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A Prince in New York: Tension on Set, Negative Reviews, and a Lawsuit

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Once upon a time, there was a prince who decided to leave behind a life of luxury in his African kingdom to find true love on the streets of New York. With this modern fairytale premise, Eddie Murphy ventured into the world of romantic comedies, discovered his fascination for playing multiple characters in one film, and further solidified his reign as one of the biggest stars of the 80s.

But before the happy ending of “A Prince in New York,” which became a huge box office success and one of the most memorable comedies of that time, there was a troubled production marked by fights between Murphy and director John Landis, a premiere with negative reviews, and even a lawsuit against Paramount over the original story’s authorship.

According to Murphy, the idea for “A Prince in New York” came to him for very personal reasons. Although he didn’t belong to royalty, the actor had earned a lot of money and lived surrounded by luxury. He had his own entourage, and there was no shortage of women interested in him. Just like the heir to the fictional kingdom of Zamunda, Murphy wondered if he could find a woman who would love him for his personality rather than his status.

The screenwriter David Sheffield recalled in an interview with Good Morning America that Murphy handed him and his collaborator Barry Blaustein ten pages torn from a notepad, on which he had written the story that would serve as the basis for the film. The duo of writers, whom the actor had met while working on Saturday Night Live, had the script ready in five weeks.

The film’s production was guaranteed solely because it was a Murphy project. The actor was at the top of his game and had his own production company under a deal with Paramount, where they called him “Money” due to the impressive earnings his first 7 starring films had brought to the studio: 1.5 billion dollars. After his debut on Saturday Night Live at the age of 19, Murphy quickly rose to fame, and his first film role came two years later in “48 Hours,” directed by Walter Hill and co-starring Nick Nolte. The action comedy suited the young stand-up comedian, as proven by “Beverly Hills Cop” directed by Martin Brest, whose phenomenal success inspired two sequels.

Before revolutionizing the streets of Beverly Hills, Murphy starred in another iconic comedy from the 80s: “Trading Places.” Alongside Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis, the actor starred in this story inspired by Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” in which two millionaire brothers who work in finance make a bet that involves a cruel experiment to test whether economic success depends on innate ability or acquired training. To do this, they use a man who lives on the streets, earning what he can through small scams, played by Murphy, and a born heir who works with them, played by Aykroyd. But the tables turn when the guinea pigs unite to take revenge on the brothers played by two veterans of classic Hollywood, Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy, who reprised their roles in a hilarious scene in “A Prince in New York.”

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When Murphy had to choose a director for his new film, he thought of John Landis, the man behind the camera in “Trading Places.” They had had a great experience filming it, and the final result was a huge success. However, when Landis and Murphy worked together again on “A Prince in New York,” things had changed a lot. Two central issues affected the director and actor’s relationship. On one hand, Landis’ rising career had come to a halt after the accident in which actor Vic Morrow and children Renee Shinn Chen and Myca Dinh Le died during the filming of a segment for the film “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Various reports about the tension on the set of “A Prince in New York” claim that the director harbored resentment towards Murphy for not testifying on his behalf in the trial he had to face for his responsibility in the accident. But the conflict seems to have had more to do with the shift in power dynamics between the fallen director and the burgeoning box office star.

“He directed me in ‘Trading Places’ when I was just a kid starting out, but he still treated me the same five years later on ‘A Prince in New York,’ and I was the one who hired him to direct the film!” Murphy said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1989. According to Vulture, Landis made his statement on the matter in 2005: “The guy from ‘Trading Places’ was young, curious, fresh, funny, and cool. The guy from ‘A Prince in New York’ was the pig of the world, the most unpleasant, arrogant, with an entourage (…), an idiot.”

The tensions, fueled by various details of the production such as the director’s irritation with Murphy’s entourage and the actor’s anger over Landis allegedly snubbing Mike Tyson when the boxer visited the set, erupted in the middle of filming. According to Murphy’s account, as quoted in Nick de Semlyen’s book “Wild and Crazy Guys,” the actor found out that the director was talking to some crew members about his business affairs. Murphy then approached Landis from behind and grabbed him by the collar. “What’s the deal with people discussing my business?” Murphy asked his burly friend Frutie, who replied, “I mess them up.” The director tried to defend himself, half-joking and half-serious, but Murphy pressed on his throat, momentarily depriving him of air. Somehow, Landis and the comedian managed to finish the film, benefiting from the director’s talent for staging comedies, especially in achieving a successful contrast between the colorful fantasy of Zamunda and the dreary reality of less glamorous areas of 80s New York.

