The actor talks tough about his critics, his career, and his new film, ''The Distinguished Gentleman''

By Meredith Berkman
Updated December 18, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Anybody in show business that gets really popular, they’re doing God’s work,” says Eddie Murphy. ”The creative spark comes from God. The only reason He put it in you is that the world is so f—ed up and it needs artists.”

Murphy speaks in a voice so soft I have to lean forward to hear him. ”If any famous person walks in the room, people say, ‘There’s so-and-so!’ You scream, your hands shake, wow! That person looks like he’s glowing. His skin looks perfect. That’s his spirit. We’re all spirits. ‘Just let me touch your hand.’ You’re touching that motherf—er’s hand!”

He lurches forward, his own slender hands slicing the air, the gold-and-diamond cross around his neck banging against his well-muscled chest.

”That’s your spirit being in touch with God’s spirit,” he says.

We are in the elegantly decorated sitting room of Bubble Hill, Murphy’s Englewood Cliffs, N.J., estate, talking about spirituality. It is early evening and the spacious room is warm and dark, scented with spicy potpourri, lit only by a fire in the marble fireplace and six thick white candles flickering from two niches in the wall. Murphy wears a black silk tunic trimmed with gold thread, open at the neck, and black silk trousers. A gold charm bracelet and a gold Rolex with a black face are on his left wrist, a heavy gold ring on each hand. He seems like the hip high priest of a shrine he has filled with funky artifacts: a mahogany grand piano, an antique Wurlitzer jukebox, a tapestry vest once worn by Jimi Hendrix and now encased in glass.

”When I was young, I acknowledged that there was something in me that made me creative,” he continues. ”I knew this was a gift from God. I knew that if I stayed focused and true to this gift, there’s no way I wasn’t coming off. I knew there was a reason I was here, to make people laugh. People come to my movies on a Friday or Saturday night, after getting f—ed over all week. They say, ‘Man, how’s that new Eddie Murphy movie? You see that s—, it’ll make you laugh.’ That’s a beautiful journey to be on. My journey is making people feel good.”

Two weeks later, a much different Eddie Murphy sits opposite me in one of the black leather swivel chairs that overlook his indoor racquetball court. He’s no longer the ethereal spiritualist but a tough-talking pragmatist, prickly when talking about the future of his career. Whenever I ask a question he doesn’t like, he pushes the hood of his faded blue sweatshirt back behind his ears and wraps the cords over his mouth like a second mustache.

”There are no conversations about what my capabilities are in the offices of producers in Hollywood,” Murphy says abruptly, glaring at me as if I’ve slapped him in the face. I have just mentioned that one of the producers of his latest film, The Distinguished Gentleman, told me there had been concern that audiences might not accept this comedy, which stars Murphy as a con man-turned-congressman, when it ultimately takes a dramatic turn.

”They look at what my movies have grossed and they say, ‘Get us Eddie.’ They don’t go, ‘Do you think Eddie could do?’ That doesn’t happen. I hire the producers so they don’t sit around talking about — that’s ridiculous,” he says, breaking into his trademark horselike laugh. ”That’s ridiculous. If they had a conversation about that, it was producers jerking off in an office, which happens quite frequently.”

But the questions are unavoidable. After his 1982 movie debut with 48 HRS., the Saturday Night Live star turned out one monster hit after another — including Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and its sequel. But then his career faltered in the late ’80s with movies like Harlem Nights, which he wrote and directed, and Another 48 HRS. Though the films made $60.8 million and $80.8 million, respectively, they were considered disappointments — but the numbers were far less disturbing than the images of a bloated, distracted Murphy, seemingly walking through his roles. It was a period he now refers to as ”when I was fat and depressed.”

So he holed up at Bubble Hill, which he bought in 1985. He stopped talking to the press, and didn’t make a movie for two years. This self-imposed hiatus gave Murphy — a bachelor who once swore he’d never marry — a chance to ease into his new role as a domesticated dad. His fiancée, 24-year-old model Nicole Mitchell, recently gave birth to their second child, Myles; they also have a 3-year-old daughter, Bria, and plan to wed in March.

The hiatus ended last summer with Boomerang, a romantic comedy with a mainly black cast, which featured Murphy as a suave leading man. The film received mixed reviews, made about $67 million, and wasn’t the comeback he needed. Now, with The Distinguished Gentleman — a showcase for the fast-talking, street-smart persona that drove hits like Trading Places — he is making a more straightforward attempt to reclaim the massive audiences he regards as his due. But the jury is still out: The Distinguished Gentleman earned $10.6 million in its opening weekend, suggesting it will be another respectable hit, but probably not a blockbuster.

But talk about changes of image and career strategies doesn’t get far with Murphy. ”I’m not going to have a conversation about ‘This is the old, this is the new,’ bulls—,” he says, testily. ”How could I be trapped in anything at 31? There are no walls around me. I do what I want to do when I feel like doing it. I never aspired to change, to be like, The New Eddie. I was just being who I am as an artist.

”If every time you came to the theater Eddie Murphy was doing the same s—, after awhile you’d go, ‘F— Eddie Murphy.’ The audience gets antsy whenever they fall in love with an artist. They say, ‘Okay, I can count on this person to deliver this emotion whenever I want it.’ And they go there and the artist is trying to change, and every now and then the artist might miss with the audience,” he says, his voice quickening. ”And the audience goes, ‘Oh, s—! The artist lost his mind!’ So they start making demands and all this other s—. They have nothing to do with the creative process. The artist can’t listen to the audience.”

This comes from the same man who shakes his head in disbelief when I ask why he has chosen Beverly Hills Cop 3 as his next project.

”Why?” he asks. ”The Beverly Hills Cop pictures are my most successful films. People dig those movies, so you can’t not do them.”