Did Eddie Murphy Get His SNL Gig After Another Comedian Forgot to Sign His Contract?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Eddie Murphy’s spot on Saturday Night Live was only available because another comedian forgot to sign his contract.

Reader Jim S. wrote in to ask about the following piece of information that he had read about how Eddie Murphy was cast on Saturday Night Live in 1980’s Season 6. From TV Tropes, it states that Robrt Townsend “[a]uditioned for season six and was chosen to be a cast member, but everyone else (save Jean Doumanian) saw potential in an up-and-coming stand-up comedian at the time named Eddie Murphy. Also, Robert Townsend forgot to sign his contract.”

Robert Townsend, of course, was a talented stand-up comedian in the early 1980s who later gained a good deal of acclaim for his film work, especially his 1987 satirical film, Hollywood Shuffle, which he wrote, directed and starred in (Townsend would also later create and star in Meteor Man and the sitcom, The Parent’Hood).

It is true that when Jean Doumanian became the producer of Saturday Night Live for its sixth season, when she had to put together an entirely new cast, she was looking to hire just a single black actor for the cast. She also did, in fact, want Townsend at one point but she eventually was convinced to hire Eddie Murphy, who, of course, became a superstar…

However

, the “didn’t sign the contract” part is just a ridiculously poor reading of this story recounted by SNL’s talent coordinator at the time, Neil Levy, to James A. Miller and Tom Shales in their brilliant oral history book, Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live

“Jean had cast an actor named Robert Townsend to be ‘the black guy’ on the show … [Eddie Murphy] did his audition for Jean, and she sent him out of the room and she said to me, “Well, he’s good, but I like Robert Townsend better.” And I went nuts, you know, I threatened to quit … She only wanted to hire one black actor, and Townsend hadn’t signed his contract yet, so she signed Eddie.”

In this context, “hadn’t signed his contract” is simply a term of art for “no deal had been done.” It did not mean that Robert Townsend literally had not signed a contract and had he, then there would have been no role for Murphy.

In fact, as it turned out, while Doumanian clearly DID want Townsend to be the pick, they had never actually made him an offer. Townsend recalled it later in an interview with Melissa Parker from Smashing Interview Magazine:

Melissa Parker: I’ll bet your life would’ve turned out differently if you had gotten the gig with Saturday Night Live in 1980.

Robert Townsend: What’s so funny is I had no idea how close I was to getting it. I was a young actor in New York City. You know, an audition is another audition, and I went in and gave it my all. When I found out I didn’t get it, I was like, “Okay. I thought I was really good.” Then some book comes out and says, “There was a big debate over Robert Townsend at Saturday Night Live.” I was like, “Really? Nobody told me.” (laughs) They went with Eddie Murphy.

But here’s the thing. I look at life like, “It’s all beautiful.” I would’ve never become a filmmaker. If I had gotten on SNL, I would’ve just been a performer doing the sketches on the shows and being funny. I don’t think that filmmaker would’ve come out of me, and that was around the time that the filmmaker in me was born. I think everything happens for a reason because I like making movies and TV shows, and I like writing and producing, but I don’t think I would’ve been that guy.

So no, this is just as simple as “Doumanian wanted to hire Robert Townsend but she was convinced to hire Eddie Murphy instead.”

The legend is…

STATUS: False

Thanks to Jim S. for the question!

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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