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Cover Story : Memories of a Too-Visible Man : Tired of being identified with comedy, Chevy Chase has worked hard to reveal his serious side in ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man’

<i> Ric Gentry is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

Inside the cavernous special-effects stage on the east side of the Industrial Light & Magic compound, Chevy Chase is seated across from actress Daryl Hannah on what will eventually appear as an elegant double bed. Dressed from head to ankle in a blue hooded Mylar body suit, face dabbed with a viscous blue cosmetic, tongue and teeth coated with blue food coloring, and the cornea of each eye covered with blue contact lenses, Chase looks a bit other-worldly and not at all invisible--which is the whole point of the shot.

Hannah is applying flesh-colored make-up over the blue surface of Chase’s face. Later, using an optical composite, everything blue will disappear and the makeup will gradually assume the contours of an otherwise unseen person before her.

It’s one of the last days of principal photography on “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” but the mid-June heat is slowly escalating the temperature in the ostensibly air-conditioned studio, lit by the glare of unusually intense 5,000-watt beacons mandated by the special effects. Rotary fans are fired up between takes but offer little relief to the actors, especially Chase, virtually shrink-wrapped in his non-porous suit. The process is painstaking, as all shots of such high-tech complexity are, but Chase is keeping everyone entertained.

Quietly approached by an assistant cameraman, Chase exclaims: “What was that? I’m sorry, you’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear you with these lenses on.”

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To the sound recordist, delaying the take for an unaccountable, low-level noise only he can hear on his headphones: “That’s my pocket watch in the trailer, Jim. Let’s have someone go shut the closet. . . . If my pulse is bothering you, let me know.”

To Hannah’s playful comment, “What if she drew a mustache on him?” Chase: “Yes, sort of a Tom Dewey look. For those of you who don’t remember, he was a great literary man in his day. He ran against Truman to write front-page fiction for the Chicago Tribune.”

And later, to the announcement that this is Hannah’s final scene and day on the set: “OK, those that bet me she wouldn’t make it through, I’d like my five bucks.”

It’s what you expect of Chevy Chase, the wit, the bravado, the ingratiating charm, even if he is percolating inside the Mylar. He’s made people laugh ever since his brilliant, single season 16 years ago on “Saturday Night Live” and through his subsequent 17 major films.

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But later, inside his well-appointed Winnebago trailer and wearing a collegiate style denim button-down shirt, tawny corduroys and a pair of well-broken-in Topsiders, the 48-year-old actor explained that there was a bit more to it for him.

“I think my true talents are in making people laugh,” Chase said. “And I enjoy that. But there’s a very different side to me, a darker, more morose side that’s never come through and that I feel I need to explore. And one way to do that, I’ve realized, is through the craft of acting.

Hence “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” which despite the earlier antics on the set, is a sometimes grim parable of a man desperate to make himself whole again.

Based on the best-selling 1987 novel by H. F. Saint, “Memoirs” is the story of Nick Holloway, an affluent Bay Area securities broker who “discorporates” after a covert nuclear experiment goes awry. He becomes the quarry of a relentless manhunt spearheaded by a renegade U.S. government agent (Sam Neill). His only ally becomes the young woman (Hannah) he’d been smitten with before the accident and who falls in love with him.

For the first time in his career, Chase plays it straight, with hard dramatic edge.

“I’ve been thinking about it for five years,” Chase says. “I’ve been involved in this script and the project for a long time and there isn’t a scene that I haven’t thought very deeply about.”

There is humor, however.

“The predicament of invisibility lends itself to comedy,” Chase says, “but its organic to the story, more relief than anything else. There’s no mugging or above-it-all sarcasm or a big continual effort at broad comedy. It’s not the kind of picture where I have to carry it with that stuff to keep people interested. The story will keep people interested.

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“Most of the films I’ve done tend toward a series of gags and bites,” he says. “This is a suspense, with romantic and comic overtones. It’s about this guy’s dark, anxious, traumatic situation and the uncertainty of what will happen to him.”

Warner Bros., with whom Chase’s Cornelius Productions has a non-exclusive four-picture contract, acquired the rights to “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” in 1986 with a then-record $1.25 million for a first novel.

To get the darkness and anxiety he wanted on the screen, Chase chose director John Carpenter, whose films include “Halloween,” “The Thing,” “Prince of Darkness,” “Starman” and “They Live.”

Chase was also trying to deal with an increasing disillusionment with his own career.

