But after a decade of relative relaxation — a time of half-hearted comebacks, movies that fizzled and occasional music projects — Murphy is back. He is — and this is big news — feeling it again, decades after he last performed stand-up.
"When I'm being funny, there's this spirit that comes up," Murphy says. "That spirit comes up in me a lot now. Stuff's just been coming out of me like it used to. This movie has got my spirit up. This movie got me off the couch."
The movie is "Dolemite Is My Name," which opens in theaters Friday and arrives on Netflix Oct. 25. In it, Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, the iconic comic performer whose pimp persona, Dolemite, spawned a long-running stage show, a series of profane comedy records and the shambling 1975 classic Blaxploitation film "Dolemite."
Murphy's performance as Moore has all the familiar charisma and exuberance of peak "48 Hours"-era Murphy, but mixed with a more mature and gentle side of the 58-year-old comedian. It's the Eddie Murphy we've been missing, one that Murphy was ready to rejuvenate. At least under the right circumstances.
"I didn't want to just pop up out of nowhere. I was waiting for a really funny movie. We were thinking I could tour after a 'Coming to America' movie but this movie came out so funny," Murphy said in a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival where he was momentarily breaking from production on a "Coming to America" sequel. "This movie turning out the way it turned out made me go, 'I'm going back to "SNL." And I'm doing stand-up.'"
Those are the next items on Murphy's comeback agenda. In December, he'll host "Saturday Night Live" for the first time since 1984 , shortly after he departed the sketch show. And he's prepping a return to stand-up with a tour next year along with a Netflix special.
When it's pointed out that people would have been plenty thrilled for those things, regardless of the big-screen lead-in, Murphy replies with a grin: "I didn't want to show up there and the last movie you've seen me in is 'Mr. Church.'"
And "Dolemite Is My Name," thankfully, is no "Mr. Church." Directed by Craig Brewer ("Hustle and Flow"), it's an ode to DIY filmmaking and to Moore, who through sheer toil and pluck, carved out a place for himself and others in a movie industry that offered little room for African Americans. Murphy calls him "the godfather of making a spark into a flame."
Murphy first tried to get the film going years ago after meeting with Moore, shortly before his death in 2008. "There was no Netflix then. That was just a crazy thing we were trying to put together," says Murphy before slipping into the voice of an incredulous film producer. "A Rudy Ray Moore biopic? And you're just coming off 'Pluto Nash?' I don't know if we're going to get financing."
To write it, Murphy sought out Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the screenwriting team behind another affectionate portrait of a movie-making striver whose enthusiasm surpassed his filmmaking proficiency: "Ed Wood." When they walked into the meeting, Murphy was doing lines from the 1994 biopic.
But when they couldn't get the film off the ground and as years went by, Karaszewski says, "We sort of felt the whole thing had passed us by." Other plans for a "Dolemite" remake or a biopic of Moore floated around Hollywood, never coming to fruition. The project was revived, the writers say, after their success creating the miniseries "The People v. O.J. Simpson." With their new industry capital in hand, they asked if Murphy wanted to give "Dolemite Is My Name" another try.
"Eddie hadn't made a movie in a while but we always felt that this movie doesn't exist unless Eddie is doing Rudy Ray Moore," says Karaszewski. "That's what makes this exciting." Murphy has long adored Moore. His movies, Murphy calls them "stoner pictures," were "the best thing to watch when you smoked." ''Dolemite Is My Name" goes behind Dolemite, capturing Moore assembling his over-the-top character bit by bit, a transformation familiar to the mild-mannered Murphy.
"I'm nothing like any of my characters. I'm this guy. What I like to do the most is be around my family, sit on the couch, strum the guitar," Murphy says. "Even when I'm doing stand-up comedy, it all comes from little snippets of stuff I've really said. But once I put it all together into a structure and go up there in a leather suit, I'm not that guy."
Murphy laughs. "I'm not that guy in the leather suit." Murphy connects with Moore in another way. He sees his early screen persona as almost a real-life Blaxploitation hero, just without the kung fu. "I was the first African American actor to get roles where I took charge in the white world. Going into the white world and taking charge, and being funny too," says Murphy, referencing "48 Hours," ''Trading Places" and "Beverly Hills Cop." ''I didn't plan it. When I step on the set of '48 Hours,' I'm 20-years-old. I'm just: Whatever's coming my way, I'm doing."
Yet "Dolemite Is My Name" achieved something that nothing else could: It got Murphy back on the stage. To film scenes of Moore performing in small clubs, Murphy was again in front of a microphone, telling jokes and riffing.
"When he left, I turned to the audience and said, 'Y'all, do you realize what just happened? I don't think he's done that in like years! Decades!'" says Brewer, who's also directing "Coming 2 America." Alexander watched the extras sitting in the faux-nightclub thinking, "You're getting paid to watch Eddie Murphy do stand-up in a 40-seat room. That's a good job."
It was mounting outside pressure, Murphy says, that caused him to give up stand-up in the first place. In 1996, amid protests in San Francisco over gay slurs from his 1980s act, Murphy issued a statement apologizing for jokes about AIDS.
"I wasn't getting the kick that I would usually get from it. I started feeling like there's a pressure. People had an expectation," Murphy says. "A lot of it was controversial. I'd get picketed. They started being on my act. If I said something it would be in the newspaper. I just wanted to tell some jokes. They were reading too much into it. I was like, You know what? How about I just go do 'Dr. Doolittle.'"
Murphy has lately been regularly dictating potential new material into his phone. He estimates he already has enough for 15 or 20 minutes. "The muscle that always came up with jokes, I never stopped using that muscle," says Murphy. "At the core, I'm a funny person. I'm a funny guy."
But after so many years away from stand-up, and on the couch, Murphy will be walking back into a very different landscape for comedy. The scrutiny that prompted his withdrawal has only increased. Murphy says he's not concerned.
"I want to see what's in me. I want to see what comes out. And I see what's going on, so I know there are parameters. You've got to eggshell it in certain areas," says Murphy. "(Dave) Chappelle has some new stuff out that's edgy, and I see a couple of other comics doing stuff that's edgy. It's almost like there was this thing where for the last couple years, people had to apologize for saying this and that. It seems like I'm seeing a couple comics going 'You know what? Enough of this s---. I'm doing my thing and let the chips fall where they may.'"
"That's where I'm coming from," says Murphy. "I'm not planning to step on nobody's foot or get in some controversy or turn over the applecart. I'm just going to be Eddie. Whatever comes out, that's what it's going to be."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP