From the moment he took the stage at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and shouted “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling for Eddie Murphy. The comedian’s edgy humor, whip-smart intelligence and go-for-broke energy all but ensured a quick transition to feature films. Beginning his movie career with a series of impressive costarring performances, Murphy made the leap to leading man status in the action-comedy classic “Beverly Hills Cop.” Released on December 5, 1984, it remains his most financially successful live-action film to date. On its 30th anniversary, here’s a look at Eddie Murphy’s ten best roles, plus five that should be forgotten.
THE BEST – #10 “Boomerang” (1992)
Taking a break from action films, Murphy played an all too rare modern adult in this underrated romantic comedy. Recalling the work of ‘80s era Blake Edwards, directors Reggie and Reginald Hudlin put Murphy’s natural charisma to good use, casting him as a womanizing ad executive whose life is thrown a curve when he meets his new boss played by Robin Givens. Sexy and sophisticated, “Boomerang” is worth another look.
THE BEST – #9 “Bowfinger” (1999)
Murphy pulled off a memorable dual role in this clever Hollywood satire, playing a neurotic action hero and his loveably dimwitted brother. Written by costar Steve Martin, Murphy excels in both parts, spoofing his well-known public persona with one character and vanishing fully into the other.
THE BEST – #8 “Dreamgirls” (2006)
Playing a flamboyant R&B singer in the long-awaited adaptation of the Tony-winning musical, Murphy did his own singing during the dazzling concert numbers. Echoing his classic James Brown impersonation from SNL, this career-energizing performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
THE BEST – #7 “The Nutty Professor” (1996)
An avowed fan of Jerry Lewis, Murphy delivered big laughs and a surprising amount of heart in this crude yet sweet remake of the 1963 classic. Hidden beneath Rick Baker’s Oscar winning makeup, Murphy instilled the overweight Professor Klump with a moving degree of dignity. Even more impressive are the believable romantic sparks that fly between the obese Klump and his love interest played by Jada Pinkett Smith.
THE BEST – #6 “Shrek” (2001)
Having voiced a dragon in Disney’s “Mulan” three years earlier, Murphy was the perfect choice to breathe life into a loveable donkey in DreamWorks’ animated blockbuster. Teamed with fellow SNL legend Mike Myers, Murphy’s joyful banter and snappy one-liners helped him score the biggest hit of his career… until “Shrek 2” and “Shrek the Third” came along, that is.
THE BEST – #5 “Eddie Murphy: Raw” (1987)
Four years after his masterful HBO special “Delirious,” Murphy delivered another virtuoso standup act in this uncensored theatrical concert film directed by Robert Townsend. Though some of his material was labeled misogynistic, the comedian’s galvanizing performance earned critical acclaim and broke box office records. It currently ranks as the highest grossing standup comedy film of all time.
THE BEST – #4 “Coming to America” (1988)
The second of three films he made with director John Landis, this exuberant comic-fantasy showcased the actor at his most confident. An uncanny mimic with a genius for impersonation, Murphy portrayed a variety of characters throughout the movie, thanks once again to Rick Baker’s Oscar-nominated makeup. But it’s his performance as the lovestruck Prince Akeem that audiences truly embraced. In the warmest role of his career, Murphy’s star rarely shined brighter.
THE BEST – #3 “Trading Places” (1983)
Combining raunchy laughs with biting satire, Murphy’s first full-fledged comedy is one of the funniest, most perceptive films of the ‘80s. Costarring Dan Aykroyd, this ribald variation on The Prince and the Pauper crackles with energy as two of Saturday Night Live’s biggest stars swap lives in a social experiment gone hilariously wrong. Drawing on his skills as a sketch performer, Murphy is dynamic in this pitch-perfect screwball farce.
THE BEST – #2 “48 Hrs.” (1982)
In his feature debut, Murphy owned the screen playing a cocky thief who’s forced to partner with a grizzled detective in Walter Hill’s ferociously entertaining buddy-cop thriller. Though the role was originally set for Richard Pryor, Murphy made it his own, earning unanimous praise for his razor-sharp timing and the superb chemistry he shared with Nick Nolte. Moving with the intensity of a panther on screen, his riveting performance announced the arrival of a major star.
THE BEST – #1 “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984)
Murphy burned white-hot in this blockbuster about a streetwise Detroit cop who turns Los Angeles upside down while investigating the murder of a friend. More than just a fish-out-of-water story, “Beverly Hills Cop” is a non-stop, super-charged star vehicle that features Murphy at the top of his game. A deft mix of comedy and action, the film topped “Ghostbusters” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” at the box office to become the No. 1 movie of 1984.
AND THE WORST… #5 “Beverly Hills Cop III” (1994)
Murphy and Landis were barely on speaking terms when they collaborated on their final film together, and the behind-the-scenes discord is visible on screen. Lacking the magic of the original “Beverly Hills Cop,” this third entry in the series makes Tony Scott’s stylishly violent second film seem uproarious by comparison. While Murphy has made worse films, there’s something miserable about seeing a beloved character like Axel Foley become such a bore.
THE WORST – #4 “Best Defense” (1984)
In the first bomb of his career, Murphy played an American tank commander who comes under fire when Iraqi soldiers invade Kuwait. An uneasy cross between “Stripes” and “Dr. Strangelove,” scenes of Murphy and his bumbling tank crew were quickly shot and sloppily inserted into an existing Dudley Moore comedy after test audiences found the original to be unwatchable. The result is a disjoined mess that eerily predicted the Gulf War six years later.
THE WORST – #3 “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” (2002)
One of the most expensive flops of all time, this humorless sci-fi spoof sat on a shelf for two years before being unleashed on the public. Playing a retired smuggler who buys a nightclub on the moon, Murphy wanders aimlessly from one cheap-looking set to another, looking bored and angry. Of the supporting cast, only Randy Quaid fares well as a robot with a screw loose. Set in the void of space, “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” is devoid of laughs.
THE WORST – #2 “A Thousand Words” (2012)
Casting an actor as skilled at verbal comedy as Eddie Murphy in a role that prevents him from speaking was the biggest mistake this dismal comedy made. Dripping with false sincerity and phony moralizing, “A Thousand Words” squanders Murphy’s talent more than any other film in his career. Resembling a failed sitcom pilot, this drab tale of a fast-talking workaholic whose life is transformed by a magical tree was dead on arrival.
THE WORST – #1 “Norbit” (2007)
Murphy’s fondness for prosthetic makeup reached an all-time low in this disturbingly grotesque raunch-fest. On the heels of his Oscar nomination for “Dreamgirls,” the star once again played multiple roles, including the monstrous Rasputia, a character who ranks high as one of the most offensive stereotypes ever committed to film. Directed by Brian Robbins, who helmed the abysmal “A Thousand Words,” “Norbit” is a loathsome exercise in humiliation and cruelty.