It’s a glorious thing, hearing Eddie Murphy say “fuck” again. Few people ever said it better – and down here in the basement of the stone-and-marble mansion he built on a Beverly Hills cliff, it’s coming from his lips often enough to make Shrek blush. “Come on, motherfucker,” Murphy shouts, over the throb of James Brown’s “Hot Pants” on a formidable sound system.
The motherfucker in question is a bowling ball, which is speeding down the center of one of the two polished lanes of the alley Murphy keeps here, along with an arcade full of video games and a blue-lit “club room,” inspired by a similar space in his new friend Brett Ratner’s house. Hanging in a corner, above an electric keyboard, is Ernie Barnes’ iconic painting Sugar Shack – as seen on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You and in the opening credits of Good Times. It is, of course, the original.
Murphy’s ball veers to the side, leaving a couple of pins standing. He throws his muscled arms up in exaggerated agony: “Asshole!” Cartoon versions of the pins pop up on the scorekeeping screens overhead, which he’s helpfully labeled EDDIE and BRIAN. As he trounces me two rounds in a row (hitting 156 the second time), Murphy sings along loudly to the music, breaking into hip-shaking dance moves and unleashing his SNL-era impression of Brown’s signature “Unh!”
It’s quickly clear that even at age 50, even after a long run of roles he describes as “family stuff, guys in suits with perfect hair,” Murphy’s delirious, essential Eddie-ness is intact. His part as a street-smart petty thief in his latest movie, the Ratner-directed Tower Heist, is a similar affirmation – at an early screening, the audience roared when he simply said, “Shut up, bitch.” “I haven’t done a streety guy, working class, blue-collar character in ages,” Murphy says. “So maybe it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t remember he was able to do that.'”
When Murphy first emerges today, meeting me on a wicker couch facing a gigantic TV on a shaded veranda behind his house, he seems reserved, cautious, his eyes shielded by black-rimmed sunglasses. Just inside, pictures of his many children are arranged on a shelf, near a bar counter that holds various awards, as well as pictures of him with Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama – the president looks even more excited to be meeting Murphy than vice versa.
This is Murphy’s first extended print interview in many years, so his wariness is understandable: He half-jokes that when he posed for his last magazine cover, they printed his smiling picture underneath the headline “Eddie Ain’t Shit.” He’s wearing a gray T-shirt with a LiveStrong logo on the front, black jeans, a diamond-studded watch and a diamond ring not much smaller than a golf ball. His shoes are polished black leather, until he switches to sparkly black running shoes to bowl. At first, we just watch TV for a while as he sips from a Dr. Brown’s soda – live coverage of the Conrad Murray trial; a few minutes of Casino (“I think it’s funny when Pesci hits Rickles with the phone”); a Good Times episode that Murphy instantly recognizes as the one where they think there’s dog food in the old lady’s meatloaf. “It was so easy back then,” he sighs, as the studio audience laughs.
Murphy has his many TVs wired into an archive of his DVD collection, which he seems to have memorized – and he plays me a good chunk of it over the course of the day: a couple of Sly Stone performances, including one where he jammed with Richard Pryor on drums; a 1993 Montreux Jazz Festival show with Murphy fronting his own top-of-the-line funk band; a Soul Train appearance by Joe Tex (with Murphy mocking his “I Gotcha” as a “rape song”); a fake trailer put together by Ratner for a prospective Spinal Tap-style movie called Soul Soul Soul, starring Murphy as a veteran soul singer who’s constantly complaining about being ripped off by other artists (“I didn’t kill Berry Gordy’s cat,” he explains. “I had Berry Gordy’s cat killed, and he knows why!”).
After we bowl, we head toward a small sitting room for the bulk of the interview, displacing his statuesque young girlfriend, who had been watching Annie Hall on the room’s inevitable television. On a coffee table is the photo book The Beatles: 365 Days, a Life magazine with John Lennon on the cover and an Elvis Presley book or two. Murphy doesn’t introduce his girlfriend, but she smiles at us, asking, “Who won?”
“Who do you think?” he says, adding quickly, “He did good.” (I didn’t.) Murphy picks up a Paul Reed Smith electric guitar – the kind Carlos Santana plays – plugs it into a tweed Fender amp, and sings in his elastic tenor: bits of Bob Marley; Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley songs, some of Michael’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” in Elvis’ voice; a newly written, and quite pretty, original love song by Murphy; an improvised blues parody (“I’m a tooth chipper, a busted lipper, a badass kicker/ And I deliver the punch, fight and fuck like no other”). Then, at last, we talk, with Murphy still strumming his guitar as the sun sets over the hills outside.
You had a great line about showbiz: “You get born only once in this business, but you can die again and again.”
I said that? You can die again and again. But I’ve been making movies for so long that now it’s all just one body of work. If you have a flop movie, so what? And if you have a hit movie, it’s “so what,” too, it’s on to the next movie. If I do something and I die in it, at least I took a chance. There’s this little box that African-American actors have to work in, in the first place, and I was able to rise above that box. I could have done a bunch of movies where I stayed as the Axel Foley or Reggie Hammond persona. But I didn’t want to be doing the same thing all the time. Every now and then, you crash and burn, but that’s part of it.
When your career hit its first bumps at the end of the Eighties, people seemed eager to say you were washed up.
You have to remember, there was no hip-hop back then, or hip-hop was still novelty music, and for years I’m the whipping boy. Anybody that wanted to vent, I was the one. I got a lot of shit that wasn’t fair. The root of it was racist. If I was rubbing you the wrong way, at the core of it was some racist shit: “Look at this arrogant nigger, two thumbs waaaay down” [laughs]. Then I wasn’t helping, either. I wasn’t giving no humble pie: “Fuck y’all, suck my dick, motherfucker!”
The Nutty Professor was a big turnaround in 1996. How did that come about?
I had a bunch of movies that didn’t work. People were saying, “Eddie’s not good,” so I was like, “Not good? Let me show you what I can fucking do. I’ll do something where I play all these different characters.” It’s a trip, it seems every five or six years, you have to do something to remind them that they like you. Then you get offered a bunch of stuff, because you were in a hit, and some of the movies might be shitty, but they throw so much paper at you that you can’t say no to it. That happens a bunch in this town. The problem when you’re doing those flicks for a lot of paper, though, is on TV they show your hit right next to your flop, on there forever.
Is it still possible to offer you enough money to do a lousy movie?
It would be harder – I don’t whore myself out as easily as I used to. I don’t think about money. But I am still from Brooklyn. So in a couple of months, you’ll see me at a press conference: “Yes, we are doing Holy Man 2. I can’t wait – it’s a real roller coaster, about the triumph of the human spirit. Back when we were working on the first Holy, I knew we had something special” [laughs].
Right before Nutty Professor, you made Vampire in Brooklyn with Wes Craven. How did that happen?
The only way I was able to do Nutty Professor and to get out of my Paramount deal, I had to do Vampire in Brooklyn. But you know what ruined that movie? The wig. I walked out in that longhaired wig and people said, “Oh, get the fuck out of here! What the hell is this?” [Laughs] It’s those little things. Like one of my youngest daughters, Bella, she was eight and she’d never seen The Golden Child, but as soon as it came on, she was like, “Wait, are you going to have that hat on the whole movie?” I said, “Yeah…” She said, “I can’t watch the movie. That hat is horrible!” [Laughs]
What would the twentysomething Eddie think of all the family movies you did?
Would the 27-year-old have wondered what I was doing in Dr. Dolittle? No. Or in those Shrek movies? No. But, you know, both the 27-year-old and the 48-year-old was like, “Why am I in Imagine That?” The movie didn’t have a chance at the box office – it’s just me and this little girl and a blanket.
