A Comedic Journey
By Karon Warren | Photography courtesy of David Sheffield
After a successful career as a Hollywood writer, Mississippi native David Sheffield comes home to indulge in his passions for fly fishing and writing short stories.
Although you may not know the name David Sheffield, you certainly would be familiar with the screenwriter’s works, including “Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor,” and the recent “Coming 2 America.”
However, long before writing Hollywood blockbusters with writing partner Barry Blaustein, Sheffield began his career on a much smaller scale. Born in North Mississippi, Sheffield and his family moved to the Gulf Coast when he was young. After graduating from Biloxi High School, he spent one year at the University of Mississippi before transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he would graduate in 1972 with a degree in theater and radio, television and film.
Sheffield then spent time in front of the camera, working as a reporter for WDAM in Hattiesburg.
“I was a reporter for a while,” Sheffield says. “I called myself a writer, photographer, editor, and weekend anchor. I was terrible on the air, and that’s when I decided to be behind the camera.”
During this time, Sheffield also was writing musicals for children with his brother, Buddy. Buddy also made his mark on Hollywood with credits for “In Living Color,” Nickelodeon’s “Roundhouse,” and Dolly Parton’s short-lived variety show, “Dolly.”
The brothers created the Sheffield Ensemble Theater, a touring company that made the rounds from school to school in a former ice cream truck filled with sets and props. The company was quite successful, visiting 22 states and even making an appearance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
After approximately five years, the duo closed the touring company because the constant traveling became arduous for Buddy, who stayed on the road while David worked to make a living “any way I could writing anything I could,” he says.
In 1980, Sheffield got a call from a friend who was working as a men’s room attendant at Studio 54 in New York City that would set the stage for Sheffield achieving one of his first career dreams. His friend was auditioning for “Saturday Night Live” and wanted Sheffield to write some material to pass along to the producers.
His friend called and said the “producer who wears glasses” likes your stuff, but couldn’t remember the producer’s name. After several phone calls looking for said producer — Alan Stern — Sheffield got in touch with Stern, who requested more material. After about five or six weeks, he got the call to come to New York.
“I was more than ready for it,” Sheffield says. “I was planning to be a writer at ‘Saturday Night Live’ since the show went on the air. At the show, I met two people who changed my life completely. One was Eddie Murphy, who was 19 years old at the time, and the other was my writing partner, Barry Blaustein.”
Both writers clicked and started writing together for Murphy, including such popular skits as the Buckwheat sketches and Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, among others. Following promotions to “SNL” head writers and supervising producers in their third year at the show, Sheffield and Blaustein soon decided they wanted to forgo the hectic schedule of a weekly live show in exchange for writing movies.
Soon after their move to Hollywood, their first successful movie was “Police Academy 2,” which led to more offers of work. In 1986, Murphy called Sheffield and Blaustein about an idea he had for a movie that turned out to be “Coming to America.”
“Being on the set for ‘Coming to America’ was great fun,” Sheffield says. “[Director John Landis] put us in as extras in a couple of scenes.”
The writing duo went on to work with Murphy on “The Nutty Professor,” “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” and the recent “Coming 2 America,” and have remained writing partners for more than 40 years. After many years of “endless” meetings and the “blur” of working in Hollywood, Sheffield returned to his native state.
“I never enjoyed the meeting part,” he says. “I never fit in in Hollywood. Of course, I never fit in in New York, and now I don’t fit in in Mississippi. I just don’t fit in.”
Today, at 72, Sheffield has carved out his own place to fit in, a farm outside of Laurel, where his wife Cynthia’s family lives. Here, he can indulge in his love of fly fishing from his front porch. He also continues to write short stories and plays and even hopes to complete a comic novel before he dies. This includes “The Heartbreak Henry,” a play based on his experience working at the Henry Hotel in Oxford while attending Ole Miss.
“Now I’m writing a few things that I want to write, whether or not it’s successful or whether or not they get produced or even published,” he says. “I’m indulging myself at this point. It’s never too late to have a good childhood, and I’m working on mine.”