis who would work with Murphy two more times. The rich man/poor man comedy was an even greater hit than 48 Hours. Murphy was nominated for another Golden Globe.
Murphy was 2 for 2 in Hollywood and was still a star on TV. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical for Trading Places. Plus he had a hit stand-up comedy special in Eddie Murphy: Delirious that same year.
Murphy’s career was hot. He wasn’t just a rising star. He was shooting straight to the top.
Posted on January 31, 2012, in Movies, Saturday Night Live, TV, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged 48 hours, beverly hills cop, eddie murphy, entertainment, movies, trading places. Bookmark the permalink. 410 Comments.