Louise Pomeroy

The Return of Eddie Murphy

Without a road map, he blazed a trail for Black performers, and then lost his way. Now he’s back.

Illustrations by Louise Pomeroy

“Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!” Standing before a bank of potted poinsettias in Studio 8H of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Eddie Murphy, the returning comedy hero, smiled serenely and took a few seconds to bask in the chant that had broken out. Then he spoke. “It’s great to be back here finally, hosting Saturday Night Live for Christmas,” he said. “This is the last episode of 2019. But if you’re Black, this is the first episode since I left back in 1984.” Cue applause and knowing laughter.

Ah, the warm wave of renewed appreciation. We’ve witnessed this phenomenon a fair amount in recent times. Keanu Reeves, how cruel we were to mock you back when you toured with your band, Dogstar; you are an honorable and decorous man. Winona Ryder, forgive us for forever pinning the transgressions of your 20s and 30s upon you—after all, you long ago moved on to better things and Stranger Things. Now it’s Eddie Murphy’s turn.

Murphy, who will turn 60 next year, was more than a star in the 1980s, the decade in which he emerged. He was a force, incandescent with live-wire energy from the moment he was given his first speaking part on SNL. Over the course of mere months in 1981, the year he turned 20, Murphy debuted soon-to-be-iconic recurring characters: Buckwheat, Mister Robinson, Velvet Jones, and the prison poet Tyrone Green (“Dark and lonely on a summer night / Kill my landlord, kill my landlord / Watchdog barkin’—do he bite? / Kill my landlord, kill my landlord …”).

It didn’t take much longer for a leading-man film career to gather momentum, with 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop coming out in rapid succession—’82, ’83, ’84—and for Murphy to concurrently ascend to the pinnacle of stand-up, with his 1983 album, Eddie Murphy: Comedian, going gold in less than a year and winning a Grammy. The LP’s companion HBO special, Eddie Murphy: Delirious, established what has come to be the lasting visual image of Murphy in his early-period pomp: a slim, handsome young man in a red-leather suit effortlessly commanding the huge stage of the 3,700-seat DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the December 2020 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

What made Murphy’s rise so remarkable, beyond his youth, is that it was almost entirely self-powered: He talked his way into an SNL audition with no agent and no credentials from Second City, Groundlings, or any of the other prestigious comedy feeder schools; he survived the purge that eliminated all but two of the cast members from SNL’s disastrous 1980–81 season, the first after the departure of its creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, and the original cast; and he elevated every movie that he was in during those early years. None of the roles in that classic trio of star-making films was expressly conceived for him—48 Hrs. and Trading Places were developed with Richard Pryor in mind, and the titular protagonist of Beverly Hills Cop wasn’t even meant to be Black, let alone funny. But it didn’t matter. In those days, Murphy’s charisma, ingratiating smile, and unerring comic instincts could bring any leaden, cliché-stuffed screenplay to life.

So many times over the past couple of decades, Murphy has tantalized us, appearing to be on the cusp of a triumphant return to his ’80s form—to peak Eddie. For instance, in 1999, he delivered a terrific dual performance as a Tom Cruise–like movie star and his look-alike nebbishy brother in the first-rate comedy Bowfinger. And in 2006, he drew raves for his dramatic acting and his singing as the doomed, Jackie Wilson–like soul singer Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls.

But these intimations of artistic renewal never quite turned into proper comebacks. He didn’t get the props he deserved (he won a Golden Globe for Dreamgirls but was robbed of an Oscar), and/or he didn’t leverage the momentum, retreating into the haven of his profitable but formulaic Dr. Dolittle and Nutty Professor family-film franchises.

What’s happening in the current wave of renewed appreciation is a symbiotic event involving performer and audience. Murphy has made a conscious and fairly recent decision to whip himself back into peak-Eddie shape. His return to SNL was one part of a comeback portfolio that also includes last year’s Dolemite Is My Name, his best movie in ages, a biopic in which he stars as the lovably crude blaxploitation misfit Rudy Ray Moore. Netflix, which co-produced that film, is also underwriting Murphy’s return to stand-up, having contracted with him to record a concert special—his first since 1987’s Raw—once the coronavirus pandemic abates and Murphy is able to take his new material on the road.

