As the 1980s dawned, Eddie Murphy, star of classic Saturday Night Live was poised to transition from TV to the big screen. With 48 Hours, nothing would be the same for Murphy, or comedy lovers everywhere.
In 1980, 19-year-old Eddie Murphy was cast in Saturday Night Live over a then equally unknown Robert Townsend. Initially playing background, non-speaking roles, Murphy broke out with the seminal skit, “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” He then breathed new life into SNL through a chorus of now-classic characters and impersonations: Gumby, Buckwheat, James Brown and Stevie Wonder, with catchphrases galore. By 1982, Murphy was the undisputed crown prince of Saturday Night Live, who’d saved the show’s sagging ratings. But stardom on a higher level beckoned and Murphy answered.
Eddie Murphy’s film debut would be 48 Hours. Directed by Hollywood veteran Walter Hill (Hard Times, The Warriors, Red Heat, Last Man Standing), the movie would pair Murphy with the eternally weathered Nick Nolte, who took the role after the likes of Mickey Rourke, Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges passed. As Jack Cates, Nolte plays a grizzled veteran cop determined to catch Albert Ganz, a gangster on a murderous spree using the cop’s stolen .44. Out of desperation, Cates forges documents to spring a convict from jail who used to run with Ganz.
Murphy wasn’t a shoo-in for the role of Reggie Hammond either. Also considered were Gregory Hines, Richard Pryor (Murphy’s idol), and a young Denzel Washington. Yet, from the first moment we see Hammond, singing The Police’s “Roxanne,” Murphy owned that role. With his quick wit, slick suit and feral energy, Eddie commanded the big screen in a way few rookies ever had. As Hammond leaves the prison gates for the telltale 48 hours, you can practically feel the convict gaining confidence and vitality once his feet touch the pavement again.
When you think of 48 Hours, the most memorable scene is at Torchy’s, the redneck bar where Reggie single-handedly plays the bigoted crowd just like Charlie Daniels did the fiddle in the same scene. Murphy spouts two famous lines: “There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Reggie Hammond! ” And “I’m your worst fucking nightmare: a nigga with a badge!” which was nominated for the 100 Most Memorable Movie Lines by the American Film Institute.
Though the film’s climax is never in doubt, the journey to get there take you to San Francisco’s Filmore district and Vroman’s nightclub “where the brothers hang,” explains Murphy to an exasperated Cates (a stark contrast to the redneck Torchy’s/spot) while one-hit wonders The Bus Boys (who’d go on to open for Eddie’s live shows) supplying their funky brand of boogie-woogie as a soundtrack. Touches like these added touches of authenticity, making the movie that much more real. The kinda-good guys get the all-the-way bad guys and forge an unlikely bond, creating the blueprint for the “buddy film.” (Word is many of their scenes together were improvised.) The sequel wouldn’t happen for another eight years. By 1996, Nolte was even more leathery, while Murphy’s star had gone supernova. Another 48 Hours ran on the fumes of the original, and couldn’t hold a candle.
Sequels that suck aside, the impact of the original 48 Hours had already been established: In Reggie Hammond, Murphy gave birth to a new kind of African American star: one who doesn’t strive or beg for equality, who doesn’t suffer slights nor indignities silently. In playing the convict, Murphy created the first Black anti-hero with swag (sorry, Hov). Many critics hailed 48 Hours the best movie of the year, and Murphy was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his performance.
For the first time, two decades after the Civil Rights Movement, (white) moviegoers began to see African American males as an accepted if not indisputable equal (sometime superior) figure. The actor’s playing field was as close to leveled as it had ever been.
48 Hours only had a $1 million budget, but grossed $78 million, the seventh highest grossing film of 1982. Murphy would go on to become the second-highest grossing movie star of all time (Sam Jackson only recently took the #1 spot). Arguably, Eddie has gone on to create some of the most memorable moments for moviegoers of all ages, colors and races. But before he descended into physical fat-suited foolery and multiple personas (in tribute to his other idol, Jerry Lewis), Eddie Murphy was like a young Cassius Clay in his prime: brash, beautiful, something we’d never seen before. Simply put, Eddie Murphy is the architect of the onramp that many entertainers to this day freely travel to access the highway to fame and fortune.