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At least Murphy had a good friend in his co-star Arsenio Hall, whom he had met during his stand-up comedy days. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Murphy mentioned that there were very few African Americans in the comedy circuit of that time, and he became friends with almost all of them. Hall, who would later have his own successful talk show in the 90s, played Semmi, the friend and sidekick of Prince Akeem, who isn’t as thrilled about leaving the luxurious life in the palace of Zamunda to work at a fast-food restaurant in Queens.

The friends brought the playful spirit of their comedy routines to the movie by playing other supporting characters themselves, starting a tradition that Murphy would explore to varying degrees of success in “The Nutty Professor,” “Norbit,” and the brilliant “Bowfinger.” The idea came about when Landis read a book about Jewish comedians who used blackface during the vaudeville era, and he thought that special effects and makeup expert Rick Baker, with whom he had collaborated on “An American Werewolf in London” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, could transform Murphy into an older Jewish man. According to Vulture, Baker’s work was so good that when Paramount executives visited the set, they didn’t recognize the heavily made-up Murphy, who was dressed as Saul, the only white character in the Queens barbershop inhabited by other charismatic characters played by the actor himself, Hall, and Clint Smith (with a brief appearance by Cuba Gooding Jr. as a customer).

In addition to the barbershop regulars, Hall played the eccentric Reverend Brown, and Murphy portrayed the equally peculiar Randy Watson, the leader of the band Sexual Chocolate, tasked with livening up the neighborhood gathering where Akeem first sees Lisa, played by Shari Headley, a woman who instantly fascinates him with her beauty and community activism. Trying to connect with her, the prince and Semmi seek employment at her father’s restaurant, an establishment that bears too many similarities to a famous fast-food chain.

“We bought it for $50,000 to use it for a month and turned it into a replica of McDonald’s,” Blaustein told Good Morning America about the restaurant of another fast-food chain that was about to close and was used as a location for McDowell’s. The set, located on a street in Queens, looked so real that the owner of a nearby McDonald’s angrily came to take photos to report them until they convinced him that it was just a set. The production also had permission from the golden arches company to portray the blatant imitation of Cleo McDowell, Lisa’s ambitious father played by John Amos.

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The restaurant is frequented not only by the main characters but also by several supporting characters, including the kings of Zamunda and Akeem’s parents, played by James Earl Jones (yes, the voice of Darth Vader) and Madge Sinclair, who would once again portray a royal couple by lending their voices to Mufasa and Sarabi in the animated version of “The Lion King.” Other actors who had minor roles in “A Prince in New York” would become famous later on, such as Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a robber, and Eric LaSalle, recognized years later for his work on “ER,” who plays Lisa’s boyfriend, a shallow young man appreciated by Mr. McDowell for being the heir to Soul Glow, a fictional hair product that is very popular within the African American community in the film’s universe.

Although Murphy was criticized at the time for not using his power to achieve greater inclusion of African Americans in Hollywood, over time “A Prince in New York” has been considered a film with a significant impact in terms of racial representation.

“It’s a milestone in black film history,” said Monica White Ndounou, a professor at Dartmouth College, to The Washington Post. The specialist added that to this day, the most produced and widely distributed films about African Americans are centered around slavery, the civil rights movement, or the most dangerous urban areas. “There’s a narrative where black people are always under siege and oppressed. Movies like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘A Prince in New York’ change that.”

When the film premiered in June 1988 in the United States, the critics were not impressed, but the audiences filled the theaters. The international box office for “A Prince in New York” was $288,752,301, according to Box Office Mojo. In the midst of success, Paramount had to face a lawsuit from columnist Art Buchwald, who claimed to have sold a similar idea to the studio in 1983. The court ruled in favor of the writer, and after Paramount’s appeal, they reached a settlement with a payment of around $800,000 in 1995.

Beyond the lawsuit, the negative reviews, and even the enmity between Murphy and Landis, who worked together again in “Beverly Hills Cop III,” “A Prince in New York” became a classic that continued to attract new audiences through home video and television. Its legacy is so strong that Murphy and Hall decided to reprise their roles in a sequel. We can only wonder if they will be able to recreate the magic of the original.

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