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A Beginner's Guide to Eddie Murphy's Glory Days

Coming to America
Paramount

Believe it or not, there was a time when Eddie Murphy wasn't just funny -- he was groundbreaking.

Yes, before starring in films like "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," "Meet Dave" and "Norbit," Murphy was the king of X-rated humor that focused on taboos like race and sexuality (all pretty normal from a comic nowadays).

So with his lighthearted "A Thousand Words" opening this weekend, let’s look back at his early work that didn't just pave the way for comics like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, but made Eddie Murphy one of the funniest people on the planet.

'48 hrs.' (1982)

After spending four years becoming a huge star on "Saturday Night Live," Murphy moved to feature films, starring opposite Nick Nolte in this gruff comedy that pushed the boundaries of jokes about race. Murphy, playing a wisecracking convict who gets a 48-hour pass back into society to help a cop (Nolte) track down a killer, showed off a smooth antagonism that would become his hallmark.

'Trading Places' (1983)

A year after the success of "48 hrs.," Murphy kept the hot streak going by teaming with fellow "SNL" alum Dan Aykroyd for this classic comedy about a snobby investor (Aykroyd) and hustler (Murphy) who switch places as part of a bet by two bored tycoons. Murphy’s hip style played perfectly off the stiff white-collar world of finance.

'Beverly Hills Cop' (1984)

Murphy’s first stand-alone starring role, as the foul-mouthed Detroit detective Axel Foley, made him a superstar. This fish-out-of-water action comedy follows Foley as he travels to Beverly Hills to pursue a murder investigation, outwitting not only the crooks but also the cops who are keeping an eye on him. Murphy’s performance (and unorthodox laugh) showed he could do more than just be a wise-ass. "Cop" spawned two sequels, and every couple of years, rumors surface that another sequel is in the works (let’s hope not).

'The Golden Child' (1986)

Sticking with the action-comedy theme, Murphy’s next role found him traveling to Tibet to track down a special child who had been kidnapped by weird-looking henchmen and a bad guy who transforms into a demon. It’s far-fetched, and what makes it great is Murphy’s character Chandler Jarrell’s sarcasm throughout the whole journey.

'Eddie Murphy Raw' (1987)

Like his idols Richard Prior and Bill Cosby before him, Murphy released two movies of his stand-up material. The second, "Raw," was groundbreaking for its no-holds-barred look at sex, race and class. And let’s not forget that insane outfit he wore.

'Coming to America' (1988)

Murphy’s second collaboration with John Landis (he directed "Trading Places" ... and "Beverly Hills Cop III," but let's not get into that) is a landmark work from the ’80s. Murphy played Prince Akeem, who travels to Queens, New York, to choose a woman he’ll marry -- if he can survive the drastic culture shock. One of the most memorable of Murphy's numerous characters in the movie is Murphy as lead singer of Sexual Chocolate, Mr. Randy Watson.

'Harlem Nights' (1989)

As the ’90s approached, Murphy’s star began to shrink; but he still had enough clout to write, direct and star in this period comedy paying homage to hustle movies like "The Sting." Alongside an all-star cast, including Pryor, Redd Foxx, Danny Aiello and Della Reese, Murphy played "Quick," who together with Pryor's character devises a plan to pull a fast one on the gangsters and corrupt cops who want to see their casino go out of business.

'Boomerang' (1992)

Murphy showed off his ladies' man persona to the fullest as Marcus, a chauvinistic ad exec who beds any woman who crosses his path until he meets his beautiful new boss (Robin Givens). Featuring one of Murphy's more serious performances, the film got mixed reactions, beginning the megastar’s box office decline.

'The Distinguished Gentleman' (1992)

In no way is this going to go down as one of Murphy’s greatest, but out of the string of movies starring Murphy in the early '90s, this is one of the more tolerable. Going back to playing his wisecracking ways, he plays a con artist who attempts the biggest con: running for Congress.

'The Nutty Professor' (1996)

After a string of flops, Murphy completely overhauled his persona when he signed on for the remake of Jerry Lewis’ "The Nutty Professor." In this romantic comedy Murphy played morbidly obese Professor Klump, who is working on a weight loss drug that transforms him into egomaniac Buddy Love. The role would revitalize Murphy’s career, making him appealing to family audiences -- and highlighting his love of playing multiple characters in a film.

'Bowfinger' (1999)

In a surprising role choice, Murphy signed on to share top billing with Steve Martin (who also wrote the screenplay) for this showbiz comedy starring Murphy as twin brothers. Without the pressures of carrying the movie, Murphy gave one of his best performances in years playing a nerdy, nearsighted dweeb and his brother, a megastar who doesn’t know he’s in a B horror movie.

BONUS: Murphy’s Greatest 'SNL' Hits

From 1980 to 1984 Murphy was a major part of "Saturday Night Live"s' resurgence after a long slump following the original cast’s departure for Hollywood. Some of his bits that didn’t make the show later evolved into some of his movies, but there was some great stuff that made the cut: playing a disgruntled Gumby; embodying Velvet Jones, a pimp on the lookout for a good ho; even dressing up as a white guy. Below are some more favorites from the Murphy "SNL" era.

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