So is family time over for now?
Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna be doing a lot of family stuff for a while. I don’t have any interest in that right now. There’s really no blueprint, but I’m trying to do some edgy stuff. And I only want to do what I really want to do, otherwise I’m content to sit here and play my guitar all day. I always tell people now that I’m a semiretired gentleman of leisure, and occasionally I’ll go do some work to break the boredom up.
Your original idea for Tower Heist would have been a very different movie: an all-star cast of black comedians playing inept thieves trying to rob Trump Tower.
Yeah, I wanted to get all the funny brothers on the scene – me, Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan – and do a movie together, like I did on Harlem Nights. I still want to do something like that. I have this idea called “Jamal and Tyrell and Omar and Brick and Michael’s Wack-ass Weekend,” about this group of guys who get abducted by aliens on their way to the fights. I’m writing that now.
You’re hosting the Oscars next year, which seems uncharacteristic – people think of you almost as a recluse.
I leave my house all the time! But I’m not at all the Hollywood parties. I’m grown, and where else am I supposed to be? I’m supposed to be home. When you go out now, as soon as you leave that driveway you’re in the world. It’s all this stuff that you have to deal with now, like the camera phone – this shit destroyed the world. Now wherever you go, they’re taking your fucking picture. If I were out in the clubs every night, they’d be saying, “That’s a shame, look at him, 50 years old, he’s still out at these clubs.” Recluses are nasty, with long nails, don’t wash their ass… I’m too vain to be a recluse. But homebody, absolutely. I’m 50 years old, beautiful house, I’m supposed to be home, chilling.
My whole shit revolves around having this peace of mind. It’s peaceful, quiet, that’s my day-to-day. I play my guitar, hang out with my girl. My kids went to their mom’s this week. I’m chilling, no stress. After all these years, I’ve done well and I’m cool. I feel comfortable in my skin, I’ve saved some paper, everybody’s healthy, my kids are beautiful and smart, doing different things, it’s all good. I’m trying to maintain my shit like this, and do a fun project every now and then.
When did you start feeling this way?
Ten years ago, I was like, “I still have to show and prove and make them see…” Now I don’t give a fuck what nobody thinks.
What freed you?
Just getting older, man. I turned 50 in April. I know this is a business where success is the exception, not the rule. There’s really nothing you could say – even if you don’t like me, you have to give it up, I’ve been around for 30 years. I think Stallone said it: You don’t do 25 years in this business being stinky.
Do you read reviews?
I remember when Beverly Hills Cop came out, they gave it some horrible reviews… back then I would listen and trip. Now I don’t listen to anything. I haven’t read a newspaper in 20 years. I don’t look at the computer or anything. You have to have a filter on what you let in.
Isn’t there a danger of feeling like you’re in a vacuum?
I don’t feel like I’m in a vacuum. I be chilling, and the really, really important things, you hear about. It’s the day-to-day bullshit I don’t need. I don’t watch any of it. I don’t know how. The computer is a trip to me. Sit in a room, everybody is on their computer or phone. I don’t do any of it.
Do you at least have a cellphone?
When I got divorced, I went out and I was talking to this chick and I was like, “Let me get your number,” and she was like, “OK.” I was like, “Let me get a pen and a piece of paper.” She was like, “That’s cute, you want to do this the old-fashioned way.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” Everybody had a phone, so now I got a phone and I know how to text and send a picture, but I don’t need to network with anyone. I don’t need to be on the Facebook.
There was talk of you playing Richard Pryor in a biopic. Would he have been cool with that? There was one point after Harlem Nights where you said that he resented you.
Not a resentment. When I showed up, Richard felt threatened by me. It was this weird “I like this motherfucker, but he is going to take my spot.” Richard went through the little head trip, but we were cool. I would think he would like me to play him. We just got in the mix when they still did one nigger at a time in Hollywood.