Murphy has also completed the filming of Coming 2 America, a sequel to Coming to America, the award-winning comedy whose 1988 release marked the end of the peak-Eddie period. Murphy has made several sequels in his career, many of the diminishing-returns variety (Another 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop III), but this one, originally slated to come out in December, is his most eagerly anticipated.

Which brings us to the audience’s side of the comeback pact: the collective decision we’ve made to appreciate Murphy’s cumulative contributions while he is still very much alive, in good health, and working, not yet at the standing-O, “play the entrance music slow ’cause he’s got a cane” phase.

His Black fans and protégés are leading the way. During his SNL monologue last December, Murphy was joined onstage by Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, and Kenan Thompson—a living tableau of what Murphy hath wrought in comedy. Speaking with Vanity Fair earlier this year, Murphy noted that he is the last one standing of the Black megastars who reached the apogee of their fame and artistic success in the ’80s: “The people that I knew around my age—that had impact in their areas—they’re mostly … they’re gone. Michael … and Prince … and Whitney, those are my contemporaries.”

In 1989, the last year of Murphy’s golden decade, a young Black writer named Trey Ellis wrote an essay for the literary journal Callaloo in which he coined the phrase the New Black Aesthetic. Ellis invented it, he told me, to describe “modern Black Americans who would take influences from the broad spectrum of American culture, as opposed to the previous Black aesthetic, which was seen as protest songs, Black nationalism, or some kind of pan-Africanism.” Ellis called these figures “cultural mulattoes,” Black people who, on the basis of their influences, could “navigate easily in the white world”—in other words, who had crossover appeal. Murphy claimed a place in their ranks, along with the Marsalis brothers, Wynton and Branford; Prince; the playwright George C. Wolfe; the novelist Terry McMillan; the singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman; and the director Reginald Hudlin and his producer brother, Warrington.

Murphy, who grew up in the middle-class New York City suburb of Roosevelt, on Long Island, perfectly fit Ellis’s description. His most obvious comedy forebear was Richard Pryor, whose 1970s albums he had committed to memory, but he was the product of all manner of Boomer-era pop-culture influences. “Eddie always said he wanted to be the Elvis of comedy, the Beatles of comedy,” Rob Bartlett, one of Murphy’s early stand-up partners, told me.

Murphy began doing stand-up when he was 15, insinuating himself into a mostly white comedy scene on Long Island. He worked his way into the regular rotation at a North Massapequa club called the White House Inn, whose Wednesday open-mic nights were emceed by Bartlett. The pair became fast friends—Bartlett often gave Murphy a ride to the club. Arriving in Roosevelt one evening to collect his friend, Bartlett recalled, he was let in by Murphy’s mother, Lillian, who advised him to head quietly down to the basement. Bartlett saw Murphy, unaware that he was being watched, lip-synching to an Elvis Presley record. “All the moves, everything, just like he was really in the jumpsuit onstage in Vegas, doing it,” Bartlett said.

Murphy, Bartlett, and a third Long Island comic, Bob Nelson, formed a short-lived act called “The Identical Triplets,” in which each man would do a solo set, followed by a group improv performance. This often involved sight gags based on the trio’s racial visuals: The two white guys would flank Murphy to form a “vanilla fudge” cookie, or the three men would perform a “total eclipse” routine in which Murphy slowly moved in front of Bartlett while Nelson peered at them through a pinhole in a piece of paper.

In a 1979 article about the White House Inn scene, a pre-fame Murphy, not yet 18, told The New York Times that he considered himself a “universal comic whose material would play equally well in front of both black and white audiences.” Bartlett saw that potential, too. “I remember him doing a bit about flies, that shit was the equivalent of dope to flies—it got them high,” Bartlett said. “He did the fly—buzz, buzz, buzz—and then there was a dealer fly who said, ‘You better bring the bread, man. And I’m talking good bread, like Pepperidge Farm!’ Then the next line killed me. The dealer fly said, ‘Remember !’ It went over most people’s heads, but that’s the kind of thing that set him apart.” (For readers under the age of 40, a ubiquitous TV ad campaign in the ’70s and ’80s featured a folksy old man in a straw boater praising the baked-goods company’s grandma-evocative products, concluding with the tagline “Pepperidge Farm remembers.”)

