Get ready for Ed­die

So what if he hasn’t told a joke on­stage in 28 years. Ed­die Mur­phy knows he’s still funny. Do not doubt him.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS

High above the Hol­ly­wood Hills, on a lime­stone pa­tio next to a bub­bling foun­tain, one of the fun­ni­est men on Earth clicks on his fa­vorite new coun­try song. ¶ Tra­la­la twid­dly­dee­dee­dee, it gives me a thrill ¶ To wake up in the morn­ing on rich nig­ger’s hill ¶ What??? The man hold­ing the re­mote starts singing along. He loves this twisted par­ody of an old stan­dard, “Mockin’ Bird Hill.” And why not? Ed­die Mur­phy wrote, recorded and sang it in his home stu­dio, a build­ing just across the lawn from his 32­room man­sion. He’s been record­ing there for years, every­thing from folky pop to reg­gae and an ode to mar­i­juana laid down with Snoop Dogg. ¶ Dressed all in black, Mur­phy gets ex­cited talk­ing about the idea of a new al­bum. This would be noth­ing like his last record, a slick pop disc that came out in 1993. ¶ “It would be like ‘Sgt. Pep­per’s,’ where the al­bum is play­ing stuff, a lit­tle vi­gnette here, here’s mu­sic, but re­mem­ber, I’m Ed­die, so here’s a crazy song, lit­tle sketches, every­thing,” he says. “Na­tional Lam­poon used to do al­bums like that.” ¶ A pos­si­ble new al­bum? That’s just the start. For the past five years, Mur­phy has been vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble, tired of mak­ing movies and out of cir­cu­la­tion. As he read­ies to re­ceive the Mark Twain Award for Amer­i­can Hu­mor at the Kennedy Cen­ter on Sun­day night, the co­me­dian and ac­tor, the man who, at 23, was paid $1 mil­lion for a week’s work, who saved “Satur­day Night Live” and who is box­of­fice­wise the most suc­cess­ful African Amer­i­can ac­tor ever, is once again talk­ing new projects.

One movie is in the can, a promis­ing, small-bud­get drama by “Driv­ing Miss Daisy” di­rec­tor Bruce Beres­ford. He has writ­ten scripts for three other films. He’s also ex­cited about a fourth project, aimed for HBO, in which he would play con­tro­ver­sial former D.C. mayor Mar­ion Barry. The po­ten­tial di­rec­tor? Spike Lee.

Fi­nally, there’ s the most tan­ta­liz­ing pos­si­bil­ity. Ed­die Mur­phy, the Elvis, Michael Jack­son and Bea­tles of standup, is con­sid­er­ing a re­turn to the stage. He last told jokes to a live au­di­ence in 1987.

Back then, he was a kid, wary of women, suited in pur­ple leather, the anti-Dr. Doolit­tle, so pro­fane that his 1987 con­cert film, “Raw,” held the record for most uses of the “F” word in a fea­ture: 223. The kid is 54 now. What would that sound like?

“That’s the car­rot,” Mur­phy says. “Ev­ery now and then when I think about it, I think, ‘What would I even talk about on­stage?’ It’s never been, ‘I won­der if I’m funny. I won­der if I can come up with jokes .’ It’ s more ,‘ What would it be like with­out the leather suit and the anger?’ ”

He sits down to talk. He speaks qui­etly and holds an acous­tic gui­tar, noodling as he an­swers ques­tions. Not a wrin­kle, not a strand of gray in his hair. And as Ed­die Mur­phy breaks down his en­tire ca­reer — the 39 years from the mo­ment he ap­peared at a tal­ent show on Long Is­land to the present — he of­fers anec­dotes punc­tu­ated by peer­less impressions.

This is not show­ing off. Th­ese are the voices that emerge nat­u­rally as he re­lates each story. He does Sid­ney Poitier, Quentin Tarantino, Ge­orge Lopez and James Brown. He also does him­self. But not the Ed­die you think you know. The fast-talk­ing smart ass with the joyous, wide-eyed heh-heh-heh-heh of “Bev­erly Hills Cop.” He killed that laugh off years ago.

“You know what’s funny? I’ve never heard any­body do me,” he says.

What about SNL’s Jay Pharoah? He does Ed­die.

