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The quintessential comedy about ’80s-era greed, 1983’s Trading Places is historically significant for a few reasons. Foremost, it cemented Eddie Murphy’s film career. Murphy had starred in one picture for Paramount, 1982’s 48 Hrs., but the studio was iffy on the Saturday Night Live star’s appeal.
It was only after test-screening audiences went bonkers for him that Paramount’s then president of production, Jeffrey Katzenberg, realized he was sitting on the next superstar. Director John Landis, coming off the success of 1978’s Animal House and 1980’s The Blues Brothers, had been given a screenplay by Katzenberg called Black and White — “I was attracted to its obvious debt to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper,” Landis says — and at Katzenberg’s urging flew to New York to meet Murphy, then 21.
“He was young and bursting with positive energy and talent,” Landis recalls. “After watching a tape of his SNL work, I readily agreed to him playing Billy Ray Valentine.”
Dan Aykroyd, who worked with Landis on Blues Brothers, was cast shortly after as well-to-do financier Louis Winthorpe III, with whom Billy Ray trades places. (Murphy was signed to a multipicture deal that would lead to 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop and 1988’s Coming to America, which reunited him with Landis.) Not only did Trading Places ignite one career, it also resuscitated another.
When ’30s-era screen star Ray Milland failed his insurance physical, Landis needed a replacement to play Mortimer Duke, one of two old-money brothers who make the nature-or-nurture wager that sets the plot in motion. Landis thought of Don Ameche. “Everyone said, ‘Don Ameche is dead,'” Landis recalls. “However, a secretary down the hall from us said, ‘I see Don Ameche all the time walking on San Vicente in Santa Monica.’ “
Turns out a “D. Ameche” was listed in the phone book, and the actor was cast opposite Ralph Bellamy. (Ameche won an Oscar for his next role, 1985’s Cocoon.) As for Trading Places, the “sure bet,” as THR’s review predicted, was one: The $15 million movie ($40 million today) made more than $90 million ($242 million).
This story first appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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