You changed that situation, and the culture shifted – within a few years, hip-hop was the dominant music in America.
This is going to make me sound like I’m delusional, but it’s similar to when James Dean came out, and the town realized, “Hey, you’ll go see movies where kids are the story.”
Young and fresh and street &8211; all those things became a part of hip-hop. I embodied all those things, it’s the soil for all that came afterward. They didn’t even realize you could make money in those areas.
One thing that’s shocking now in 48 Hours is that Nick Nolte’s character is using racial slurs right to your face.
[In perfect Nick Nolte voice] “I don’t know what the hell you’re smiling about, watermelon!” You know why it worked then and the reason why it wouldn’t now? My significance in film – and again I’m not going to be delusional – was that I’m the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen. That’s why I became as popular as I became. People had never seen that before. Black-exploitation movies, even if you dealt with the Man, it was in your neighborhood, never in their world. In 48 Hours, that’s why it worked, because I’m running it, making the story go forward. If I was just chained to the steering wheel sitting there being called “watermelon,” even back then they would have been like, “This is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!”
There was a big push for Beverly Hills Cop IV – what’s going on with that?
They’re not doing it. What I’m trying to do with Beverly Hills Cop now is produce a TV show starring Axel Foley’s son, and Axel is the chief of police now in Detroit. I’d do the pilot, show up here and there. None of the movie scripts were right; it was trying to force this premise. If you have to force something, you shouldn’t be doing it. It was always a rehash of the old thing. It was always wrong.
Are you done with sequels, in general?
Even if this heist movie is a smash, why do a sequel? If I wanted to work with Ben Stiller again or Brett Ratner again, I could do that. Why go back and try to rehash this story? I’m some kind of sequel champion, I did more sequels than anybody. I did my share of sequels for now, anyways.
What ever happened to your signature laugh, by the way?
I don’t laugh like that anymore, somehow it doesn’t come out. It’s weird to change something that’s as natural as that. But it started out as a real laugh, then it turned into people laughing because they thought my laugh was funny, and then there were a couple of times where I laughed because I knew it would make people laugh. Then it got weird. People came up to me and said, “Do that laugh,” or if you laugh, someone turns around and goes, “Eddie?” I just stopped doing it.
You were kind of writing your own dialogue in those Eighties movies, right?
From the very beginning, I always tried to make dialogue flow comfortably, I always did that to make it seem more authentic.
Something like the part where the cops approach Billy Ray Valentine in Trading Places, when you start talking about Vietnam: It’s hard to imagine that was all written.
That’s on paper. Trading Places, John Landis movies, period – it looks like a bunch of improvisation, but John Landis is on you more than any other director I’ve ever worked with. He’ll tell you how to read the line, and if he wants you to do a physical stunt, he’ll show you. He really gets in there and you’re like, “This motherfucker.”
You guys had a falling-out – you grabbed him by the throat while you were making Coming to America. Is there any resolution between you and Landis?
Yeah, I had lunch with John about a month ago. We did the ill-fated Beverly Hills Cop III after Coming to America. Yeah, I’m cool with John, I did some great movies with him. Rarely do I have any shittiness that stays shitty. I either resolve it or walk away. Rarely do I let shit linger.
You also had some problems with Saturday Night Live.
Yeah, because they were shitty to me on Saturday Night Live a couple of times after I’d left the show. They said some shitty things. There was that David Spade sketch [when Spade showed a picture of Murphy around the time of Vampire in Brooklyn and said, “Look, children, a falling star”]. I made a stink about it, it became part of the folklore. What really irritated me about it at the time was that it was a career shot. It was like, “Hey, come on, man, it’s one thing for you guys to do a joke about some movie of mine, but my career? I’m one of you guys. How many people have come off this show whose careers really are fucked up, and you guys are shitting on me?” And you know every joke has to go through all the producers, and ultimately, you know Lorne or whoever says, [Lorne Michaels voice] “OK, it’s OK to make this career crack…”
I felt shitty about that for years, but now, I don’t have none of that. I wouldn’t go to retrospectives, but I don’t let it linger. I saw David Spade four years ago. Chris Rock was like, “Do you guys still hate each other?” and I was like, “I don’t hate David Spade, I’m cool with him.”
