The Lost Roles of Eddie Murphy

Casting is one of the most important processes in movie making. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire film rings true. Thus, casting directors and filmmakers consider a variety of possibilities before going into production. Lost Roles is a weekly series that examines the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and explores how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed the film industry and the comedy world, at large.

Eddie Murphy was presented with the Comedy Icon Award at the First Annual Comedy Awards last month, and the ceremony will be airing on Comedy Central (also simulcast on the other Viacom networks) this Sunday, April 10th at 9 pm. While I’d argue that there are more than a few comedians and comedy writers more deserving of this title than Murphy, I do admire his ‘80s work. Thinking back on it, Murphy had a flawless track record for the first few years of his career, and I’ll pinpoint him entering the studio to record “Party All the Time” as his first professional lapse in judgment and the exact moment at which things started to go downhill.

Murphy’s four-year stint at SNL was arguably what saved the show from the jaws of cancellation during the non-Lorne Michaels years, and every cast member and comedy writer who has used the show as a springboard to fame since owes their career to Eddie Murphy. He dominated the show, appearing in nearly every sketch and introducing a bevy of hilarious characters and impressions. His comedic persona was surprisingly well-formed for someone who was only 19 when he joined SNL. Murphy’s first few movies, too, were just as strong as his SNL work. 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop were all massive blockbusters and critically-acclaimed comedies too, each one funnier and more financially successful than the one before it. Murphy’s early career had some real momentum going, more so than any film comedian I can think of at the start of their career. Can you name someone who starred in three great movies right off the bat, without a slip-up? If Eddie Murphy’s entire career had gone as well as those first five years did, then he would without a doubt be deserving of icon status.

I like to think Eddie Murphy’s trajectory parallels Jay Leno’s a little bit. They were both wildy-original, trailblazing comic performers who burst onto the scene in the ‘80s, only to begin wasting their potential catering to the lowest common denominator in the ‘90s. Despite the downward spiral Murphy’s been caught in for the past two decades, he does occasionally show flashes of his old self — of what he could be if he had stuck to his guns. In Bowfinger, he gives not just one, but two funny and fully-formed performances, in which he doesn’t rely on fart sound effects or fatsuits. He gained a little bit of credibility for Dreamgirls in 2006 (even earning an Oscar nomination), but he destroyed it just a few months later by returning to the fatsuit well for Norbit.

With a career lasting over three decades, Eddie Murphy has his fair share of film parts he came close to playing. I know what you’re wondering, and yes, there are roles Eddie Murphy has turned down. Every major actor has a roster of missed opportunities and close calls, even — how shall I put this — those who are “less selective.” Here’s a rundown of Eddie’ Murphy’s lost roles.

1. Ghostbusters (1984)

The role: Winston Zeddemore

Who got it: Ernie Hudson

Dan Aykroyd wanted Eddie Murphy for this role. The character of Winston Zeddemore received the least screentime of the four Ghostbusters and wasn’t even introduced until about halfway through the movie, but Aykroyd originally intended the part to be larger. In an earlier version of the script, Zeddemore was introduced much earlier in the story, and he was the one who was slimed by the ghost at the hotel instead of Bill Murray’s character. Dan Aykroyd told Murphy about the part on the set of Trading Places, but Murphy later admitted his original thoughts about Ghostbusters, saying “I was like, ‘This sounds like a crock… to me.”

Murphy passed on Ghostbusters to make Beverly Hills Cop, which ended up being a better career move for him. To this day, it’s still his biggest hit ever (besides the Shrek films). Murphy would have been part of an ensemble in Ghostbusters (albeit a talented, iconic one), but with Beverly Hills Cop, he got to play the lead and carry a movie on his own for the first time, cementing his status as a viable box office commodity. Ghostbusters was a massive hit at the time of its release in the summer of 1984 and the highest grossing movie of that year, up until Beverly Hills Cop was released at Christmastime and edged it out by a measly few million dollars, becoming the year’s box office winner. Still, both were through-the-roof successes that, with adjustments to account for inflation, are still amongst the top five highest grossing comedies ever. Comedies today just don’t capture the public interest the way Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters did. Even recent megahits The Hangover and Meet the Fockers haven’t come close to these numbers, when inflation is factored into the equation.

