Eddie Murphy was once the biggest name in comedy. In the 1980s, because of his four-season stint on Saturday Night Live and films like 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and Coming to America, he was the householdiest of household names, the man with the Golden Laugh (I want it as my ringtone) and the quickest wit. He made an all-red leather suit cool and brought Buckwheat back to the public lexicon, 40 years after he made his last Little Rascals appearance.
Now, however, and to a whole new generation, Murphy is known as Donkey, or Pluto Nash, or Norbit, or Dr. Doolittle, or Meet Dave, or That Guy from the Movie Based on a Disney World Amusement Park Ride That Isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean. In short, for the past decade-plus, he’s better known as a semi-bankable kid’s movie actor than as the guy who yelled out in Delirious, “Now, a brother's dick is too big, so it'll fuck up his balance. Every time you see a brother in a wheelchair, he ain't always crippled.” That’s why I’m unreasonably excited for Tower Heist, “unreasonably” because it’s directed by Brett Ratner, the guy who gave us Rush Hour 3, which is one of the many reasons I dislike his work; and “excited” because EDDIE MURPHY SWEARS AGAIN. That is cause for celebration.
For this week’s Checking In, though, we’re going to go way back, and looking at the films of Murphy’s that have featured small appearances by actors and actresses who would later hit it big. I’m looking at you, Jules Winnfield. So, without further ado, here they are, damnit.
Denise Crosby, 48 Hrs.
Denise Crosby, the granddaughter of David Bowie’s singing partner Bing Crosby, got her first relatively high profile TV gig in 1980, appearing on Days of Our Lives. But her initial big time movie role came two years later, when she played Sally in 48 Hrs. In 1987, she was cast as Lieutenant Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The writers originally intended for her to be a featured player, but her role throughout season one diminished, and Crosby left Next Generation at season’s end. Years later, she would produce and narrate Trekkies, a documentary about hardcore Trek fans, and would appear on Mad Men and The Drew Carey Show, but to many, she’s still to Star Trek what Chevy Chase is to SNL.
Sandy Martin, 48 Hrs.
I look at Sandy Martin, and all I can think of are her racist, not-quite-Golden Girls-like conversations and Dennis trying to have sex with her. But in 48 Hrs., she plays an honest-to-God police officer. RANGE. She got her start in 1977, as Sandy in the literally titled film False Face, appeared in 48 Hrs. five years later, and has been working as one of the most dependable character actresses ever since. Outside of playing Mac’s Mom, she’s also been in Speed, Krippendorf's Tribe, and Marley & Me, and appeared on Shameless, Big Love, Warren the Ape, Weeds, and My Name Is Earl. Martin will soon appear in Ass Backwards, about two best friends (Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael) who return to their hometown to win a beauty pageant, and the Jim Parsons-starring Cooler, which involves, yes, a cooler.
Brian O'Neal and the Busboys, 48 Hrs.
I’ll admit, putting Brian O’Neal and the Busboys in this article might be stretching the definition of the term “breakout stars,” but they are an important part of comedy history, even if you’re not totally immersed in the world of “rock 'n' roll with a bar band, boogie woogie flavor,” which is how they’re described on Wikipedia. The Busboys performed “The Boys Are Back in Town” (not the one you’re thinking of) and “New Shoes” in 48 Hrs., and they also opened for Eddie Murphy during his Delirious tour and were the musical guests on a 1983 episode of SNL. BUT they’re also the performers of track two on the Ghostbusters soundtrack, with “Cleanin’ Up the Town.” Yes, they rhymed “real” with “Ectomobile” and wrote the fantastic verse, “Well, the Mayor he started ranting around, and the whole town started to roar/And they’re seeing this town that rocked, those Slimers dropped down to the floor,” and they’ll forever be the band that wrote the song after Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.” They're still together, still touring, and recently appeared in the documentary Cleanin' Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters.
Arleen Sorkin, Trading Places
Arleen Sorkin can very briefly be seen in an uncredited role in Trading Places, as a “Woman at Party.” It was her first movie gig, and she would soon go on to bigger gigs as the co-host (with Dave Coulier!) of America’s Funniest People and appear in a number of soapy episodes of soap opera Days of Our Lives. Comedy fans know the other A. Sorkin best as the original voice of the radio callers on Frasier before they were overdubbed by celebrities (she's married to Christopher Lloyd, who produced the show, as well as Modern Family and Wings), while superhero enthusiasts recognize her as the voice of Harley Quinn in the various animated Batman series. Amusingly, the character was created just for her by writer Paul Dini, after he saw Sorkin in a jester costume during a dream sequence on Days.
Richard Hunt, Trading Places
Richard Hunt was one of the most important entertainers of the late 1970s, early 1980s; it’s just that no one knew what the hell he looked like. Hunt was one of the first Muppeteers, performing as Beaker, Janice, Scooter, Statler, and Sweetums on The Muppet Show and beyond. He also did Muppet work for Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Saturday Night Live, voicing Wisss and assisting Jim Henson with King Ploobis for the "Land of Gorch" sketches. Thing is, because he was almost always hidden from the audience, no one knew what Hunt looked like in a non-Muppet role until Trading Places, where he appeared as a stockbroker. (Frank Oz also shows up in the film.) Hunt would continue working with the Muppets until his untimely passing from AIDS-related complications in 1992.
