EXCLUSIVE: Eddie Murphy’s return to the screen in Dolemite Is My Name has put him in the awards mix, and he seems poised to regain his position atop the comedy heap starting with tomorrow’s historic return to Saturday Night Live for the first time in 35 years, and with a stand-up comedy special and reprises in Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop. The latter will be at Netflix, which turned the long-gestating Dolemite project into a hit viewed by more than 40 million in its first two weeks. It’s the fifth movie collaboration between Murphy and producer John Davis — along with Doctor Dolittle and its sequel, Daddy Day Care, and the outrageous Norbit, in which Murphy played dual roles. Here, they talk about a long collaborative relationship.
DEADLINE: Eddie, what is the biggest thing John Davis has done to endear himself to you that you have now made five movies with him, with a Grumpy Old Men remake right around the corner?
MURPHY: I think you’re being terribly presumptuous there (laughs). Actually, he has been very smart and he has created a pleasant working experience each time.
DAVIS: Every movie Eddie and I have done together has worked, and that is certainly a factor. We’re five for five.
MURPHY: It’s better than when you make a flop and you run into the people you made those movies with. It’s like seeing some girl you dated 1000 years ago. You go, oh, hey! And then get out of there.
DAVIS: The thing about Eddie that has made this special is, he is an idea factory. Amazing ideas for movies we are doing and ones we will do. Things that are insane and out of the box. He can do this and comes up with other ideas that are just great.
DEADLINE: Eddie, it’s clear from Dolemite Is My Name that Rudy Ray Moore was a self-made man, with good ideas that absolutely no one believed in. You made it so young. Do you ever recall experiencing that, knowing inside that you had something special and struggling to get people to see it?
MURPHY: Honestly, I never had that experience and I think it is one of the reasons I was so fascinated by Rudy Ray Moore’s career. We were polar opposites. I started doing stand-up when I was 15. I got the audition for SNL when I was 18, and I did my first movie when I was 20. I was never challenged in my belief in myself, because things happened so quickly. And when they did, things happened back to back. It was the exact opposite of Rudy Ray Moore.
DAVIS: Arsenio Hall tells me this story all the time, that when Eddie had success so quickly and early, a couple of uncles of his decided to make it in the business. Only when it didn’t happen, they finally said, ‘Oh, maybe it is just Eddie.’
DEADLINE: When did you discover Rudy Ray Moore’s movies?
MURPHY: When I was young, my brother started showing me the Dolemite movies. When I was around 15 and getting ready to do stand-up, I listened to his comedy records. I listened to all of them, from Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dudley Moore, Lenny Bruce. When I started, I absorbed everything. Rudy Ray Moore’s movies were first of all very successful at the box office, underground successes. They were movies that were so bad, they were good. Real avant-garde movies. If you look at a Fellini, or you watch Alexandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, or El Topo or La Strada by Fellini, and then you watch Dolemite and The Human Tornado, you have the exact same reaction when you watch these movies. It’s like, what the f*ck am I watching? These crazy plots and crazy looking actors, and crazy, jarring visual stuff. That’s what Rudy Ray Moore was. This guy was an avant-garde filmmaker and when he made Dolemite, that was right after Shaft and Superfly and those movies that burst onto the scene. Dolemite is kind of a parody of the badass n**** that came on the scene back in the ’70s like Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.
DEADLINE: The Disaster Artist captured the passion of director Tommy Wiseau, who honestly thought he was doing great work with The Room, a film often considered in a class by itself in terms of being bad. Was Rudy Ray Moore in on his own joke? Those Dolemite movies play back pretty cheesy.
MURPHY: He absolutely positively was trying to be funny, and he absolutely positively knows he is not Shaft, or Richard Roundtree or Billy Dee Williams. He was being funny and he absolutely positively was doing parody of those movies. Dolemite is a parody of Shaft, and Slaughter, all those badass black characters that came on the scene in the ’70s, kicking ass. He was one of those guys, but a comedian doing it.
I’ve sat in a room with a bunch of comedians and we’ve gotten into heated debates. ‘He’s not serious.’ Or, ‘It’s funny, but he is not trying to be funny, it’s an accident.’ I’d be like, noooo. This guy is a f*cking comedian. I’ve listened to his record albums, and seen him do stand-up and he’s trying to be funny when he’s Dolemite. He plays it serious, and that’s part of why it is so funny. But he is being funny and the crudeness was part of it, because he was making these with people who’d never made movies before. That’s why you would see the microphone crop up in a shot. He’s trying to be funny.
DEADLINE: John, as the son of mogul and former studio chief Marvin Davis, at what age growing up did you discover Rudy Ray Moore and Dolemite?
DAVIS: (Eddie laughs really hard, throughout his answer) Well, the way it came together and what I love about Eddie is he is an encyclopedia of cinema. He has seen everything and can talk about any film director, actor and story. This is why he is gold for me as a producer. He’ll say, how about this, how about that? I’ll be going my god, why didn’t I think of that? You are talking a true film historian about that. Ted Sarandos is my next-door neighbor, and said he really wanted to find something to do with Eddie Murphy. I was with the writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, trying to pitch a tentpole movie for Fox. When we walked out, John Fox, who works with me, noted how tiring it was to do these tentpole visual effects movies. Let’s do something really cool. He said he tried to develop with Eddie at DreamWorks a movie about Rudy Ray Moore. We started talking about it and that was the first time I really learned about Rudy and his movies. I thought it sounded amazing and cool. I called Eddie, who said 100% I would like to do that. We knew we could get the rights now. There were complications 10 years ago. We go to see Ted. We said we’re pitching you a cool movie about Rudy Ray Moore. And Ted goes, well…c’mon in. I don’t think that was the movie he was thinking of to star Eddie. The writers spent a month readying this tremendous pitch. Then Eddie comes in and immediately gets into character as Rudy. He starts doing different riffs. We are all laughing and 10 minutes in, Ted says, go make the movie. The writers never got to pitch.
