A 19-Year-Old Eddie Murphy Hounded ‘SNL’ Producers from a Pay Phone for an Audition

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A 19-Year-Old Eddie Murphy Hounded ‘SNL’ Producers from a Pay Phone for an Audition

At least in the early 1980s, the key to getting cast on Saturday Night Live was the right phone number and a pocketful of quarters. That’s what Eddie Murphy used to work the pay phone from which he hounded SNL talent coordinator Neil Levy with a series of funny jokes, stories and outright lies, according to a tale Levy recently told on SNL Stories, a podcast from The Saturday Night Network.

Levy wore plenty of SNL hats throughout the show’s early years, appearing as extra, concocting sketches as a writer and working as a talent coordinator. (For what it’s worth, he was also Lorne Michaels’ cousin.) He’d actually left the show after the first few seasons to work on a sitcom pilot with Chevy Chase about a rich guy serving time for white-collar crime in a minimum-security prison. (Anyone who has a copy of that pilot script can hit me up on Twitter.) When Michaels left the show after Season Five, new producer Jean Doumanian called and asked Levy to return. After getting Michaels’ blessing, Levy agreed. 

But Doumanian’s tenure, overseeing a notorious season that ranks dead last among the show’s 48 years, was “an absolute nightmare from Day 1.” Among the only bright spots for Levy, then only 24 years old himself, was receiving unsolicited phone calls from a teenager named Eddie Murphy.

Every time Murphy would get through to Levy (and Murphy got through a lot), he’d come up with a funny story about why he needed a gig. There was the lie about having 18 brothers and sisters, all of whom were out of work and counting on Murphy for cash. The problem for Murphy? SNL had already concluded its auditions for the upcoming season. But Murphy made Levy laugh so hard over the phone that he finally relented and brought him in for a shot as an extra.  

Once in the SNL offices, Murphy started in with an impromptu audition — a killer Bill Cosby impression, then an extended bit about three characters from Harlem, with a little guy instigating a fight between the other two. Levy was blown away — not just by Murphy’s characters and energy, but “I realized the guy could write because (the Harlem bit) had some classic comic beats in it.” Murphy eventually did a version of the scene on SNL

Levy arranged for Doumanian to see Murphy, who was even better in his formal audition. But Doumanian had already decided on Robert (Hollywood Shuffle) Townsend and wanted to stick with him. (There must have been an unwritten SNL rule about having only one Black guy on the show at that time?) Even though he thought Townsend was great, Levy “blew a gasket,” threatening to quit the show unless Murphy was cast. 

Ultimately, Townsend didn’t sign his contract, and Doumanian agreed to put Murphy on the show — but only as that season’s one-and-only featured player. Murphy was only given the secondary role to spite Levy, at least in his opinion. 

Doumanian, however, wants a little more credit for Murphy’s casting. In SNL oral history Live From New York, she spins a different version of the story: “I didn’t have enough of a budget to put Eddie on as a member of the cast, because I had already selected the cast when I auditioned him. … After the first two shows, I said to the administration, ‘Listen, you have to make this guy a member of the cast, you just have to, he’s so great.’ He was 18 when I found him. They finally said okay.” 

When she found him? Er, that’s not how everyone remembers it. Writer James Downey also recalls Doumanian’s reluctance to give Murphy some air time. “He would just go around to everyone’s office and make everybody laugh. He made me laugh the first day I met him. And he was just so clearly the funniest person on the floor,” Downey has said. “I remember saying to Jean Doumanian, ‘You’ve got to use this kid Eddie Murphy, you’ve got to put him on.’ And I remember her going, ‘He’s not ready.’”

Levy felt terrible about Murphy’s limited role on the show and apologized for the teen’s meager $600 per show salary (a decent amount of money back then, says Levy, but not a lot for a TV star). Murphy didn’t mind. “That’s okay, man,” he told Levy. “I’m going to be a millionaire by the time I’m 21.”

To this day, Levy says, he tells the Murphy story to young people who are trying to break into show business. The lesson is simple: “Persistence is everything.” 

And these days, you don’t even need quarters to make it happen. 

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