Murphy was 19 and still working the Long Island clubs when he caught wind that the “Black slot” in SNL’s cast was open, because Garrett Morris was leaving. He began pestering the office of the show’s talent coordinator, Neil Levy, with daily phone calls. Sometimes, Murphy got no further than Levy’s secretary. But occasionally, Levy picked up his own phone and heard a buoyant, fast-talking kid on the line. “He went into this thing about how he had 18 brothers and sisters, and he was the only one who could work, and they were all counting on him to get this job. That made me laugh,” Levy told me.

scrolling illustration of classic Eddie Murphy costumes
Louise Pomeroy

Still, SNL was not in the habit of taking unsolicited pitches from aspiring, agentless performers. Murphy, as far as Levy can recall, didn’t even submit a résumé or a headshot. “There was something funny and kind of sparkling about him on the phone that made me not say ‘Get lost,’ ” Levy said. “I thought that his persistence should be rewarded, and I thought maybe I could use him as an extra.” In Levy’s office, Murphy performed a short piece in which he enacted an argument among three men in Harlem, whipsawing between characters. Levy instantly recognized that Murphy had the goods.

The show’s executive producer, Jean Doumanian, agreed to bring in Murphy as a featured player—a junior-varsity member of the cast—after Levy went to the mat for him. Murphy didn’t have to bide his time on the JV list for long. After falling in with Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield, a pair of SNL writers, he developed a militant character named Raheem Abdul Muhammed. On December 6, 1980, Murphy-as-Raheem offered a “Weekend Update” commentary on an Ohio school district’s mandate to integrate its high-school basketball teams with more white players.

“At least let us have basketball,” Raheem said, unsmiling. “Is nothing sacred? Anytime we get something going good, y’all got to move in on it. In the ’60s we wore platform shoes, then y’all had to wear platform shoes. In the early ’70s we braided our hair, then in the late ’70s you had to braid your hair. Now it’s 1980, we on welfare—by the end of next year, y’all gonna be on welfare, too.”

Murphy elicited whoops from the audience, a whole different species of laughter from the tiny tremors that otherwise disturbed the air of Studio 8H that dismal season. Within weeks, Murphy was promoted to full cast member. Margaret Oberman remembers Murphy as a “ridiculously wonderful” 20-year-old when she met him early in 1982. She had just been hired as an SNL writer by Dick Ebersol, who’d succeeded Doumanian in the spring of 1981. “All you needed to be with him was a good stenographer,” Oberman told me. “Because he would come into your office and give you a character.”

Robin Duke, a castmate of Murphy’s from 1981 to 1984, ascribes to him a particular talent for connecting with audiences. “Eddie had a gift for working the camera and the live audience at the same time,” she told me. “They both loved him, and he loved them right back. It was infectious, how happy he was onstage.”

Murphy’s body of SNL work is far more wide-ranging, strange, and inventive than people remember. Having grown up among Jewish, Irish, and Italian Americans on Long Island, he was as comfortable sending up white culture as Black. Beyond the famous Black characters that he reprised last December, his repertoire included eccentric local-TV pitchmen—the Tom Carvel–inspired Happy, proprietor of Happy’s Mayonnaise Palace; and E. Eppy Doolittle, who woodenly pitched his down-market Long Island gentlemen’s club while pretending to take calls from celebrities.

Murphy even imbued a stock gay stereotype—a swishy hairdresser named Dion, a character he developed with Oberman—with remarkable tenderness and heart. His capacity for so comfortably inhabiting Dion is all the more curious given that the one major stain on the peak-Eddie period is the rank homophobia of his early stand-up work, in which he nonchalantly referred to gay men as “faggots” and made light of AIDS.

In Delirious—the very same set that contains his famous “Ice-Cream Man” sketch, which is almost ’60s-Cosby-esque in its child’s-eye view and endearing universality—Murphy joked about gay people and then joked about joking about gay people, saying, “I kid the homosexuals a lot, ’cause … they homosexuals.” (Murphy apologized in 1996 for these routines.)

