These stories cover the last four years and five months of Chris Farley’s life. The first one is his triumphant return to a Madison comedy club while his star soared on “Saturday Night Live.” Then he promoted “Tommy Boy,” his most acclaimed film, and responded to “SNL” criticism.
A year after that in 1996, he held a private screening in Madison for family and friends of his raucous film “Black Sheep” – followed by a rowdy Madison reception party.
Nearly one month after his December 1997 death, I stood alone with my memories at Resurrection Cemetery in Madison, Farley’s resting place in a mausoleum.
Last Thursday Chris Farley stood in front of the Funny Business Comedy Club on State Street, where three Madison TV crews prepared a local-boy-does-good story. One reporter asked Farley if he thought of himself as funny.
Farley offered a look of poker-faced inspiration that was laced with sarcasm.
“Not ha-ha funny. Just funny. Funny odd,” he said, then added sheepishly. “I guess I wouldn’t be in this if I didn’t hope that I was.”
Six years ago, Farley sold asphalt at his father’s Madison business and performed with the local Ark Improvisational Theatre. By 1990, he had joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
Since then, the ’82 Edgewood High School grad, who weighs more than two Dana Carveys, has chipped in with everything from a deliciously fawning Paul McCartney interview to a drag portrayal of Wilson Phillips’ Carnie Wilson. Although “SNL” remains his base, Farley has branched into movies, including supporting roles in “Coneheads,” “Wayne’s World 2” and the “Animal House”-ish “Airheads.” His chummy relationship with Tom Arnold helped land him a guest stint on TV’s “The Jackie Thomas Show.”
Farley has also been plagued by stardom’s demons. A year ago, he battled a serious drinking problem; his father, Tom Farley, said Chris “got some help and got it whipped.” Chris affirms that he’s under control: “I would be working if that wasn’t the case. I try to keep tabs on it.”
Back in Madison recently to visit family and, he said, “to get my quota of bratwurst,” Farley performed a fairly loose 45-minute gig at the Funny Business Comedy Club last Thursday, He was joined onstage by some ex-Ark cohorts as well as two brothers (including John Farley, who is following Chris’ path with Chicago’s Second City troupe). Chris politely soaked up adulation from hometown fans, the kind of attention he’s getting pretty much wherever he goes.
“It’s weird, but I love it,” said Farley, after he greeted well-wishers and handled the TV interviews. “A lot of guys from (‘SNL’) will say, ‘Man, was I harassed by those people.’ I think, ‘Why are you in this business?’ It comes with the territory.”
Despite the pressure, Farley eagerly anticipates his fourth season of “SNL” this fall. “I’m just getting into the groove of it. We have a group of guys there now like Adam Sandler, David Spade and Tim Meadows who I came in with. We’ll be like seniors on campus.”
Farley, 29, maintains an unwavering devotion to “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels, who plucked him from Second City and brought him to New York. (The aforementioned film projects also have Michaels’ stamp.) However, it was Dennis Kern, the Ark Theatre’s director, who suggested Farley try his hand with Chicago’s famous troupe.
“Chris is a naturally talented person. We all recognized his talent in the beginning,” Kern said. “He’s got this ability to fit into a character and commit to it.” And both Second City and “Saturday Night Live,” Kern added, “always like to have a big robust guy.”
During his Second City stint, Farley waited several months from the time the “SNL” scouts first noticed him to his selection as a cast member. “They flew me to New York,” he said. “I visited with Lorne. I saw a show – it was with Debra Winger and Eric Clapton. I fell in love with the show. I wanted it so bad. Then I went back to Second City and waited. It was an agonizing situation.”
Last season, Farley’s stature on “SNL” rose when two of his staple characters – the Motivational Speaker and the nervous, overzealous interview of “The Chris Farley Show” – threatened to lodge in the popular imagination, like Hans and Franz or the Church Lady.
“The Chris Farley Show” was the idea of “SNL’s” head writer, Jim Downey. “He knows that’s how I act when stars come around the studio,” Farley said. “I’m in awe of them. I love stars. Now people come up to me and say, ‘I love that idiot you play.’ Well, that’s me, thank you very much.”
Farley’s re-creation of the Motivational Speaker was the finest routine of last Thursday’s show. A big-voiced schmuck in an ill-fitting suit whose life is in the dumps – “I live in the van down by the river!” goes a recurring line – the Motivational Speaker feels that his struggles give him license to lecture others. It’s vintage Farley, whose bulk and bulldozer energy serve him well in the Belushi-esque character.
To open the show, Farley and his brothers offered a primal, grunt-filled dance, wearing nothing but black turtleneck shirts and jock straps. At one point, Chris exposed much more of his rear end than anyone would want.
It wasn’t ha-ha funny. Just funny funny. Funny odd.
(March 30, 1995)
Star power: Chris Farley moves to the big screen
Chris Farley, movie star.
It’s true. Beginning Friday.
Sure, he’ll always be Chris Farley, Madison native.
Or Chris Farley, Edgewood High School graduate, class of ’82.