You’re still the biggest star who came from the show.
That’s only because John Belushi’s dead. Belushi’s like Spanky of the Little Rascals series. I guess that makes me Stymie, but that’s cool. I’ll be Stymie. Think of all the people who came off that show. I bet you could figure out the combined grosses of people who came off Saturday Night Live in the movies – me, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd. I bet it’s $15 billion. It’s no coincidence – that show’s like Harvard for a comic actor. When you come off the show and get into the movie business, it’s like you’re moving in slow motion for a couple of years. You’ve been working like a crazy person in a pressure cooker, then you’re in the movies, just sitting in your trailer.
You’ve talked about doing stand-up again – what would it be like now?
If I ever get back onstage, I’m going to have a really great show for you all – an hour and a half of stand-up and about 40 minutes of my shitty band. But I don’t know. The way that used to come about, you’d be around the house, hanging out, say something funny and it’d be like, “I’m going to go to the club, try that out tonight.” That still happens, but it’s been a long time. I’m not that guy in the leather suit anymore. The hardest thing for comics nowadays is to find your fucking voice.
People do love that guy in the leather suit – that’s a good guy.
Yeah, you know. He’s a kid. No more leather suits. I’m still that person in terms of how I’m wired. Whatever muscle makes jokes pop out, that muscle still works, I just don’t have a leather suit on anymore. One of the things that’s really cool is whenever they talk about stand-up, they’ll mention me with all of those guys, like, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, but I haven’t done it since I was 27, so why fuck with it? But that’s just weighing both sides. It comes up too much for me to not do it again. It’s like, when it hits me, I’ll do it, eventually.
Why did you quit in the first place?
It stopped being fun. In the beginning, it was fun, then I was controversial. Whenever I would do anything, there would be picketing, negative backlash. I thought I should just do movies. I don’t have to deal with this shit. Big chunks of time went by and before you knew it, it had been a hundred years since I had done it.
A young Eddie Murphy coming up now would never use the word “faggot” the way you did. A lot of the stuff you just don’t do now. Nowadays, comics say something that’s offensive and they have got to apologize to everybody. How do you even write an act and go into a club when everybody has their cameras, it’s on YouTube, if you say something offensive, you’ve got to apologize to everyone? How do you come up with anything?
But there was a huge part of your act that wasn’t controversial. From the ice cream truck to the old woman falling down the stairs: “Oh, Lord, Jesus Christ, help me!”
The old woman that fell down the steps, nowadays, if I did that, all the old ladies that fell down the steps would be outside. [Imitates old lady] “I fell down the steps and it wasn’t funny. I lay there for hours and hours! It’s wrong and he must be stopped! [Waves finger] No, no, no” [laughs].
People are looking at your Oscar-hosting gig like a return to stand-up, which puts the pressure on.
There’s no pressure. It ain’t about me that night, it’s about the Oscars and making the show move smoothly. It’s not “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 version of my ice cream bit, sit back and relax. I want some ice cream… In closing, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to say, ‘Goonie goo goo.’ Thank you very much!” I don’t think it’s going to be anything like that.
Do you have anything planned yet?
Not at all. You have to see what movies get nominated. When I was like, “I’ll do it,” the first thing I said was, “I ain’t doing no big stupid musical number.” But we’ll come up with something funny. I should come out in my red leather suit.
A lot of people felt you got robbed for Dreamgirls.
