Mercurial

The Stacks: Eddie Murphy’s Gilded Road to Ruin

In the ’80s the Beverly Hills Cop star was as hot as it got in Hollywood, and somehow everything went sour. Peter Richmond caught up with him in comeback mode.

01.16.16 5:01 AM ET

For a few years there in the early ’80s, few performers—never mind comics—had the kind of duende that Eddie Murphy radiated. He was bigger than TV, more than just a comedian—attractive, charming, bright, arrogant—he was a star. Before a lot of us kids at the time wanted to be like Mike, we dreamed of being Eddie. Murphy didn’t have Richard Pryor’s rage or tenderness—he’s never delivered a performance like Pryor did in Blue Collar—but he was a crack mimic, and he invited us to join him, even the white audience he was teasing. Above all, Murphy was in control.

With magnificent fame, Murphy’s stand-up curdled into something mean-spirited and forgettable, and soon his winning streak at the box office came to an end, too. That’s when Peter Richmond caught up with him—during the filming of the romantic comedy Boomerang. Richmond’s profile was originally published in the July 1992 issue of GQ and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. Check out this intimate look at a mid-career Eddie Murphy and find out why fame, for him, had become a drag.

—Alex Belth

The lights are rheostated low inside a customized bus parked on Tenth Avenue in Manhattan at nine o’clock on a winterdark evening. Two candle flames dance on a table. Eddie Murphy stares at them, without speaking.

Hammer just dropped by, all leathered up, to hear Eddie’s new album, but now he’s vanished into the snow patting West 42nd Street, and the tape deck is silent, and Eddie is silent, and inside this cocoon shut up tight against the chaos of the city it’s warm and still.

For two days, the synapses in Eddie Murphy’s brain have been firing like gunshots—Eddie waxing philosophic, Eddie waning comedic, Eddie singing along with all of his songs: all this Eddie Murphy-ness filling the veloured cave of the ridiculous mobile dressing room they’ve rented for him.

Now Eddie’s at rest. He was up until three the night before, working on his album. He’s just been called on the set again, and there’s no telling how late the shoot’s going to last, which means that he won’t be seeing Nicole and Bria up in Jersey for several more hours. The thought of more filming has ground all of his filters away, so that whatever words he has left are coming from the core. These are the final moments of three days of conversations, but this is the first glimpse, after all those hours, of a tired part of his soul.

“I was the best five years ago,” Eddie Murphy says. “And it was a drag.”

His words are so soft, and the moment is so dead-quiet serious, that the candles on the table do not even flicker in his breath.

“Now I just want to be good, and stay good. I want to do good stuff. And if I can’t do good stuff, I’ll just chill.

“Because being the best,” Eddie Murphy says, “is a fucking drag.”

He smiles. As if he means it.

When Eddie Murphy rises and disappears into the back of the bus to change clothes for the next scene, he moves slowly, comfortably. He is carrying the sense of a man who has decided, only recently, that life rewards you just for living it.

He was the best. And he turned it into a drag. We’d never seen anything like him, this grinning wise-ass kid who ruled Saturday Night Live, lathered in charm-chiding the honkies, but not braying; winking and goofing, laughing with us, and at us. We had to smile. He took a couple of he darker stereotypes—the con man passing himself off as a legless vet, in Trading Places; the cocky jailbird, in 48 Hrs—and turned the upside down, so he had the morals and taught us the lessons.

But mostly we laughed. He was the alchemist of the early ’80s, turning vaguely entertaining scripts into ingots piled to the sky. No one begrudged him a penny, he was that good.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Then Eddie Murphy began to mistake a billion dollar gross for a billion dollars’ worth of brilliance and rode a billion-dollar ego into critical oblivion. In the past five years, he made a bristly concert film that seared the cerebellum with its misogyny and homophobia, followed a successful debut album with one that vanished into the abyss and filmed a couple of action-comedies that left as much impression on a cinematic legend as a Chuck Norris retrospective—the result being that Eddie Murphy, in this new era of black filmic consciousness, has been plunged into that most terrifyingly infernal circle of movieland hell: irrelevancy.