“He doesn’t do me. He does Buddy Love. My comic per­sona. I’ve never heard any­one do this. I’ve heard peo­ple say” — and here, his eyes get wide, his mouth opens, he raises the vol­ume and spews — “I’m Ed­die Mur­phy! What’s go­ing on?!”

A pause. “That’s not me. That’s the don­key from ‘Shrek.’ ”

The real Ed­die Mur­phy likes to stay con­nected but not too con­nected. He has big-screen TVs all around the house but doesn’t tweet or In­sta­gram. In that spirit, he seems bliss­fully un­aware of the hapless pho­tog­ra­pher who doc­u­ments his daily cof­fee runs with girl­friend Paige Butcher. He acts sur­prised to hear of the hype that sur­rounded his re­turn to SNL this year for the show’s 40th an­niver­sary — and the chat­ter over his de­ci­sion not to per­form.

But he’s not afraid to ad­dress that night, when he sur­prised even his friends by do­ing no more than thank­ing the crowd.

So what hap­pened? Sim­ple. They wanted him to play Bill Cosby. Be­cause no­body does a bet­ter Bill Cosby than Ed­die Mur­phy. Ex­cept the tim­ing was more than a lit­tle awk­ward.

“I to­tally un­der­stood,” Mur­phy says, speak­ing about the an­niver­sary show for the first time. “It was the big­gest thing in the news at the time. I can see why they thought it would be funny, and the sketch that Norm [Macdon­ald] wrote was hys­ter­i­cal.” So why not? “It’s hor­ri­ble,” he says. “There’s noth­ing funny about it. If you get up there and you crack jokes about him, you’re just hurt­ing peo­ple. You’re hurt­ing him. You’re hurt­ing his ac­cusers. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m com­ing back to SNL for the an­niver­sary, I’m not turn­ing my mo­ment on the show into this other thing.’ ”

‘I’m go­ing to be fa­mous’

Comics usu­ally talk about how much they need the spot­light, to be loved, to fill an emo­tional crater left by a ter­ri­ble child­hood. They are mis­fits and out­siders. Not Mur­phy.

“Com­edy is not mu­sic,” says Chris Rock. “It’s a nerd’s game. And he’s got to be the only non-nerd I’ve seen be that funny. He’s like the quar­ter­back on the foot­ball team. The quar­ter­back on the foot­ball team is never funny, but this guy is.” Mur­phy loves get­ting laughs. He just doesn’t

need to get laughs. Up here, he has a sprawl­ing view of the Hol­ly­wood Hills, his own bowl­ing al­ley and the orig­i­nal “Sugar Shack,” the Ernie Barnes oil paint­ing used for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” al­bum.

The house is full of ac­tiv­ity. One of his sons sits in the liv­ing room, play­ing pi­ano as friends chat. Butcher, the Aus­tralian model, is watch­ing a home im­prove­ment show. Most days, his mom also is here.

“You know why they think I’m reclu­sive?” says Mur­phy. “I don’t do the Hol­ly­wood stuff. I’ve never been on the cir­cuit.”

Then the arm­chair psy­chol­o­gists weigh in. They say that comics are de­pressed, in­se­cure, dark.

“If you don’t see me,” Mur­phy says, “you just as­sume he’s in the room in the dark, smok­ing a cig­a­rette with his foot in a bucket of s---.”

He starts into the story of the first time he got a laugh from a crowd. He was 8, liv­ing on New York’s Long Is­land, and tak­ing the bus home from the pool. As the bus rolled, young Ed­die would im­i­tate the way he imag­ined the peo­ple out­side sounded.

“Peo­ple would start get­ting off the bus, and as they would get off, they would look back at me, clap­ping,” he says.

By then, Mur­phy was liv­ing with his mother, Lil­lian, step­fa­ther Ver­non Lynch and older brother Char­lie. His fa­ther, Charles, had died when he was young, killed by a girl­friend. When asked how that im­pacted his psy­che,

Mur­phy shrugs.

“I’ll tell you this, my mother and fa­ther broke up when I was 3,” he says. “My mother is with my step­dad when I’m 41/2 and 5 years old. My step­dad is the real deal.”

Lynch, who worked at an ice cream plant, tried to keep the boys in line. That wasn’t a prob­lem with Ed­die.