But Dion was lovingly portrayed, the dispenser of jokes rather than the butt of them, and his zingers—“Some woman bought the shirt I was gonna get for the Stevie Wonder concert. And I seen the bitch; she ain’t even no small !”—are not a world away from those of Bowen Yang’s improbably flamboyant Chinese government official, “trade daddy” Chen Biao, on latter-day SNL. It would be a fascinating, if undeniably fraught, proposition for Murphy, in his new stand-up, to sort out his complicated history with queerness.

In 1984, with nothing left to prove, Murphy left Saturday Night Live. His flourishing film career was keeping him so busy that, in his final season, he had negotiated a lucrative deal to appear in only 10 of the season’s 19 shows, a concession never before granted to an SNL cast member.

But just five years later, the peak-Eddie period was over, and Murphy was publicly longing for his SNL days. “In retrospect, working on that show was the most fun I’ve had in my career. Now there’s this onus on me—everything I do is under a magnifying glass,” he told Rolling Stone’s Bill Zehme in 1989. “But back then it was new, and I didn’t know anything about pressure. I was just having as much fun as I could. I was very creative back then, real hungry. You know the Rocky movies? ‘You gotta get the eye of the tiger back, Rock!’ I had it back then. I don’t have the eye of the tiger anymore.”

What had happened to bring him so low? For one thing, the movies that he made in the latter half of the ’80s, Coming to America aside, simply weren’t as inspired as his earlier work. The pan-Pacific caper The Golden Child (1986) was another picture originally written with someone else in mind (Mel Gibson, of all people), yet this time, Murphy’s improvised dialogue wasn’t enough to bring an inert script to life. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) was merely decent, and the dismal Another 48 Hrs., filmed and released in 1990, loomed on the horizon.

The movie that Murphy was making when he spoke with Zehme was Harlem Nights, his first (and, to this day, only) turn as a writer-director. It should have been a crowning achievement: an uptown gangster picture in which Murphy shared top billing with Pryor and his fellow icons Redd Foxx and Della Reese. But Murphy, for the first time, looked unhappy to be in a movie, swearing mirthlessly as a dead-eyed, short-fused club owner named Quick. As it turns out, he was unhappy. His co-lead, Pryor, cast as Quick’s mentor and business partner, had experienced a terrible 1980s professionally, rife with such stinkers as The Toy and Brewster’s Millions. Murphy’s fantasy of a fruitful collaboration with his childhood idol was undone by his discovery that Pryor resented his success. “Richard feels that the reason his shit is the way it is is because I came along and fucked his shit up,” he said in 1990.

The cultural winds were shifting, too. Murphy, the would-be “universal comic,” made it big on the 1970s terms of his childhood: SNL stardom, mainstream-Hollywood stardom, regular visits to Johnny Carson’s couch. But he was, in a sense, caught between two eras. Pryor, not yet sidelined by the multiple sclerosis that would bring his performing career to an end, held bitterly to the notion that Murphy had usurped his status as the Black-comic superstar. Meanwhile, in the same period in which Trey Ellis defined the New Black Aesthetic, an even newer Black consciousness was taking shape.

illustrated portrait of Eddie Murphy
Louise Pomeroy

By the dawn of the 1990s, a wave of young Black creatives had emerged who weren’t content merely to cross over; they were, in many cases, controlling the means of production and using their platforms to deliver manifestly “Black” material to a wide audience. Suddenly, getting a spot on Carson’s Tonight Show wasn’t as cool as being on Arsenio Hall’s syndicated talk show, which launched in 1989. And for a brief period, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s sketch show on Fox, In Living Color, an instant hit upon its 1990 premiere, had more heat than Saturday Night Live.

Chris Rock, when I interviewed him for Vanity Fair in 1998, looked back on this period with frustration. “I got on S.N.L. the year In Living Color came on,” he said. “I felt like David Hasselhoff, selling all those records in Germany. Who gives a fuck if you’re not reaching your own people?” By the time we met, Rock, like Hall, had his own eponymous program, a delightfully subversive sketch-talk hybrid on HBO that featured Grandmaster Flash scratching records and such guests as Johnnie Cochran, Marion Barry, D’Angelo, and Erykah Badu. Hall, Wayans, and Rock were all friends and protégés of Murphy’s. Suddenly, they had surpassed him in relevance.