In 1991, a year that saw 19 black men direct films, Eddie Murphy turned 30 and played Ramses II in a Michael Jackson video. Premiere magazine pronounced him only the twenty-fourth-most-powerful person in the business Twenty-fourth! And Ah-nuld, the Joe Frazier to Eddie’s Muhammad Ali—Ah-nuld is all the way up there at tenth!

The more his peers began gamering Oscar recognition—Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg—the more Eddie’s name began to show up in the gossip columns, until one day this past January, the New York Posts’s Page Six ran adjacent, telling items: Spike Lee is warmly welcomed in Soweto. Eddie Murphy is warmly welcomed in the Manhattan nightspot Tatou by a couple of dancers from a topless club

And last spring, the Lost Angeles Times delivered the unkindest cut of all in the pensee on the black-film phenomenon: “Although the rebirth of interest in black films can be traced partly to the success of [Spike] Lee, [Robert] Townsend, and the Hudlins, Hollywood studio executives also were inspired by Cosby … Arsenio Hall … and the Wayans Brothers.”

Not a mention of the man whose first seven films grossed an astounding one billion dollars for Paramount. And Murphy’s diminishing box-office appeal wasn’t sufficient cause for real panic—after all, Another 48 Hrs did gross $140 million worldwide, and despite the critical carnage of Harlem Nights, the movie brought in $70 million domestically after costing $38 million to make. But his latest numbers represented something of a drop-off from the $234 million that made Beverly Hills Cop the seventh-highest grossing film of all time.

So when Brandon Tartikoff came on as Paramount chief last summer and found Murphy languishing and inactive, he says, he decided his first bit of business was to reposition Eddie in the studio’s pantheon: “Summer [is] the Super Bowl season for movies. At Championship time you put your best team on the field. But there’s Eddie Murphy on the sidelines, because Paramount hadn’t developed a movie for him. Well, Eddie Murphy should have been then, and will be now, priority number one at Paramount.”

With its inaugural effort since Tartikoff’s arrival, the studio has decided to lower Eddie’s octane a bit in Boomerang, a romantic comedy costarring Robin Givens. He’ll follow that with a comedy tentatively titled The Distinguished Gentleman, for Disney—his first non-Paramount effort, ostensibly with Paramount’s blessing—and then, for Paramount, Cop III. And his company, Eddie Murphy Productions, owns the rights to August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Fences. 

But it’s clear that Tartikoff’s hopes are riding, heavily, on Boomerang. “Whatever negative view that people came away from Raw with will be erased by this movie,” Tartikoff says. “It’s a true leading-man role. A comedy with a classic form. The kind of movie Cary Grant would have made.”

By surrounding its star with an intriguingly upscale supporting cast—Geoffrey Holder, Halle Berry, Grace Jones, Eartha Kitt, and David Alan Grier—and enlisting the director-producer team of Reginald and Warrington Hudlin (makers of House Party), Paramount obviously hopes Boomerang will restore a little of the luster.

Literally.

“I have totally changed the texture of his hair,” Scott Julion is saying during a break in the filming one night. “We have totally revised his hair.” Scott Julion’s business card says “HAIR ARTIST.” The i in his last name is dotted with a star. Scott did Arsenio’s new hair. Scott tells me he’s in on discussions about redoing Michael Jackson’s hair, and we agree it’s about time. Scott’s own hair is perfect. We are standing on the balcony of a cavernous atrium of a Manhattan office building. Down below, director Reginald Hudlin is arranging a scene in which Grace Jones’s chariot, pulled by four white men in leather codpieces and little else, is parting a sea of 800 extras at a cocktail party.

“I achieve a soft, natural look,” Scott Julion confides, “without being overpowering.”

Any particular reason?

“The people at Paramount said he had a common, street look,” Scott says. “Now he looks like more of a gentleman. Now he has the well-groomed look.” And he does. Standing to the side, straightening his cuffs, Eddie Murphy is sleek—he’s lost pounds since Another 48 Hrs—and crisp at the edges. The elegance is fairly puddling at his feet.

