Rudy Ray Moore was, if nothing else, self-made. Self-made in the conventional, entrepreneurial sense — born in Arkansas on the eve of the Great Depression, he would traverse the unforgiving worlds of stand-up comedy, blaxploitation film and early hip-hop before his death in 2008. But also self-made in that other, less venerated way, common among certain figures who become legendary in show business: He was a brazen author of his own mythology.
Paying tribute to Moore’s life — as both man and myth — is the mission of the widely anticipated new Eddie Murphy film, “Dolemite Is My Name” (due Oct. 4 in theaters and on Netflix). Murphy plays Moore — in his first R-rated comedy role in two decades — alongside a star-studded cast that includes Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Chris Rock and others.
Like “The Disaster Artist” and “Bowfinger,” an earlier Murphy film, “Dolemite Is My Name” — a passion project of the actor’s that he also served as a producer on — uses the story of ill-equipped dreamers who band together on a film set to make a larger statement about the audacity of self-expression and the power of movies. But Moore and his self-financed 1975 blaxploitation movie, “Dolemite,” have few close parallels in Hollywood history.
Who was Dolemite?
Moore, a comedy contemporary of Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, became famous in the underground among predominantly black audiences in the 1970s for his character Dolemite — a rhyming, self-aggrandizing, womanizing pimp with a brothel’s worth of fantastical and gleefully profane stories. Before he introduced the character, Moore was an army veteran turned entertainer from Fort Smith, Ark., whose dreams of making it big in Los Angeles had run aground in the city’s nightclubs. He was in his 40s when the lewd limericks of a homeless customer at the record store where he worked gave him the idea for the act that would change his fortunes.
Dolemite was an amalgamation of heroes from bawdy African-American folk tales who were credited with superlative sexual prowess and physical strength. In a departure from traditional, joke-centric stand-up, Moore personified the character through a series of outlandish, rhyming monologues, or “toasts,” which derived from the same proto-hip-hop oral tradition as Muhammad Ali’s claims to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
In one of the few printable lines from “Eat Out More Often,” the 1970 album that introduced Dolemite, Moore offers this glimpse of the character’s early biography:
At the age of 1, he was drinking whiskey and gin
At the age of 2, he was eatin’ the bottles it came in.
Most of Moore’s numerous albums were “party records,” recorded live at the same kinds of house parties where they frequently provided entertainment. Because of their excessively graphic content — Foxx and Pryor were tame by comparison — the albums were sold surreptitiously in brown wrapping paper and relied on word of mouth for promotion.
Moore could never land the kinds of television bookings that helped his contemporaries cross over into the mainstream, but he developed an ardent cult following, and had multiple albums reach the Billboard charts.
Among his admirers was a generation of young rap stars who recognized Moore as a forebear. Many sampled Dolemite recordings, or tapped Moore as a guest on their records. Among them were Big Daddy Kane, Eazy-E, 2 Live Crew, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg, who once declared “Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that’s for real.”
What was the ‘Dolemite’ movie?
In 1975, at the height of the blaxploitation era, Moore released “Dolemite” the movie, his bid at making his creation a household name in the mold of “Shaft” or “Superfly.” Unable to find a studio to back the film, Moore produced and financed it himself, using money he’d earned from his albums.
In the movie, Moore plays Dolemite as a pimp who seeks revenge on an old rival after being released from prison. As in other blaxploitation films, guns, sex and race politics are front and center, but, in typical Moore fashion, pushed to their extreme. In one memorable scene that appears in the trailer for “Dolemite Is My Name,” the star, who is not quite successfully portrayed as a master of kung fu, reaches into a character’s gut and coldly eviscerates him.
The movie was initially panned by critics, who lambasted its amateurish production values, semi-coherent story line and nonprofessional acting. But, much like the character at its center, “Dolemite” attracted a cult following, and eventually grossed $12 million in theaters ($58 million in today’s dollars). Moore went on to appear in several more films, including three other Dolemite movies: “The Human Tornado,” “Shaolin Dolemite” and “The Dolemite Explosion.”
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Craig Brewer, the director of “Dolemite Is My Name,” said he had been inspired by the original’s “glorious flaws” as a young filmmaker.
“As much as Rudy Ray Moore comes off as this wonderfully strong character, his story is really an underdog story,” Brewer said. “I’ve always been drawn to movies of people who don’t have much but do a hell of a lot with it.”