Friday, November 28, 2003
Los Angeles Eddie Murphy used to make fun of squeaky-clean guys who made family entertainment. But now he's one of them.
Remember the "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" sketch from "Saturday Night Live," a spoof of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in the violent inner-city? Or his impression of the lovable claymation character Gumby as a hateful show-business hack?
In 1987's "Raw," he savaged Bill Cosby for calling to chastise him for his "dirty" stand-up act. Murphy dismissed the sweater-wearing patriarch of "The Cosby Show" as a "Jell-O pudding-eating (expletive)."
But after the hits "Daddy Day Care," both "Dr. Dolittle" movies and "Shrek," the family-comedy genre has given his career a second wind.
In other words: "Now he IS Bill Cosby," said Rob Minkoff, the director of his new kid-friendly, supernatural comedy "The Haunted Mansion."
Even Murphy acknowledges his warm-and-cuddly status.
"Making movies like this and doing family stuff is just a natural progression, because I'm an older guy," he told Associated Press Television News.
The 42-year-old Murphy has "mellowed with age," said Minkoff, who also directed the "Stuart Little" movies. "But he still has a kind of edge. He's not just a soft or milquetoast personality. ... But actors, as they get older, start to fill different kinds of roles."
Based on the Disneyland theme park ride, "The Haunted Mansion" stars Murphy as an overworked father who takes his wife and kids on a real-estate deal at a house full of "999 happy haunts."
It's the actor's sixth family film in six years, starting with Disney's animated "Mulan" in 1998.
So why did the foul-mouthed detective from "Beverly Hills Cop" become Ward Cleaver?
Those who work with him say he's a family man in real life, with a wife and five kids of his own. "His house is packed with kids," said "The Nutty Professor" director Tom Shadyac. "He's a great father and a loving father, and that's why he has taken his comedy in that direction. I'm sure he wants to make movies that his kids can enjoy."
But catering to the family audience is also a shrewd career choice.
Many fans of "Trading Places" and "Coming to America" are now adults with families of their own, and his transition from R-rated to PG-rated star plays off that loyalty.
Look at the box-office figures since 2001: "I Spy," "Showtime" and "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" were all box-office disappointments that targeted adults. Those movies collectively earned about $76 million at a cost of about $255 million.
In the same timeframe he made the PG-rated "Daddy Day Care," "Dr. Dolittle 2" and "Shrek," which earned $483 million at the box office at a cost of about $190 million. The disparity is even greater when you consider that most of those ticket sales were discounted for children and matinee audiences.
Even the PG-13 "Nutty Professor" remakes generally are regarded as family films, with Murphy portraying a whole clan of overweight, gassy characters (although the gross-out gags are strictly for older kids).
Haunted Mansion **
Another Disney ride (following "Pirates of the Caribbean") is given the big-screen treatment, though not quite as successfully this time. Eddie Murphy stars as a workaholic realtor who learns he should spend more time with the family after touring a haunted house. The nonstop special effects often supplant any real comedy.
The first "Nutty Professor" came out in 1996 and served as bridge between Murphy's tame and wild sides.
Children and parents enjoy Murphy because, even in a silly movie, he's still cool, said "The Haunted Mansion" producer Don Hahn said. "That's what makes him appealing, because we like to think of ourselves as cool. But he's not above screaming like a Girl Scout and running down a hall."
Cleaning up his act
Murphy hasn't fought against his tamer reputation. Instead, he cultivates it. Development of "The Haunted Mansion" began without him, and it was Murphy who approached Disney about taking the role because he wanted to make another family film.
And unlike Mike Myers, who has been criticized for injecting elements of his raunchy, "Austin Powers"-style sense of humor into the children's film "The Cat in the Hat," Murphy has recognized the value of keeping it clean for the kiddies.
For instance, his 1998 remake of "Dr. Dolittle" was rated PG-13 for brief profanity and a double entendre, but it was a so popular with families that the 2001 sequel was toned down to a PG.
"The Haunted Mansion" has no potty jokes or profanity and is rated PG mainly for scary skeleton content.
Years after Murphy gleefully recalled being slammed by Cosby for being "filthy," the comedian has found a way to be both wholesome and funny.
"In a way it's harder to do that in this day and age," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks SKG, the distributor of "Shrek" and next summer's "Shrek 2." "To achieve the kind of comedic result that he does -- and do it without relying on edgier, blue language -- you have to be more inventive, you have to be more clever."
Katzenberg said Murphy deserved much of the credit for crafting his animated Donkey character in "Shrek," a blabbermouthed sidekick to the surly title ogre. "He is an amazingly complex character, one that has enormous bravado mixed with unbridled insecurities," Katzenberg said.
Whether that describes Murphy himself, it's hard to say. Murphy has a reputation for being press shy, although he has done more interviews recently to help promote "The Haunted Mansion."
His private life has been mostly quiet and scandal-free except for a brief tabloid frenzy in 1997 when police pulled him over for giving a late-night ride to a transvestite prostitute. Murphy, who has been married since 1993, said he was just giving a lift to someone in trouble, and the sheriff's detectives who witnessed the incident said he did nothing wrong.
Nonetheless, he was teased by late-night talk hosts and in a sketch on his old homestead "Saturday Night Live," but moviegoers were unfazed by the incident. In Murphy's next film, he was a hit as the voice of a troublemaking little dragon in Disney's animated "Mulan," and scored again with "Dr. Dolittle."
His New Age guru in 1998's "Holy Man" was a flop, but 1999's "Bowfinger" and "Life" were modest successes. But after that, his only hits have been family movies.
His next project, a remake of "The Incredible Shrinking Man" in which he reportedly plays a children's magician, is likely to follow that path also.
Katzenberg said he believes Murphy still has the talent to jump back into coarser, adult-themed comedy, while others say the audience may have certain expectations from him now.
"It's hard to go back, I suppose, when you have as big a success as he had with his 'Dolittle' movies and, knock on wood, 'Haunted Mansion,"' said producer Hahn. "It's hard to go back and do the tough-talking, raunchy humor character."