David Sheffield grew up in Biloxi, and landed his dream job as a comedy writer for “Saturday Night Live” in his early 30s. While writing sketches for then rising star Eddie Murphy, he began a long-running collaboration with the actor, co-writing the scripts for some of his biggest hits like “Coming to America” and “The Nutty Professor.” More recently, he co-wrote the screenplay for the sequel “Coming 2 America,” which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2021. Now he’s returned to his first love, the theater, with his passion project play “The Heartbreak Henry.” The play will be performed at the Claude Gentry Theatre in Baldwyn Aug. 11-13 with an encore performance Aug. 20.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I claim Biloxi as my hometown, although we didn’t move there until I was about 13. I’m a Mississippian, but we moved all over. My father was a schoolteacher. And you think of schoolteachers as being people who don’t travel or move a lot. But he was nomadic by nature. And we moved all over hell. I lived in Tupelo twice, and a town called Belden, Mississippi; Dorsey, Mississippi; Red Bay, Alabama; Pensacola, Florida; Hattiesburg and then Oxford; and of course Biloxi. There are hardly any towns where I haven’t lived, to be honest with you.
I started college at Ole Miss, but then I finished at USM in ‘72. I had a double major of theater and communications.
When did you first discover your interest in working in film?
Well, I’ll tell you the truth. I wanted to write for movies and television when I was in high school, and I said as much. I was elected “Boy of the Month” by the Biloxi High School Hi-Tide newspaper, and it said, “David wants to write television shows and movies.” So, I think my path was set when I was very young.
When did you realize you could do it from Mississippi?
I was hired by “Saturday Night Live” as a staff writer in 1980. And then I stayed there for three years and became head writer and the second year and supervising producer of the show the third year. And then from there I met Eddie Murphy and my partner, Barry W. Blaustein, and we wrote most of Eddie Murphy’s material on the show. And then when I moved to Los Angeles, we continued to write for Eddie, and I had a hand in writing seven movies, four of them for Eddie, including “Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Boomerang” and the sequel “Coming 2 America,” which was done only two years ago. I moved back to Mississippi in 2008, and I live in Jones County, on a little horse farm in the middle of the woods.
What type of training have you had and where?
Screenwriting courses were not available when I was in school. But I wrote my first play while I was a student at USM. I worked my way through school as a reporter for WDAM TV in Hattiesburg. And then I worked in advertising, and then I got the break in 1980 to write for “Saturday Night Live.”
How did you transition from being a reporter/ad man to comedy?
Well, I always broke the news with a funny slant! But I’ve left out something important, which is that my brother, Buddy Sheffield, was also an accomplished comedy writer, the head writer for “In Living Color.” And he had his own show on Nickelodeon called “Roundhouse” that he created. Buddy and I wrote children’s plays. We had a theater company called the Sheffield Ensemble Theater, and we toured schools around the country in the ‘70s. So, I was always sort of writing comedy on the side even though I had other jobs.
What was your first job in the industry? Was there anything before “SNL”?
No, I just I did local commercials, and my biggest client at the time, when I was working for a little ad agency in Biloxi, was Yazoo Big Wheel Lawnmowers. (laughs)
So, I did commercials for them, and industrial film, and political campaigns, and I wrote everything I could find to make a living. I wrote billboards, menus, political speeches, you name it.
What are your current and recent projects?
I’ve written a play which is being done around the state. When I was 19 and a freshman at Ole Miss, I took a job as the manager of a flophouse hotel called the Henry Hotel, just off the square in Oxford. And I’ve written a play, 50 years later, about all the characters that I met there. It’s called “The Heartbreak Henry.” And it was done on the coast at Center Stage. And then we produced it in Oxford, on the Ole Miss campus at the Ford Center last year. And now it’s being done at another little theater in Baldwyn, Mississippi, the Claude Gentry Theater (owned by local filmmaker Clark Richey of Six Shooter Studios).
What has been the most surprising thing for you about working in the film industry?
That I was at least as smart and as talented as most of the other people I’ve met. (laughs)
I’ve been a successful screenwriter, but I haven’t always enjoyed it. It’s, it’s not always the most fun. I once said, and this is true, being a screenwriter in Hollywood is like being elected treasurer of the junior class, or more like secretary of the junior class.