DEADLINE: Eddie, how well did you get to know Rudy when you were trying to make this happen with John Fox at DreamWorks?
MURPHY: I went to see him a couple of times. I would go talk to him after his show, and pitched him the movie after one of them.
DAVIS: Here’s the irony of this. Obviously convincing a studio 10 years ago when Eddie was working on this, it was a bit of a chore.
MURPHY: I was coming off Vampire of Brooklyn…
DAVIS: You know what kind of movies the studio wanted to make. Very limited perspective.
MURPHY: It was a moment where I was trying to get a James Brown movie going. A lot of the studio executives didn’t know who James Brown was. F*cking James Brown! So Rudy Ray Moore was really underground. Not a lot of people knew about him. Those pictures are 40 years old now. It has always been a hard sell.
DAVIS: Here’s the irony. Netflix comes along. They really want to make a movie with Eddie. This is the perfect place to do this movie. They let us do exactly what we wanted to do, they give us the resources to make it great. We make the movie. Without showing it, I’m sitting with MGM president Jon Glickman at the Toronto Film Festival, and he goes, oh my god, we would have made this movie. It would have worked as a major cinematic release.
MURPHY: Now, anybody would feel that way.
DAVIS: It goes to show you, the studios can always see it, after you make it, but they can’t always see it before you make it.
DEADLINE: Eddie you grew up an admirer of Rudy Ray Moore. What was it like for him meeting you, a guy who had accomplished all the things he could only dream of.
MURPHY: He was really happy. There was a lot of heat on me, and he was happy that I was a fan of his. Old lion finding out that the young lion everybody was talking about, loved you. So we had a great rapport, back and forth. He was flattered I even had the idea. But what he really wanted from me was to go on tour. ‘Man, we should go on the road togetha!’ I said, well, I don’t have an act. He says, ‘Man, you don’t need no act!’
DAVIS: What is nice is that what Eddie ultimately did for Rudy Ray Moore is, he gave him life. We’ve had 40 million people view this movie right after it came out. Who knows how many internationally. So 80 million people or more now know who Rudy Ray Moore is. Isn’t it wonderful that Eddie made him a household name.
MURPHY: Well, he had been swept under the rug a bit. Back during segregation, there were a bunch of black movie stars who made things for black people and you never see any of their work. It gets swept away, like it never happened. At least everybody knows about Rudy Ray Moore now. I think he would be over the moon about that. He was extraordinary, and the way he went about it is just inspiring.
DAVIS: Rudy Ray Moore always wanted to be famous. Now he is.
DEADLINE: I watched clips of these movies you’ve made together. Norbit, just as funny as when I first saw it. But I watched Eddie play an Asian man, and thought, could he do that now? And he plays this giant of a woman. You think, would he be called out for fat shaming. You guys make comedies and Eddie you are getting back on the stand-up stage. Your job is to make us laugh. How big a challenge is it to do comedy when you are tiptoeing through a moment where everybody is so easily offended and seem so excited to share their outrage on social media?
MURPHY: I think if you watch Dolemite, it’s pretty clear that I’m not tiptoeing around anything. I’m doing what I’ve always done and I don’t even think about the time period we’re in, and how thin people’s skins have gotten or anything like that. I’m the same guy I’ve always been, and I’m just always going to be that guy, always doing just what I do. I won’t think, is someone going to get offended by me doing an Asian character? I just did the new Coming to America movie, and I did an old Jewish man. I wasn’t like, will Jewish people be offended? No. I’ve done it before and it’s funny. I tend to have only constructive thoughts when I try to do something creative. How do I make it the best that it can be? How can we have the most fun doing it? That’s as far as my thought process goes. Not who might be offended and who’ll get bent out of shape. Because at the core of what I’m doing, I’m not trying to malicious, so I think it’s not going to come off that way.
DEADLINE: Netflix just licensed from Paramount the rights to the Beverly Hills Cop sequel and that’s where you will make that film. As a man whose every film came out on 4000 screens, what has been the biggest adjustment for you in reaching your audience through a streaming site?
MURPHY: When it’s Netflix, there’s really no adjustment to be made. As John said, we just did Dolemite and 40 million people saw it in the first two weeks. They have over 150 million subscribers, so when your movie plays there, whatever your audience is, they’re going to see it. You don’t think well, it’s on Netflix, nobody is going to see me. No, it’s a potentially bigger platform when you’re with them.
DAVIS: I make movies at every studio in town. Netflix has studio-quality marketing, comparable to all their competitors. So we were in theaters first. We went to Toronto, they put the movie on billboards across the country and advertised on TV. They very smartly have used print. This is as major campaign as if you released a film at a studio and that’s why so many people have seen it.
DEADLINE: With Eddie back and seemingly determined to make movies more regularly, what’s your thought, John?
DAVIS: Eddie has always been in the game, to me. I love working with him, I love the collaboration and we’re working on some more movies. We’re going to do Grumpy Old Men, we’ve got a script coming in imminently. That will be funny and there’s another one we’ve got that I can’t tell you about that will be groundbreaking in that it will bring together a lot of comedians on a beloved piece of IP. Eddie has a unique vision of how to do it. It’s the exception to the rule of where you can get one star and can’t afford everyone else. Because it’s Eddie, there will be many stars in this. Eddie has a passion to tell stories and as a producer, you couldn’t ask for anything more than you get working with Eddie.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.