Eddie Murphy can’t help but laugh. It’s February 25th — the last Saturday night that he will ever spend in his drab-white dressing room at the end of the eighth-floor hall at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. This is Eddie Murphy’s last live appearance on Saturday Night Live (in the future, he will appear only in pretaped segments), and as the show’s final dress rehearsal nears its end, Murphy is cooling out with a pair of the show’s writers, watching the evening’s musical guest on his monitor. And he’s laughing. “It’s my last show,” he says, “and Kool and the Gang are singing ‘Celebration.'”
“How do you feel?” asks one of the show’s writers.
“Like jumping onstage with Kool and the Gang.”
Tonight, Murphy is trying to keep it quiet, but he is plainly euphoric about his imminent departure. “I can’t wait to leave,” he’d said earlier. “I don’t like the show, I don’t think the show is funny. I hate it.”
And indeed, it appears that Eddie Murphy truly is too big for a TV series, even the one that made him a star. Consider: thanks to the success of 48 HRS. and Trading Places, Murphy was voted the second biggest box-office star of 1983, right behind Clint Eastwood. His two albums, Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy: Comedian, have each gone gold (almost unheard of for comedy records), and the latter LP just picked up a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording of the year. He also has a new movie, Best Defense, starring Dudley Moore, which is due for release this July.
Plus, he’s aiming to break into yet another area of show business: music. He’s already cut a single with the king of punk-funk, Rick James, and has even started to pen some songs of his own. At a not-so-tender 22, Eddie Murphy is turning into a one-man entertainment cartel.
But while other performers have achieved their broadest successes by moving into the mainstream, Murphy is defiantly taking the opposite approach. His material is abrasive, challenging, provocative. He’s no Lenny Bruce, but his peculiar mixture of dirty words and dapper moves makes Murphy an insidiously compelling performer, perhaps a revolutionary one. You can see it in his films and his HBO special, Eddie Murphy Delirious. His appeal is direct; it’s in-your-face performing, street-smart but funkily elegant. There’s an electrifyingly daring buzz about him that cuts through the emotional blurriness of charisma. Murphy knows he’s got it, and knows the problems it can bring.
“I’ve always had very strong confidence in myself,” he says, “and the confidence came because I have a lot of initiative. I know I want to make something of myself. I guess that because I’m not indecisive like a lot of people, it makes people uncomfortable. I’ve never been conceited. I’ve never been crazy. And I think people are sort of expecting that of me.
“I knew me real good two years ago, before all this happened. I guess I’m like everybody else: sitting around and waiting for me to change and go freaky, get different.”
“See that lady? she thought I was gonna mug her.”
Murphy and I are dashing through the rain past some startled passersby to get into comanager Richie Tienken’s car. (“A Cadillac,” notes Murphy. “It’s not mine. I don’t own a Cadillac.”) We’re headed out to Murphy’s New Jersey home. Once in the car, he’s instantly fiddling with the car radio, twirling the dial from station to station as the car wends its way through East Harlem. “This looks like where I grew up in Brooklyn,” he says, glancing out the window toward a side street of tin-doored tenements. “I wonder if the same things would have happened to me if I had stayed in Brooklyn,” he muses. “I would’ve had more material.” He mimics a stand-up line. “‘Hey, I got shot once. Anybody out there ever been shot?'”
Eddie’s father, Charles Lee Murphy, was a transit patrolman. He separated from his wife when Eddie was three. The children were sent to live with a woman who took care of them until Eddie’s mother married an ice-cream distributor named Vernon Lynch in 1964 and the family moved to the lower-middle-class town of Roosevelt, Long Island. Charles Murphy was stabbed to death by his girlfriend over Labor Day weekend in 1969; Eddie refers to it as the greatest tragedy of his 22 years. It was in those days on the Island that Eddie started honing the sharp-witted comic style that would vault him into national prominence.
More material? Probably not. As Murphy points out, his comedy doesn’t come out of sadness as much as, say, Richard Pryor’s does. “I don’t like to do stuff about my father being dead,” he says. “No tragedy. My comedy’s good-time comedy: conversations and fooling around with my friends, stuff that just happened to me. That’s why I poke fun at everybody, ’cause I’m not a racist, I’m not a sexist; I’m just out there. I use racial slurs, but I don’t hate anybody.”
True. Murphy seems to bear no deep-seated animosities, and he’s likable without showing any of the bogus big-star charm that many notables wheel out for the press. Is he arrogant? A little, perhaps. You get the feeling that the swagger that’s present in so much of his work couldn’t come from a gladhanding wimp. Still, his cautionless style has been controversial, especially with homosexuals. A group called the Eddie Murphy’s Disease Foundation took out a series of advertisements in newspapers and magazines (including this one) criticizing Murphy for his “Faggots Revisited” routine from his second record and his HBO special. The group charged that Murphy’s comments about gays were “exceedingly harsh” and his AIDS jokes “nothing short of inflammatory.”