It’s Talent Night, July 9, 1976, at the Roosevelt Youth Center on Long Island. The evening is hot, the crowd rowdy. A skinny black kid in a loud green jacket and matching fat necktie steps onstage to do his impersonation of soul singer Al Green. Two hundred neighborhood kids eye his getup and howl.
Eddie Murphy, 15, is terrified, despite the crowd’s reaction. He has never faced an audience alone before, yet has longed to with a passion that borders on the peculiar. While other kids in Roosevelt whiled away afternoons in the park emulating a local-boy-made-good named Julius Erving, Murphy spent hours in his basement, impersonating Elvis Presley, Lionel Richie and Bill Cosby.
His parents were puzzled. His brother Charlie thought he was nuts. Eddie Murphy thought he was on to something. Climbing into other people’s skins mesmerized him even more than the driving rhythm and blues that he sang in his neighborhood band. Comedy was like riding the shopping carts he and a buddy swiped from the A&P to haul their band equipment. He climbed inside, someone pushed, and off he went on a jolting joy ride, all the more exhilarating for its danger.
As the Youth Center crowd hooted, Murphy closed his eyes, spread his arms and let go—riding Al Green’s smooth soul gestures for all they were worth. Green pushed and Eddie Murphy rode, and when Murphy opened his eyes again, he was on Saturday Night Live, a bundle of energy doing James Brown in a hot tub. Barely 48 Hours later, he was a movie star, then a Beverly Hills Cop, then a Golden Child. He made a career flying from one character or impersonation to the next—Stevie Wonder, Elvis, Gumby—until, eventually, it began to seem easier and more fun to do Someone Else than do the Real Eddie Murphy.
But that’s begun to change. Murphy’s soaring success—with seven movies in less than six years grossing more than a billion dollars—brought problems that were Murphy’s alone. 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.” It was time for the mimic to concentrate on one character, Eddie Murphy.
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.
His new film, Coming to America—in which Murphy plays an African prince who journeys to the U.S. to find a bride who loves him for who he is and not what he has—also reflects Murphy’s struggle to cope with the demands of fame and fortune and the isolation that comes with it. But America’s Murphy is more mature, introspective and optimistic. And, just to show he hasn’t lost the touch, he also plays three of the character roles: Clarence, an argumentative barber; Randy, a smarmy fundamentalist soul singer; and Saul, an elderly Jewish man.
“I’m back on the right track now as an actor,” says Murphy. “For three years I did movies that made a lot of money, and it was like, ‘Okay, we got the formula.’ But I’m 27 years old now. I have to grow. I can’t spend the rest of my life screaming and hollering.”
He may have to spend the rest of his life worrying about how to manage a considerable personal fortune, now estimated to be well into eight figures. “There’s this big misconception about being famous and rich. More about being rich,” says Murphy, whose nickname in Hollywood is “Money.” “The misconception is that once you have money, you’re straight. But you can have financial problems and everything else, only on a much grander scale. If anything, worrying about keeping it is as much of a headache as worrying how to pay the bills.”
His Windex tab alone must be terrific. His Englewood, N.J., home, a 3.5-acre spread called Bubble Hill (bubble is street slang for party) is polished to a spit shine, from gleaming marble floors to brass-trimmed fireplace. A blue Rolls-Royce convertible is parked out front.
Yet the house’s ambience is understated and comfortable, a far cry from the campy opulence of Coming to America’s Zamunda, the fictional African nation where Murphy’s Prince Akeem is pampered by royal tooth-brushers and palace wipers who handle toilet duty. There are no servants, entourage or wayward women scurrying around Bubble Hill this Friday evening, and the prince has fetched his own soda from the fridge.
“I have problems like anybody else,” says Murphy, who is soft-spoken and easygoing at close range. “In fact I have more because I have this strange existence. It’s funny. When I sit back with people like Stallone, we can trade stories. It’s like the same identical things happen: the way power isolates you, and everybody tries to get close to you, and the weight of being the patriarch in your family. It’s just a bunch of stuff.”
He’s still recovering from a tear in his jaw muscle suffered last May when overzealous fans crashed into a boat carrying Murphy and a few friends in the Bahamas. Incidents like those only serve to drive Murphy deeper into the kind of seclusion where paranoia breeds easily, though he seems determined to lead as normal a life as possible and to refute the wild comparisons to a beleaguered, drugged-up Elvis.
