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Looking back at Eddie Murphy's LI comedy roots

Eddie Murphy at his mother's house in Hempstead

Eddie Murphy at his mother's house in Hempstead on Jan. 15, 1982. Credit: Getty Images/Allan Tannenbaum

On the last Saturday in May 1978, a musical group called The Rhythm Jesters were the headlining act at The Winner's Circle, a Westbury nightclub just north of the old Roosevelt Raceway. Also on the bill that night: a 17-year-old comedian named Eddie Murphy.

"Considered by many the funniest man in the U.S.," the club boasted in a newspaper advertisement. It might have been hype at the time, but it would be true soon enough.

After his meteoric career in the 1980s and a period of relative quiet over the past few years, Murphy is back in the spotlight with a new movie, "Dolemite Is My Name." A lighthearted biopic in which Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a 1970s-era comedian who became an unlikely movie star, "Dolemite Is My Name" has earned strong reviews ahead of its Oct. 25 premiere on Netflix. It's also part of a comeback campaign for Murphy, 58, who in December will return to host NBC's "Saturday Night Live" for the first time in 35 years. Murphy is also working on a sequel to his beloved 1988 comedy "Coming to America."

Perhaps even more momentous: Murphy plans to release a Netflix special and embark on a theater tour next year. That means a return to stand-up comedy, the craft he honed as a teenager on Long Island and which made him one of the biggest stars of his generation.

"You just knew from the second he hit the stage that this kid was going to be huge," says Rob Bartlett, who before becoming a 33-year mainstay on the national radio show "Imus in the Morning" worked with Murphy in the late 1970s. "It was palpable," adds the Massapequa Park-raised Bartlett. "You could feel the confidence, the raw talent. He was just incredible for a 17-year-old kid."

Murphy, born in Brooklyn and raised in middle-class Roosevelt, began his stand-up career at the age of 15, when he performed in a Roosevelt Youth Center talent show and impersonated the singer Al Green. From there, Murphy became a regular on the local comedy circuit, which included the White House Inn in Massapequa (run by the presidential look-alike Richard M. Dixon) and Richie Minervini's East Side Comedy Club in Huntington. Murphy became part of a group of comedians dubbed the Magnificent Seven, which included Minervini, Bartlett, Bob Nelson, Jim Myers, Bob Woods and David Hawthorne.

Though Manhattan was the place to be for comedy, Minervini says the group's Long Island roots were an advantage. "If you're a city act, you're talking about subways, elevators and potholes," he says. "But in the Midwest, you talk about pigeons and skyscrapers, they don't know what you're talking about. So we had the city nearby, but we also have the local suburban attitude, which is the rest of the whole country."

Raised on the records of Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, as well as the movies of Peter Sellers, Murphy proved to be a natural-born mimic, able to impersonate such stars of the day as boxer Muhammad Ali, sportscaster Howard Cosell and actor Robert Blake (of the ABC series "Baretta"). As for material, in his early years he occasionally cribbed directly from his heroes.

"He was super-confident, nothing could sway this kid," says Nelson, a Magnificent Seven member who was born in Hempstead and is currently performing a residency at Port Jefferson's Theatre Three. "He would do Richard Pryor's routine, and I would say, 'That's Richard Pryor's routine.' And he would say, 'Yeah — but I'm doing Richard Pryor!'"

Nelson, Bartlett and Murphy eventually formed a comedy trio called The Identical Triplets — the joke being that two of the comedians are Caucasian while Murphy is African-American. According to Nelson, the idea came from King Broder, a Levittown talent agent. (Broder's blustery show-biz persona would become the inspiration for Murphy's famous Gumby character on "Saturday Night Live.") The so-called triplets would improvise such absurd routines as a total eclipse — in which Murphy would walk very slowly in front of Bartlett while Nelson examined them both through a hole in a piece of paper.

"Eddie would do the stupidest material," Nelson says. "He would go, 'This is my impression of a guy eating a booger.' But he would get big laughs. He's just got this charisma."

At the time, Murphy didn't have a driver's license, so he was at the mercy of whoever had a car. "He was 17, hanging out with us 20-year-old guys," says Minervini. "He'd be saying, 'I got school tomorrow!' And we'd literally tell him to go to sleep. We'd bring him a blanket and a pillow, and we'd go out drinking until two in the morning. And then we'd drive him home."

Few were surprised when Murphy landed his slot on "Saturday Night Live" and made his first appearance on the show in late 1980, at the age of 19. Nelson says Murphy had once told him, during a drive home, that he would give up comedy if he hadn't made it by the age of 21.

"He says to me, 'Listen, who is there? There's Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx and then me,'" Nelson recalls. "And I give him the whole spiel about how you gotta stick with it, it takes a long time."

The message sank in — just not the way Nelson expected. "When we get to his house, he opens the door and says, 'Bob, I heard what you said, and I was thinking about it,'" Nelson says. "'And I realized something. There's Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, me — then Redd Foxx.'"

Shortly after his television career began, Murphy returned to his alma mater of Roosevelt High School to speak at Career Day in 1981. His speech, he told a Newsday reporter beforehand, would not be the usual pep talk about academic achievement. "But I can tell them, if you know you want to do it in your own heart, just dive in and do it," Murphy said. "Don't listen to what anyone says. You can get it if you want it."

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