Ellis actually got to know Murphy during the early ’90s, working as a rewrite man on his 1992 romantic comedy, Boomerang, and receiving the star’s backing to develop a Harriet Tubman biopic that was never realized. He recalls Murphy in this period as a beneficent but distracted figure. “Getting him to focus and really do the work, and not just be a movie star, was a challenge,” he said. “In a sense, he was a bit of a victim of his own success, similar to Whitney Houston. Once you become a crossover cultural superstar, you’re not seen as a cutting-edge Black artist anymore.”

The most talked-about new movie by a Black writer-director in 1989 was not Murphy’s middling Harlem Nights, but Spike Lee’s third full-length feature, Do the Right Thing. Its ecstatic reviews underscored the growing perception that Murphy was out of touch. Do the Right Thing’s credit sequence featured Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” in which Chuck D assailed one of Murphy’s idols: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me.”

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times not long before Do the Right Thing’s release, Lee called out Murphy for not using his box-office clout to give Black people more representation in Hollywood. “I love Eddie Murphy and I’m 100 percent behind him, but if I ever get one iota of the power he has, I’m gonna raise holy (expletive) hell. Eddie has made a billion dollars for Paramount. Yet I don’t see any black executives with any real power at that place,” Lee said. “Eddie needs to flex his muscles in ways that can help black people get into this industry. Clout isn’t just getting the best table at Spago. How’s that helping your people?”

Murphy was wounded by these words, commenting for the same article, “I don’t need anyone telling me how much social consciousness I should have.” Indeed, he had taken a stand while presenting the Best Picture award at the previous year’s Oscars. Jovially but pointedly, he noted that only three Black people had won acting awards up to that point in the Academy’s nearly 60-year history. “I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but hey, what the hey—I gotta say it,” he said. In those days, Black actors didn’t receive rousing applause from Academy Award audiences for statements like that.

In 1990, Spin magazine published an extraordinary Q&A in which Murphy was interviewed by none other than Lee. They didn’t completely hug it out, but the two men were cordial and honest about where they differed and where they agreed. Lee copped to having “taken some bait I shouldn’t have taken” in press interviews but, in his characteristic no-fucks-to-give way, critiqued Murphy’s personal tastes (“What is your fascination with Elvis? I don’t know any black people who like Elvis Presley”) and disinclination to apply pressure to the brass at Paramount Pictures to hire more Black people, saying, “Sometimes I think you underestimate the power that you have.”

Murphy, for his part, revealed to Lee how caged in he felt by his stardom, and how fearful he was of taking a more Spike-like approach to being an artist and a public figure. “What happens is, black people reach a certain level of success and … you get your own little group around you, your own people around you,” he said.

You are cut off from the rest of society and you have your own little world and the idea of sacrificing that is scary to a lot of people, ’cause a lot of people aren’t in the position where they can bounce back if they lost all that shit. The scariest thing about you to me is—and the scariest thing is the thing I admire most about you—is that every black person who really stood up and said, “Fuck it, I’m about this,” got dissed, killed, fucked over—everybody, from Dr. King to Ali, you know?

For all of these reasons, Murphy told Lee, “my politics are much more covert. I am very black, and I have a very strong black consciousness, but I am about gradual change and dialogue that is much more civil.”

But gradual change, or at least Murphy’s interpretation of it, wasn’t what audiences were interested in. In March 1991, the U.S. experienced its proto–George Floyd moment: the brutal beating of a nonresisting Black man, Rodney King, by four Los Angeles Police Department officers, captured on videotape by a civilian. Four months later, with exquisite if tragic timing, John Singleton’s first movie came out. Boyz N the Hood spoke to the very issues that the King story had shined a light on: the fatalism of young Black men who doubted that they would live to grow old, and the belief that the LAPD, under the leadership of Daryl Gates, was a belligerent occupying force. Not long after Boyz N the Hood became a sensation, Murphy worked with Singleton on the nine-minute video for Michael Jackson’s single “Remember the Time,” in which Murphy played an Egyptian pharaoh in an opulent gold headpiece. He did little but cock his eyebrows suspiciously.

The conversation about Black film was now focused on scrappier pictures than Murphy’s big-budget extravaganzas. Directorial debuts like Boyz N the Hood, Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, and Reginald Hudlin’s House Party all came out to acclaim within a span of 16 months. When Lee went big-budget, in 1992, it was to make Malcolm X. Murphy remained a star but was not, like these men, an auteur—and in his 30s, the exuberance that had propelled his stand-up, his early movies, and his semi-successful attempt at a singing career (“Party All the Time”) seemed to have faded.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the December 2020 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

By the time of 1992’s Boomerang, directed by Hudlin, Paramount Pictures was repositioning Murphy as a mature, debonair leading man. Boomerang has been the rightful beneficiary of revisionist praise, particularly for the strong performances by its two female leads, Robin Givens and Halle Berry. In 2019, the film became the basis for a popular BET series of the same name, developed by Lena Waithe and Ben Cory Jones. But at the time of its release, Boomerang received mediocre reviews and marked the beginning of a period in which Murphy’s “universal comic” status waned; Black audiences remained faithful, but white moviegoers no longer rushed to see his pictures. Then came duds that pleased no one, such as The Distinguished Gentleman and Vampire in Brooklyn. People started taking notice of Murphy’s losing streak.

The details of the incident with David Spade are familiar to students of Saturday Night Live lore. In 1995, Spade was a boyish young cast member on SNL. He had a running bit called “Hollywood Minute.” On December 9 of that year, Spade riffed on various celebrities of the day—Heather Locklear, Antonio Banderas, Sarah Ferguson—before a headshot of Murphy appeared above his left shoulder. “Look, children, it’s a falling star! Make a wish!” he said.

That’s the part everyone remembers. Less remembered is that, in response to the audience’s reaction, a mixture of groans and laughter, Spade doubled down. “Yes, that’s right!” he said. “You make a ‘Hollywood Minute’ omelet, you break some eggs!”

Murphy, furious at being ridiculed on the very program that he had carried through its leanest period, gave Spade a tongue-lashing over the phone the Monday after the segment aired. And for years afterward, he distanced himself from the program. “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,’ ” Murphy told Rolling Stone in 2011. “How many people have come off this show whose careers really are fucked up, and you guys are shitting on me?”

A year after the Spade incident, the journalist Allison Samuels was keen on interviewing Murphy for Newsweek. At the time, Samuels was the magazine’s de facto senior Black correspondent, her antennae always on high alert for a good cultural story. When she picked up word that an Eddie Murphy comeback might be in the offing, via his next film—a modern-day version of Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor—she excitedly pitched a Murphy profile to her bosses. All they were willing to give her was half a page: a single column of text.

Samuels’s interview with Murphy took place in a trailer in San Francisco, where he was filming yet another soon-to-be-forgotten picture, the cop thriller Metro. She described the interview to me as the most intense journalistic experience of her life. “It lasted about four hours. I’ve never had a person be so brutally honest,” she said. “He was very reflective, and I just got him when he was down on his luck.”

Murphy spoke with Samuels about his regrets, such as turning down a role in Ghostbusters, and his struggles to navigate his early fame. He lamented the lack of a Black mentor to advise him on his career choices when he was in his early 20s. “You have to remember that there wasn’t a blueprint for me then,” he said. “Richard [Pryor] was having his own serious issues back then, so he couldn’t really help me, and Cosby wasn’t a fan of my work. I was just winging it.”