“I’d become less attracted to making films,” he says. “The novelty had pretty much worn off. I mean, I’d been a movie actor for 15 years and it got to the point where there wasn’t anything coming along that I couldn’t just walk through. I never wanted that to happen, where I’d become indifferent or callous to what I do, where I was just dragging in bucks (a reported $6 million per film) and making B movies, these broad, easy, sure-fire comedies for ‘deep thinkers.’ ”

Compounding that was Chase’s longstanding skepticism about acting itself. Until and during “Saturday Night Live,” his experience as an actor had been almost entirely in TV sketches, which he also wrote or co-wrote. This included a five-year period of “underground” television in late ‘60s New York that could be viewed only on closed circuit and included such inspired revues as “Channel One,” “The Groove Tube” (which later became a movie) and “The Great American Dream Machine.” Chase also wrote for Mad magazine and National Lampoon, wrote and performed for “The National Lampoon Radio Hour” and wrote for the prime-time “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1974-75.

“I came into (Hollywood) thinking that acting was the most solipsistic, self-centered form of art,” Chase says. “Actors were people I would make fun of in college, who struck me as offering nothing to the world but their glorified egos. It was something I could never identify with. My background was good, heady political and current-event-oriented satire and TV parody, where you could comment on the blunders of those in power and lash out at duplicity and sham. That’s the real center of me.

“ ‘Saturday Night Live’ is something I’ll never get over. I’ll always miss it and I’ll always love it, though I left after a year for good reasons"--(in order to resume a relationship with a woman in Los Angeles, rather than to make movies or TV specials, which “Saturday Night Live” producer and close friend Lorne Michaels confirms)--"but that is still my strength.

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“What I did on ‘Saturday Night Live’ was mostly in the service of ideas, not to just strut around with an attitude. And in a lot of ways that’s all that’s remained, Chevy Chase doing his attitude. And yet, here I am a Hollywood actor, a movie star, the same kind of person I would be dumping on were I still on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”

Perhaps, but whatever Chase thinks of being a star, or the kind of star he’s become, he remains a distinct comic personality, “the amiable delinquent,” as friend Steve Martin describes it. And while Chase’s films have been unevenly received, at times panned, major critics praised “Foul Play,” “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Fletch,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “Funny Farm.”

Chase had early success at the box office (with “Foul Play” and “Caddyshack”), then saw four of his films flounder. Since 1983, eight of Chase’s 10 films have been hits--"Vacation” grossed $63 million, “Spies Like Us” $61 million and “Christmas Vacation” $71 million in domestic box office alone.

However Chase sees his work, viewers obviously appreciate it.

“That may be true,” he said. “I should keep a perspective on that.” He paused. “Well, let me say this. I do love broad comedy. I’ll always do it and I think I’m good at it, the physical stuff. But it hasn’t been enough. It just hasn’t.

“I began to wonder how it is for people who really commit to it,” he explained. “What are the rewards for someone like Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman? What do they get from just acting ? What enables them to conjure forth feelings that make a part real to them?

“All of that started to intrigue me. And I began to think, if I’m going to do this, I should explore it a little. And I’ve realized that there’s a clear-cut craft, an art to what they do and it’s time I stop fighting it and find out what it is. You know, break away from the Chevy Chase persona and reach for a little more dimension.”

For Chase, Nick Holloway was a first.

“It’s another side of me that I’ve tried to come to grips with in this picture,” Chase said, “the side that’s angry, that’s lonely, that’s thoughtful, that hurts, and I found it exciting to do. I think a major change has happened for me, regardless of what happens to the film in a business sense.”

But Warner Bros. has high expectations for “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.” After studio Chairman Robert Daly and President Terry Semel saw a first cut in September, they pulled the film from its scheduled Christmas release in order to devise a careful marketing campaign. The strategy is to show people the movie is not a usual Chevy Chase vehicle, and to attract moviegoers beyond his core audience.

Even so, Chase adds: “I had to fight for the picture to get made.”

When Chase and partner Bruce Bodner (later a producer of “Memoirs”) first met with Mark Canton, then Warners’ executive vice president (now chairman of Columbia Pictures) and Senior Vice President William Gerber to discuss the novel, they were told, “ ‘You can make this book as long as it’s hilarious.’ ” Chase recalls. “In other words, let’s see a real comedy with Chevy Chase invisible. That they’d go for. But my answer was, ‘Read the book and you’ll see it’s not about that.’

