This story originally appeared in Newsday on Dec. 6, 1981.
When the National Broadcasting Company’s drastically revamped “Saturday Night Live” returned to the airwaves Oct. 3, practically the first sight viewers saw was a bright-eyed young black man wearing a pink warm-up suit and a pompadour hairdo. Eddie Murphy was pretending to be “Little Richard Simmons,” a swish amalgamation of calisthenics coach and rock and roll idol. He strutted around the stage singing, to a line of exercising fat women, “Good golly, Miss Molly, you look like a hog.”
Later in the same show, Murphy, a 1979 graduate of Roosevelt High School, popped up in a skit called “Prose and Cons,” which kidded the modern phenomenon of jailbird authors. As a menacing, imprisoned poet named Tyrone Green, he intoned: “Kill my landlord, kill my landlord, C-I-L-L my landlord.”
In subsequent weeks, Murphy has appeared as film critic Raheeb Abdul Muhammad, lobbying for better roles for black actors and asking why there was no part of Isaac Hayes in “Kramer vs. Kramer” and why Jerry Lewis, instead of James Earl Jones, got the lead in “Hardly Working.” He has also been seen in on-target, affectionate impersonations of Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby, and a grown-up version of Buckwheat of “The Little Rascals” films.
“Saturday Night Live,” a solid hit during the five years Lorne Michaels was the producer and John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner were in the cast, was a disaster last year with an all-new company under the leadership of Jean Doumanian. This year, back for a seventh season with another new producer and another, almost completely new cast, ratings have continued to be sluggish and reviews have been mixed. It may be too soon to tell about the reconditioned “Saturday Night Live,” but Eddie Murphy seems to be a definite hit.
Murphy has clicked with audiences. Dick Ebersol; producer of the current SNL, cites a recent survey which has Murphy’s popularity higher than Chevy Chase’s was at this stage. And he’s clicked with the critics: “Eddie Murphy has stolen the show,” said The New York Times. Murphy, said The Village Voice, “seems capable of giving the entire history of black television an inspired goosing.”
Though he’s a sudden sensation to the rest of the country, Murphy’s family and friends in Roosevelt have known for years that he is an appealing and very funny fellow. When Murphy, who is just 20 years old, graduated from Roosevelt High two years ago, he was voted “most popular” and the yearbook forecast his destiny with a single word: “Comedian.” Four years ago, at a local saloon named Mr. Hick’s, he won the weekly “Gong Show” and its $25 grand prize three times. He claims his reputation was established long before.
“I was always the town clown,” the young comedian, who was born in Brooklyn and moved to Roosevelt in 1972, said the other day. “Ever since we moved out here, everybody knew that Eddie Murphy could make you laugh.”
“Even in preschool,” said Lillian Lynch, Eddie Murphy’s mother, “the teacher said that Eddie was a character. He was always imitating one cartoon character or another, and as he got older it turned into other people. You never had a conversation with just Eddie. He’d come back at you in some voice he’d picked up from television. It could be,” she said, “very annoying.”
Since he has become a $4,500-a week star of “Saturday Night Live,” Murphy has moved away from the family home in Roosevelt, to “the nicest apartment complex in Hempstead.” But he still spends most of his time in the modern, two-story ranch house occupied by his mother, a telephone operator, his stepfather, Vernon Lynch, a foreman at the Breyer ice cream factory in Long Island City; and his 14-year-old half-brother, Vernon Jr., a ninth-grader at Roosevelt High. A 22-year-old brother, Charles, a sailor based at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, also makes frequent trips back to Roosevelt.
Although he is one of the few 20-year-old college dropouts (two weeks at Nassau Community College) who could afford an apartment in Manhattan, the prospect does not interest Murphy. “I hate the city,” he said, looking very much at ease in a corner of his mother’s carefully kept living room. “I like being around people I know. I’m real close to my mother and my family.”
