Tommy Davidson was set to star in the television series Coming to America, based on the popular film starring Eddie Murphy. But, as he told Chicago’s Rosemont Theater during his Saturday stand-up show, that big break never panned out.
He called the failed show his low point in his career. “This is about the failure of a TV show that I worked my butt off for, as the star. And when it was all said and done, I was left with nothing.”
He told the Chicago Tribune that before landing his actual big break on In Living Color, he had made himself a name for his comedy through is routines and by gaining opportunities, including potential parts on Murphy Brown, The Cosby Show, A Different World and a Disney TV and film development deal.
But the chance he put his hopes in was the Coming to America series in which he would star as Prince Akeem’s little brother Prince Tariq. Murphy was set to serve as executive producer.
“…I chose it because it was Eddie Murphy–another brother, another Black dude doing really well, you know?” he said. “It was perfect because, next to Eddie Murphy, I was the funniest guy at the time. His company had an option with Paramount to do television shows, which is huge, and this is the one he wanted to do, And it was starring me! How could it be better?”
He said that what he didn’t expect was to not get help from Murphy’s production company to develop the project.
“I just got left there with the studio and a writer [sitcom veteran Ken Hecht] who was really out of touch with comedy,” he said. “He had written for Black sitcoms from years ago, like Good Times, but the world had changed by 1989. Eddie’s a superstar so he was in a different seat of power when he made the movie version of Coming to America. He was worth a lot to Hollywood, whereas this was my first big opportunity, I was still catching the bus to work. The power dynamic was different.”
He said he was “devastated,” adding that he was “hurt and frustrated and scared, like all the work I had done was for nothing.”
“I was feeling really down and not encouraged,” he continued. “I just wasn’t feeling positive about myself and what I had achieved up to that point. It was demoralizing because I went from all of that hotness to nothing. I had nothing.” He also said he felt Murphy should have done more to advocate for the pilot, saying, “I was left alone to fend for myself.”
“And I say that in awareness of how the universe also works itself out and how much I love him,” he continued. “It could have helped, but who knows if it would have made a difference? So I disliked the behavior, but I love the man. And everything happens for a reason.”
A few months later, he was performing as part of a comedy lineup with Richard Pryor and Murphy. Davidson said that after that night, he got a call from Keenen Ivory Wayans, the creator of In Living Color, to join the cast. That show launched his career.
“…[I]t kick-started my career and it showed my range–none of those other opportunities would have showed my range,” he said.
Back in 2020, writer Bonsu Thompson wrote about the failure of the Coming to America television pilot in an article, saying that Hecht failed because of Hecht’s lack of openness to changing his writing style from his past hits, such as Diff’rent Strokes, Webster and Good Times.
“Hecht reportedly took a rigid, I-know-best approach to comedy,” wrote Thompson, adding that the pilot “didn’t take advantage of Davidson’s gifts.” But, what Hecht was able to do with Diff’rent Strokes and Webster “did not rule in 1989–and a suspect fascination with Africans eating insects didn’t help.”