May 22, 2008
In 2004, the E! network counted down the 101 most unforgettable “Saturday Night Live” moments. Chris Farley was the only person to be featured in the top 10 more than once.
No. 9 on the list was the infamous Chippendales sketch in which Farley is dancing bare-bellied next to the bare-chested Patrick Swayze. That put Farley on the map in only his fourth “SNL” show.
No. 4 on the list was memorable for a foreboding moment in Phil Hartman’s final “SNL” show in May 1994. In the closing scene, Hartman is holding Farley while singing goodbye. The two of them would die tragically and unexpectedly within six months of each other. Hartman, 49, was shot by his wife, who went on to kill herself in May 1998. Farley died of an overdose from a “speedball” of cocaine and morphine in December 1997 at age 33.
In “The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts,” Tom Farley Jr. (the comedian’s older brother) and co-author Tanner Colby show that the self-deprecating humor that Farley was famous for was a contributing factor in his death.
In the three sketches Farley was most memorable in -- Chippendales, the recurring motivational speaker Matt Foley, and the recurring sketch “The Chris Farley Show” -- he was either making fun of his weight, his intelligence or both.
A difficult role
Noah Gregoropoulos, a cast member with Farley at Chicago’s comedy breeding ground ImprovOlympic in 1987, explains why Farley chose the roles that made him famous: “Chris’s vision of himself was that everyone just wanted to see fatty fall down, so that was what he was going to give them.”
Farley, however, did try to get out of the stereotype with the help of noted manager Bernie Brillstein. “I’d taken him to New York to meet with David Mamet about the Fatty Arbuckle story. . . . Chris came to the meeting at a little restaurant down in the Village, and he was the good Chris, the well-behaved Chris, because he couldn’t believe that David Mamet even wanted to meet him. Mamet loved him. It was a great meeting. He said yes before we got up from the table, and he wrote it for Chris. To this day, I know that it would have changed his career.”
Opportunities like the Arbuckle role passed him by because his problems -- drug addiction, alcohol abuse, obesity and insecurities with women -- caused too much havoc in his life, despite his friends’ and family’s attempts to save him.
Beyond friends’ reach
The most notable example of tough love related here was given by Chevy Chase during an “SNL” reunion weekend: “I read him the riot act that weekend. Everybody did. Chris was drunk and stoned and, on top of that, way overweight. I sat with him and I said, ‘Look, you’re not John Belushi. And when you overdose or kill yourself, you will not have the same acclaim that John did. You don’t have the record of accomplishment that he had. You don’t have the background that he had. And you don’t have the same cultural status that he had. You haven’t had the chance to get that far, and you’re already screwing yourself up.’ ”
The authors compiled the interviews they conducted with those who knew him, famous (Chris Rock, Alec Baldwin and David Spade) and not, into an oral history in an almost “E! True Hollywood Story” format.
Tom Farley Jr. is an obvious co-author, but Colby (who never met Farley) serves almost as a connection to the person Chris Farley is most often compared to. Colby co-authored with John Belushi’s widow, Judith Belushi Pisano, the 2005 oral history “Belushi.”
The Belushi shadow
The overriding belief among those in Farley’s life is that he most looked to Belushi when he was developing his comedy chops.
That idea is backed up by his college buddy, Jim Murphy, who says Farley was heavily influenced by Bob Woodward’s 1985 biography of Belushi. (Another friend said it was the only book Farley read while at Marquette.) “When Chris read ‘Wired’ he just took completely the wrong thing away from it. You could tell that what he saw in Belushi and what you and I saw in Belushi were two different things. Chris wasn’t blindly imitating Belushi, but reading that book validated all the addictions and impulses that Chris already had inside him.” But Farley’s childhood friend Todd Green counters Murphy’s, and others’, assessment. “I never bought in to the fact that Chris was obsessed with Belushi. The press just seemed to make such a huge thing about it. . . . Sure, we all thought Belushi was great, but I can’t ever remember Chris being obsessed with the guy.”
A tormented soul
The most unexpected insights come from the perspectives provided by Farley’s non-celebrity friends, like the Rev. Matt Foley (the namesake of the motivational speaker character), who provides a glimpse into Chris’ spiritual side.
“Chris and I would sit and talk all night. He would ask me about God, about faith. His biggest questions always related to his struggles with evil, with his addictions. Drugs were Satan, to Chris. Fighting that took a lot out of him.”
The book also provokes thoughts regarding some lesser-known occurrences in his life and how some developments in Hollywood entertainment might have been different today if his life hadn’t ended so soon.
Would the “Shrek” trilogy have been as successful if Mike Myers hadn’t played the title character? At the time of his death, Farley had already laid several tracks for the green ogre. Screenwriter Terry Rossio points out, “Chris was the number-one choice, and everyone was thrilled that he agreed to the project. For an animated feature his voice was perfect, very distinctive. Also, you know, Shrek kind of looked like Farley, or Farley looked like Shrek.” Myers was chosen as a replacement when producers decided to forgo finding someone to mimic Farley’s voice.
Would “Farley and Spade” have the same comedic ring today as “Abbott and Costello” or “Martin and Lewis” if they had been given the opportunity? They had barely tested their comedic partnership when a rift occurred after Farley began dating mutual friend Lorri Bagley. It became too late by the time they reconciled to capitalize on “Tommy Boy” and “Black Sheep.”
Would actors today demand as much money for films if Farley would have received the lead role in “The Cable Guy” instead of Jim Carrey? For $3 million, Farley was initially going to play the lead until contractual obligations caused him to do “Black Sheep,” and Carrey became the first actor to break the $20-million threshold when he signed on to the film.
The ultimate question that the book brings up, however, is who takes care of the clown when he is down?
The Chris Farley Show A Biography in Three ActsTom Farley Jr. and Tanner Colby Viking: 348 pp., $26.95