A wiry, 150-pounder who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall, Murphy is a handsome youth whose smile exposes a Lauren Hutton-gap in his teeth. He has brown eyes, a thin mustache, close-cropped hair and an obvious sense of style. The comedian was dressed in white designer jeans, a white, western-style shirt and a quilted, gray windbreaker. His black Trans Am, parked at the curb, is used for commuting to Rockefeller Center. He lets his mother drive his Camaro.
While his mother sat across the room looking intrigued, Murphy suggested that his comic roots may be traced to a difficult period of his childhood. His parents were divorced when he was 3, and his father, Charles Murphy, a New York City policeman, died when he was 8. For a time before his mother remarried, Eddie and his older brother were left in the care of baby-sitters, including a particularly harsh one named Mrs. Jenkins.
“I got shuffled around a lot,” he recalled. “I think I didn’t get enough attention for a while. And that Mrs. Jenkins was real tough. Grits and gravy all the time.” He assumed the Viennese accent comedians invariably associated with psychiatry. “My boy, you did not get enough attention, so you were funny to bring attention to yourself,” said Murphy. “I think that’s when I got funny, Ma,” he said, shifting back into the voice of the real Eddie Murphy. “Mrs. Jenkins made me funny!”
In adolescence, Murphy became adept at a form of humor which seems to be indigenous to black youth culture and is known as “rankin’.” “Rankin’,” he explained, “Is putting someone down. Like if I say ‘your mother got a wooden leg and kickstand.’ That’s rankin’.
“I was always rankin’ on somebody,” Murphy said with pride. In school, he said, his grades suffered and he was never more than a mediocre athlete, because he spent so much of his time in the General Purpose room, “with a big crowd around me, rankin’.”
Murphy says he raised rankin’ to such an art form that, at 16, he was asked to emcee a talent show at the Roosevelt Youth Center. He remembers the date: July 9, 1976. “It was the first time ever for me performing on a stage with a microphone,” he said, and his fate was sealed. “I liked comedy,” he said, “and I knew I was funny. I wanted to do that so bad I never thought about anything else.”
The decision to turn pro was made soon after. Murphy simply opened the Yellow Pages, looked under “talent agents,” and started dialing. “Now and then,” he said, “Someone would bite.” One of these was King Broder of Levittown, who booked Murphy into such Long Island spots as Richard M. Dixon’s White House in Massapequa. The plan, he said, was “get your act together on Long Island, go to the city and work out for a couple of years, and then get famous.” That is what happened.
Murphy did most of his working out at the Comic Strip, a comedians’ showcase on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Its owners, Bob Wachs and Richie Tienken, have since become his managers and Dick Fox of International Creative Management, the biggest of talent agencies, has succeeded King Broder as Murphy’s agent.
For a long time, he confesses, his act was so dirty that other comedians told him he would never get anywhere and his parents were embarrassed to see him perform. “Back then,” he recalled, “Profanity was my hook. I was real into Richard Pryor, and Richard Pryor cursed. As I grew up, my experience increased and I had other things to put in my act.”
When Murphy’s mother caught his act about two years ago at the East Side Comedy Club in Huntington, she was impressed. “I said to myself, ‘Gee whiz, he’s really got it,’” Lillian Lynch recalled. “He was so into it. He was such a little boy, but behaving like a man up on stage.”
The young performer was working a club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when he heard that Jean Doumanian, newly appointed producer of “Saturday Night Live,” “needed a black guy real bad.” Murphy hurried to New York to audition and was hired, but as a featured player — not a regular. For much of the season, he was given only sporadic appearance, until, he claims, another NBC executive suggested developing a prime time show for him. Doumanian quickly made him a regular.
One of his first hits was Raheeb Abdul Muhammad, introduced as “a Cleveland high school student” with an editorial comment on a proposed quota system for white basketball players. “If God had meant white people to be equal, he would have given everyone one of those,” said Raheeb, displaying one of those huge portable radios.
Murphy likes dangerous humor, and since he is the only black in the repertory company, much of it is racially oriented. He writes some of it himself, some of it with SNL writers Barry Blaustein, a 27-yeard-old from Westbury, and David Sheffield, a 32-year-old who comes from Ocean Springs, Miss.
