Eddie Murphy: 40 Years Since His First Show: “I’m Curious About Doing It Again”

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Edward Regan, better known as “Eddie” Murphy’s high school yearbook photo featured the caption, “Future plans: Comedian,” and the talented young Murphy got down to business pretty quickly. He started doing his comedy in local youth shows. Then after graduating, he work Long Island clubs like the Comic Strip, and his act proved to be so popular that within two years he was a full cast member on Saturday Night Live.

Murphy actually 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 loud speaker. He stepped on stage. He was ready. And the rest was history.

Murphy was a natural for SNL, where his impersonations included Buckwheat from the Little Rascals, Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali, James Brown and more. In the 1980’s, Murphy was earning an incredible salary that he had to learn how to manage quickly. “Give any 19-year-old kid $1,000 a week and he’ll freak out,” Murphy told People in a 1982 interview. That same year he had blown his previous year’s earnings on a Trans-Am and gifts for friends.

“Eddie’s the single most important performer in the history of the show,” Dick Ebersol, one of the people who conceived the show in 1975 said to People Magazine. “He literally saved the show.” And that’s true. The ratings were so bad before Murphy got there that NBC was considering canceling the show. It wasn’t until Ebersol told them to put Eddie in at least three skits in the first half of the show, that the ratings shot up.

From Saturday Night Live, it seemed like only 48 Hours later, he was a movie star, then a Beverly Hills Cop, then a Golden Child. Then Coming To America. The list goes on. He made a career flying from one character or impersonation to the next.

Murphy’s success with seven movies in less than six years grossing more than a billion dollars, brought problems. Problems with money, with women, with fame. Watching his idol, Richard Pryor, a few years earlier, he’d understood that “one of the disadvantages of doing standup comedy is that you gotta open up and expose yourself,” says Murphy. “That’s what a true comedian does.”

The first result was a 1987 concert film whose language and anger lived up to the movie’s title: Raw. Battered by business problems, hostile press, a paternity suit and a relationship gone bad, Murphy let his bitterness and disappointment hang out, offending women, gays and many of his fellow black entertainers in the process.

“…What made me successful was my boldness. That’s part of my humor. That’s part of my character.”

And yes, Murphy had a hit record too. His 1985 musical debut, How Could It Be, reached #26 on the Billboard 200. Although Aquil Fudge produced most of the album, it did have one Rick James-produced track in “Party All the Time.” The song was quite a hit; it even spent three weeks at the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 behind topper Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.”

When MTV wanted Murphy to host the Video Music Awards that year, Murphy joked that he’d do it only if the channel would air his video. To Murphy’s surprise—he didn’t even have a video—MTV agreed. Murphy and James quickly threw together a video for the song (see below):

For the most part, Murphy grew up 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 4 1/2 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. One brother stayed on the line, the other brother crossed it.

“They had two parks in our town,” says Charlie Murphy, then often in trouble, now hilarious 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.”

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