Prince Akeem showed Murphy's range and solidified him as a comedy genius.
The original Coming to America came out in 1988 and sort of felt out of nowhere. Murphy had the idea for an African prince coming to Queens to look for his bride, but that was it. At the time, he had a lucrative overall deal at Paramount, and the studio desperately wanted new movies for their budding star.
But Murphy was known for his action comedies. 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Golden Child shot him to the top of the box office. As the decade was ending, Murphy wanted to solidify his place at the top.
So he hired writers from SNL who had worked with him before, David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, and called upon Trading Places director John Landis, who had success doing Murphy's other non-action movie of the 1980s.
The one hitch? The movie was set to release in six months with no footage shot, so they were really under the wire. This didn't bring out the best in everyone.
While this should have united them in the cause, there was friction behind the curtain. Landis accused Murphy of being a rich blowhard with an entourage, and Murphy reminded Landis that he was the one who had all the power and hired him now, even after the accident on The Twilight Zone Movie.
Still, with so much discord, comedy gold was being woven. Murphy and his friend, Arsenio Hall, were cooking up new characters they would play. And Landis even got him to don whiteface and play an old Jewish character that was so convincing, when Paramount executives came to set they had no idea it was Murphy.
The film came together and was released on time. Not bad for something that only cost $35 million.
But when it was released, critics seemed upset. Where was Murphy playing an over-the-top character? He was an action star known for being bombastic. This was a subdued African prince who only really got to shine in costume in vignettes that fill the movie.
But audiences didn't care at all.
They embraced this subtle performance, which shows Murphy was more than a gag guy, he could do it all. He could play emotionally, and you could fall in love with his pure heart, in the same movie you were rolling on the floor laughing at him playing a sleazy lounge singer and an angry barber.
The film made almost $300 million ($288 million to be exact) and drowned out critics to achieve mass audience appeal. More importantly, it showed Hollywood that Murphy was not just a bit player, but a star with serious acting chops.
Aside from that, Murphy quietly made a movie for Black people. In fact, as he told Kimmel in an interview, the only reason Louie Anderson is in it is that Paramount told him they had to add a few white people, so he called Louie, who he respected as a comedian, and invited him down.
The film was a success, but it also changed who Murphy was afterward. Not just an action-comedy guy with some lucky hits, but an actor who had taken over Hollywood.
While the 90s still saw sequels to Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours, it also showed Murphy's uncanny ability to reinvent himself in front of the camera. Bowfinger has him making fun of himself in two different roles, Harlem Nights allowed him to star, write, and direct, and he got in touch with his softer side in The Nutty Professor, Holy Man, and Dr. Doolittle.
In the last few years, I've enjoyed seeing Murphy conquer Dolemite is My Name and come back to SNL. It'll be interesting to see what he chooses to do next, but I think we have the original Coming to America to thank for his emergence atop Hollywood.
Are you a fan of the film? Let us know in the comments.
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