Well, you know, for the record, Jeffrey Katzenberg said something wonderful: “Winning an Oscar is more art than science.” All this other stuff comes into play with winning an Oscar, and Alan Arkin’s performance in Little Miss Sunshine is Oscar-worthy, it’s a great performance. That’s just the way the shit went. He’s been gigging for years and years, the guy’s in his seventies. I totally understood and was totally cool. I wasn’t like, “What the fuck?”
So you didn’t storm out?
Afterward, people were like, “He’s upset,” and I’m like, “I wasn’t upset!” What happened was after I lost, I’m just chilling, and I was sitting next to Beyoncé’s Pops, and he leans over and grabs me and is like, [solemn voice] “There will be other times.” And then you feel Spielberg on your shoulder going, “It’s all right, man.” Then Clint Eastwood walks by: “Hey, guy…” So I was like, “It’s not going to be this night!” [Mimes getting up] I didn’t have sour grapes at all. That’s another reason I wanted to host the show – to show them that I’m down with it.
Dreamgirls might be the first time you were taken seriously as a musician.
Well, I never stopped recording music – I just stopped putting it out. Because when you see actors singing, it’s like, “Hey, don’t come in here in my fucking music section, stay over there. Don’t do your actor shit over here.”
Ever thought of giving the songs to other artists?
Raphael Saadiq is a friend, and there’s this track that he liked and wanted to record, and it just felt weird. It’s my track! If he had a hit record with it and told people, “Eddie Murphy wrote that,” they’d say, “Get the fuck out of here.” A hundred years from now when I’m gone, they’ll dig through it. If you’ve made enough of an impact as an artist, they dig through everything, they want to know everything, every piece of paper you drew on. All this music is documented. Then I don’t look like a weird actor-singer – “Wow, we didn’t know this fucker, he could do all this other shit, too.”
When you did Dreamgirls, did it make you feel you should have done more movies that challenging?
I’ve done stuff that’s more challenging than that. If you hadn’t followed what I was doing with music and stuff, Dreamgirls comes out of left field. It seemed like a challenge, but it really wasn’t.
But there is a critique of you out there that you don’t push yourself enough. Is there truth to that?
I’m never gonna go, “I want to do this role because it’s a challenge. I might not be able to pull it off, that’s why I’m excited about doing it.” For someone to sit on the outside, talking about, “They need to push themselves,” it’s so ridiculous. Push myself? I’ve had a whole fucking career already, these are the gravy years. I have more than distinguished myself in the movie business.
Growing up, it was pretty stable except for the period when your mom got sick and you went into a foster home. Your brother Charlie paints Ms. Jenkins, who ran the foster home, as pretty Dickensian.
She beat on Charlie. She didn’t beat on me, I was too little.
He said no one was allowed to watch her TV. Wasn’t that the TV you watched?
No, at Ms. Jenkins’ house, she said the TV was broke, and late at night, we’d hear her in there watching The Tonight Show and be like, “The TV works, that bitch is lying…” Little kids, we cursed like adults. Little kids saying, “That motherfucker told me…” A six-year-old. “You can kiss my ass!” I remember saying, “That bitch is lying!” when I was little. That whole period with Ms. Jenkins is maybe a year and a half, and I was so young, I’m sure there was a bunch of shitty stuff going on. My parents broke up when I was three, my mother goes into the hospital when I’m four for TB, and we were at Ms. Jenkins’. Then we get out and my dad gets killed. Up until eight, every year, it was something traumatic going on. I’m sure all of that’s repressed.
Charlie wrote vividly about your dad’s murder. Does he remember more than you?
I don’t know all the logistics behind it. I know what happened, kind of, I know it was him and a girl. I never got all into what happened, what went down.
Did you and Charlie have a lot in common?
We were so different that people would see us and be like, “Y’all are brothers? I didn’t know you was brothers.” And Charlie was in gangs, and even now, Charlie’s like extra ultramacho – piranha, pit bulls, hatchets, axes, machetes. He has a black belt in karate. I got through a lot of school because the kids knew I was his brother, nobody was fucking with me. “You don’t fuck with Eddie, his brother will kill you.” Charlie was a really tough guy.