Once fond of giving reporters the walking tour of his home, he stopped the practice—and virtually stopped talking to reporters—after an Interview magazine profile last year. “I was raped,” says Murphy of the article, which took a lot of psychological liberties in talking about the Elvis portrait in Murphy’s bedroom. “The guy came to my house, and he was the nicest guy in the world, then he tore me up.”
The prima donna flag went up, and Murphy hunkered down with his considerable family and his old friends from Long Island. “The problem I have with the press is that I’m not very humble in their eyes,” he says. “But what made me successful was my boldness. That’s part of my humor. That’s part of my character.”
It didn’t help his image when rumors began to circulate about Murphy or his associates combing nightclubs for pretty women willing to spend a night with a star. One woman who claims to have spent the night with Murphy after being approached by him in an L.A. club—she asked that her name not be used—says that the comedian was low-key and attentive, although he did say, at one point, “You’re going to remember this night for the rest of your life, your fantasy come true.” Says the woman: “He’s not a bad guy at all. I think he’s just confused about what he has to prove.”
But Murphy, who doesn’t drink or do drugs, claims he has outgrown the urge to play musical beds. “When I first got in the public eye, when I was like 19, 20, 21, I raised much hell,” he laughs, sitting in his living room. “But I wasn’t much of a party animal after I met Lisa [Figueroa]. And now, everyone’s going ‘Oh, Murphy, he’s a womanizer…’ ”
In fact, it was the breakup with Figueroa, then a biology student at Adelphi University who spoke her own mind, that seemed to set Murphy on the path of self-examination. “She’s great for me,” he told a reporter in 1984, when their romance was blooming. “If a woman lets me dominate her, I get bored real fast.” But within a year, the relationship had died a familiar death, says his best friend and America co-star Arsenio Hall. “On the first date Eddie will say, ‘Oh, man! Isn’t she wonderful? That’s the next Miz Murphy!’ ” Hall says. “He wants Cinderella so bad. [But] you can start off with the sweetest, nicest girl in the world, and then she gets caught up in being Eddie’s woman. I’ve seen some of them take bows in clubs all on their own.”
That was pretty much what happened to Figueroa, according to Hall. “I saw her change under the pressure,” he says. “She began to think she was Eddie. The one person he really loved broke his heart. He was very hurt and down in that period.” (Figueroa could not be found for comment.)
Murphy worked out some of his residual anger in Raw’s mean, raunchy monologues about grasping women and sexual infidelity. “I did Raw at a really bitter stage of my life,” he says. “I look at it now and cringe. It’s not so much that I think Raw wasn’t funny, but I can’t believe what I was feeling then.” At one point in the monologue he tells the audience that the only way he could ever be sure a woman wasn’t just interested in his money would be to go to Africa and find one sitting “buck naked on a zebra.” Reversed and cleaned up, that vision became the seed for Coming to America.
“I was on tour and I had broken up with Lisa,” Murphy recalls. “I was feeling sorry for myself. It was that old cliché, ‘Who’s gonna love me for me?’ and I came up with an idea for this movie. It was a parallel to what was happening in my life at the time.”
Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald and writer Shelby Gregory beg to differ. Both claim Murphy pinched his African prince from their ideas: Buchwald says Murphy’s onscreen ebony hero is drawn from a four-page story treatment he wrote called “It’s a Crude, Crude World,” which was optioned to Paramount to be offered to Murphy.
Gregory claims his screenplay Toto, the African Prince was given to Murphy by a man who says he’s the son of a Nigerian chief, though he has no known address and—as far as Murphy knows—was last spotted at an L.A. disco doing the bunga-bunga. Gregory has filed a $10 million copyright infringement suit against Murphy and America co-screenwriters David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein.
Buchwald, who was paid an undisclosed sum for his story by Paramount Pictures, is proceeding more cautiously, and more philosophically. “I had two great moments during all this,” he says. “One was when I told everyone I had written a story for Eddie Murphy. The second was when I told everyone I was suing him.” No suit has yet been filed.
