Only 19 when originally hired as a featured player, Murphy had initially languished under ill-fated former SNL producer Jean Doumanian in the long-running sketch show’s disastrous sixth season. In time, however, he broke through thanks to a series of smash-hit roles, an unwavering confidence and undeniable charisma.
He got there by delving back into the reruns of his youth for characters like the now grown-up and basically unintelligible Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, his Yiddish-accented approximation of the gummy clay Gumby, and the title character from Mister Robinson’s neighborhooda decidedly more streetwise and unscrupulous inner-city version of the beloved children’s show legend Fred Rogers.
Rogers was as soft and gentle in real life as he was on the long run Mister Rogers’ neighborhoodbut was eventually overwhelmed by Murphy’s characterization of Mister Robinson as an opportunistic thief and grinning rascal – complete with expletives, no less. Rogers ended up visiting 30 Rockefeller Center to complain.
Murphy was actually a fan of the real Mister Rogers, and greeted the stern but understanding Rogers with an adoring hug and a delighted “The real Mister Rogers!” They eventually lined up for one smiling picture. Rogers was never satisfied with Murphy’s sloppy impression, as revealed in the documentary Won’t you be my neighbor?, but in this case he was willing to let the case drop. (On the other hand, an otherwise amiable Rogers would later conduct legal proceedings against Icing and against the KKK.)
Mister Robinson’s neighborhood quickly became a hit with audiences, if not Fred Rogers himself. The joke was as much about the struggles of being poor and black in America as it was about the actual Rogers himself, and it was enough to sustain what might have been perceived as a particularly unflattering portrayal of the TV legend — as well as a racial stereotype. So Murphy inevitably returned to character the weekend after Rogers’ visit, donning the yellow cardigan in October. 2, 1982 for an episode with Louis Gossett Jr.
Entering to well-prepared applause from an eager crowd, Murphy’s Robinson sings his own version of the welcome Mister Rogers’ neighborhood theme song, replacing tales of breaking in and swindling a rich woman out of her money, and donning a pair of golden platform shoes. Robinson calls them his “glitter shoes” and assures the kids that it’s music day in the neighborhood, transitioning into what he calls “Soul Train scramble board,” on which are stuck letters that spell out “SCUMI.”
He goes on to explain that his big drum kit (complete with bass drum reading “Smokey”) was a recent addition to the show, courtesy of Motown legend Smokey Robinson, who left his van unlocked behind the Apollo Theater. (“I ripped him off,” Robinson gleefully states.) Mister Robinson then settles down to play a raucous, cymbal-heavy rendition of Survivor“Eye of the Tiger.” If Murphy wasn’t necessarily a natural drummer, he certainly is enthusiastic—enthusiastic enough to elicit a phone call from the neighbor.
Murphy switches his signature from Mister Robinson’s singing, child-soothing vocal delivery to a deeply menacing, “Who’s that?!” The identity of the caller is not immediately revealed, although viewers from the 1982s Rocky III may have guessed from gravelly, no-nonsense voice loudly complains on the other end of the line. Mister Robinson’s neighborhood is his domain, so Murphy simply goes back to the drums.
The neighbor then begins knocking on his door, but this only results in a smug smile as Robinson assures viewers that he has installed an impenetrable new lock. Unfortunately for the normally triumphant (or at least quickly escaping) Robinson, his new neighbor turns out to be none other than a comedic Mr. T – the bouncer turned actor whose tough demeanor and catchphrases were almost ubiquitous at the time.
He makes his way through the flimsy door and captures the unsuspecting Robinson around the neck, Mr. T turns to the camera to address Robinson’s audience: “Hello, boys and girls,” he growls as Robinson’s eyes bulge with fear and lack of oxygen. “The new word for today is pain.” Ordering Robinson to “sing the song” and close the show, Mr. T holds on as the terrified Robinson can only promise that he will see the children tomorrow.
Murphy only portrayed Mister Robinson five more times before leaving in 1984 after the ninth season of Saturday Night Live. He wouldn’t return to the bit for some 35 years after a long show boycott that reportedly began when Murphy took offense to cast member David Spade mocking him on “Weekend Update” in 1995. (The day after the phone call to Spade was arguably less gently reproving than Rogers’ had been.) Murphy’s delayed SNL reunion in 2019 included twists like Gumby, Buckwheat, recurring character Velvet Jones and, of course, Robinson.
If Mister Rogers couldn’t stop Murphy, what chance did Mister T have?
15 Guests Who Were Banned from ‘Saturday Night Live’
Did ‘SNL’ Finally Confirm The Fifth Beatle?