“They had two parks in our town,” says Char­lie, then of­ten in trou­ble, now a suc­cess­ful co­me­dian. “Roo­sevelt Park, you see the kids play­ing ten­nis, bas­ket­ball and ducks in the pond. That’s the park Ed­die used to hang out at. Then you had Cen­ten­nial. Peo­ple shoot­ing dice, smok­ing weed, plan­ning crimes. That’s the park I would be in.”

At 12, Ed­die started re­peat­ing, out loud, that he was go­ing to be fa­mous. At school, Mur­phy did voices in the lunch­room.

“But I didn’t go, ‘I’m go­ing to be a co­me­dian’ un­til I’m 15 and I heard Richard Pryor’s ‘That Nig­ger’s Crazy’ al­bum.”

Mur­phy marks the start of his ca­reer as July 9, 1976. That night, he ar­rived at the Roo­sevelt Youth Cen­ter for a tal­ent show wear­ing a white suit and green shirt and, as a record of “Let’s Stay To­gether” pumped over the packed house, de­liv­ered a per­fect Al Green.

Be­fore long, Mur­phy was play­ing the two clubs within walk­ing dis­tance. Then, he was tak­ing the Long Is­land Rail­road to New York City, do­ing a 1 a.m. set and hus­tling home to col­lapse. His mother didn’t re­al­ize how many classes he was skip­ping un­til the end of his se­nior year. Mur­phy had to go to sum­mer school.

He had long been talk­ing about how he would be fa­mous. Sud­denly, Mur­phy put a timetable on it. By 18.

“I re­mem­ber when I turned 18, comics say­ing, ‘Hey, man, I thought you were go­ing to get fa­mous when you’re 18.’ Then I got ‘Satur­day Night Live.’ ” He was 19.

‘The joy was pop­ping out of him’

It was a dis­as­ter in Stu­dio 8H. Belushi, Aykroyd and Gilda were gone. So were Bill Mur­ray, Chevy and Jane Curtin. The new SNL cast? Denny Dil­lon, Charles Rocket, Gail Matthius.

Mur­phy, hired as a fea­tured player, not a reg­u­lar cast mem­ber, for that sixth sea­son, didn’t get to speak un­til the third episode. On Dec. 6, 1980, he ap­peared on the fake news play­ing a col­lege bas­ket­ball player tired of whites co-opt­ing black cul­ture.

“This was a cast cowed by the fact they were fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of th­ese lu­mi­nar­ies,” re­calls former SNL writer David Sh­effield. “I re­mem­ber watch­ing Ed­die and he was com­pletely re­laxed. He looked like if the set fell down on top of him, he would not give a damn.”

By the spring of 1981, SNL’s rat­ings were so bad that NBC was con­sid­er­ing can­cel­ing it. Dick Eber­sol, who had helped con­ceive the show in 1975, was se­cretly shuf­fled into Rock­e­feller Cen­ter to watch re­hearsals through a closed-cir­cuit feed.

Mur­phy was the only cast mem­ber who stood out.

“The joy was pop­ping out of him,” says Eber­sol.

The next sea­son, Eber­sol brought back only Mur­phy and Joe Pis­copo and in­sti­tuted a new, un­spo­ken rule. Put Mur­phy on cam­era at least three times dur­ing the first half of each show.

Mur­phy did James Brown and Ste­vie Won­der. He threw on a wig to be­come “Buck­wheat,” suited up in green foam for the bit­ter, Borscht­belt Gumby and por­trayed a street-tough ver­sion of PBS icon Fred Rogers, Mr. Robin­son. When Nick Nolte can­celed as host, Mur­phy took over, open­ing with, “Live from New York, it’s the Ed­die Mur­phy show!”

“Ed­die’s the sin­gle most im­por­tant per­former in the his­tory of the show,” Eber­sol says. “He lit­er­ally saved the show.”

He also some­how avoided the drugs per­vad­ing the show. One night, dur­ing his first sea­son, the still teenage Mur­phy went to the af­ter-hours blues bar that served as a cast hang­out. Belushi and Robin Wil­liams were there. So were the drugs.

“It wasn’t a big moral thing,” Mur­phy says now. “It just as eas­ily could have gone, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’ But I was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m okay.’ I think about that some­times, es­pe­cially now that both of them are gone.”

Kee­nen Ivory Wayans, his friend for years, has his the­ory on what kept Mur­phy in line.