While picking Beverly Hills Cop over Ghostbusters was a smart decision on Murphy’s part, if he had somehow been able to balance the shooting schedules of these two films, it would have turned him into the biggest movie star in the world. Taking part in Ghostbusters would have also secured him a role in 1989’s Ghostbusters II. Although the sequel isn’t held in high esteem by fans and critics, it was still a financial success. Adding these two hits to his resume would have helped Eddie Murphy to better withstand the career slump he went through in the early ‘90s and kept him a first choice for casting agents, directors, and studio execs.

2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

The role: Dr. Gillian Taylor

Who got it: Catherine Hicks

Eddie Murphy is a huge Star Trek fan, and he wanted to appear in one of the movies. In the mid-80s, Murphy had an exclusive production deal with Paramount (one of the last of such arrangements between studios and actors), and Paramount was the studio behind the Star Trek films. Murphy took meetings with Leonard Nimoy, who directed the project. Writers were brought in to rewrite the script for Murphy to play a marine biologist. Murphy was unhappy with the idea, and dropped out. He felt the way his character was written was too similar to Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop, and he had wanted to play a Vulcan or a different alien, rather than a human. The part was rewritten to be female and given to Catherine Hicks, who is best known for playing the mother on the long-running WB drama 7th Heaven.

This seems like it would have been an especially risky choice for both Eddie Murphy and the Star Trek franchise, but considering Murphy’s box office clout in 1986, audiences would have probably followed him anywhere. He made The Golden Child instead, his first misstep as a lead actor. The film was despised by critics but Eddie Murphy had such a fervent fanbase at the time that Golden Child was still a minor box office success. It’s likely this audience would have also followed him to Star Trek and made this installment of the franchise a bigger hit than it was without him. This would have continued Murphy’s dominance of the movie industry, while preventing him from losing a little ground with The Golden Child.

3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

The role: Freddy Benson

Who got it: Steve Martin

When this film was originally conceived in the mid-1980s, it was set up as a project for David Bowie and Mick Jagger, who had wanted to do a movie together. Jagger and Bowie dropped out and Eddie Murphy was briefly attached before he passed and Steve Martin signed on.

The film’s director, Frank Oz, managed to pull two great performances out of Murphy a decade later in Bowfinger. If Oz could get Murphy to do so well in the late ‘90s, there’s no doubt the two would have worked together well during Murphy’s ’80s heyday. Although Steve Martin replaced Murphy in the role, I think this really could have worked with Martin as the stuffy character that Michael Caine ended up playing and Murphy in the role that went to Martin. It could have been a big hit and it would have certainly been more satisfying than the unnecessary Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. rehashes that populated Eddie Murphy’s filmography in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

The role: Eddie Valiant

Who got it: Bob Hoskins

Eddie Murphy admitted to passing on Roger Rabbit, saying he had thought it would be a disaster. He now regrets the decision and says he “feels like ‘an idiot’ every time he sees it.” Although Murphy missed out on a major hit, I don’t think Roger Rabbit would have worked as well with him playing Eddie Valiant. Considering Murphy’s R-rated persona in the ‘80s, I was surprised Disney offered this to him. Eddie Murphy’s presence couldn’t have hurt the film too much, though, as he was much more famous than actual star Bob Hoskins at the time, and he could have given Roger Rabbit an extra boost at the box office.

5. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

The role: Hoke Colburn

Who got it: Morgan Freeman

Studio executives considered casting Bette Midler and Eddie Murphy as the leads in this Oscar-winning film. This is perhaps the most shocking entry in Murphy’s cache of missed opportunities, and it’s a part I don’t think he was ready to pull this off at the time. Morgan Freeman’s age is a big part of his character, and one of the reasons I can’t imagine Murphy in this role is that he was so much younger at the time. He was still in his 20s while this one was in production. Slotting Bette Midler in the lead role is another odd notion, although she’s done better with dramatic roles than Murphy has. The Midler-Murphy version of Miss Daisy would have lacked the critical appeal and effectiveness of the Jessica Tandy-Morgan Freeman one that actually came to exist, but if Murphy and Midler’s performances ended up being good, this may have still been a success and not the disaster that it sounds like.

Driving Miss Daisy was well-received at the time, scoring a boatload of Oscars and nominations, including a Best Picture win. While this wouldn’t likely have happened with Midler and Murphy as the leads, I doubt the presence of those actors could have steered the project too far off course. Driving Miss Daisy may have still ended up acclaimed by critics and this could have been a transitional role for Eddie Murphy, allowing him to take on more highbrow and dramatic fare and helping him to bypass his fart-heavy mid-’90s family film comeback. Hell, Driving Miss Daisy was so beloved that Murphy’s Trading Places costar Dan Aykroyd even received an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor for his work here. It was the first-ever Oscar nomination for an ex-SNL star, long before Bill Murray’s turn in Lost in Translation or Murphy’s own in Dreamgirls. Maybe Murphy could have earned himself a nomination if he had been cast in this role. Tom Hanks and Robin Williams both pulled off the tricky comedy-to-drama transition around the same time, and if Murphy had given it his all in Driving Miss Daisy, he may have been able to follow their paths.

6. Malcolm X (1992)

The role: Malcolm X

Who got it: Denzel Washington

A biopic on Malcolm X’s life had been in development for decades before Denzel Washington and Spike Lee got the chance to see the project through. Several scripts were written and circulated. Eddie Murphy was interested in one written by David Mamet but soon dropped out of the project. Spike Lee came onboard to direct and went with a different script. An Eddie Murphy-Spike Lee collaboration probably wouldn’t have worked out, as Lee famously criticized Murphy in the early ‘90s for not using his fame to help more African-Americans get work in the movie industry.

Like Miss Daisy, this was another dramatic role in a prestige project Murphy came close to being involved with. Taking this part would have been an ambitious move for him, but once again, it’s one that I don’t think he would have been very successful in. But if Murphy gave a great performance, it would have largely altered the trajectory of his career, earning him more respect and acclaim from critics and his peers. He may have even been able to score an Oscar nomination, as Denzel Washington did in this same role.

7. Candyman (1992)

The role: Candyman

Who got it: Tony Todd

Eddie Murphy was considered to play the villain this low budget horror film that ended up being a surprise success. I doubt the filmmakers would have even been able to afford Murphy, as his salary at the time was likely almost double the film’s shoestring $8 million budget. Playing a bad guy in a horror film would have shown off Murphy’s diversity as an actor, but his own efforts in the horror genre — Vampire in Brooklyn, The Haunted Mansion — rank amongst his worst-received films. It’s probably for the best that Murphy only made two horror movies; a third could have killed his career.

8. Rush Hour (1998)

The role: Detective James Carter

Who got it: Chris Tucker

Eddie Murphy unwisely passed on Rush Hour to make the box office bomb and critical failure Holy Man instead. While the Rush Hour movies aren’t exactly critic’s darlings, they’re much better liked than most of Murphy’s recent work, and it would have been smart for him to take part in this lucrative franchise. Between theatrical and video releases, the Rush Hour series has earned over a billion dollars worldwide, and the success from these films could have kept Murphy’s momentum going strong through his recent career stalls. He was right for the part, and although this isn’t saying much, the Rush Hour films would have been the cream of the crop when it comes to Murphy’s recent slate of projects.

Although Chris Tucker had previously starred in Friday, The Fifth Element and a few other films, the Rush Hour series are what made the actor a household name and really took his career to the next level. Tucker seems to be living in semi-retirement from the movie industry these days, taking Kubrickian breaks in between films. Even though he has yet to capitalize on the success of the Rush Hour movies by bringing his high-pitched, obnoxious brand of humor to multiplexes on a regular basis, if Murphy had taken the part, we might be living in a world where you don’t know Chris Tucker’s name.

9. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

The role: The Grinch

Who got it: Jim Carrey

Along with Jack Nicholson, Eddie Murphy was considered to play the Grinch before Jim Carrey took the part. Ever since the ‘90s, Eddie Murphy has shown he can draw big crowds to family films, and it’s likely his Grinch would have been a hit too. Adding another blockbuster to his resume at a time when his career was blowing up with the Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle movies would have only meant we would have seen more of Murphy in big budget movies. The whopping success of those other films was what gave Warner Brothers the confidence to invest $100 million dollars towards the budget of the Eddie Murphy’s space bomb The Adventures of Pluto Nash (yes, you read that right). If The Grinch had been a hit for him too, who knows? Maybe the studio would have tossed another 15 or 20 million onto that money fire.

If Eddie Murphy had landed the Grinch part, it could have thrown Jim Carrey’s career off track. The Grinch was a huge hit for Jim Carrey, proving he still had it and that his movies could still attract big crowds. The Grinch was Jim Carrey coming up for air to make a sure-fire hit in between endangering his career with risky roles in Man on the Moon and The Majestic. Neither of those films ended up being commercial successes, and without The Grinch to back himself up, Carrey might have seen his career take a downturn. Studios likely wouldn’t have felt confident enough to cast him as the lead in Bruce Almighty, if his most recent hit had been in the 90s, and another actor could have taken that part. Bruce Almighty was the gasp for commercial air that kept Carrey’s career breathing while he plunged back into the less-commercial depths to make Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Without that part, his career may have been dead in the water.

10. Daddy Day Camp (2008)

The role: Charlie Hinton

Who got it: Cuba Gooding Jr.

Eddie Murphy wisely opted out of this sequel to his hit family comedy Daddy Day Care, but before you give him credit for showing some integrity, let’s admit that he probably should have skipped the first one too. I’m surprised this sequel didn’t forego a theatrical run entirely and go straight to the DVD bins at Wal-Mart. On a recent episode of Doug Benson’s podcast, Murphy’s Daddy Day Care co-star Jeff Garlin said he also turned down this second installment because they weren’t offering him enough money. It’s safe to assume Eddie Murphy opted out for the same reason.

This sequel bombed, but Eddie Murphy’s presence would have at least helped a little bit. God forbid this one becoming a hit too and giving birth to a third installment. It’s embarrassing enough that there are two Daddy Day Care movies; we don’t need a third.

11. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

The role: Unknown

Back in 2005, before Inglourious Basterds went into production, actor Michael Madsen announced to a reporter that Quentin Tarantino’s cast for the film was to include himself, Tim Roth, Eddie Murphy, and Adam Sandler. While this sounds completely unbelievable and like Madsen was just making this up, it is confirmed that Roth and Madsen were at one point attached and Tarantino has said he wanted Sandler to play the part that went to Eli Roth. But Eddie Murphy’s casting sticks out most, and he’s the one actor Madsen mentioned whose involvement hasn’t been confirmed outside of this one interview. Tarantino has made a habit of casting forgotten actors and reviving them out of career dry spells (John Travolta, Pam Grier, David Carradine, etc.), but Eddie Murphy still seems a strange choice for this one. Tarantino has proven he has a strong eye for casting, and I doubt he would consider Murphy unless he had the perfect role for him. It sounds absurd on paper, but maybe Tarantino had figured out a great way to use him. This is something that could have revitalized Eddie Murphy’s career and introduced a new side of him to audiences, but chances are this was just Michael Madsen feeding the press some misinformation.

