He was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s.
His dozen films have grossed $1.09 billion at the domestic box office.
With his mischievous smile and knowing twinkle in his eyes, he was a key ingredient--along with Harrison Ford and "Star Trek"--that year after year filled the coffers at Paramount Pictures. His mere name was a franchise.
But with the release of his latest film, "Beverly Hills Cop III," Eddie Murphy is still looking for his next blockbuster.
Murphy, who commands $12 million a picture ($15 million for sequels), has had only fair-to-modest success with his last three outings.
1992's "Distinguished Gentleman" took in $10.6 million its opening weekend ($47 million total domestically) and "Boomerang" opened on the Fourth of July 1992 weekend to $13.7 million ($70 million).
And, while "Cop III" took in a respectable $20 million in its first week--including the Memorial Day weekend--and has grossed $28.5 million through Sunday, industry sources said it will likely end up making only $50 million to $60 million domestically.
"A lot of pictures open to $20 million their first week and the studio is having a party," said one industry source. "But Eddie is not where Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise are. He ain't there anymore."
Hollywood took note last year when Paramount halted pre-production of "Cop III" as projected costs soared to $75 million, only to scale back the budget to the $40-million to $50-million range.
"If Paramount thought he was there (with Ford and Cruise), they wouldn't have done the film for less than the original budget," said a film industry source.
"The fact was that he was once capable of making $100 million time after time," said another source. "Now, he has sort of dropped out of that league."
But while some in Hollywood interpret these figures as proof that the luster is coming off Murphy, those close to him get frustrated and wonder if he isn't being judged by a different standard than Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson--all of whom have had box-office bombs. "A Perfect World," starring Eastwood and Costner, grossed only $31.1 million last year. Gibson in "The Man Without a Face" made $24.7 million. "Dying Young" with Roberts took in $32.3 million. Even Schwarzenegger's "Last Action Hero" took a financial bath when it grossed only $50 million.
"Eddie hasn't failed yet," said John Landis, who directed "Beverly Hills Cop III" as well as "Coming to America" and "Trading Places."
"Eddie Murphy has never been in a flop," added Murphy's manager, Mark Lipsky, who admits going a little nuts hearing all this talk about Murphy's career being in decline. "All of his movies have made money. What other movie stars can claim that?
"Some actors make films that gross $35 million and nobody says anything," Lipsky said. "Eddie makes a film that grosses $20 million in its first week and people say it's a flop, that he's in a career crisis!"
Lipsky contends it is journalists who have portrayed Murphy's career as one in decline.
Premiere magazine, in previewing "Cop III," recently noted: "This looks very much like Murphy's last, best hope to get back on top."
Ebony magazine pointed to the irony, saying Murphy "has not only been the most popular black actor, he has been the most popular actor, period. " But it added: "Although Murphy is at the pinnacle of his success, some critics continue to say the entertainer's movie career has been on the decline . . . "
Murphy declined to be interviewed for this article, but he recently told Ebony, "So if my train stops tomorrow, what am I going to do, hang my head in shame? The reality of it is if my career was on the decline, then I wouldn't be making movies because they (moviemakers) don't give black people money in Hollywood just because they are swell."
In a sense, Murphy is a victim of his success.
His first film, "48 HRS.," made $75.9 million. "Trading Places" took in $90.4 million; "Beverly Hills Cop" grossed a phenomenal $234.8 million and its sequel, $153.7 million; "Coming to America" made $128 million. Even a critical disaster like "The Golden Child" grossed $79.8 million virtually on the strength of Murphy's name and a funny trailer.
Robert Rehme, who produced "Cop III," said Murphy reached such heights during those years that people now have unreasonably high expectations.
"It's impossible to expect of someone that they must sustain a constant rise in box-office success of their movies," Rehme said. "That is a false guideline, but I understand that is the standard many movie stars are held up to."
Murphy had been riding high in the late 1980s when an impasse developed with the studio executives.
"He began feuding over material," recalled one source. "He claimed they were not sending him anything he liked. He kept turning down every project that came along, including 'Beverly Hills Cop III.' "