It was nearly impossible to not laugh each time Eddie Murphy showed up on my television. As a young child in the early 1980s, I was smitten with his every appearance in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
But even though SNL launched Murphy’s career, it was his overwhelming success as a film star during the decade that stamped him as an iconic trailblazer in black cinema.
Sure, African American movie legends such as Sidney Poitier and Cicely Tyson fought extreme racism and segregation — and they portrayed more important characters. But Eddie managed to steal the comedy spotlight from Richard Pryor and build it into massive commercial success as an actor.
He Was a Natural Movie Star From the Start
This earned him unprecedented clout in the film industry for a person of color, thanks to a string of box office hits. First, there was Murphy’s stunning movie debut in 1982’s 48 Hrs.
He portrayed Reggie Hammond, an ex-con who partners with a cop (Nick Nolte) to catch two cop killers. A scene in that film featured the 21-year old rising star as Hammond, masterfully taking control of a redneck bar and calling himself “a new sheriff in town.”
That performance was heavily praised by critics, and because it was the seventh highest-grossing film of 1982, Eddie’s potential as a longtime movie star seemed possible.
For me, his funniest character was Billy Ray Valentine, the fast-talking panhandler from Trading Places. That film, Murphy’s second, was the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1983. The classic “fish out of water” tale showcased his comedic skills more than did 48 Hrs. as he paired with Dan Aykroyd to create a masterpiece.
By this point, Murphy was in high demand and his fame began to skyrocket. Though still an SNL cast member at the time, he suddenly seemed “too big” for television. But my six-year-old self was eating up his brilliant characters, such as Buckwheat and Gumby.
For good measure, Eddie returned to his stand-up comedy roots when he filmed the HBO special, Eddie Murphy Delirious in the summer of ’83. The insanely profane film eventually gained a cult following, and for good reason: it was funny as hell.
Next Level Success
The release of the action-comedy film Beverly Hills Cop in late 1984 changed everything for Murphy. It was an instant success and ended up becoming the top-grossing movie of the year.
This meteoric rise was notable in the annals of black cinema as it afforded the 23-year old superstar extreme latitude to get films made.
Paramount Pictures had already renegotiated their deal with him and made it even more lucrative. At this point, Murphy was seen as a young man with the Midas touch and joined guys like Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the biggest earners in Hollywood.
Eddie Murphy left SNL after four seasons in 1984, as the luster of his rapidly expanding fame caused an explosion in his financial status. He even took a foray into music and in 1985, scored a radio hit with his song, “Party All the Time.”
His bizarre 1986 fantasy film, The Golden Child failed to meet expectations. Nonetheless, it still became the eighth highest-grossing film of the year.
In 1987, Murphy’s contract with Paramount was again renegotiated. He also starred in Beverly Hills Cop II, reprising his role as Detroit detective Axel Foley to much acclaim. The sequel to the mega-popular original was the third highest-grossing film of the year.
Unfortunately for me, his heavily anticipated concert film, Eddie Murphy Raw, was filled with obscene language. My mom wouldn’t let me see it because I was just ten years old at the time of its release in 1987.
Huge fan of Eddie that I was, I soon found a way. Even the concert film, in which he performed a ridiculously hilarious stand-up comedy routine for 90 minutes, broke records.
It still stands as the highest-grossing stand-up comedy concert film in history.
In June 1988, the 27-year old superstar once again struck gold with the release of Coming to America. This film and all its surrounding press and hype marked the pinnacle of Murphy’s power and influence as a film star.
He began to expand his creativity, as he portrayed a wide variety of characters in the flick with extraordinary nuance and flair. The film, a tale of an African prince seeking out his bride to be in America, became one of his best-known and most beloved films ever.
The End of His Ultimate Decade
The final year of the 1980s saw Murphy at his most ambitious. He decided to write, direct, produce and star in Harlem Nights, a period piece set in the 1930s.
That film serves as a notable landmark in black cinematic history as it featured three generations of comedy icons. 67-year old Redd Foxx, 49-year old Richard Pryor, and, of course, 28-year old Murphy all made historic contributions to the genre before starring in this film.
Even though it opened at #1, the movie was heavily criticized and paled in comparison to the box office performance of Murphy’s previous films.
None of that mattered in the overall picture. Eddie Murphy starred in five feature films in that decade that were outstanding. One other that finished in the top 10 for the year and yet another one that earned three times its budget.
All told, that’s seven successful films in one decade starring a black man who had not yet reached age 30. He also starred in two iconic stand-up comedy films and released two R&B albums. None of this mentions his mesmerizing four-season run on SNL to start the decade.
An Everlasting Contribution
The bottom line is simple: Eddie Murphy was a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s and made an everlasting contribution to black history. He evolved our presence in the film industry and achieved a lofty status that hadn’t been accomplished before he came along.
Because of his remarkable run of excellence that decade, gifted black actors such as Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Don Cheadle, and many others were able to reach notable milestones and carve out great careers of their own.
I will never forget the greatness and influence of Eddie Murphy. He will always symbolize black excellence.