There has been little negative reaction. Buckwheat’s son wrote him, “thinking I was trying to portray Buckwheat as an ignorant man. Shoot,” said Murphy. “I know he was doing a character.” There were also letters objecting to the hit in which Murphy read a couple of racist jokes purportedly submitted by Ronald Reagan. “All from white people,” said Murphy, who claims he can instantly tell whether a correspondent is black or white “from the language they use.”
When Ebersol was named to succeed Doumanian, he fired the whole cast except Murphy and Joe Piscopo, a preppie-looking New Jerseyite who skillfully mimics Tom Snyder. Andy Rooney and Frank Sinatra. Murphy says that Piscopo is his best friend on the show and that the new cast gets along much better than last year’s. If his colleagues are jealous of the big splash the junior member of the cast has made, they haven’t let him know.
Has success spoiled Eddie Murphy? “My ego gets messed up,” he said. “I’m constantly being patted on the back. If you’re constantly being told you’re good, you’re great, and girls are sending you flowers, I don’t care how humble you are, it’s going to change you a little bit. But I don’t want to be a snob — I hate snooty people.
“Sometimes,” Murphy declared, “I just stop dressing nice. I go to the mall and just bum around, just to be treated like everyone else.” Sometimes it is brought home to him that he isn’t like everyone else. While showing a visitor through his old high school recently, some of the students greeted him like Roosevelt High’s second most famous alumnus (next to Julius Erving), but most of them eyed him warily.
“I’m like a monster now,” he said as he walked the familiar halls. “Everybody’s looking at me real strange. Half of them are blown away that I’m here and half of them are real jealous that I am where I am.”
Murphy was effusively greeted by his old principal, Phillip Smith, who remembered him as “a determined young man,” who performed in school programs “making comedy out of bad situations, like attendance and discipline.” Murphy told the principal he wanted to come back to address the student body. “No jokes,” he said. “Real stuff.” Smith invited him to be the keynote speaker at Roosevelt’s Career Day next spring.
His mother claims that Murphy “has a better grip on his ego now than he did when he was 16 or 17” and making a name for himself in local night clubs. “He was into himself and he would just turn all of us off — nothing was important but just Eddie, Eddie, Eddie. I think he handles it beautifully now,” she added. “When he’s here, he’s sweet and thoughtful.”
Despite the flowers he gets from female admirers, Murphy says his social life centers on an 18-year-old from Copiague named “Shirley Fowler, a student at the University of Pittsburgh. As for other temptations to accompany sudden fame, he is steering clear.
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs at all,” he said. “I never cared for marijuana and I’ve never tried cocaine, because I get good reports and I’m afraid I might get into it. If you like it, and you can afford it, you buy it. I’ve seen what it can do to people, and I don’t want to mess up what I’ve got.”
What he’s got going, he said with more gratitude than immodesty, is “the perfect career.” He thinks he knows how to keep it that way. “Right now, I’m the golden kid of comedy. Everything is going well. I could sell out and do garbage movies, commercials, game shows, make a million in a year or so and burn myself out,” he mused. But that is not the plan. “I’d rather get rich in two years and stay in the limelight. I want to stay famous.”
Murphy wants to follow the path, well-trod by Belushi, Murray, Aykroyd and Chase, that leads from “Saturday Night Live” to movie stardom. “I’ll stay with the show for a year or two,” he said. “It’s a good way to learn movie acting. I am going to be the first one,” he declared, “to have a perfect career.”
Eddie Murphy may be the guy to do it, for reasons contained in the message he plans to deliver at Roosevelt High on Career Day.
“I can’t go in there with that rap they’re going to get from the Roosevelt graduates who’ve turned out to be doctors and lawyers,” he said. “I can’t tell them: Stay in school, get all the education you can. But I can tell them if you know you want to do it in your own heart, just dive in and do it. Don’t listen to what anyone says. You can get it,” said the golden kid of comedy, “if you want it.”