Your stepdad was a positive influence?
Even when the boxing gloves came out?
Well, you know the boxing-glove thing, it was maybe once or twice that that happened, it wasn’t like he’d beat you and leave you folded up in the corner. That stuff, with people disciplining their kids back in the day, it’s totally different. You hear about Joe Jackson, who had, what, 10 kids? You’re whipping somebody’s ass if you have 10 kids, in this little house! Ten kids, one of them is spinning all around and walking backward and shit? You’d be like, “Somebody’s getting their ass whipped” [laughs]. It’s a whole different time.
Is there truth to your old stand-up bit about him coming home drunk and challenging you to a fight?
We never kicked his ass and took his money, but my [step] father would come home like that. When I’d do that stuff in my stand-up routine, I could hear my mother laughing. Even if I was at Madison Square Garden, when I’d do my dad, I could hear my mother laughing harder than anyone. Actually hearing that routine made my dad stop drinking. He was laughing, but he was like, “That’s what I’d sound like?” “Yeah, that’s what you would sound like.”
When you were 16, you were booking comedy gigs already, and telling your mom, “I don’t ever want to be middle class.” Where did that come from?
I remember saying that. That was part of “Hey, Mom, can I have a dollar?” “No, I ain’t got no money.” I was saying, “I never want to be like that.” It’s funny, I was saying, “I never want to be middle-class,” but we wasn’t middle-class. We were just working-class. Struggling-class is a better way of putting it. We were struggling-class black folks. My mother and father were so good at it, they had me thinking we was middle-class, God bless them.
Do you remind your kids of how you grew up?
I never throw that in their face. When I’m having those kinds of conversations, usually it’s with someone else, not my kids.
You knew Michael Jackson pretty well. What did you make of the tragedy of his death? It had a lot of similarities to Elvis Presley’s, whom you always loved.
Michael sat in the same hot seat Elvis was in, the biggest star in the world… how can I put it? It’s like you’re not a person, your human-beingness is compromised. The stuff that everybody has to deal with, take that and magnify it by 1,000 – that’s where Michael and Elvis are sitting. It’s madness swirling around them all the time. On the surface, you’re coming off like you have it all the way together, and behind the scenes, you’re completely unraveling. Michael was the first artist that jumped up into the canvas and became part of it, where every waking moment is part of the show. Who can live up to that shit?
When did you last see him?
The last time I saw Michael, I was building this house, and I was staying around the corner, and he came over one night with Prince – his Prince, not Prince. I think Blanket was a little baby, either Blanket or Paris was a little baby, and he came over with them, cooled out for a minute. It was nice. There was a whole regular person in there. Michael, he’s much more in touch than you would ever imagine. He wasn’t off in Never Neverland and not aware of the world that was spinning around him. The problem was the drugs.
Have you had to defend your Elvis fandom to African-Americans who think he was racist? The big myth in the African-American community was that he said that the only thing black folks could do for him was shine his shoes and buy his records. People liked him when they were young, then said, “I don’t like him because he said that,” and I said, “He never even said that.” Truth be told, you go back far enough, you go back to your black-and-white footage, everybody’s a racist, every star you’re looking at, every star you loved was some kind of racist, straight-out racist, no black folks in their movies, all that shit, but you love them, look at their work. And you can’t fault them – that’s the times.
Michael, Elvis, the Beatles, Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe, they had some shit that was different from everybody. They’re just this other shit. You could take Bruce Lee and put him around 1,000 other Asian people, and your eye goes right to Bruce Lee. Muhammad Ali, a sea of black folks, your eye goes right to him. Whatever that It factor is, they have more of it than anybody.
You don’t drink at all – you basically drank one night of your life? Is that true?