“So they read the book. And they said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of funny parts in it. It’s 450 pages. You take 150 of those pages-- funny. ' And my response was, I want to maintain the integrity of the book. I want it to have substance and depth. Where there’s comedy, I’ll have it in there. They just sort of looked at me.

“I said, Look fellas, I swear to you. You’ve known me a long time.” Chase and Canton first worked together on “Caddyshack” in 1980. “Please give me this break. I’ll see that it’s funny where it needs to be funny. But I’m not going to distort it. I want to tell the story that’s here.”

Canton arranged for Warners to purchase the rights to “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.”

“We wanted Chevy to repeat himself,” Canton recalls, “but he didn’t. But it was a terrific character and one we felt might make a smooth transition between what audiences expect in Chevy and something different, which we had been discussing for some time. So we thought, somewhere in the book was a natural fit.”

Chase and Bodner then summoned director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “Legal Eagles”) and writer William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) to work at adapting the novel for the screen. Almost two years went by while Chase worked on three other films. When the Reitman-Goldman script was completed, Canton was pleased with it and Warners was ready to produce it. But Chase and Bodner balked.

“Within a page of the character becoming invisible,” Chase says, “he was in a taxi looking up women’s skirts. To them, this was a very Chevy Chase film, Clark Griswold (his character in the “Vacation” movies) becoming invisible. I said, ‘Wait a minute, This is not the direction I want to go at all.”

Canton supported Chase and, rather than revise, Reitman and Goldman (who receives a screen credit) amicably parted from the project.

After a considerable effort to locate new writers (and while working on it themselves) Chase and Bodner finally found Dana Olson (“The ‘Burbs”) and Robert Collector. Another year passed before Chase and Bodner forwarded the new script to Canton and Gerber.

“They said, ‘Well, we’ve got the script here,’ ” Chase recalls. “ ‘It’s not funny.’ I had to remind them. It’ll be funny. Where comedy is needed, I’ll take care of it.”

By now, Chase realized he wanted more of an action director with special-effects experience. It was becoming very clear that what he was envisioning was going to have a big effects component. Ultimately, one out of every four shots of “Memoirs” would include some kind of special-effects element, requiring the virtually constant presence of a large special-effects crew and their elaborate cameras and high-tech systems--and approximately one-fifth of the above-the-line budget.

Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon,” “Superman”) seemed appropriate. Three more drafts and eight months passed before Donner finally gave up trying to plot a point of view, when the character should be seen or not seen by the audience (according to the conceit of the memoir). Again there was a cordial parting.

Other directors sounded out as possible candidates for the project were not only apprehensive about the question of point of view but “more than intimidated by the special effects required,” Bodner says.

There was some doubt at this point if “Memoirs” would proceed any further.

Then, Chase recalls, “I don’t know how it happened, but John Carpenter’s name came up. And I jumped at it. I said, ‘This is exactly who we want.’ ”

Carpenter thought it was just right for him. A similar point of view--in which an aspect of something or some character is not visible to all characters--had been deftly handled in “They Live.” State of the art, extremely complex special effects had been handled in “The Thing,” “Prince of Darkness” and “Starman.”

Then Warners was a little dubious. Perhaps Carpenter would take the story too far the other way.

“They were asking questions like, ‘How much gore is there going to be in this film?’ ” Carpenter says. “They were very worried about the picture in general, particularly if it would be comic enough. But Chevy was very insistent. I directed this movie because of him. He championed me.”

Another 18 months went into further developing the script. Carpenter quickly understood that Chase wanted to portray a character unlike his usual roles.

“That’s all we talked about,” Carpenter says. “He was very consumed being an actor and not winking at the audience. Not being forced to do comedy to cover up problems in the screenplay, the directing or whatever. Basically he felt he had done a lot of films that he wouldn’t ordinarily (have) wanted to do just because he’s a comedian. A lot of the lines (in the script) he’d want to change and make them a little more serious. And he wanted to play everything with an edge.”

At the same time, Chase began preparing for the film physically, running and weightlifting daily, monitoring his diet, ultimately bringing his 6-foot-4 frame down 20 pounds--which was 45 pounds less than it had been four years earlier during the making of “Three Amigos.” Warner Bros., still very concerned with where “Memoirs” was headed, committed to the production anyway. A $35-million budget and 84-day shooting schedule were established. Nine months of special-effects research at Industrial Light & Magic had already been separately financed.

