Seeing a phenomenal talent burst onto the scene and ascend to greatness is a once in a lifetime event visited upon the most fortunate of generations. As the saying goes, one has to have been there to truly understand why certain performers are spoken of with reverence and fondness. Such artists transcend labels like superstar. The works they create in their prime take on a life of their own, emanating an impenetrably regal glow that no one can diminish. That glow continues to illuminate even in the darkest of times. Though it may be hard for younger generations to fathom, Eddie Murphy possesses such a glow. Any who would dare to disagree never witnessed the time in our history when Eddie was, quite simply, the man.
Today, Eddie is known as the overly manicured star of inane family fare like Daddy Day Care. 30 years ago, he was a bad boy newcomer on the comedy circuit. That incarnation of Eddie was much truer to his Bushwick, Brooklyn roots. The death of his father, coupled with his mother’s failing health at the time, required him and his brother Charlie to be placed in foster care for a year. His family soon reunited and relocated to Roosevelt, Long Island. The more street wise Charlie played guardian angel to his younger sibling, who was admittedly enthralled with television as a child. He preferred sitting in front of the tube to going outside. It fostered in him a love for performing and pretending. Charlie found his way to the Nation of Gods and Earth’s, and then to the Navy, during which time Eddie found his way to Hollywood.
Eddie’s time on Saturday Night Live put his uncanny talent for mimicry at the forefront. Alas, the constraints of network television proved too small a venue for Murphy’s id. He was a student of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, among others. The stand-up comedy circuit displayed that side of his character in all its outlandish glory. In 1983, he shocked the world with Eddie Murphy: Delirious, a concert film in which he recreated the stand-up comic in his own cocky image. His routines were profane and homophobic enough to draw the ire of critics. However, his talent was undeniable. Clad in red leather, Murphy unleashed the full array of his considerable talents. He did spot on impressions, told stories, and even sang. Richard Pryor was a genius, to be sure, but no one had seen anything quite like Murphy, the veritable one man variety show.
His invasion of Hollywood began with the Walter Hill’s superb and influential buddy cop flick 48 hours. It was here that Murphy laid the groundwork for what would become his signature onscreen persona: the fast talking street hustler. Through the course of his first three films, he perfected that persona. Each subsequent variation paid off more handsomely than the last. 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, the first film in which Murphy alone was the star, became the highest grossing R-rated film of all time upon its release. It would retain that title for another 19 years. It also solidified Eddie as one of the biggest box office stars ever. In 1988, Murphy began catering directly to his Black fans. His first effort in that vein was the perennial favorite Coming to America, which featured him in multiple roles. He would continue that tradition with the critically lambasted ensemble period piece Harlem Nights and the romantic comedy Boomerang. Both did middling business.
It was the wholesale rejection of those films that began the first and longest slump of Murphy’s career, a creative and commercial abyss that he would not escape from until 1996’s The Nutty Professor. Even with such missteps, Murphy remains a perennial giant of the comedy game. Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, and Will Smith all owe him an amazingly huge debt. He has managed to outlast and outdo almost all that he’s influenced. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Eddie stated that he is through with family films and will be returning to edgier fare. It’s about damned time. It seems that the king will indeed return.
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