12. The Green Hornet and Green Lantern (both 2011)

The roles: The Green Hornet and Green Lantern

Who got it: Seth Rogen and Ryan Reynolds, respectively

Eddie Murphy was eyeing both of these superhero properties several years ago, long before the versions released this year began to materialize. He was in contention to play the Green Lantern sometime in the 1980s and lobbied to play the Green Hornet in 1992. Laugh if you will, but Seth Rogen and Ryan Reynolds both mainly do comedic acting as well, so Murphy’s casting isn’t that ridiculous by comparison. If Murphy had landed one of these big budget superhero projects, it could have become a lucrative franchise for the actor.

13. Fences (never filmed)

The role: Cory Faxson

Paramount bought the rights to this Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play in 1987 at Eddie Murphy’s urging, with the understanding that he would produce and act in the film adaptation. Murphy, then 26, wanted to play the main character’s son, a high school athlete. He ended up leaving the project, and a film version of the play has yet to come together. Like Malcolm X and Driving Miss Daisy, this was another chance for Murphy to establish himself as a respected dramatic actor and a potential awards contender.

14. Hosting Saturday Night Live (post-1984)

Even while Eddie Murphy was a cast member on SNL in the early ‘80s, he was already one of the biggest movie stars in the show’s history, starring in both 48 Hrs. and Trading Places during his tenure. He left in 1984 to act in movies full-time, returning only once to host the show that same year. It’s been a proud tradition amongst the show’s most successful cast members to return to host the program, and Murphy remains the most famous holdout. Murphy has also refused to participate in the show’s star-studded 25th and 15th anniversary shows, both of which featured pretty much every other notable living former cast member. As if that weren’t enough to display his lack of care for the show, Murphy rarely speaks about his SNL stint in public and refused to share his thoughts for the Live from New York retrospective book, which featured quotes and contributions from most of the major players in the show’s history. Murphy was the force keeping the show alive during the sans-Lorne Michaels years, and it’s possible the show would have been canceled if it weren’t for his involvement. He’s given SNL enough by saving it from obliteration, but it couldn’t hurt him to pay a visit to the place where he got his start.

It’s safe to assume that Lorne Michaels would be happy to have Eddie Murphy back to host, but the actor hasn’t clearly stated his reasons for not returning. Perhaps it’s because Murphy’s tenure occurred during the five years that Michaels wasn’t in charge of the show, so Murphy doesn’t feel the same loyalty to him that the rest of the casts do. There’s also been speculation that Murphy’s refusal to return is due to SNL making fun of him for his career slump and personal troubles in the ‘90s. Murphy was reportedly mad about a quip made by David Spade on his Hollywood Minute segment, in which Spade put up a picture of Murphy and said, “Look children, a falling star… quick, make a wish!” Only making matters worse was a sketch a few years later in which cast member Tim Meadows played Eddie Murphy getting busted for picking up a transsexual prostitute, parodying a similar event in Murphy’s private life. Maybe Murphy’s wound will heal someday and he’ll come back to the show for a week.

15. Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? (in development)

The role: Richard Pryor

Who got it: Marlon Wayans (for the time being)

Eddie Murphy was attached to play Richard Pryor in director Bill Condon’s biopic of the legendary comedian, Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? Murphy and Condon had some creative differences, which resulted in Murphy leaving the project, to be replaced by Marlon Wayans. Condon’s a well-respected director and this could be a major awards-winner in his hands, so it’s Murphy’s loss for dropping out of this one.

Murphy, a close personal friend of Richard Pryor’s, who cast Pryor in his directorial debut Harlem Nights, seems like he would have been a solid choice to play the comedian. It’s going to be hard to please us Pryor fans with any actor playing him, but I feel like Murphy was a respectable selection and he showed in his stand-up film Raw that he has Pryor’s voice, cadence, and mannerisms down. I’m dubious about the Marlon Wayans casting, but he reportedly gave a 13-minute screen test that impressed the producers, with some claiming he “transforms into Pryor.” Time will tell if this project ever sees the light of day, as Bill Condon recently put it on hold to direct parts one and two of Breaking Dawn, the final two installments in the Twilight franchise.

Bradford Evans would really hate to see Cuba Gooding Jr. fill in as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop IV.

The Lost Roles of Eddie Murphy