Eddie Murphy's early years on the set of Saturday Night Live laid the foundation for the rest of his career, but they almost didn't happen at all.

Sometime during the Jan. 10, 1981, show, it became apparent the program was running five minutes short. With only 15 minutes left till the end of the show and nothing on hand to fill in the missing time, producer Jean Doumanian scrambled to find a solution. Murphy, who was just a recently hired featured player and not an official member of the cast, sprung to writer Neil Levy's mind.

"I remembered Eddie's from his audition, like, three months earlier," Levy recalled in Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night LiveJames Andrew Miller and Tom Shales' 2002 oral history of the show. "So I said, 'Why don't you see if Eddie can do the monologue that he did for his audition? And I ran up and I found Eddie, and I asked him. And his face lit up like he'd been waiting for this moment his whole life."

Murphy took to the stage and delivered the monologue, a hilarious bit of him acting out several Harlem characters fixing to start a fight: "That dude says my mama's got a wooden leg with a kickstand. Now my mama's leg ain't got no kickstand on it, it's just a regular wooden leg."

The monologue went over so well, Murphy was promoted as the seventh member of the cast just a few weeks later.

Watch Eddie Murphy's Big 'SNL' Break

In many ways, Levy was right: Murphy had been waiting for that moment his whole life. When he was 17 and still in high school, he began performing regularly at the White House Inn, a club on Long Island where he was the first Black comedian to be in showcase. In 1979, he told The New York Times he considered himself a “universal comic whose material would play equally well in front of both Black and white audiences.”

So when Murphy got word in 1980 that the “Black slot” in SNL’s cast was open due to Garrett Morris' departure, he jumped at the opportunity to fill the shoes. Doumanian had already hired comedian Robert Townsend for the role, but that didn't stop the 19-year-old Murphy from presenting his case anyway.

"This guy Eddie Murphy started calling me," Levy remembered. "And I told him, 'I'm sorry, we're not auditioning anymore.' But he called again the next day, and he would go into this whole thing about how he had 18 brothers and sisters and they were counting on him to get this job. And he would call every day for about a week." (Murphy, in fact, had only one sibling.)

He was so persistent that Levy finally called him in for an audition, where he performed his monologue of Harlem characters. Levy was so impressed he tried to convince Doumanian to sign him full-time. "I didn't have enough budget to put Eddie on as a member of the cast, because I had already selected the cast when I auditioned him," she recalled. "So I let him be a featured player."

So, Murphy came on as a featured player. But it was that exact monologue that would later save the show those five precious minutes and established Murphy as a bona fide member of the SNL cast in 1981.

"I know what you're thinking," he said when announcing his promotion on the show. "You're thinking, 'The kid's young, he's 19 years-old.' Am I going to be a burnout? I don't think so." Murphy became the show's breakout star for the next three years.

Watch Eddie Murphy Talk About Being Promoted on 'SNL'

 

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