The Southern Miss graduate talks about his path to cinema history
David Sheffield comes from a large, modest family in Mississippi. His life led him along paths that would change most people, but it did not have the same effect on him that it could have. He still talks about fly fishing, southern politics, and embarrassing family members like many Mississippians do while sitting on their front porch drinking an ice cold glass of sweet tea as it drips sweat simultaneously with their brow. The irony is that one of America’s most prolific black comedy writers is a white boy from Mississippi.
His cousin, Guy Walker went to visit him in Hollywood in January of 1999. Having to work that day, David told him to come to his office. Guy walked around in awe as he looked up to see a skyscraper straight ahead. New York was on one side of the street, a park that could have belonged to any-town, USA sat on the other.
Ahead of him were buildings that belonged in ancient Rome, and as he walked past a saloon from the Wild West, he noticed a group of cowboys on cellphones, eating lunch with a group of Native Americans. He wandered the terrain until he got to David’s office building. When he got inside, he saw David’s name on a door just down from one labeled “Carrie Fisher.” He walked in with a huge smile on his face, ready to see a master at work. Not to his surprise, there was David, on the computer looking emphatic.
“I got it, I got it!,” David said. “Did you come up with a good joke,” asked Guy. “No, I won an Old Florida fly rod on EBay!” “Apparently, it was just another day at Universal Studios,” Walker said.
“I got the call to write the Nutty Professor 2 when I was fly fishing in Belize,” David Sheffield said on a Sunday morning from an undisclosed horse ranch in south Mississippi. Sheffield is a quiet spoken man that loves to fly fish. You would not realize that he is the writer of blockbuster comedies like Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, and Police Academy 2.
“I started out as a reporter when I got out of college,” Sheffied, a University of Southern Mississippi graduate, said. “Then I started a theater company with my brother called the Sheffield Ensemble Theater.”
Sheffield’s brother, Buddy Sheffield is an Emmy nominated writer himself, with credits for In Living Color and Roundhouse, a critically acclaimed teen oriented show that ran on Nickelodeon in the 1990s.
The touring company, which travelled to elementary schools in a converted ice cream truck, was the most successful touring children’s theatre in the country before “becoming so successful that we were forced to quit,” as David Sheffield put it.
Sheffield was in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in 1980 when he got a call from an old college friend, that was a men’s room attendant at Studio 54 in New York, telling him that he had met a producer from Saturday Night Live that told him they were looking for writers. Sheffield stayed up all night writing scripts and sent them to the show.
“I got a call from Gene something-or-other, that said they were interested in my work,” Sheffield said. “It sounded like a lame telephone joke.” The only concern the producer had was that his material was “not edgy enough.” Despite that, Sheffield was the last writer hired for the show, that year, and made the move to New York.
It was there that he met his writing partner, Barry Blaustein. “We were paired with Eddie Murphy, who was also hired that year. We were all 19 or 20 years old and got along,” Sheffield said. That would prove to be a lasting relationship. Sheffield shared in the writing of classics like the Buckwheat sketches, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, Ebony and Ivory, and the infamous James Brown’s Hot Tub sketch, that would propel Murphy into a star.
As you can imagine, Murphy was unavailable to comment for this article.
Sheffied was promoted to Head Writer and Supervising Producer of SNL. “I was an authority figure and didn’t really enjoy that,” he said. He and Blaustien left the show and moved to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. “After unsuccessfully pitching scripts, we ran out of money and got desperate, so we took a writing gig for Police Academy 2,” Sheffield said. It was blockbuster film, grossing $100 million on a small budget.
“After that, we started getting offers, constantly,” Sheffield said. ” It went from us pitching to studios, to them pitching to us.”
Then, in 1986, he got a call from Murphy to write a script for an idea he had about an African Prince that came to the states looking for love.
“I wrote a treatment on a yellow legal pad and sent it in,” Sheffield said. They got a five week contract to write the script. Sheffield went to New York and met with Murphy, Blaustein and Arsenio Hall to start the writing. “We wrote the barbershop scene first, out loud, in character,” Sheffield said. “We were obviously loud because the hotel manager came over and told us to ‘hold it down.’”
“We turned in the script on a Friday and it was approved on a Monday,” Sheffield said. “It was a first draft.” This didn’t sit well with notoriously difficult director John Landis, who told Paramount Studios never to send them to him again.
Coming to America was a huge hit, making that two in a row for Sheffield and Blaustien, now a hot commodity.
“We started writing television and created a pilot called What’s Allen Watchingthat critics said was innovative for television at that time,” Sheffield said. “Allen would go into the television and the episode would take the shape of whatever show he happened to be watching.” They got a letter from the studio that read, “We refuse to put the Paramount name on this show, as it does not meet the studio’s standards.”
After getting hired for Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertanment, Sheffied wrote a few more films, one of which was Boomerang, that he said was mostly ad-libbed and not much of his script was used. He said that it has become the norm to write a script and have it rewritten.
During a slow period, which consisted of fly fishing around the world, he got a call from Eddie Murphy to write The Nutty Professor, a remake of the Jerry Lewis Classic with Murphy as an overweight college professor that creates a formula to make him skinny. He agreed to write the script over the phone. It was another blockbuster hit under the belt of Sheffield and Blaustien, followed by the Nutty Professor 2, yielding back-to-back blockbusters.
Recently, Sheffield moved back to Mississippi, creating his own Eden, complete with an irrigated bass pond. He is very interested in politics and joked to that he would like to write attack ads against Tea Party candidates. He also said he was interested in writing a humor-political column.
Sheffield now spends his time fly fishing from his porch, making political jokes on Facebook and working on future projects, such as a script for Nutty Professor 3, which at this time is sitting in development.
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Update: In April 2017, it was announced that Coming to America 2 was in the works, with David Sheffield co-writing alongside Barry Blaustein, with whom he penned the 1988 original.