A smash hit in 1982, the action-comedy thriller 48 Hrs. set then-SNL comic Eddie Murphy on a star trajectory. Before the movie reached audiences, however, the film was almost thrown off course by a misunderstanding between Murphy and his co-lead Nick Nolte. Eventually they came to form a bond, with Murphy seeing Nolte as a “big brother”, but rumours abound that this relationship had soured by sequel Another 48 Hrs.
Getting off on the wrong foot
Born in Omaha, Nebraska on February 8, 1941, Nick Nolte got his start as an actor and model in the late 60s, slowly working his way up the ladder before getting his big break with 1976 TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. Nolte’s performance landed him Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, helping him on his way to Hollywood leading man status.
20 years Nolte’s junior, Eddie Murphy grew up in Brooklyn, and pursued a comedy career from an early age, even skipping school in favour of playing shows in clubs. In 1980, he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live aged just 18, and quickly won audiences’ hearts with characters like Gumby and Buckwheat.
Murphy’s work on SNL put him on Hollywood’s radar, and in early 1982 – shortly before he turned 21 – the comedian was eyed for one of the lead roles in 48 Hrs., a project which had initially been developed with Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor in mind. This was despite the fact that SNL was Murphy’s first screen acting experience, and he had never worked in film before.
When director Walter Hill reached out to Nolte with the script for 48 Hrs, Hill asked him to come to New York to meet with Murphy, a potential co-star in the buddy movie – but after catching up with an old friend, Nolte was soon wary of working with this young newcomer.
“I flew to New York, and I got to 48th Street, and I knew a black saxophone player there,” Nolte later recalled. After indulging in recreational drugs, Nolte told his friend, “‘Hey man, I gotta get over to meet this guy at Saturday Night Live.’ He said, ‘The black cat?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Oh, you can’t use him. He’s a base freak [a drug addict]! You can’t go near him.'”
Alarmed, Nolte ditched his scheduled meeting and later called Walter Hill to tell him about Murphy’s alleged drug problem – which Hill was baffled by. (Given that Nolte was himself a heavy drinker and drug user, it’s possible he was fearful about how working with a full-blown addict might impact his own propensity toward addiction.)
However, when the actors finally met, it soon became clear that Nolte had been misinformed about Murphy. “I met Eddie when he came to California, and I saw why [Hill reacted like that]… he didn’t go near any substances.” It turned out Nolte’s New York acquaintance was in fact talking about Garrett Morris, another black cast member from SNL, who has since spoken candidly about his serious drug addiction during that period.
“He’s not a trained actor”
Hill was adamant that Murphy was the only actor fit to play Reggie Hammond, the motor-mouthed convict who Nolte’s cop Jack Cates gets out of jail for two days in order to help catch a criminal associate of Hammond’s. After watching Murphy on SNL, Hill “thought he was sensational and I thought it might work,” despite realising Murphy’s lack of dramatic acting experience could be an issue.
“I said to Nick, ‘Look, he’s a great talent but he’s not a trained actor so Nick buddy this is the way it’s going to be, it’s going to be like working with a little kid or a dog – the one take that’s good we’re going to have to print it. So that means you have to be good every take.'” Hill recalled Nolte’s response was “‘Oh, that’s not fair, Walt, goddammit.’ And I said, ‘I know you shouldn’t have to but that’s the way it’s going to be.'”
Nolte duly agreed to work with Murphy, and despite the two-decade age gap, the two men soon hit it off, developing a rapport that was as strong off-camera as on. Walter Hill recalls that “[Nick] and Eddie got along great. They loved each other. In fact, they would attack me on set every day complaining about the script, but it was fun.”
For newcomer Murphy, having Nolte there to show him the ropes proved a blessing. He later described Nolte as a “big brother” figure, adding: “Nick’s a great guy to work with and a real good actor, real intense actor – he makes you act.” Their mutual dissatisfaction with the script prompted Nolte and Murphy to ad-lib heavily, tapping into Murphy’s comedic skill.
