Eddie Murphy sits in a luxurious New York hotel suite, trying to explain what it’s like to be caught off guard.
The entertainer, who zoomed into the pop culture zeitgeist some 40 years ago with his stint on “Saturday Night Live” and became Hollywood royalty with a string of blockbusters, including “48 Hours,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Coming to America” and “The Nutty Professor,” knows what it’s like to have a hit.
But he seems genuinely surprised with the reception and critical acclaim surrounding his latest project, Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name.”
“I really didn’t anticipate this level of — what’s the word I’m looking for? — I mean, people really, really like the movie,” Murphy says about the production, in which he plays the real life Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling African American comic who in the 1970s created a brash, pimp-like alter ego named Dolemite, a swaggering dynamo armed with an arsenal of off-color rhymes and a wardrobe of outrageous outfits.
Young African Americans and top studio executives alike were enthralled by the Dolemite character, his foul-mouthed comedy records and a string of ultra-low-budget films flavored by amateurish acting and clunky kung-fu fighting. His signature style carried over to a new generation of hip-hop artists who christened him the “Godfather of Rap.”
The project was a labor of love for Murphy, who was one of the producers. But even though he knew the film would attract some attention, the hoopla surrounding “Dolemite” has exceeded his expectations.
“It was just a small thing, a Netflix picture,” he says as he relaxes in the suite, wearing a gray pullover shirt and stylish brown jacket. He’s a bit reserved but polite and responsive, his soft-spoken manner the polar opposite of his larger-than-life screen persona.
“Those of us who made it just thought, ‘Well, at least we’ll love the picture.’ So for it to turn into something that everyone is really into is very gratifying. It caught us off guard.”
“Dolemite” has propelled Murphy back to the Hollywood spotlight more than a decade after his volcanic performance as the charismatic but self-destructive singer James Early in 2006’s “Dreamgirls.” Although his critically acclaimed performance earned him an Oscar nomination, he lost out to Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine” and largely retreated to the sidelines, appearing occasionally in low-profile projects such as 2016’s “Mr. Church,” in which he played a mysterious household cook.
His portrayal of Moore is being touted as a clear favorite for Oscar consideration, and some pundits are calling Murphy’s heightened presence a powerful comeback. While he is pleased with the accolades and the buzz, the film is just the tip of his showbiz iceberg.
His frenzied schedule includes preparation to return to the stand-up stage and an upcoming hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live,” his first since 1984. He’s also wrapping a sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America” and is getting ready to relaunch the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise.
But mention the word “comeback” and Murphy’s eyes narrow.
“That’s a word Hollywood uses when they want to put a good spin on things,” he says. “When I’m doing self-assessment, I take everything into consideration. The way this all happened for me, that doesn’t happen a lot. Most people come and go. I auditioned for ‘Saturday Night Live’ when I was 18. I’m 58 now, and I’m still around. I know that’s a rare thing.”
For Murphy, there’s another C-word that is more accurate.
“These things happen in cycles,” he says. “If you do something for 40 years, you’ll have highs and lows, hot and cold. All these things happened to come together at the same time. ‘Dolemite’ we tried to get done 15 years ago. ‘Coming to America’ we’ve been working on for five or six years — it took seven, eight scripts to get it right. ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ we’ve been trying to do that since the third one. These things we’ve worked on for years and years just fell into place.
“And I’ve been wanting to do stand-up again for a long time. I stopped when I was 27. The comedian in me wants to see what it will be like.”
But don’t expect the kind of leather suits like he wore in his concert films “Delirious” and “Eddie Murphy Raw”: “You can’t wear a leather suit at 58. Well, you can, but everyone will be laughing for the wrong reasons.”
He points out how his evolution both as an artist and as a person have primed him for this moment in his career. Murphy has 10 children with his ex-wife, Nicole Murphy, and other partners, including two with fiancée, Paige Butcher.
“When you get older and have more experiences like having kids, it really shapes who you are and what you can do,” Murphy says. “I could not have done this role in my 20s. I’m getting softer. You get more available to stuff you weren’t available to before. I think it’s natural.”
He recalls a recent emotional moment at home watching the 1970s comedy “Good Times,” about a struggling black family living in a Chicago housing project. In the episode, the family’s teenage daughter Thelma (BernNadette Stanis) fights with her father James (John Amos) when she wants to go on a date. Thelma’s younger brother J.J. (Jimmie Walker) sides with his sister, drawing the wrath of the short-tempered James.
“I’m watching J.J. standing up to his father, protecting his sister, and I’m just sitting there crying,” Murphy said with a chuckle. “And this is stuff I’ve seen again and again for 40 years.”
Emotion is also behind the connection of audiences with “Dolemite Is My Name,” Murphy speculates. Although the film is filled with raucous moments, it also explores Moore’s vulnerability and less-than-pleasant background.
Says Murphy, “The story is such an inspirational one. He’s a dreamer who believed in himself. When you see how he put his movies together and how he paid out of his own pocket, with no permits, that gets to you. He’s relatable. Most stars have something special, but he’s just this regular guy with this regular look. What he’s serving up is super crude. When people see that story, they say, ‘I know that guy.’ Everyone knows what it’s like to be a dreamer.”
Numerous critics have applauded Murphy’s channeling of Moore, calling it a reminder of his power as a dramatic actor as well as a comedian.
Wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan: “‘Dolemite’ is ... a rare opportunity for Murphy to combine his dazzling comic delivery of wave after wave of hard-core cursing with the desire he’s demonstrated — most effectively in his Oscar-nominated role in ‘Dreamgirls’ — to do roles that include dramatic elements.”
The praise speaks to the power of Murphy’s impact: Although he has not been as visible in recent years, he realizes he has the luxury, the star power and the ability to choose his projects. Even though the dramatic and small-scale “Mr. Church” fell far short of the audience for his hit films, it stands as one of his favorite projects.
“I love ‘Mr. Church,’ ” Murphy says. “When they offered me that, they said, ‘You should do more stuff like this,’ and I said, ‘Nobody offers me stuff like this.’ I wanted to do something totally different. I don’t think about stuff like, ‘Will this be bad for my career?’ I want to do what feels right. Forty years is a long time to do anything. Forty years in show business is unheard of, and 40 years for a black man in show business is a rare thing. My movies have made almost $7 billion. I’m aware I’m in a rare space. I make an effort to think about everything in life. I’m always looking at how to win. That’s what motivates me. When I do a movie, I want to turn it out. When I get on stage, I’ll want to shut it down.”
Asked about what he considers his best performances, Murphy shakes his head. “I don’t look at a movie as a separate thing. It’s all one body of work — the good ones and the bad ones.”
But there is one that does stand out — the one where he’s playing multiple characters interacting in the same scene.
“If I had to take one movie that represents me and shows that I’m different, that there are things only I can do, it would be the first ‘The Nutty Professor.’ When that comes on and you watch a couple of scenes, it just holds up. The combination of [makeup artist] Rick Baker and that story all came together. There’s funny stuff and acting stuff going on. If you watch ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ or ‘White Chicks’ or ‘Big Momma’s House,’ any of those makeup movies, they’re different. In ‘Nutty Professor,’ you know it’s makeup but the people are real people. I’m playing a middle-aged woman and you believe it.”
Fans, however, should not expect another “Nutty Professor.”
“Nooooo,” says Murphy with a chuckle. “That’s never going to happen. Too much work.”