What Eddie Does for Oscar

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The actor who once walked out of the show has "admiration" for the Academy, says producer Brett Ratner, and he could help bring back black audiences.

When it was announced in August that Rush Hour director Brett Ratner would produce the 84th Annual Academy Awards with Don Mischer, Ratner immediately promised that comedy would be "a big part" of what he hoped to bring to the show. But even he was surprised at the response when he asked Eddie Murphy, the legendary stand-up comic and star of his upcoming film Tower Heist, to host the show.

"When I mentioned it to Eddie, he said, 'Oh my God, that would be a huge idea,' " says Ratner. "I immediately called Don and said, 'I think Eddie might do it,' and Don said, 'I don't think there's a chance in hell.' "

It's easy to understand any fears of taking the gig. Hosting the Oscars is fraught with peril -- just ask the 2011 show's much-maligned hosting duo, James Franco and Anne Hathaway. And Murphy has avoided live performances in recent years, not appearing on the concert stage since the Raw tour way back in 1987.

Murphy, who wasn't invited to join the Academy until 2007, also has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Oscars. He first appeared to present best visual effects in 1983 and returned to hand out best picture in 1988. But before he opened that envelope, he directed a broadside at Hollywood for ignoring black actors, saying he almost didn't show because "they haven't recognized black people in motion pictures."

He didn't return for nearly two decades, sitting in the audience in 2007 as a supporting actor nominee for his performance as soul singer James "Thunder" Early in Dreamgirls. But when the award went to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine early in the broadcast, Murphy left the Kodak Theatre. Two years later, though, he was back and on his best behavior as he presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Jerry Lewis.

Whichever Murphy shows up onstage at the Kodak in February -- the hilariously smart-ass Eddie of Saturday Night Live and his early movies, the angry Eddie of 1988 or the more kid-friendly player of recent years -- his name on the marquee should solve one problem for the Academy by luring more black viewers to the show.

This past February, with no black talent among the major nominees, African-American viewership dropped by 42.7 percent from the previous year, which happened to post a record high (thanks in part to Precious). The 2.4 million black viewers among the total U.S. viewership of 37.6 million who did watch represented the lowest black Oscar audience in the past three years, according to Nielsen.

This year, even before Murphy was selected, it looked as if the show would have more of a black presence. The Academy's board of governors has already voted to give Oprah Winfrey the Hersholt award. And while she'll receive the honor at a private Academy dinner Nov. 12, the award will be acknowledged during the Oscar show. The list of potential nominees also looks more diverse, with The Help, which has opened to critical and commercial success, boosting the prospects of actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

Murphy is staying mum on his plans for the show for now.

"He has such admiration and love for the Academy, despite his incidents in the past," says Ratner. "And the Oscars is the ultimate platform."