Over in his canvas chair, a dinner-jacketed Holder enthusiastically compares Murphy to Cagney and Olivier before adding “I think of Cary Grant. I think of the Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and Arsenic and Old Lace.” And a moment later, this comes from Warrington Hudlin, in a separate conversation: “After this movie, people are going to see Eddie Murphy as Cary Grant”—all of which constitutes either a stunning coincidence or the direct result of a spin-control campaign of some proficiency.

Either way, it seems to come as a surprise to Eddie, who arches an eyebrow back in his bus.

“They said that? Jesus, I hope not. Cary Grant did the Cary Grant thing already. I’m new shit. Don’t color me Cary. Not to piss on Cary. But this is a new shade of Eddie.”

On this afternoon, the blinds are drawn against the daytime, but the Weather Watch mounted into the paneling of Eddie’s bus says it’s cold out. In front of this bus is parked another bus, in which sit the people who watch Eddie. They cannot see into this bus, but they watch the door of it from the window of their bus. All the time. Several times the door of Murphy’s bus opens and someone asks if Eddie is alright. He always says he is.

“This movie, in tone—just so you have something to go with—is Big Chill and Annie Hall, and fix it up and make it black and make it really hip, really smart,” Eddie says. “The onus isn’t on me to deliver the comedy and the exposition. This is the first movie I’ve worked on that’s an ensemble piece and has a tremendously strong supporting cast.”

This is not entirely true. There was Harlem Nights, an astoundingly mis-executed fable conceived, written, directed, and catered by Eddie himself. Harlem Nights’ cast had some distinction—Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Arsenio Hall, Della Reese. But the director failed to direct his actors, the writers fed them idiotic lines, and the star got away with murder.

“Hey!” he says with an easy smile. “We fucked up!”

It’s slightly disarming, this forthrightness, not at all what was expected, which was an Eddie Murphy who’d lost all perspective, gone completely weird, drunk on himself. In fact, nothing about this Eddie Murphy seems to be what you’d expect. He is calm and measured and unspontaneous. You would not be surprised, honestly, to find this man as your dentist or your accountant. Or your psychotherapist. He is all there. Hears every word you say, ponders it. His memory is uncannily accurate.

He is, of course, a very funny name, with a fine talent for mimicry, often peeling off into various voices, and various routines, but there is nothing frivolous at work in this brain.

“[The reaction to] Harlem Nights was like having a mortar shell go off in your front yard,” he says. “I had never had a flop picture before. And all of a sudden there was a flop. It was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ The script was shitty. I wrote it in two weeks. And it shows. But I had to direct to see if I was going to dig directing. And I didn’t dig it.

“Then, Another 48 Hrs was reactive. I got fucked up on Harlem Nights so it was, like, ‘Okay, let’s do something that’s a sure hit. Is Cop III ready? Coming to America Again?’ The idea was contrived and we threw it together, and they wrote these big checks out, and we did it.”

Why do movies that are obviously bad?

“[My] popularity after Beverly Hills Cop—all that ‘He’s so hot’ shit—everything was going out of control. Everything came too easy … And when the laughs come too easy, you start doing things like walking through movies. You get too comfortable. You start getting out of control. You start tripping. You argue. You get the big head. You wear a leather suit and a glove with a ring on the outside.

“And I let myself get fat. There’s nothing like going into a movie theater and looking up on screen and you’re a fat guy in a bad movie.”

Here he laughs. Not the “Eh! Eh! Eh!” laugh, though—he never laughed that laugh in his customized bus.

“But I came out of that head … Now I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’ve got a beautiful chick, a beautiful daughter [Bria, age 3], a great record, a great movie. But it was a long time coming.”

The record will be his third. He doesn’t have a label yet: “I’m in the middle of shopping [it]. Whoever is most excited about getting it gets it.”

It’s a far cry from Party All the Time. The songs on the new album are full of intriguing chord progressions and surprisingly evocative effects; more than one recalls the psychedelicized Beatles, and one single, “Whatzupwitu?”—which features Michael Jackson—has a pleasant tendency to stick in your head. The song certain to get the most attention, “Yeah,” features the voices of Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Hammer, Stevie Wonder, Julio Iglesias, Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, Garth Brooks, Janet Jackson, and Jon Bon Jovi. Profits from the single, Murphy says, will go to a foundation he’s starting to help people in the need from all walks of life—the “Yeah” Foundation.

“One of the reasons I enjoy music [is] I can be totally, totally free. If it’s not good, so what? I’ve got a good job already. Movies.”

Eddie admits he’s never made a great movie. 48 Hrs and Trading Places, he says, were good movies. Beverly Hills Cop, he says, was an entertaining movie. Coming to America, he insists, was also a good movie. He doesn’t say much about the others. But he seems genuinely intrigued with Boomerang, in which he plays a “Warren Beatty-type” womanizer who has mistreated women for years, until he falls in love with one who’s as cavalier with her men as he is with his women, and he grows up.

The screenplay is from a story by Eddie Murphy.

“I have been through some of the things,” he says, “that he has been through.”

“Eddie was ready for the premiere at the age of 14,” says Arsenio Hall one afternoon at the conference table in his television-production offices on the Paramount lot. Hall is tremendously charming when he talks about Eddie, because he isn’t trying to sell someone he doesn’t believe in.

Eddie took Arsenio back to his hometown, on Long Island, once. Hall talked to Murphy’s parents and friends and schoolmates about Murphy. Arsenio delights in the details of Eddie’s life.

“He wanted to be a star,” Hall says. “he knew he would be. He’d go to school carrying a briefcase with nothing in it. But he knew that at one point there’d be Paramount contracts in it.

“In high school, he had the ascot, the scarf. He used to wear his coat over his shoulders, without his arms in the sleeves, as if it were a cape—a Clark Gable kind of vibe, a Dark Gable kind of thing. He told people ‘I’m going to be a millionaire by this age.’”

It was a beige coat, says Murphy. Topped with a white fedora: “I had to go to summer school every year and I was the best-dressed guy in summer school.”

The briefcase held a joke book and a couple of eight-track cassettes: the Beatles, Elvis. He still carries Beatles tapes.

“I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” Eddie says, “and it was show business to its fullest potential. I still want to be everything in show business that I can possibly be.”

The first paychecks from the comedy clubs, earned when Eddie was 15, went for junk food. No beer. No dope. Cake. Candy.

“I experimented with pot,” he says, “like everybody when they were kids. That’s it. I’ve never, ever, ever, ever, ever, even like, held cocaine. Or been anyone around me doing it. I’m a pretty drug-free cat. The only drug that has been around me, because people know I’m not into drugs, is pot, because if someone lights up a joint or something, I don’t think, Oh, get away! People do that every now and then, But I’m no advocate of drug use, and I don’t fuck around with anything. No drinking. I hate it.”

It’s easy to believe. There are no lines in Murphy’s face. His expression most of the time is as if no one has hit the “on” switch. And then of course, suddenly, he’ll grin. And everyone in the immediate vicinity will sort of just melt away.

“He has natural charm and black good looks,” says Hall. Eddie has this thing women like—this sexy thing, this charm. [White] America had Rob Lowe. But the girls in the hood didn’t have their Rob Lowe. All of a sudden, here comes a classically handsome black man without white features, with a black man’s nose, with a black man’s lips, and giving you himself, totally just putting himself out there saying ‘I’m not buying the bullshit, here I am.’

“Everyone finds Eddie attractive. You know why? Because Eddie finds himself attractive. He has tremendous self-esteem.”

Hall thought of himself as above-average, swaggeringly confident when he fled Cleveland to fight the stand-up wars. But when he met Eddie Murphy, twelve years ago, Hall met a man so self-assured that, to Hall, Murphy’s success was as much a result of will as of talent. If there is an unofficial biographer of Eddie Murphy, he is Arsenio. Arsenio is Eddie’s Boswell.

They have been linked in other ways. Conventional wisdom has presented Eddie and Arsenio as the Directors of Heterosexuality in America’s black Cabinet. In the Sports Illustrated story about his HIV infection, Earvin Johnson said, “There were just some bachelors almost every woman in L.A. wanted to be with. Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and Magic Johnson.”

