Eddie Murphy: Proof that Comic Actors are Incredible Talents, Too

By David Raether

I would like you to consider for a moment the idea that Eddie Murphy is one of the best actors of his generation.

Take a look at some of the actors born in the 1960s who rose to prominence in the 1980s-90s and have a body of work that’s actually worth evaluating. The problem with assessing Eddie Murphy in this group is that he has made a lot of bad movies, so he is easy to dismiss.

But not so fast, my friend.

Question: Which one of these actors has the protean range and energetic force of Eddie Murphy? Johnny Depp? Brad Pitt? Paul Rudd? Robert Downey, Jr..? Daniel Craig? Liam Neeson? Tom Cruise?

Take Liam Neeson. He had one of the most notable roles of the 1990s when he played Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1999). Great performance. No question about it. But what about Murphy’s performance three years earlier when he played nine characters in The Nutty Professor (1996), including three women? And executed all of them perfectly?

Or consider his biggest movie, Coming to America (1988). He not only played a naive and good-natured African prince, but also a manic barbershop owner, an elderly Jewish man, and a soul singer with a group called Sexual Chocolate.

You’re chuckling at the mere thought of each of those characters, aren’t you? Yes, he’s just a comic actor. But do you think that’s easy? It’s not. I am confident that Johnny Depp couldn’t have pulled off what Murphy did in The Nutty Professor (1996). Nor could Daniel Craig have done what Murphy did in Coming to America (1988). And there’s no chance Robert Downey, Jr., could have been as memorable voicing Donkey in the Shrek movies.

Eddie Murphy is an immense and prodigious talent. The fact that he has never had a dramatic role to match those talents doesn’t in any way detract from them. Also, the fact that his filmography is somewhat littered with bad titles tends to undercut many film fans’ appreciation of what a great actor he is. I mean, come on, The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)? Ugh.

Edward Regan Murphy was born on April 3rd, 1961, in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. His mother was a telephone operator and his father was a transit police officer for the City of New York. Murphy was baptized and raised Catholic. His parents divorced when he was three and his older brother Charlie was five years old. The boys stayed with their mother. Murphy’s father died when he was eight, apparently murdered by a girlfriend. Not long after that, Murphy’s mother became ill and could no longer care for the boys, so she put them into foster care, where they remained for a year. Murphy says it was during this time that he learned to be funny— it was a defense mechanism for dealing with the tumult of his young life.

It paid off. Murphy began performing in comedy clubs in his neighborhood when he was 17 and eventually started taking the train over to Manhattan to work in comedy clubs. During this time, the cast at Saturday Night Live had just experienced a nearly complete turnover, a new executive producer had come in, and Lorne Michaels had left for the time being. The new exec, Jean Doumanian, wanted to add a Black performer to the cast and held auditions. Murphy missed out on them but began to pester the show’s talent coordinator, calling him from a payphone, claiming he had 19 brothers and sisters who were counting on him to get cast onto the show. His persistence worked; Murphy received an audition and joined the cast. He was just 19 years old.

Murphy rose to national prominence on the show, spinning out a series of memorably hilarious characters: a temperamental Gumby, the low-level thief and slum-dwelling Mr. Rogers knockoff, Mr. Robinson, soul singer James Brown and his James Brown Hot Tub Party, the pimp Velvet Jones, the movie reviewer Raheem Abdul Muhammed, who wanted more sex and violence in the movies, and, probably his most loved, the grown-up version of Buckwheat . He eventually got so tired of playing Buckwheat that he actually had him “assassinated” during an SNL sketch.

The show was really struggling to find its voice in those years, and Murphy almost single handedly kept the laughs coming. His performances drew the attention of Hollywood and he made a couple of well-regarded films while still on the show: 48 Hours (1982) and Trading Places (1983). Murphy left SNL in 1984 and pursued a massive stand-up career, performing to ecstatic crowds in enormous venues. He made two concert films during this time: Delirious (1983) and Raw (1987).

Both of these are great concert films, but I have to say I had forgotten the atrociously homophobic opening sequence in Delirious, which now mars the rest of the show for me. Murphy is an explosively powerful comic, and it’s frustrating and infuriating to watch Delirious now and see that intolerable opening sequence about gay men, especially given what was going on in America in the mid-1980s during the peak of the AIDS / HIV crisis. That’s too bad because Delirious features two of his funniest stand-up bits — one about little kids and ice cream trucks and, of course, his long, brilliant bit about Uncle Gus and Aunt Bunny at a family cookout.

In 1984, Murphy made another outstanding crime drama / comedy with Beverly Hills Cop. He followed this by moving to Los Angeles and becoming a full-time movie star.

Murphy’s personal life as an adult has had its share of tumult, too. He has ten children with five different women but was only married to one. Several of the pregnancies with these women overlapped each other. In 1997, he was arrested while in the company of a prostitute, apparently not heeding the lesson Hugh Grant learned a couple of years prior when he was arrested while doing the exact same thing. Murphy’s life is much tamer now, and he has been with the same partner, Paige Butcher, for almost ten years. His older brother Charlie, who gained notoriety for his appearances recounting epic celebrity encounters on Chappelle’s Show (2003), died of leukemia in 2017.

During a movie career that has lasted 40 years, Murphy has undoubtedly been in many mediocre movies. He also tends to do bad sequels to his good films, which is a bit depressing. Even so, he’s been in several outstanding, memorable titles that are definitely worth watching over and over again.

Here are five of my favorites.

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