“I never met Art Buchwald and I don’t know who Shelby Gregory is,” says Murphy. Adds his manager Robert Wachs: “The only thing we have to say is Eddie wrote the story. Any problem Art Buchwald may have is with Paramount Pictures.”
As the titular head of a new generation of black talent, Murphy seems to feel a duty to police racism in the entertainment industry—taking a moment at this year’s Oscars, for example, to chide the Academy for awarding only three statuettes to black actors in its 60-year history. And it was reportedly Murphy’s reaction to a racial slur that launched his stormy feud with John Landis, the controversial director of Twilight Zone-The Movie whom Murphy handpicked to guide America. According to people on the set, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman—who is also Mrs. John Landis—was reportedly overheard complaining in racial terms one day when Murphy had kept her waiting for more than an hour. When Murphy got wind of it, he was so furious he grabbed Landis by the neck and demanded an apology.
Landis was unavailable for comment, but Murphy doesn’t deny they clashed: “John is a talented director, but we had personal differences. I don’t like him anymore, and he doesn’t like me.”
Adds Murphy: “As much as we like to think we’re liberals, society has this underlying bed of racism. It’s like this thing I keep hearing about my ‘entourage.’ If Michael J. Fox walks into a restaurant with his friends, it’s Michael J. Fox and his guests. When Eddie Murphy walks into a room with his friends, it’s like, ‘Oh, my, it’s Eddie Murphy—and his entourage.’
“I don’t have an entourage,” Murphy continues. “I don’t have bodyguards. I don’t have anybody to, like, choke you and say, ‘Get away from this man!’ My cousin Ray, he takes care of all my little stuff. Kenneth Frith, who we call Fruitie—he went to school with me—he’s a production assistant now. And Larry [Johnson] is an assistant. They’re big guys. People see them and it’s like, ‘Oh. Bodyguards.’ ”
Says Murphy’s childhood buddy Clint Smith, now a vice-president in Murphy’s television company: “I was in a restaurant with Eddie and went to the bathroom and came out, and this lady said to me, ‘Are you a bodyguard?’ I’m 5’5″ and weigh 150 lbs.”
Life is good on Bubble Hill. This evening Lillian and Vernon Lynch, Murphy’s mother and stepfather, are seated on the stoop of their son’s home, enjoying the cool air. (The biological father of Eddie and his brother Charlie, 28, died when Eddie was 8 years old. But Vernon Sr. raised them as his own. There is also a third son, Vernon Jr., 21.)
They chat easily, like the normal, proud parents they are. Great kid, Eddie. Why, back in the old days, when Lillian toiled for the phone company and Vernon worked at a Breyers Ice Cream factory, the whole gang lived in a three-bedroom house in Roosevelt. Those were the days. Do they miss Roosevelt?
“Roosevelt?” asks Vernon. He smiles. “Where’s Roosevelt?”
Lillian and Vernon run Panda Merchandising, which handles the rights for Eddie Murphy products with Charlie and Vernon Jr. The couple live down the road in Alpine, N.J., and, like Eddie’s brothers, they visit often. Cousin Ray Murphy lives in Eddie’s house.
This tight circle of family and friends is Murphy’s emotional bedrock, but it is not a panacea. “I feel a void,” he says, sitting in the living room as the light fades. “There’s not a total emptiness, but I feel something’s missing. I don’t think there’s anyone who feels like there isn’t something missing in their life. No matter how much you accomplish, how much money you make, or how many cars or houses you have or how many people you make happy, life isn’t perfect for anybody. I’ve got my family around me. I don’t know whether it helps me that they’re here or not, but I love them and want them with me.” As for romance, he says cautiously, “I’m in a cool place right now. I don’t have someone who is my woman. I have a couple of friends. That’s where I’m at right now.”
He pauses and glances out the window. His family is out there. The world is out there. His two favorite cars, a 1988 white-on-white Corvette and a black-on-black Jaguar, are out there. But who’s gonna ride with the new, grown-up Eddie Murphy? She’s out there…somewhere. The man who scripted America seems to believe that in the true, old-fashioned way. For now, though, Murphy finds fulfillment elsewhere. “I live to make people happy,” says Murphy, “and to make sure my family is comfortable. That’s why I feel I was put here.”
—With additional reporting by Lois Armstrong and Darlene Donloe in Los Angeles and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.