In fact, according to both Murphy and Hall, Eddie has met Magic Johnson only twice, both times at Lakers games. “Magic and Eddie have never hung out,” Hall says. “They have never partied. I am a friend of Magic’s and of Eddie’s, and that’s the link between the two.”

“I haven’t fucked any more women than anyone else,” says Murphy. “I’m real prudish and real straight. I could never go to a disco and meet a chick and take her home and fuck her. If you’re going to go home with me and fuck me tonight, I know you’ve done this before. And if it’s just a question of getting off, hey, I got someone I can get off with that I care about. Why go fuck some strumpet in a disco?

“I’m not saying I haven’t had times when I wasn’t tempted. But I can’t recall the last time I met a chick in a disco. I got to go back ten years.”

Did Magic’s being HIV-positive scare him? “No,” Murphy says. “The Magic situation depressed me. But I know how I live my life. How I’ve lived my life. It didn’t scare me.” 

For the past several years, Murphy has lived his life in an outsize and opulent New Jersey domicile named Bubble Hill—“bubble” being street slang for “party.” With a rain-mist machine for the dance floor and a pool house the size of San Simeon. And a big wall around the property. It feels like a small-scale model of a walled city.

“We’ve had parties,” Hall says, “but they’re strictly what I’d call ego-fests—it’s not sex. We never kicked it like that, man. It was never, like, ‘Let’s go out and get some girls, come back and fuck ‘em …’ If it wasn’t true, I just wouldn’t say anything. But … Eddie always kicked it different.”

“Hey, man,” Murphy says, “I have a beautiful woman. Things are changing, and love is all right. The last thing I need to do is fuck some bimbo …. I’ve been with Nicole [Mitchell] for about three years now. Do I have a monogamous relationship? Yeah.

“Nicole is expecting in November. Little Edward on the way. I’m about to take my whole family to this European Disney thing. My daughter’s going to meet Mickey Mouse.”

This, then, must be the true American odyssey: from the baying, barking white-hot stage of Raw to a life in Frank Capra’s living room—in five quick years.

“The Eddie Murphy who was in Raw does not exist anymore,” he says.

“… It’s not like I experienced some epiphany or some shit like that. I just got older. I’m 31 years old.”

At this, he shakes his head and smiles.

“I couldn’t even picture myself being 30. Thirty was a major trauma for me. I had always been the young guy. For years, it was, like, ‘He’s only what?’ That was part of my stuff—‘That’s right, just 19, ladies and gentlemen.’

“Now I’m just a 31 year old motherfucker.”

Eddie did go on to visit EuroMickey, it was reported in a New York gossip column with “an entourage of 40.” Eddie is often said to be accompanied by an entourage. On the set of Boomerang Eddie’s security is just one guy. He only seems like an entourage because he’s so big—not vertically, he’s not tall; he’s just packed in, like a jack-in-the-box. While Eddie’s filming, the man practices martial arts.

“‘Who’s he think he is, with all those security people, that entourage?’” Murphy says one afternoon. We are discussing what he refers to as the Things White America Wants to know: “I drive a Range Rover. I got a lot of ugly cars; when I was a young guy, I had shit like Excaliburs, Slappy White cars. I have 15 hats. My favorite color is black. And all those guys aren’t my bodyguards.”

Most are friends, he says. Some are family; a few are security. Whoever they are, Murphy believes he’s justified in packing some human protection.

“I’m supposed to be walking down the street [alone]? In a recession? If you saw Donald Trump walking down the street by himself, wouldn’t you think he was an ass? I would think he was an ass. Somebody would say, ‘I know he has crazy money’ and go put a gun in his back and take him somewhere. It’s a reality. All it takes is one incident. One asshole. This country loved John Lennon. And they killed him.” Arsenio says that he’s seen Eddie stop his car and give all of the money in his wallet to a homeless man on the street. So it’s not that Eddie doesn’t want to meet the people. It’s that he prefers to do it on his own terms.

Seven years ago, at a club in Los Angeles, a man punched Murphy because his girl was looking at Eddie, and Eddie hit back. After the resulting melee, Murphy says, he was sued by most of the people in the club, and he settled with all of them. Now, he says, he prefers a buffer between him and the people with the fists.