You know when I had a drink… the night I fought with John Landis on the set of Coming to America, I went back to the house and Arsenio got me drunk. And I got drunk on my honeymoon, when I drank three glasses of champagne. I’m terrible… I don’t throw up if I drink, but I can’t drink. That’s why I look 35, I don’t drink and no stress. How old are you?
Thirty-seven. That’s why I look 38. “This motherfucker is truly delusional.”
No drugs ever? Like, you never smoked a joint, nothing?
I’ve done all that shit, but I’m not a drinker. I don’t think I tried a joint until I was 29, 30 years old.
Did you go through the coke phase? Was that ever part of your life?
Never, ever did coke. I’ve never actually even physically had cocaine.
That’s quite an achievement for someone who hung around the cast of Saturday Night Live and Rick James.
When I was 18, I was down in the blues bar with Belushi and Robin Williams, everybody was partying, I was like, “No.” Every now and then, I’d think about that moment, too, because I was around those guys, it was easy to party, and how everything would have changed. I know if I would have fucked around with that, I would have been all the way in. I’d have made a million headlines.
Combine that with your success and it would’ve been scary.
There would have been no success, the story would have stopped in the Eighties.
Woody Allen has that line “Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I’d prefer to live on in my apartment.” Is it any consolation that some of your work will live on after you die?
[Laughs] I love Woody Allen. Is it any consolation? This whole period of documenting an artist’s work, movies, records, all this shit, it’s 100 years old, if it’s that. It’s brand-new. Beethoven and those fuckers couldn’t even listen to their shit, do you know how hard it was to find a motherfucker with a violin that worked back then? And his stuff went through the ages. Technology has it to where they gonna play this stuff forever. But the reality is, all this shit turns into dust, everything is temporary. No matter what you do, if you’re around here long enough, you’ll wind up dribbling and shitting on yourself, and you won’t even remember the shit you did. I saw this documentary on Ronald Reagan, and it was like, “Whoa.” They say he came into the house, and he had the toy White House that he had taken out of a fish tank, and he goes, “I don’t know what I’m doing with this, but I know it has something to do with me.” He had even forgotten he was the president. No matter what you do, that shit is all getting turned into gobbledygook. In 200 years, it’s all dust, and in 300 years, it ain’t nothing, and in 1,000 years, it’s like you wasn’t even fucking here. But if you’re really, really lucky, if you really did something special, you could hang around a little longer.
You had to pay to get Redd Foxx buried. Is that a nightmare of yours, to be left poor like that?
I never had no horror shit like that. If somebody did some shit to me, I’m going to the street, I’m not going to court, somebody’s going to get fucked up. I can’t even imagine. But I’ve been with the same guy for years, my business person does everything right, took care of me, so when I’m old, you never have to worry about “Yeah, man, Eddie Murphy, he’s dead and no one will bury him, he’s just sitting in the yard.” I have some burial funds [laughs]. Actually, cremation.
Is that right? Why?
Being buried is creepy, don’t you think? In the ground… this rock over you, your name on the rock, you’re down there, decomposing… it’s creepy.
Is it OK religionwise, you’re allowed to be cremated?
What religion? I’m baptized Catholic. But I don’t want to have no religion. I have Christian-based values and beliefs.
People used to think you shouldn’t be cremated so you can rise out of the grave when Jesus returns.
But that doesn’t make sense, because you don’t know what you look like in that box! So you come back and you’re like, “I didn’t get cremated, Lord, here I am.” You’re looking pretty bad, though [laughs]. You have to tell Jesus what your name is. “It’s me, Lord, Eddie!” And Lord is like, “Who the fuck is this?”
Where do you want your ashes to go?
Ideally, it would be a beautiful woman sprinkling my ashes. “Oh, it’s so sad,” and I’ll be, like, 100, and it will be some beautiful girl, and they’ll be whispering, “She was too damn young to be with him,” as she’s sprinkling the ashes. Just sprinkle me in the drink somewhere, a nice ocean, and keep it rolling.
This story is from the November 10, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.