Once the marathon interview was finished and Samuels was gathering her belongings—“I’d run out of tapes, of questions, of everything,” she said—the conversation turned more casual. “We were talking about the industry, talking about Black Hollywood,” Samuels said. “I was talking about Newsweek, saying how sometimes, it can be hard to get African Americans into the magazine. And then he asked me how big of a story this one would be. I was honest with him. I said, ‘Listen, I had a hard time convincing them that you would be a story at all.’ I told him that they thought Will Smith was a bigger star, and that I’d said, ‘Well, Eddie Murphy was a huge star.’ ”

Murphy, Samuels recalls, was stunned by this bulletin from the world of the white-dominated mainstream media: “He was like, ‘You had to convince them of that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘But don’t they remember ?’ ”

scrolling illustration of classic Eddie Murphy costumes
Louise Pomeroy

Samuels proved to be correct in intuiting that The Nutty Professor would be a comeback of sorts for Murphy, in that it made lots of money, spawned a sequel, and reestablished him as a bankable family-movie star. He also voiced the donkey in the Shrek movies, talked to animals in the Dr. Dolittle movies, and goofed his way through an anodyne kiddie picture called Daddy Day Care. But this comeback, however well it served Murphy financially and spoke to his home life as a contented dad (of 10 children, as of now), was not the comic revival that his fans were rooting for. That did not happen until Dolemite Is My Name.

Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the screenwriters behind the film, originally met with Murphy about doing a Rudy Ray Moore biopic in 2002. “The Rudy story was always going to be a hard‑R movie, and back then, he was firmly ensconced in family land,” Alexander told me. But when they approached Murphy again in 2017, “he instantly responded, ‘Hell yes!’ ” Karaszewski told me. Karaszewski and Alexander set to work on a script that is, as the former put it, “as much a tribute to Eddie Murphy as it is to Rudy Ray Moore. We felt like there wasn’t ever that one movie that combined all of his skills, be it stand-up comedy; really broad, jokey comedy; dramatic acting; and singing. We thought we could do with one movie the gigantic comeback that Eddie really deserved.”

Indeed, Dolemite Is My Name has a meta-commentary dimension to it, with Murphy’s Moore, in the film’s very first scene, desperately trying to persuade a record-store DJ (Snoop Dogg) that he and his material are still relevant. That Murphy pulls off this performance with pathos, nuance, and humor—a preternatural talent persuasively playing a marginal talent—is proof that he is back in top form. So, too, is the 2019 SNL episode he hosted. For those of us old enough to remember watching broadcast television in 1981, Murphy’s exultant romp through the show was almost a time-traveling experience. Playing one of Santa’s elves in a throwaway sketch about marauding polar bears at the North Pole, Murphy, in pointy ears and candy-cane suspenders, brought the same connective energy to the camera that he had nearly 40 years before. Samuels was home for the holidays in Augusta, Georgia, when the episode aired. At 11:30 p.m., four generations of her family gathered around the TV set, as if it were the old days. “We were all so full of anticipation—we wanted this so badly for him,” she said. “It was what we all had been waiting for, for him to return to the top.”

Murphy has said that he views this flurry of renewed activity as a “bookend” rather than a full-scale career relaunch—a classy settling of accounts before he retires from performance, Cary Grant–style, in his early 60s. Coming 2 America—as of press time, negotiations for its release were under way with Amazon Studios—carries the air of a prestige project; its screenplay is co-written by Kenya Barris, the Black-ish TV creator, and it was directed by Craig Brewer, who also directed Dolemite Is My Name. Beyond that, the only unrealized projects on Murphy’s docket are the Netflix stand-up special and a proposed fourth Beverly Hills Cop movie. If this is it, what a way to go out.

The celebratory atmosphere that surrounds the return of peak Eddie isn’t just evidence of Murphy’s ability to still be funny. It’s also an acknowledgment that we were too harsh in judging him, in piling undue expectations on a young man who saved a beloved TV show and blazed a trail for Black performers, all without a road map. Better to pay tribute to him for his great work than prosecute him for his flops and youthful offenses. As we’ve learned too often, not every performer of Murphy’s stature lives to enjoy revisionist adulation.

In our conversation, Samuels rattled off to me the same litany of Black cultural icons whom Murphy mentioned earlier this year. “I always think of him in the era of Michael Jackson and Whitney and Prince—all of those people who are now gone,” she said. “He reminds us of that era, but he’s still here. So to see him come back in top form, still capable of everything he was capable of—it matters. It’s important.”

This article was first published online on November 22, 2020.