“But whoever I’m with, whoever I have on staff, however I travel, is how I feel comfortable. Nobody should trip on it.”

His voice has acquired an edge; if you could touch it, it might draw blood.

“‘Cause if something goes down, everybody’s getting fucked up. Not just me. Everybody’s getting fucked up. If it comes down to it, show business is over and Eddie’s crew fucked up somebody really bad—to the point where they’re dead as a mother ….

“All I want to do is my gig, go home to my family and be a nice cat. But you try to fuck my shit up, a bunch of people gettin’ fucked up.”

Eddie’s pop boxed pro. And while he is not much of an athlete in those games that involve balls, Eddie is a very good fighter. This side of him is, apparently, never too far from the ready. On the set of Coming to America, Murphy took director John Landis down after a dispute over advice Landis reportedly gave to some of Eddie’s television-production people.

In fact, at one point during our second afternoon together, across the bus table, after Eddie’d begun to wonder if this interview wasn’t going to come out as pleasantly as he’d thought it would and he’d decided he didn’t like my attitude, he said, without any discernible emotion, very matter-of-factly, “I could lean over and blast you in the face, and you know you can’t [fight me] ’cause I’ll fuck you up.”

But it was a fleeting thing. He immediately backed off and picked up his guitar and that night, he sent word through his publicist that he’d be glad to meet at his house.

Eddie’s mother answers the door and says he’ll be a few minutes. His mother is holding the hand of his daughter, who looks like a jewel of some kind. She wears a very serious expression.

Eddie’s mother leads me up a corridor to the attached pool house. In the main room of the pool house there is a bar. There is a white grand piano. I sit down to play.

There is a large plant in one corner of the room. On the wall are pictures of Eddie with other famous people. If I’d been somewhere else—at the bar, say—I’d never have noticed the camera at all, the security camera up in the corner, scanning the room.

Footsteps in the darkened hallway. Eddie’s publicist and Eddie’s manager. Eddie is too tired to talk. No big deal.

His manager leads me into the large foyer to the large front door with the stained glass in it. But he can’t open the door to let me out. Can’t work the lock. He has to escort me through the kitchen. In the kitchen are three television monitors for the security cameras. At the kitchen counter sit three women, all of whom may or may not have spent the past thirty minutes watching the mute image of me playing the piano: Eddie’s mother, Eddie’s daughter, and Nicole, a former model whose beauty is so extreme that it doesn’t really register; her looks belong to an otherworldly aesthetic. If this had been a cartoon, my body would have continued walking through the kitchen while my eyeballs stayed behind, on springs, riveted to her. She regards me the way she might a broken refrigerator being wheeled out the back door, which is where Eddie’s manager is steering me. Into the driveway. With all of Eddie’s black cars.

We were talking about what kind of TV he watched as a kid when Eddie says, “If Bugs Bunny were a human, can you imagine how rich he’d be? He’d be so fucking rich.” 

He isn’t laughing. He might be doing the figures in his head. Arsenio says Murphy is good with figures. Arsenio says they sometimes talk about things like income averaging.

Still, Murphy says that we are the ones who think about money all the time, specifically about his money, and this is quite understandable in light of—no, in the shadow of—the interminable litigation surrounding Coming to America. Eddie found it unseemly that, after Paramount had said that the movie hadn’t made any profit despite a gross that could have armed several small African nations, reporters blamed him.

“I saw on the television news a list of my employees and what [they] make, and ‘Here’s a picture of the car that Murphy comes to the set in, and here’s a bus he uses on the set…’ Like I’m the only person in Hollywood with a trailer and a trainer? Get the fuck out of here! I read a Time cover about Tom Cruise, and not one mention was made of his money. He’s a young man just like me, a bachelor at the time, he makes as much money as me, and it never said, ‘Tom Cruise’s money.’ It talked about ecology. ‘Cruise flushes his toilet every certain amount of days to conserve water.’