“He al­ways had his par­ents close by,” Wayans says. “He likes his weed ev­ery now and then, but he never got hooked on any­thing. His great­est temp­ta­tion was women. And that was as a young man. But I think he’s tried to keep a sense of nor­malcy about him. He just never gave in.”

Mur­phy’s elec­tric­ity trans­lated to film. In 1982, Mur­phy made his screen de­but in “48 Hrs.” as a con­vict paired with a griz­zled po­lice of­fi­cer played by Nolte.

“There’s a new sher­iff in town, and his name is Reg­gie Ham­mond,” he said, the first of count­less, iconic scene-steal­ing mo­ments in film.

This was be­fore the “The Cosby Show” or Oprah Win­frey and just af­ter the blax­ploita­tion era.

“There wasn’t a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for the broth­ers,” says former “30 Rock” and SNL star Tracy Mor­gan. “Ed­die didn’t open the door. Ed­die just kicked the door off the hinges. He changed show busi­ness by say­ing, ‘There’s a new sher­iff in town.’ ”

Mike My­ers, who would work with Mur­phy in the “Shrek” films, re­mem­bers when he first saw “48 Hrs.”

“It’s like the first time I saw New York City,” he says. “You can’t keep your eyes off of him. There’s that won­der­ful com­bi­na­tion of vir­tu­os­ity and dan­ger.”

John Lan­dis cast Mur­phy in 1983’s “Trad­ing Places.”

“He was not cam­era-savvy,” he says, “but he was just full of en­ergy and full of life.”

Para­mount signed Mur­phy to an ex­clu­sive con­tract — one of the last in the industry. Over the next five years, he would launch a fran­chise with “Bev­erly Hills Cop,” gross $50 mil­lion with a con­cert film, “Raw,” and, in 1988, re­unite with Lan­dis for an­other smash, “Com­ing to Amer­ica.” He was the big­gest star in Hol­ly­wood and he wasn’t yet 28.

‘Look chil­dren. It’s a fall­ing star.’

The money could be blind­ing. There was the $1 mil­lion for a week of shoot­ing the in­stantly for­get­table “Best De­fense” in 1984. Mur­phy signed on to “Bev­erly Hills Cop III” know­ing the script wasn’t work­ing. “Meet Dave.” “Holy Man.” “A Thou­sand Words.” He has con­fessed for them all.

“It’s very hard when you grow up in the projects to turn down the money they’ve been of­fer­ing you,” Mur­phy says.

Sh­effield, who wrote “Com­ing to Amer­ica” and “The Nutty Pro­fes­sor” with Mur­phy and SNL part­ner Barry Blaustein, wishes the ac­tor had been more se­lec­tive.

“Most ma­jor stars are very savvy about de­vel­op­ing things,” says Sh­effield. “They’ll find a book they like and op­tion it. Or buy a screen­play they like and at­tach them­selves to it. Ed­die has just taken things of­fered to him. And the things he’s of­fered are not al­ways suited for him.”

That may be true, but Mur­phy be­lieves there’s more at play. He brings up Steven Spiel­berg and Martin Scors­ese, two di­rec­tors he ad­mires and would love to work with.

“Even though I’ve had some suc­cess in the movies, I’ve never turned into a white man in Hol­ly­wood,” he says. “I don’t have any sour grapes, but there’s a dif­fer­ence. If you’re black and you’re in this busi­ness, it’s dif­fer­ent than if you’re a white guy in this busi­ness. And it’s not just me. How many movies has Den­zel done with Steven Spiel­berg? How many movies has Will Smith done with Steven Spiel­berg or Martin Scors­ese? How many movies has Tom Hanks done with Steven Spiel­berg? How many movies has Leonardo DiCaprio done with Martin Scors­ese?”

He ad­mits that he can be sen­si­tive. That was par­tic­u­larly true dur­ing the ’90s, when the crit­ics seemed to be get­ting meaner. In pan­ning 1995’s “Vam­pire in Brook­lyn,” the New York Times wrote: “Ed­die Mur­phy as the liv­ing dead: that’s not a bad de­scrip­tion of his ca­reer.”

And then, while Mur­phy was home watch­ing SNL, David Spade came on screen. A photo of Mur­phy ap­peared over his left shoul­der.

