The Nutty Career

REGRETS, HE'S HAD A FEW, but fewer than you'd think. ""I regret not making "Ghostbusters','' says Eddie Murphy, 35. It's a Sunday evening in San Francisco, a couple of weeks before the release of his new comedy, ""The Nutty Professor.'' The actor's on the set of ""Metro,'' sporting baby dreadlocks and a small hoop earring, and lounging in a trailer full of peach-scented candles. ""We had just finished "Trading Places','' Murphy remembers, ""and Dan said, "How about making a movie about fighting ghosts?' I was like, I ain't f-ing with no ghosts. Then I saw it and'' -- he throws up his hands and lets out a high-pitched scream -- ""I wanted to jump off the roof.'' He also regrets not singing on ""We Are the World.'' ""Stevie asked me to come to the studio,'' he says, ""but I was working on my own album and blew it off. I was like, They'll probably put me in the back row with LaToya and Sonny Bono anyway. Then I saw the video and'' -- again with the hands and the scream -- ""I wanted to jump off the roof.''

Since we're on the subject of regrets, what about some of the movies that Murphy's made since the late '80s? ""Another 48 Hours.'' ""The Distinguished Gentleman.'' ""Beverly Hills Cop III.'' ""Vampire in Brooklyn.'' Did they make Murphy want to jump off the roof -- or was it just us? The actor is refreshingly frank, if a little touchy. ""I read in NEWSWEEK that "Nutty' was my last chance,'' he says. (Actually, we said it was his last last chance.) ""What does that mean exactly? Does it mean that Mike Ovitz is going to meet me at the Hollywood sign and kick my ass if it doesn't do well? The reality of the situation is that if my career was on the decline I wouldn't be making movies. They don't give money to blacks in Hollywood because they're swell.''

The reality of the situation is that Murphy makes $12 million to $15 million a movie, and his last effort, ""Vampire,'' made $19 million. ""The Nutty Professor'' cost nearly $50 million to make. That sounds like an iffy investment, until you've heard preview audiences laughing so hard they miss half the fart jokes. ""Nutty'' is a loose remake of the Jerry Lewis classic. It's a Jekyll and Hyde story about an obese professor fiddling with DNA and trying to woo a purty young colleague named Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett). Gulping down a formula he's tested on rats, Sherman Klump (Murphy) metamorphoses into the buff womanizer Buddy Love (Murphy). His testosterone skyrockets. He acts out, lives it up and shocks Papa, Mama, Grandma and brother Ernie (Murphy, Murphy, Murphy, Murphy).

""The Nutty Professor'' was directed by Tom Shadyac of ""Ace Ventura'' fame, and, like that wild ride, it's nearly sociopathic in its quest for laughs. Buddy Love can be odious. Still, you'll be touched by the sweet, rumbly voiced Professor Klump and impressed by Murphy's ability to pull off this many-headed monster. At its best, ""Nutty'' busts a very big gut.

Which reminds us: before we expected nothing from Eddie Murphy, we expected everything. He was Gumby, dammit. And he was Axel Foley. To appreciate ""Beverly Hills Cop,'' you need only watch last spring's smash ""Bad Boys'': it took Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to rip off Eddie Murphy. In the mid-'80s, Murphy was the Michael Jackson of Hollywood, reigning at the box office and obliterating the color line -- never playing the sidekick, the drug addict, the Uncle Tom. He took no credit for leaping racial barriers, and got very little. In 1987 Spike Lee even slammed him in the press for not using his power to help blacks in Hollywood. ""I was a young black man flying solo in an all-white industry just like Spike,'' says Murphy, still miffed. ""I was finding my way. And for him to go to the white media with that was really wrong. But I handled it.''

Lee's sniping wasn't the only thing on Murphy's mind in the mid-'80s: ""People were letting me down left and right, and women were using me and hurting me. It took its toll.'' Murphy released the vicious concert movie ""Raw'' in 1987. Wearing a red leather suit and gloves, he ranted about women after his money, saying he was going to Africa to find an unspoiled ""crazy naked Zebra bitch'' named Oomfoofoo. Murphy was no longer a scrappy guy having a ball at the expense of a racist society; he was just another paranoid superstar dressed like Elvis. ""Raw'' was a smash, but it was also an unsettling study of a mind contaminated by fame: ""I know I scared the st out of people with "Raw.' They were like, He's not Axel Foley! He's an angry black man!''

To his credit, Murphy spent the next 10 years expanding his acting repertoire, apparently to the chagrin of Paramount Pictures, which wanted him eternally Axel. He made an engaging Buppie comedy, ""Boomerang,'' in 1992, but there were too many misses. In retrospect, Murphy says he probably should have left Paramount when his friend Jeffrey Katzenberg went to Disney back in 1984. But Paramount kept throwing money at him. ""Every bad decision I've made has been based on money,'' he says. ""I grew up in the projects, and you don't turn down money there. You take it, because you never know when it's all going to end.'' Murphy doesn't quite regret 1994's ""Cop III'': ""I made "Cop III' because they offered me $15 million. That $15 million was worth having Roger Ebert's thumb up my a.''

Hollywood believes Murphy could be a superstar again if he could find one hit. Is ""Nutty'' the one? It's opening in a crowded season, but it may find a niche. Murphy should draw some of the young hip-hop generation, who know him from ""Saturday Night Live'' reruns. Murphy isn't preoccupied with the movie's fate. He talks about the grounding influence of his wife, Nicole, and their three children, with whom he lives in a New Jersey estate called Bubble Hill. And he insists he has nothing left to prove. ""I've done something no other black person has done before,'' he says. ""My films have been successful the world over. I am not worried about what people say.'' If Murphy gets them laughing again, they won't have time to say anything.