Released in the US on December 8, 1982, 48 Hrs. proved a big success, earning $78.9 million at the box office off the back of a $12 million budget. The darkly comedic action thriller also earned hugely positive reviews, with critics noting the strong chemistry between the two leading men, and the progressive approach to racial representation.
Although widely considered the launchpad for the ‘buddy movie’ genre of the 80s (other notable examples include Lethal Weapon and Walter Hill’s later film Red Heat), 48 Hrs. can raise some eyebrows with its racial content, particularly as Nolte’s Jack often hurls offensive slurs and insults at Eddie Murphy’s Reggie.
While some of the language in the film is shocking today, Murphy argues the film was a big step forward. “I’m the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen. That’s why I became as popular as I became… People had never seen that before. Black-exploitation movies, even if you dealt with the Man, it was in your neighborhood, never in their world.”
Nolte has also heralded the movie as ground-breaking, calling 48 Hrs. “the first film where the black and the white criticize each other. After Civil Rights, it was very awkward for whites and blacks. We didn’t know how to talk to each other.” He also noted that the racist remarks between his and Murphy’s characters went both ways.
Reversal of fortunes
The film’s success doubtless made Nolte glad he disregarded the unfounded rumours that Murphy was an addict – although the elder actor probably should have paid closer attention to his own substance abuse. Shortly after 48 Hrs. became a hit around Christmas 1982, Nolte was set to serve as guest host on Murphy’s own show, Saturday Night Live – but Nolte reportedly partied so hard in the preceding weeks that he was unfit to host.
Nolte quit SNL in the days leading up to his scheduled appearance, telling producer Dick Ebersol: “I’m going to ruin your show. … I’m burned, man.” Murphy gleefully seized the opportunity to become the first cast member to ever host the show. He told the audience, “[Nolte] vomited on my shirt!” and explained, “I know you folks tuned in to see one of the stars of 48 Hrs. host the show – and, dammit, you’re gonna see it.”
Happily, Nolte’s fight with alcoholism took a turn after he married third wife Rebecca Linger in 1984; with her support, he quit drinking.
By the time Nolte and Murphy reunited on 1990 sequel Another 48 Hrs, their roles had largely reversed. Whilst Nolte had originally been the more experienced and bankable star, Murphy had subsequently eclipsed him in terms of box office appeal, with such smash hits as Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop making him one of the biggest movie stars of the era.
The actors’ salaries for Another 48 Hrs. reflected their standing in Hollywood at the time. The original 48 Hrs. is said have earned Nolte $1 million and Murphy $450,000, but by 1990 Murphy reportedly had a contract with studio Paramount guaranteeing him $10 million a film (although a Rolling Stone profile at the time claims this was actually $6 million plus a cut of the profits). Nolte, by contrast, is said to have earned just $3 million from the sequel.
After a troubled production and editing process, Another 48 Hrs. sadly proved to be a poorly-received flop. Murphy and Nolte have never worked together again since, prompting rumours that their relationship soured on the sequel; however, this seems unlikely given that Nolte himself later pitched an idea for third 48 Hrs. (which did not get the go-ahead).
The 90s saw Murphy continue to enjoy success as a major leading man, whilst Nolte earned Best Actor Oscar nominations for 1991’s The Prince of Tides and 1997’s Affliction. Unfortunately, in 1994 Nolte divorced Rebecca Linger, and in the years that followed he slipped back into alcoholism and drug abuse. After a 2002 DUI arrest he entered a rehab, which he has said turned him into “a renewed and fortunate man.” He married fourth wife Clytie Lane in 2016 and in 2018 he announced he was clean.
Murphy, meanwhile, has gone through his share of scandals (notably being caught with a transgender prostitute in 1997, and impregnating ex-Spice Girl Mel B in 2006), but has steadfastly stayed away from drugs and alcohol.