Damon Wayans, Beverly Hills Cop
Long before appearing on Happy Endings with his son, before getting fired from Saturday Night Live for playing a gay, rather than straight, cop, before starring in and creating In Living Color, before starring in and writing Blankman, before five seasons of My Wife and Kids, before Major Payne and Celtic Pride and Bulletproof and Bamboozled, Damon Wayans can be seen in Beverly Hills Cop, the biggest hit of 1984, as a hotel employee credited as "Banana Man." It was an inauspicious start to a highly successful career.
Gilbert Gottfried, Beverly Hills Cop II
The man who would later voice Iago in the Aladdin series (and another famous talking bird, too) and become one of the most consistently funny, if controversial (see: his tsunami Twitter joke and, of course, this), stand-up comedians out there was making people take notice of his voice all the way back in 1987, when he appeared in Beverly Hills Cop II as accountant Sidney Bernstein. (He was on Saturday Night Live before then, but rarely appeared in skits; during his 12-episode stint, he even played a motionless corpse.) It was only his third film role, after The House of God and Bad Medicine (I've never heard of them, either), and Gottfried continues to be a big name in the Comedy Central Roast game, and gets dependable voice-over work, too.
Chris Rock, Beverly Hills Cop II
Chris Rock is arguably the most successful African American comedian since Eddie Murphy, so it's only fitting that Murphy would provide Rock with one of his first roles. In the Beverly Hills Cop sequel, Rock plays a valet who has to park Eddie's Murphy cement mixer. It's a tiny scene, but it did allow Rock to say, "What the fuck is up?" so it all makes sense in retrospect. Murphy personally cast Rock in the film after seeing the comedian perform stand-up in a nightclub (for more about Rock and Murphy's history together, check out this). We all know what Rock's up to these days, so instead, I'll just say my favorite movie of his is probably Dogma, then Pootie Tang.
Cuba Gooding, Jr., Coming to America
Things started off so promising for Cuba Gooding, Jr. He began his career getting a haircut from Eddie Murphy in one of the funniest movies of the past 30 years, Coming to America, and then went on to appear in Boyz n the Hood and A Few Good Men, before winning an Oscar for his part as Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire. In the 15 years since, he's been in exactly three good movies (Zoolander, Rat Race, and As Good As It Gets), while the rest of his filmography is filled out with dreck like What Dreams May Come, Pearl Harbor, and Boat Trip, one of the worst comedies of the past 30 years. He also teamed up again with Murphy for Norbit, a far cry from their Coming to America days.
Samuel L. Jackson, Coming to America
It's weird to think of a time when Samuel L. Jackson wasn't one of the most recognizable actors on the planet, but there was! Jackson's first on-screen role actually came all the way back in 1972, in the blaxploitation film Together for Days, but for the next decade, under the mentorship of Morgan Freeman, he mostly acted in plays, with an occasional appearance in made-for-TV movies like The Trial of the Moke and The Displaced Person. Things changed in 1988, when Jackson focused his can't-look-away rage on parts in Coming to America, where he robbed Louie Anderson at gunpoint in a McDonald's, and Spike Lee's School Daze, as Leeds. The rest is history, PURE MOTHERFUCKING HISTORY.
Charlie Murphy, Harlem Nights
Clearly, Eddie Murphy is very loyal to his friends, and the same goes for his family (except for that whole transvestite incident…). Eddie cast his big brother Charlie in Harlem Nights, which Eddie also directed and wrote, as Richard Pryor's henchman, Jimmy. It was Charlie's first film role, and he's gone on to co-write Vampires in Brooklyn and appear in Night at the Museum, The Boondocks, and, the thing he's most known for, Chappelle's Show, including narrating the famous Prince skit, as part of the Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories series. He constantly tours the country performing stand-up and recently wrote a book, too, entitled The Making of a Stand-Up Guy.
Halle Berry and Martin Lawrence, Boomerang
I’m combining these two (just using Halle's photo, though, for hopefully all-too-obvious reasons) because although they were both relative unknowns before appearing in Boomerang, as love interest Angela and best friend Tyler, respectively, they weren’t their breakout roles, either. By the time she was offered the Boomerang gig, Berry had already appeared on Living Dolls, a spin-off of Who’s the Boss? and Knots Landing, and in Jungle Fever and Strictly Business. Boomerang only furthered her ascent to stardom, and she would be known worldwide soon after/become Catwoman. The same can be said of Martin Lawrence (minus the Catwoman thing), who had roles in Do the Right Thing, the first two House Party movies, and Talkin’ Dirty After Dark before Boomerang came out. Three years later, Bad Boys was released, and he’s been making high-grossing movies of sometimes questionable taste (Wild Hogs?) ever since. Without Boomerang, and Eddie Murphy, who knows if that scene from Swordfish and all of Blue Streak (which I happen to enjoy) would have happened?
Josh Kurp wonders if this Matthew Broderick guy will be the breakout star from Tower Heist?