“But with me, it’s, ‘He makes all this.’ A rich black person is an oddity in society. That’s what they want to look at: ‘How’d you happen to get this money, nigger?’ ‘Cause niggers don’t usually have money …. I did David Letterman, and that was his whole thing: ‘So, Eddie, you got all this money now!’ What the fuck? I’ve never, ever heard him say that to anybody before. But with me, I’ve read to the time how much I made.”

But then, ask Eddie how he feels about Robin Williams’s going from manic comic to Oscar nominee, about Nick Nolte’s going from Eddie’s valet, carrying the straight lines in 48 Hrs, to Oscar nominee, and his response is, “I make more money than Robin Williams. That’s the reality of it. If you ask Nick Nolte or Robin Williams if they’d rather have an Oscar or what I get a picture, they’d take the salary. Or they’re nuts.”

Eddie was not at the Oscars this year. He didn’t even watch the show. He was in his basement, mixing his album. When he asks me how the show went, I tell him that Spike Lee and John Singleton got up and presented some documentary awards and acted bored. I figured he’d want to know, because it was Spike who said, three years ago, “Eddie needs to flex his muscles that can help black people get into this industry. Clout isn’t just getting the best table at Spago,” and publicly implored Murphy to persuade Paramount to hire more black people.

And here was Spike at the podium, giving out Oscars at the big party for the Spago People.

Spike’s publicist says that Spike doesn’t want to talk about Eddie. Eddie is careful when he talks about Spike and what he said.

“I had to take the show-business position—‘He’s new in the business, he doesn’t know any better, they probably made him say it,’” Murphy says. “I would see Spike and say ‘Why’d you say that?’ and he’d say ‘I didn’t say that—they changed my words around.’ And because it’s show business and you smile when you’re low and all that bullshit, you got to forget about it and let it slide under the bridge.”

Matty Rich, the young director of Straight Out of Brooklyn, is willing to address the issue.

“It was a silly statement Spike made. He should be ashamed,” he says. “What is Spike doing? Is he giving a percentage to the community? Is a percentage of Mo’ Better Blues going to the inner city? Come on—black men, white women, all that, that’s garbage. If you really want to do something, start in the community.

“Eddie’s energy is rubbing off on a lot of young comedians and filmmakers—to not be just black.”

On the set of Boomerang one day, Robin Givens agrees: “People look at him and say ‘He’s not doing anything.’ But he’s doing so much. This is a man who can relate to everybody. And everybody can relate to [him]. It’s not necessarily the struggle to get out of the ‘hood for all of us. There are other types of people in America, too. He’s a brother, too. But it’s good for black people in America and around the world to see that there are different types of black and different types of experiences.”

Effecting change has never been high on Murphy’s list of priorities. He has never registered to vote. He believes in numerology and has a bowling ball named “Pure Motherfucker.” Spike puts his rage into movies. Eddie puts his on his bowling ball. But Paramount funded ten behind-the-camera positions for African-Americans for the shooting of Boomerang.

“I believe in making my life work within this system,” Eddie says without even smiling, completely earnest in this. “Can’t beat the system, so you have to work along with it. That’s what I’m doing. I’m a decent, law-abiding citizen and I ain’t turning over no applecarts.

“I’m a comedian,” Eddie Murphy says.

He is needed on the set. A cluster of people wait on the sidewalk. He rises and walks to the back of the bus, and the candles flicker. In his dressing room, he takes off his shirt and picks up the sweater he has to wear. His bare torso is solid, it’s muscles well-defined.

As he walks to the front of the bus, Murphy puts his arms through the sleeves of the sweater, starts to pull it on, then stops. He does not want to muss his hair. So he turns his back to me and says “Can you pull this down and over?”

He’s standing with his billion-dollar back to me, completely vulnerable, the man who, a couple days earlier, contemplated blasting my face—his head buried inside a sweater, waiting—and the moment freezes. I pull it down.

“Thanks,” Eddie says.

He pulls on a trench coat and opens the door of the bus. It is snowing out on Tenth Avenue. The security man who’s built like a fire hydrant is holding an umbrella.

“Peace,” he says, and then turns and walks up the sidewalk—Eddie Murphy, 31 year-old motherfucker, at rest.