Two weeks into production last April, however, Canton and Gerber were on the phone to the location in San Francisco. They’d been reviewing dailies and, again, they were concerned. It all looked technically wonderful, but where was the humor?

“We asked them to trust us,” co-producer Dan Kolsrud says.

“Have faith,” Carpenter put in.

“It’ll be funny,” Chase said yet again.

The production, despite the massive special effects, stayed on schedule and on budget.

Carpenter found that any reservations Chase may have had about his acting talents were unfounded. “He’s an instinctual actor,” Carpenter says. “He has a great deal of talent and control over what he can do. There was still the question of tone to the film, at least as far as Warner Bros. saw it. But there were no further remonstrations from the studio.

Chase recalls: “I had to keep reminding them that they’d have to take for granted that I’ll know how to get the comic relief. And they backed me, particularly Mark Canton.

“But they still weren’t sure. They didn’t know what they were getting.”

The studio didn’t know until the screening was held of the first cut, nearly two months after principal photography had been completed.

“Bob (Daley) and Terry (Semel) and everyone came away saying, Jeez, this is really different.” Chase says. “And they realized, I can make a picture that’s relatively serious and give it enough of that other flavor that you’re looking for.”

Lorne Michaels comments: “Early on, Chevy saw the difference between the official version and what was really in front of his eyes. In other words, he’d be the first one to see that the emperor had no clothes. It has to do with how he was brought up.”

Chase grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., amid a circle of artists. His father, Edward Tinsley Chase, was a writer and essayist (the New Yorker, Commonweal, the New Republic) and publisher (New American Library and presently editor-in-chief emeritus of Macmillan Publishing Co.). His mother was a classical pianist. His grandfather was a painter. They were also liberal Democrats with a working antipathy for “the official version.” There was no television, for example, in the Chase household.

“People say, ‘Remember ‘the Beaver?’ ” says Chase. “You know, programs like that. I don’t remember any of it because I never saw it.” Or “I Love Lucy” or “The Honeymooners.”

There was a television at his grandparents’ home and Chase did watch it there on occasion. He saw so little, however, that he remembers exactly what it was: the national political conventions in ’52 and ’56, reports on Sputnik in ’57, occasional Sid Caesar “Your Show of Shows,” summer reruns at noon of Ernie Kovacs.

One day in 1952 while visiting his grandparents, his grandfather did something rather matter-of-factly that 9-year-old Chevy never forgot.

“He walked by the television and pointed to it and said ‘You lie,’ ” Chase recalls. “And this was the ‘50s. Television had hardly made a dent yet. But he knew right away that that thing is there to lie to the people. That’s all it’s for. And that sensibility I got through him and my father, that whole perspective on television and what it was about.”

Chevy’s father was also a very funny man.

“I got it all from him,” Chase says, “I cannot tell a lie. The physical stuff I do is my own but anything else is probably stolen from Dad. The purpose of conscious irreverence, which is the soul of American humor, is to break through the taboos that are mindless.”

The elder Chase, who has virtually never watched TV to this day, did take Chevy and his brother Ned, one year older, to movies that featured the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Chaplin and Keaton, all comic anarchists and/or outsiders, which his sons loved. Other movie actors were ignored or “made fun of.”

When Chevy was 4 years old, his parents split up and he alternated living with either of them and their new families.

In the early ‘60s, the private schools he attended gave Chase more frequent access to TV. “I was already suspicious of television,” he says. “Now I just thought it was bad. And it was like, millions and millions of people were enjoying it, entertained by it and I’d sit and look and it didn’t touch me. I didn’t understand it.”

He ended up at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., as an English major but “I never had a real goal,” he says, “except to have a happy home life.”

He soon began writing satire, parody and avant-garde television work. Meanwhile, family asked, “What are you doing? How much are you making? Is that really going to go somewhere? You’re 27 now, you’re not living up to your potential.”

Four years later came “Saturday Night Live.” He was “Chevy Chase and you’re not.” He was also head writer and both he and Michaels estimate that he wrote 50% of the show that ’75-'76 season.

“I was writing continuously,” he says, “My God, I had all this (stuff) to get out. There were so many things I couldn’t get on the Smothers Brothers.” Chase won writing and acting Emmys that year.

And so much of what he did and wrote was so innovative, so shrewdly deconstructive of television itself, as well as its tacit political and commercial agenda, it can be described as touched with genius. There was “Weekend Update.” There were his performances in skits, such as a dashing, fraudulent foreign card shark who takes a New Orleans gentleman gambler for every penny, or Mr. Spock rendering the “Vulcan Nerve Pinch” to an assailant in a parody of “Star Trek.” And the “Live, from New York, it’s ‘Saturday Night’!” pratfalls that opened the show, which Time magazine called “the best since silent movies.” And all of it done live.

