It’s never easy to live in the shadow of your little brother — especially if you choose the same profession as his and he happens to be one of the most lauded stand-up comedians in history, not to mention a superstar film actor. But Charlie Murphy — who died at age 57 on Wednesday (April 12) following a battle with leukemia — found a way to blaze his own path in comedy, one that was distinctly different from that of his brother, legendary comedian Eddie Murphy.
Where Eddie is a reclusive, quiet figure who generally avoids the spotlight unless he’s promoting a picture, Charlie was voluble, approachable and not nearly as shy as his superstar sibling. Though the parties and wild scenes at Eddie’s legendary 30-room “Bubble Hill” estate in Englewood, New Jersey, were a thing of legend, the Beverly Hills Cop star rarely spoke of them.
That’s where Charlie came in — and, frankly, where he was able to create some daylight between himself and Ed. Tapping into his front-row seat to his brother’s rocket ride to fame for a ticket to his own, after years of working the stand-up circuit and appearing in a handful of feature films, Charlie broke out in season 2 of Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show in 2004 thanks to his instantly classic “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories.”
The unbelievable, but allegedly totally true, A-list stories were based on the wild scenes Charlie witnessed while hanging with Eddie and his entourage. Presented in a kind of Behind the Music-style documentary fashion, the pieces featured Charlie’s enthusiastic narration of unbelievable stories about two of music’s biggest stars.
In the Prince story, Charlie — who admittedly fell victim to the androgynous look of the mid-1980s — described the purple “Zorro-type” outfit Prince wore to a club one night when he invited Eddie and his crew to his house to listen to some music. “He had a nice environment, it was tight,” Charlie said of Prince’s scene. But then things got weird when the Purple One became bored and asked if Charlie and his pals wanted to take on the Revolution in a friendly game of basketball.
The “shirts against the blouses” showdown was one for the ages. Check it out:
The skits, which were hilarious (if sometimes a bit unflattering) reached their zenith with the two-part epic about late “Superfreak” star Rick James. Charlie recalled meeting James, describing the funketeer’s “purplish” aura and belligerent attitude, which was right up Charlie’s alley.
While Chappelle portrayed James in the skit, they also featured the real James, who corroborated Charlie’s tales of their long, debauched nights. “He was hanging out with the big dogs, Charlie was doing crazy things and I had to straighten him out, sometimes I had to go upside his head,” said real-life James. That was all well and good, but in his inimitable sweet-but-not-to-be-trifled-with fashion, Charlie explained how Rick himself sometimes stepped over the line.
“My man got too familiar and I ended up having to whip his ass,” Charlie said with a smile. “Because he would step across the line… habitually. He was a habitual line-stepper.” Dressed in an Adidas track suit and afro wig, Murphy took viewers back to Studio 54 in the 1980s and the time James punched him in the face while wearing a gold “Unity” ring.
The resulting scene was a perfect example of Charlie Murphy’s unique gift: a balance of reverence for his hero, an un-matchable window into the secret world of superstar black celebrity in the ’80s combined with perfectly paced, detail-rich storytelling, an approachable tough-guy persona, and the kind of timing you can only tap into if your last name is Murphy.
There was no spotlight to step out of when it came to Charlie Murphy. Despite the considerable odds, Charlie made his own way, going on to appear in the Adult Swim series The Boondocks and a must-see 2010 Comedy Central stand-up special Charlie Murphy: I Will Not Apologize. He never reached the same heights as Eddie, but if for no other reason than these two skits, he will be remembered for years to come.
Now watch him kick Rick James’ ass one more time: