Rudy Ray Moore and his singular brand of comedy captured Eddie Murphy’s imagination from a young age. It started when Murphy’s brother, Charlie, came home raving about the wild new “Dolemite” film he’d seen.
“The first thing I remember is my brother Charlie coming home from the movies and saying, ‘You have to go see this thing I just saw,’” Murphy remembered, chuckling softly to himself. He was seated beside director Craig Brewer at the Toronto Film Festival where “Dolemite Is My Name,” their spirited Netflix biopic of the cult comedian and filmmaker, made its world premiere in September.
The “thing” Charlie Murphy was raving about was Moore’s 1976 action comedy “The Human Tornado,” a sequel to the 1975 hit “Dolemite” in which the entertainer reprised the popular over-the-top, kung fu fighting hustler persona that would define his career.
“I went to see it and I saw why he was so excited,” Eddie Murphy added. “It was very funny, especially when you’re 14, 15 years old and you see ‘Human Tornado’ for the first time. That was the first one, and then I was a fan — all the way up until now.”
As Murphy launched his own successful career as a stand-up and movie star, he’d listen to Moore’s raunchy, X-rated “party albums” with friends and frequently screen Moore’s 1970s action-comedy films. He knew the lines by heart. Later, he would meet and get to know Moore before the elder comedian died, in 2008, at 81.
And when he learned the story of the real Moore — an entertainer and a dreamer who carved out a space for himself when every door seemed to slam in his face — he set out to make a movie about the trailblazer’s life.
It would take 16 years to get it made.
Teaming with director Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”), Murphy finally brings Moore’s story to the screen (and to Netflix, where it begins streaming Friday after an exclusive theatrical engagement).
As producer and star of “Dolemite Is My Name,” Murphy is surrounded by a cast that includes Wesley Snipes, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Snoop Dogg and Luenell.
In interviews conducted in Toronto and Los Angeles, The Times asked the “Dolemite Is My Name” team: Who was Rudy Ray Moore?
“For me, originally, he was an escape,” said Key, who discovered Moore’s films as a student and plays “Dolemite” screenwriter Jerry Jones in the movie. “I was sitting in a room with about eight or nine friends, and we slapped a VHS tape — that’s right, a VHS tape — into a VCR and watched the first ‘Dolemite.’”
“I couldn’t articulate, quite frankly, until I was working on this film, that what was attracting me to him was the perseverance,” Key said of Moore’s debut gangster comedy, in which Dolemite gets out of jail and seeks revenge on the nemesis who framed him. “How did he get this movie made?! As I’ve grown and matured and become a filmmaker, that’s the realization that builds my admiration for him. Because for someone to believe in themselves so purely is amazing.”
Burgess, who plays “Dolemite” producer Theodore Toney, remembers watching his mother’s and aunts’ copies of Moore’s movies on the sly as a child.
“We always knew what was happening because we would be sent outside or away,” said Burgess. “When they would go to bed we would sneak and get the VHSes and pop them in and watch them. … It wasn’t until I was an adult and revisited it that I got the full majesty of what it is.”
Despite their low-budget trappings, an unabashed enthusiasm permeates Moore’s “Dolemite,” its sequel “The Human Tornado” and 1979’s “Disco Godfather.” Classic scenes and lines of dialogue from Moore’s work are lovingly re-created in “Dolemite Is My Name.”
Randolph underwent a crash course in Moore’s filmography when she landed the role of Lady Reed, the comedy protege Moore discovers on the club circuit and casts in major roles in his films. “I was shocked and I was kind of … proud,” said Randolph. “As an artist I saw that he wants it that bad — he doesn’t even care if the boom mic is in (the shot) — he has to get (the work) out there!”
“I think (Moore) was the first Tyler Perry, shooting stuff raw and shooting with no money, just believing in himself,” said Epps, who portrays Moore’s comedian friend and co-star Jimmy Lynch. “It resonated with me because being a stand-up comic, it ain’t easy breaking into the stand-up world. But he was a perfect example of sometimes being oblivious to things can benefit you. And he was oblivious to the rules.”
Although he’d eventually become known for his pioneering blend of music and comedy and the films in which he starred, Moore spent most of the 1950s and ‘60s struggling to launch his career as an R&B musician and then a comedy act — to become famous any way he could.
“It resonated for me because he had a vision for himself,” said Robinson, who plays musician, friend and crew member Ben Taylor, “and he believed when no one else did.”
Frustrated with professional dead ends, Moore was in his 40s and managing a Los Angeles record store in 1970 when he birthed the profane, rhyming character of Dolemite, inspired by raucous tales he’d heard of a streetwise pimp.
His “rappin’ and tappin’” style and Dolemite club act would later earn him the nickname “The Godfather of Rap” and inspire hip-hop MCs like Snoop Dogg. He wrote his own tribute to Moore in 2006 in the liner notes of the “Dolemite” soundtrack: “Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that’s for real.”
Despite flying under the radar of an industry not structured to foster or support artists of color, Moore built a following among audiences, particularly African Americans, seldom catered to in entertainment. Success came recording and distributing his own party albums in character as “Dolemite,” records with explicit language and often nude covers that were unsafe for radio play but earned cult status nonetheless.
“I grew up in the era of the ‘party record,’ when our parents used to have card parties, sitting around on a Friday, eating, drinking and playing cards,” said comedian and actress Luenell, who plays Moore’s supportive aunt in “Dolemite Is My Name.” “They would play these party records. There was Richard Pryor, there was Bill Cosby, there was Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson. And there was Rudy Ray Moore.”
Those records also reached the ears of writers Alexander and Karaszewski, two white college kids at the time, who got to know Moore’s work before he made his movies, through the explicit albums he self-released with titles like “Eat Out More Often” and “The Dirty Dozens.”
“I was a really big fan of a contemporary of his named Wildman Steve, so I was familiar with this whole X-rated comedy album, under-the-counter business, because I’d go into a record store as a kid and there would be these dirty records behind the counter that you’d have to ask about,” said Karaszewski.
He and Alexander became obsessed with Moore’s albums and films, a love they found they shared with Murphy when they met him decades later and first tried to get the project going.
As a budding comedian, Murphy says, “I listened to everything”: “I was into (Moore’s) records and Richard Pryor’s records, and Bill Cosby, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook used to do Derek and Clive, Lord Buckley, Lenny Bruce … Redd Foxx!”
On screen, Murphy’s Moore reveals himself as not only an influential comedy genius and entrepreneur but also a leader whose belief in himself is infectious, whether troubleshooting budgeting crises between scenes or inspiring cast and crew as their morale flags. In quieter moments, Moore wrestles with his own artistic self-determination when that unsinkable spirit threatens to capsize.
“Rudy Ray Moore was the crudest,” Murphy said. “But he believed in himself, and he wanted the world to know he existed.”
In pursuit of his dream of movie stardom, the film recounts, he recruited friends, strangers and even local film students to help make 1975’s “Dolemite,” running production out of the rundown Dunbar Hotel and enlisting actor D’Urville Martin (played with delicious flair by Snipes) to direct.
Martin, a respected actor whose credits included a part in “Rosemary’s Baby,” took on the dual roles of directing and playing antagonist to Moore’s hero onscreen and, the film suggests, also off. “D’Urville Martin was an actor who had the fortune — well, he might have said misfortune — of directing the very first ‘Dolemite’ film,” quipped Snipes.
Pondering Moore’s achievements, Snipes shared a common sentiment among the “Dolemite Is My Name” cast: “As an inspiration, as an entrepreneur, and one who shows how perseverance and faith can manifest something special in due time, he’s a great example.”
“Dolemite” and Moore’s subsequent star vehicles played to the rafters, remembered Luenell. “He was making them for everybody, but they resonated more with the black community,” she said. “They might have been a little corny, but, hey, that’s all he had! And to see somebody beat the Man sometimes and win … it was goofy and entertaining.”
Luenell shared a connection to the real Moore: A few years before his death, she worked alongside him performing comedy shows, getting to know him on the road.
“Rudy was already a legend in my mind when I got a chance to work with him,” she said. “When the opportunity came, I was like, ‘I get to do a show with Rudy Ray Moore?!’ He was already a little older, but he was still the icon everybody was falling over themselves trying to get a picture with him. That was back in the old Kodak photo days!”
They would sit together and she’d ask about his career, said Luenell, who kept vintage Dolemite merch Moore gifted to her. “He did what nobody could do. It’s like he says in the movie: If they close one door, I’ll go into another one. I don’t know if he’d ever had aspirations of being an actor, producer or director before he got doors slammed in his face, but I know that’s what he became.”
When they met Moore before writing “Dolemite Is My Name,” Alexander and Karaszewski discovered he was nothing like his comedy persona.
“Until you meet him you don’t know that that’s just an act, that showboat-y guy in a green outfit,” said Alexander. “It’s not the guy you actually meet in real life. He was soft-spoken and he was thoughtful, and he was very excited about the possibility of a movie about his life. It really made an impact on us.”
“Rudy is also a person who thought of himself in terms of myth, and we’ve written about a couple of characters who almost think their lives should be movies,” added Karaszewski. “A lot of it was Rudy telling us what he thought the story was, which was exactly what we wanted.”
As the screenwriting team behind biopics “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon” and “Big Eyes” as well as the first season of FX’s anthology “American Crime Story,” the duo are no strangers to translating real lives onto the screen.
“We’re very fond of our subjects, and we’re trying to have everyone take a step back and pay attention, and Rudy did have a bit of sadness,” said Alexander. “Rudy’s life was never easy. That was important to us to put in the film.”
Being part of “Dolemite Is My Name” is a full-circle moment, says Luenell. “I know for a fact that Rudy did not want to be forgotten. I know for a fact that Rudy would be honored that Eddie was playing him. I know for a fact that nobody was checking for Rudy Ray Moore or his story until Craig and (the producers) came along, and it made me very happy because none of us want to be forgotten,” she said.
“I can say a little prayer to Rudy and say, ‘Wow, look, man — you did it. Look what you did.’ It’s better late than never, and I think it’s at a perfect time.”
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