A King of Comedy Reclaims His Crown

From Lil' Kim and Snoop Dogg to Denzel and Whoopi, America's black celebrities are intriguing far beyond the red carpet—sometimes vulnerable, sometimes inspiring, but more than anything else, human. In her new book, 'Off the Record,' NEWSWEEK reporter Allison Samuels looks behind-the-scenes at these boldfaced names of Hollywood, hip-hop and sports. In the following excerpt, she recounts her experience talking to Eddie Murphy right before his career rebounded with “The Nutty Professor.”

Back in the high-flying eighties, Eddie Murphy was without doubt the brightest star burning in Hollywood and  beyond. Known as the leader of a Hollywood elite posse called the Black Packers, which included Robert Townsend, Arsenio Hall, and Keenan Ivory Wayans, Murphy had a cutting-edge,  dead-on take on African-American humor that pushed the comedy show Saturday Night Live to new  heights. Even in the face of the dominant stardom of John Belushi and Chevy Chase, Murphy held his own and shined in silly skits like “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” and  “Buckwheat.”

At the time of Murphy’s rise to fame, I was in junior high school, and while I loved the antics of the master comic Richard Pryor, Murphy had an edge that was closer to my age and reality. The fact that this kid from Brooklyn could take Hollywood by storm was fascinating to me. His appearance on The Tonight Show was the only thing worthy of my being allowed to stay up past 11 o’clock on a school night.

By the time I’d entered Atlanta University, Murphy’s popularity was at its height, as was his massive salary. His brash humor had transferred from television to film quite nicely, with box-office mega-hits like “Trading Places” and  “Beverly Hills Cop.” By the late eighties, the New York native was making nearly $10 million a film and had single-handedly coined the term posse. Murphy was notorious for having no fewer than 15 people with him at all times, which came in handy for the legendary all-night parties at his spacious New Jersey lair known as Bubble Hill.

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The stories of his wild shindigs and endless womanizing did little to take Murphy’s name off the most-eligible bachelor lists of the late eighties. At the time, the NBA had yet to become the dominant source of black men with megamoney, and hip-hop, with its notable salaries and displays of bling, was still in its infancy. Murphy had a thing for dating college girls and spent a great deal of his off time hanging out at historically black colleges and universities, like Howard in Washington, D.C., and Spelman in Atlanta. So it was little surprise that word of his presence on the Atlanta University Center campus spread through the dorms at warp speed. Girls would skip classes to make their way to the Lenox Mall in a mad-dash attempt to purchase something to wear worthy of Mr. Murphy’s or any of his buddies’ undivided attention. It was quite the scene, with young women sporting elaborate hairstyles and brightly painted makeup, complemented by tight, short, and colorful attire with heels that added another four or five inches of height.

By the time I made it to Los Angeles in the early nineties in my quest to work in entertainment, Murphy had married a former model, and although he was still making films, his star was slowly on the decline. He’d lost the landmark plagiarism lawsuit over his film “Coming to America,” and projects like “The Golden Child” were viewed by Hollywood as box-office bombs because their receipts didn’t add up to what had become typical for an Eddie Murphy film blockbuster. But the people he’d put on—Arsenio Hall, Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and a host of other comics—were benefiting greatly from Murphy’s success and his gracious habit of extending help to up- and- coming African-American comics.

One infamous story placed a very funny new comic on the receiving end of the star’s giving. Murphy provided the struggling performer cash, opportunities to audition for his many films, and a chance to stay in his spacious home in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the young star got a little confused by his luck and instead stole Murphy’s Rolex watch along with a few other things. Despite the comic’s amazing gift, Murphy made sure the young man never worked again. That was the power of Eddie Murphy, with or without a continuing string of box-office blockbusters.

Although his hits had become fewer, Murphy continued to rule the party scene. Receiving an invitation to one of his parties was like winning the golden ticket for a weekend with Willy Wonka. A plush setting crowded with a who’s who of the A list in Hollywood, music and sports, along with an endless supply of food and drink was just the start of a Murphy party. But Hollywood is an interesting machine, and in the blink of an eye, power can shift. The continued emergence of Murphy followers such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, Arsenio Hall, and the Wayans Brothers ironically all helped erode Murphy’s once strong hold on Tinseltown. Then along came a little film titled “Vampire in Brooklyn,” which sealed Murphy’s cinematic coffin with poor box-office receipts and even worse reviews. I actually liked the film, which also starred Angela Bassett, but I, it seemed, was in the minority.

Murphy stepped away from the spotlight for a while and stayed close to home at Bubble Hill with his wife and their growing family. But in 1996, word began to spread that Eddie Murphy was working on a unique project that would feature him as several characters at once. The film was “The  Nutty Professor,” and early reviews predicted that it would  elevate the onetime cover boy for Vanity Fair back to his  original heights of stardom.

Murphy was always a sensitive type, despite the hell he gave many a subject during his one-man comedy shows. Remember his hilarious bashing of Bill Cosby? Given how much he could dish it, one might have assumed that Murphy could take it. On the contrary, he was so sensitive that when a friend of mine told him she didn’t like his music (during his short-lived recording career), Murphy promptly put her out of his room. So you can imagine what the potential success of “The Nutty Professor” must have meant when he was finding it hard to reestablish momentum in his career.

My gut told me that this film would resurrect Murphy’s career, and I wanted to write a piece that would detail his return. But convincing my editors wasn’t going to be easy. Even though they’d put him on Newsweek’s cover years before, they thought his best days were far behind him. Yet I continued my campaign to get Murphy in the magazine, no matter how small the space given. My editors relented, offering half a page. Not great—but I was desperate.

Unfortunately, convincing Mr. Murphy to cooperate was another problem. His publicist reported that, gun-shy over bad press from his last films, the comic was not eager to speak to a reporter from a major magazine about what his future might hold. He’d said, “I read in Newsweek that  ‘Nutty’ is my last chance. What does that mean, exactly?  Does that mean that Mike Ovitz is going to meet me at the Hollywood sign and kick my ass if it doesn’t do well?”

Indeed, I had my work cut out for me, so I began working the back channels. I’d been told the hip-hop mastermind Russell Simmons was producing the film, and after several phone calls to mutual friends, I secured Simmons’s treasured cell phone number. I explained to him what I wanted to do with Murphy and how I thought this piece could kick off a renewed interest in the star, which would of course mean additional revenue for him. Simmons agreed to plead my case with Murphy, but several days went by with no word. Convinced the interview had fallen through the cracks, I was blown away when, at the last minute, Murphy’s people called to say he’d comply.

He was in San Francisco filming another movie, so I’d have to travel up from Los Angeles and talk to him between  scenes. It was June, so I figured all my cutest summer attire would be just fine for a set visit. However, I’d forgotten the famous Mark Twain saying that the coldest winter he’d ever spent was July in San Francisco. I soon found out June was no different. After a quick trip to the mall to revise my wardrobe, I waited patiently at my hotel for Murphy’s assistant to call with my interview time.

Although giddy at the chance of finally talking with Murphy, I was secretly praying the interview would happen late in the afternoon, after the Game Six matchup between the Chicago Bulls and the Seattle SuperSonics for the NBA finals. It was Michael Jordan’s first appearance in the finals since his return from retirement, and I didn’t want to miss it. Of course, when Murphy’s assistant called, the interview was slated for game time. I mentioned this, with no serious thoughts about rescheduling, just making idle conversation.

Wrapped in about nine wool sweaters, I made my way to the docks, where the movie was shooting. Murphy’s very sweet assistant met me and escorted me to a trailer on the back of the lot. As we walked and chatted about God knows what, I noticed the trailer we’d entered was beyond huge and equipped with the latest technology. At this point, Murphy’s assistant led me to the back of the trailer, where a massive big-screen television was set up and tons of food placed all around. The channel was turned to the NBA pregame, and a masseuse was waiting on the couch.

I was told that Mr. Murphy wanted me to enjoy the game and would join me later for a talk. Now at first I was embarrassed; I hadn’t meant for him or his people to think the game was more important than our interview. But his assistant assured me that between him filming his scenes and the drama he’d put me through securing the interview, this was the least he could do. So while munching on strawberries and cream and enjoying a heavenly massage, I watched Jordan win his fourth championship in perfect bliss.

Like clockwork, as soon as the game ended, Murphy entered the trailer with a pleasant smile and the question of who’d won the game. I was immediately struck by how young he looked in person and how completely serious his face was once the smile was gone. This was not the Eddie Murphy from “Eddie Murphy Raw” or even “Trading Places,” and that’s the Eddie I’d hoped to meet. Not.

As we settled down and began talking about all that had occurred in his life since he achieved stardom as a teenager, I quickly realized that this would be the best interview I would ever have, bar none. I’d found Murphy at a time in his life when the chips were down and he knew it. However, knowing it and coming to terms with it can often be two separate things—particularly for an actor who’d had the popularity Murphy had enjoyed for an extended period of time.

For the next four hours, I sat mesmerized by Murphy’s  brutally honest tales of turning down roles, for instance in the megahit “Ghost Busters,” and the regret he felt the moment the film came out. He spoke candidly about doing one too many “Beverly Hills Cops” films and admitted to doing them for the money in the end. “There was no reason to do the third and fourth ones,” he said with a dead serious look.  “I could tell they were bad—I read the script. But when you never had money—you always want more, and you’re worried you’re going to run out.”

The comedian then discussed his frustration at having been the biggest star at Paramount Studios during that time and not even being given the script for the film “Ghost” to read. “I deserved for them to come to me first,” said Murphy. “That’s how you treat your biggest star. You give him the opportunity to say he’s not interested. I would have been interested in doing ‘Ghost.’”