You get rewritten and, you know, they pass these scripts around. You write something and somebody else rewrites it, then somebody rewrites them. Pretty soon there’s about seven or eight writers on it, and you hardly recognize what you started with. So that’s a little disheartening after a while.
Was it like that for “Coming to America?”
No, that was a rare exception.
We wrote that script in five weeks and started shooting the first draft. So we never had time to rewrite that one. We were on a hell bent for leather schedule. Eddie Murphy had a deal with Paramount for a movie, and that was it.
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
I was a fan of a screenwriter by the name of William Goldman. I’d say him more than anyone. I read and devoured his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” which is a kind of textbook for how to write screenplays and how to negotiate the treacherous waters of Hollywood. So, I think he was the writer who has influenced me most. He had an illustrious career. He wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man,” you can look up all his credits—you think of him as a guy who just sort of did this action thing, but then he wrote “The Princess Bride,” which was just a change of pace.
Has being from Mississippi helped you stand out in any way?
Well, I’m unusual in that there aren’t that many screenwriters from the Deep South. From my experience, most of them came from New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles.
If you could build a film or a scene around a specific location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
I’d like to adapt my play, which takes place in Oxford, and it’s a period piece. It takes place in 1967, the Summer of Love.
Do you have a favorite moment on set or with a project?
Well, I have many, and I’m trying to think of one that’s not X-rated. (laughs)
But I’ll tell you of a great moment for me and my partner, Barry Blaustein. It was when we went to the set of “Coming 2 America,” the sequel, which we shot at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. We were overwhelmed by all the people in that cast and crew that came up to us and thanked us for writing it.
And it was a kind of homecoming because we were back again and working with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall and James Earl Jones and Shari Headley—all the actors who were in the film that were back. And that felt like a grand homecoming.
Speaking of James Earl Jones, he’s a fellow Mississippian. Did you two ever make that connection?
We did, yeah. When we first did “Coming to America,” we met at the read through and talked about both being from Mississippi. He’s very funny about it. He said, “I learned English as a second language.”
What are you hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?
Well, you know, traditionally a lot of the movies that were made about Mississippi have been about race. “Mississippi Burning” is a prime example. Until John Grisham came along. I remember when “The Firm” was made into a film, I went to a screening at Paramount where it was made. And I said to an executive at Paramount, “This is the first film I’ve ever seen about the South that didn’t have a screen door slamming in the background.”
It’s so much easier to make a film now with all the advances in technology and the cameras are so excellent. It’s not as difficult to light and produce a film as it used to be now with the advent of with superb video cameras. So I’m hoping that there’ll be more films made in Mississippi that are about the state that aren’t necessarily dwelling in the past. You don’t want to ignore the state’s past with racism, but we don’t want that to be the only theme that comes out of Mississippi films.
I also think that it would be profitable for somebody to build a state-of-the-art soundstage in Mississippi. You know, it could be used for local commercials and regional commercials as well as films. I think it would be a real boost to have a soundstage.
What do you do when you’re not working on film projects?
I’m a fly fisherman. A passionate fly fisherman. I like fishing salt and freshwater and I just got back from Wisconsin, for example, where I went fly fishing for brown trout. That’s my main hobby, fishing. Of course, there’s no mountain trout fishing in Mississippi because there’s no mountains. But I like to fish in saltwater and have for many years fished for speckled trout, redfish, cobia, tarpon. Just about anything that swims can be caught with a fly if you’re foolish enough to try.
What would your advice be to someone looking to get into the industry?
You need to write something as a calling card. If you aspire to be a screenwriter, the first thing you should do is write a screenplay and start shopping it around. You have to have a calling card.
There are so many more opportunities now than there were when I was young, because you’ve got so many more outlets. My God, you’ve got Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and a dozen more streaming companies that are gradually supplanting the studios. So there’s a lot more opportunities. And I would say somebody right out of college should make a short film, put it on Facebook, send it around to festivals, meet people and start networking toward building yourself a career. Now, I’ll be honest, it’s hard to make a living as a screenwriter in Mississippi because all the work still originates in New York or L.A. Most of it. But that’s opening up a bit more.
But if you make something extraordinary, an audience will find you.
How can people reach you?
I don’t have a web page or anything like that. I’m just on Facebook, that’s about it. I’m an old guy, so I am not that attuned to TikTok and Instagram, all that stuff.