“Look, chil­dren,” Spade said with a char­ac­ter­is­tic snicker. “It’s a fall­ing star. Make a wish.”

Mur­phy stopped watch­ing the show for a time and de­clined to re­turn for its 25th an­niver­sary.

“I loved my time there and it hurt my feel­ings,” he says now. “Okay, so I’m mak­ing some movie flops, so now my ca­reer is over, and I’m get­ting this from my alma mater?”

There was an up­side. Mur­phy found he could chan­nel his feel­ings into his work. Af­ter the Spade slam, Mur­phy came back with “The Nutty Pro­fes­sor,” play­ing no fewer than seven roles. The film earned rave re­views and more than $270 mil­lion world­wide.

“‘Nutty Pro­fes­sor’ was me go­ing, ‘Say what you want to say, but I can do this and you can’t and no­body else in the town can do this,’ ” he says.

“It’s not just seven char­ac­ters,” says Rock. “It’s seven char­ac­ters he hadn’t done be­fore. Th­ese aren’t the same char­ac­ters as ‘Com­ing to Amer­ica.’ They’re not from SNL. That mother’s a to­tally new per­son.”

“I’m telling you,” says Jeff Gar­lin, who starred in the fam­ily com­edy “Daddy Day Care” with Mur­phy in 2003, “the great­est slight in the his­tory of the Academy Awards is Ed­die Mur­phy not win­ning any­thing for ‘The Nutty Pro­fes­sor.’ ”

Then, in the midst of a split from his wife, Ni­cole, with whom he has five of his eight chil­dren, Mur­phy was cast to play the bro­k­endown soul singer Jimmy “Thun­der” Early in “Dreamgirls.” The di­vorce was painful, stress­ful, worse than any­thing he’s ever ex­pe­ri­enced other than a par­ent dy­ing.

“Get­ting di­vorced didn’t sour me on the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage,” he says to­day. “I’ll tell you what I’ll never do: I’ll never get di­vorced again. That’s a s----- deal for any­body.”

“Dreamgirls” helped him push through. He chan­neled his pain into his stun­ning por­trayal of Early.

“They say, ‘Oh, this is great, this is his best act­ing, it looked like you were re­ally cry­ing on the in­side,’ ” Mur­phy says and pauses. “I was.”

“Henry Joseph Church,” the film he made with Beres­ford, is not meant to prove any­thing. Mur­phy signed on be­cause he liked the script, a drama in which he plays a cook who takes care of a young girl. He also found, while sol­dier­ing through re­cent bombs, that he could no longer make films just for the money.

“The check movies are over for me,” says Mur­phy.

In that spirit, he has writ­ten a script called “Buck Won­der, Su­per Slave,” a par­ody of “12 Years a Slave,” “Roots” and su­per­hero movies. He also has an R-rated talk­ing an­i­mal movie and a film about two broth­ers who in­herit a black cir­cus.

So how likely is a re­turn to the stage? At one point, he and his friend Arse­nio Hall had a plan. Mur­phy would come out as his brother, Char­lie, and do five min­utes be­fore any­body re­al­ized who was per­form­ing. That plan seems on hold.

But Hall has not given up. Re­cently, the two were hang­ing out and a good bit emerged. Hall wanted it, but Mur­phy said it was his.

“As long as a comic is hold­ing onto a joke,” Hall says, “that’s a man who’s think­ing about it.”

LARSEN&TAL­BERT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The many faces of Ed­die Mur­phy, clock­wise from top left: As Buck­wheat on “Satur­day Night Live” in 1981; as Reg­gie Ham­mond, with Nick Nolte in “48 Hrs.,” his film de­but in 1982; en­ter­ing Kemp Mill Records in Mary­land af­ter the re­lease of his sec­ond al­bum, “Co­me­dian,” in 1983. The al­bum was a record­ing of his break­out HBO spe­cial, “Deliri­ous”; as James “Thun­der” Early in “Dreamgirls” in 2006; as Pro­fes­sor Sher­man Klump, one of the many char­ac­ters he played in 1996’s “The Nutty Pro­fes­sor”; and as Prince Akeem, with Arse­nio Hall in “Com­ing to Amer­ica” in 1988. Top photo: Mur­phy to­day at his home in the Hol­ly­wood Hills.

LARSEN&TAL­BERT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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