We then journeyed back to his heyday and how he was known for being a big spender and an even bigger party thrower. The stories had made him seem like he was having the time of his life. But Murphy was quick to paint a quite different picture. “First off, I was a kid,” he said. “I was 18 years old when I got on Saturday Night Live and had no idea what was in store for me. I just knew I could make people laugh, but overnight I became the biggest thing going with people all over me from everywhere.”

Once the money began pouring in, Murphy, who admitted trusting few people for most of his life, made sure only close family members and people he’d known for a long time were in charge of his business affairs. That had turned out to be a bad idea. “I had so many people, people in my family, take advantage of me—my money, everything,” he said with distinct sadness in his eyes. “It may have looked like fun, but it wasn’t. I was always looking over my shoulders wondering who was doing what to me. You have to remember there wasn’t a blueprint for me then. Richard  [Pryor] was having his own serious issues back then, so he couldn’t really help me, and Cosby wasn’t a fan of my work. I was just winging it.”

He also spoke of the pain he felt when an African-American filmmaker criticized his seeming resistance to using his clout in Hollywood to make changes for the better for African Americans. “If he’d called me to say those things and we’d talked about it, cool. But to say to the press with no regard to knowing what I was doing was just nuts to me. People never know exactly what you’re doing or what you’re going through. I didn’t come into this business after going to college or anything like that. I didn’t know exactly how to do a lot of the things that were expected of me.”

As he spoke candidly about the people who had betrayed  him over the years, I turned the conversation to his once  good friend Arsenio Hall. Everyone in Hollywood knew Murphy had given Hall his break by casting him in the film “Coming to America” and by encouraging Paramount to give  the comic a talk show that could compete with the likes of  Johnny Carson and David Letterman. The Arsenio Hall Show was groundbreaking in its showcasing of minority talent, new and old. To help his friend and to make sure ratings remained at the top, Murphy was a frequent guest, offering Hall a chance to show his viewers what it was like to have one of the most famous people in the world as your best friend. But one guest appearance left Murphy livid and the friendship with Hall in shambles.

During an election year, Murphy appeared and Hall grilled him hard on his voting habits. Hall did this knowing full well, according to Murphy, that Murphy had never voted in his life. I vividly remembered watching this show and how absolutely pissed Murphy had seemed as he tried to refrain from lashing out at his old friend. But Murphy didn’t hold back in our interview. “I was like, this nigger is crazy. I gave him this damn show and he embarrasses me like this. . . I made that nigger—I made him. How I held it together to get through that show, I’ll never know.”

I knew the comments on Hall wouldn’t make it into my piece for Newsweek. Complicating matters was that I’d also done several interviews with Hall and found him both charming and smart. But there was a sincere disappointment in Murphy’s voice that day which struck me as almost childlike. A deep feeling that one too many friends had stabbed him in the back, and the betrayals had taken the joy out of everything he should have been celebrating in his life.

As we moved to wrap our interview at around 11 o’clock that night, Murphy asked me how big a story Newsweek would be doing on him. I was surprised because celebrities rarely ask this question of the reporter. Most have their publicists work out the details of size and placement before an interview is agreed upon, but because Murphy had been so honest with me that night, I decided to be completely honest as well.

I told him that my editors had balked at the notion of doing anything on him at all given the last few years of his career and that I had no idea how much space I’d get. I often think about his response when I see a new star who seems to have Hollywood wrapped around his or her fingers. After pausing for a moment, Murphy looked me straight in the eye and asked, “But don’t they remember?”

As corny as it may seem, my heart dropped. Murphy could see that I had no answer—no way to explain how someone as famous, rich, and talented as he could now not even get the promise of a column story in a national magazine.

Murphy called to thank me for the piece, which also surprised me, given that it had not been sugarcoated at all. It told the real story of a career damaged by one too many bad decisions. A week later, I received in the mail an invitation to attend the premiere of “The Nutty Professor,” and I was psyched beyond belief. Everyone in black Hollywood would be there to welcome Murphy back to his proper place at the top.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be for me. A little house party thrown by the recently released O.J. Simpson was more important to my editors. Instead of hobnobbing with Will Smith and Janet Jackson, I was sitting in O.J.’s  kitchen listening to him tell me how he’d always supported  black people and how he’d date a black woman if he found one he was interested in. Why didn’t they just keep him in jail?

The feature ended up getting two full pages. “The Nutty Professor” became a smash hit, making $200 million worldwide, without a doubt because of Murphy’s stellar performance. I would see him at another premiere some months later, and while his fortunes had changed significantly since  the last time we’d met, the sadness on his face hadn’t.

Today, Murphy is divorced and settled back in Los Angeles. I rarely see him out, but I perk up anytime I hear he’s involved in a project, particularly a film as high-profi le as “Dreamgirls,” costarring Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles. Though Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, and Chris Rock are  the visible faces of humor today, each would tell you that  there would be no “them” without the talent and success of Eddie Murphy. Maybe one day just the knowledge of that will be enough to make him smile.

Copyright 2007 by Allison Samuels. “ Off the Record ” to be published Jan. 23 by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins

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