Less obvious was the writing Chase did that he did not perform or had a lesser role in, that incorporated a look at the cameras or the control room within a sketch, creating a kind of Chinese puzzle of images that shattered the illusion of the proscenium for the first time on television. Chase, “one of the founders of the show” as Michaels put it, was the key ingredient to making “Saturday Night Live” as subversive to television as Jean-Luc Godard was to movies.

But movies, as Chase found out, was a very different medium with different lies.

“And suddenly I wasn’t living up to my potential again,” Chase says. “The same critics who said I was great (on television) now said I stank. They came down on me just as hard as you can imagine. So it was like I had to start all over again to, quote, live up to my potential. And that’s a sense that gets ingrained in you. I mean, what is your identity but that which other people tell you you are?”

And it came later from his father and brother Ned: “ ‘You’re just mugging. You can do so much better.’

“Finally I said to my father, ‘Has it ever occurred to you that this is as far as I go, and that maybe you’d better accept that and let’s not get in to the Peter Principle, OK?’ ”

Yet, at the same time, the name Chevy Chase above the title could draw in millions--of people and dollars.

Then Chase also said to himself: “Maybe this isn’t as far as I go. Maybe I can try a little harder. Just try harder.”

Then came “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.”

Just before Thanksgiving of last year, Chase relaxed on a steep-backed, heather-colored chair in the spacious living room of his secluded nouveau -Tudor home in Pacific Palisades, where he and wife Jayni have lived since 1982. The room is dominated by a colorful Lichtenstein over the wide colonnaded fireplace. A Bosendorfer piano, where Chase often sits to play Bill Evans melodies, occupies a corner. Photographs of the children--Cydney, 9, Caley, 7, and Emily, 3, are displayed on a marble table. It’s the most formal area in a home that is comfortable and nowhere ostentatious, a place where the girls can romp.

Chase has spent the last few weeks at Warner Hollywood working with Carpenter on the remix and predubs as they move toward the release date of “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.” And while declining an official credit, Chase is very much a producer on the film, involved in every detail.

“I’m seeing it all the time,” he says, “and I’m not tired of it.”

Chase hopes that “Memoirs” will broaden his opportunities to work with other top-notch filmmakers.

“I think the impression often is that I do my own thing and I’m too expensive,” he says. “Well, I’d like to see what can be worked out. I’d be happy to do a small part in a movie with Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman or Willem Dafoe. I’m more committed to this than I’ve ever been.”

Asked if there were any particular directors he’d like to work with, Chase replies, “Well, Jack Paar would be one.”

John Carpenter describes the theme of “Memoirs” as that of “a man who finds himself by becoming invisible.”

“I think that’s true,” Chase says. “There’s a line in the film that I wrote, when I’m speaking to Daryl and she’s putting the makeup on my face and he says, ‘I never knew how important it was to be seen, to be acknowledged.’ I think that’s an important line, because people’s identities are inextricably entwined with how others see them.

“Yet, once you get too visible, when people start to recognize you wherever you go, you start to step back and separate yourself from the community. If you’re a satirist especially, or a comedian, you can lose track of what really happens out there, the things that bother and affect other people that need to be empathized with and commented on. You can become isolated from all that and fall into the void of your own celebrity.”

Chase reflects on the different life his father has led.

“I’d give it all away for the acuity and the light that’s he’s had,” Chase says. I suppose I never really wanted it because I always bucked it. I’m the guy doing what we were making fun of all those years.

“But you know, when all is said and done, and I say this for me and maybe for other actors, too--it’s too powerful to be liked by so many, as exemplified by press and people who come to see you and movie receipts. No matter how empty you feel, how you haven’t measured up, it doesn’t stop ya. The reality for all of us is that we want to be loved. And that’s worth more than anything. Somehow.

“So when I say, ‘I’d give all this away,’ it’s probably a lie emotionally. Somewhere inside I think everyone wants to be a movie star, ya know? Even as fake as it is and transitory and egocentric. You may not feel that it’s right that all these people like you. You may feel this guilt, like, ‘Jeez, I sure have fooled a lot of people,’ but it keeps you going. It keeps you happy.

“I guess there are a lot of contradictions here.”


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