And, of course, he’s Chris Farley, “Saturday Night Live” cast member.
But this weekend, when the comedy “Tommy Boy” opens at theaters nationwide, it’ll be Farley’s name topping the credits of a notable lineup: “SNL” cohort David Spade, Rob Lowe, Brian Dennehy, Julie (“Doc Hollywood”) Warner and Bo Derek, who plays his stepmom.
“I remember her when I was about 15 or 16 watching the movie `10,’ ” Farley says. “I mean, she was on a poster in my room.”
And, now, they’re in a movie together … Farley’s movie, that is.
After several cameo or supporting roles – including ones in “Wayne’s World,” “Coneheads” and “Billy Madison” – the burly Farley plays Tommy Callahan, who tries to save his family’s faltering auto parts store, in “Tommy Boy.”
“I’m really proud of this movie,” Farley says. “It has a little something for everyone. It’s got the knock-down, drag-out comedy and also a little bit of heart, too, which I think people will enjoy and probably not expect.”
Farley, 30, can thank Lorne Michaels, “Saturday Night Live” producer, for his shot at movie stardom.
Not only did Michaels pluck Farley from Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe and bring him to “SNL” in 1990, but Michaels is producing “Tommy Boy.”
Speaking by phone from New York last week, Farley shrugged off questions about the film’s marketing, its target audience and financial prospects.
“I don’t quite know what happens when you open a movie,” he says, then laughs. “It’s in God’s hands.”
The luxuries of starring in a major motion picture, however, were beginning to settle in.
He conducted this interview from a plush New York hotel suite, “with a beautiful view of Manhattan,” where Paramount Pictures had him spending the day doing TV and radio interviews.
“Tommy Boy” also is receiving a push from HBO, which frequently runs “The Making of `Tommy Boy’,” a 15-minute promotional film preview. Last fall, Farley endured a grueling schedule for almost three months to film “Tommy Boy” in Toronto.
He spent Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on “Tommy Boy” and worked in New York on “SNL” on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“Tommy Boy” uses Farley’s physical humor and good-natured personality.
Farley’s character is a Marquette University grad (which Marquette alum Farley asked them to put in the script). He returns to his Ohio hometown, where his father (Dennehy) asks him to rescue the family business with a bean-counter, played by Spade.
The Farley and Spade pairing forms the movie’s core, and the duo’s size difference helps create its visual comedy.
Directed by Peter Segal, who handled the same duties on “Naked Gun 33 1/3,” “Tommy Boy” uses Derek and Lowe as the evil stepmother and stepbrother of Farley’s character.
Farley already knew Lowe from their work on “Wayne’s World 2,” but meeting Derek was a jolt.
“She appeared in Playboy while we shot the movie,” Farley says. “Every crew member came up to her with the magazine, (Farley uses a rugged voice) `Hi, Miss Derek, I’m Dirk, I run the camera over there. I wonder if you could sign my magazine.’ ‘
“At the end of the shoot, she had a stack of magazines she was signing. She was such a sweet lady.”
Farley’s future plans include another year of “Saturday Night Live” and more film roles. What roles those will be may hinge on “Tommy Boy’s” box office results.
An intimidating business?
“You bet it is,” Farley says. “Going from Edgewood and Marquette to doing this. It’s pretty weird.”
At that point, a Paramount publicist breaks into the phone line with a request: Chris needs to get to his next interview so one more question, please.
Will you be back in Madison soon?
“I like that one,” Farley says. “When (`SNL’) wraps in May, I’ll be back. I can’t wait. Brats on the grill. Hang out on Lake Mendota. I always jump at the chance to come back. I love it.”
(March 30, 1995)
Farley undaunted by ‘SNL’ criticism
Yes, Chris Farley has heard the criticism: “Saturday Night Live” is dead. In his fifth season on the show, Farley tries to brush off the barbs – New York magazine recently devoted its cover story to a scathing appraisal of the program – but the Madison native feels the heat.
“First of all, we give 110 percent,” he says. “So it’s sometimes difficult to hear negative things when you try to go out and make people laugh and you get slapped in the face.
“But, you know, you just keep going at it. I go to support from guys from the old days like Dan Aykroyd. I talk to Danny and he says, `You guys are doing a great job.’ It’s been on the air for 20 years and they did shows back then, 20 shows a year, where some hit, some didn’t. Dan says it hasn’t changed.”
Farley says he plans to return next season.
“I have another year on my contract with `Saturday Night Live’ and I’m going to fulfill that and make the best comedy I can.”
It’s tentatively scheduled for Farley, who often does a Newt Gingrich impersonation on “SNL,” to meet Gingrich in Washington next month.
Farley also says he hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for “SNL.”
“I love the show. I’ve loved it since I was a little rodent. I watched it religiously when I was a kid. It was a dream come true to be on it and it still is – walking into (`SNL’s’) Studio 8H. There’s nothing like it.”
(February 2, 1996)
Fans yuk it up at Farley’s private screening of ‘Black Sheep’
The audience of about 50 or so family and friends was heavily stacked in favor of hometown star Chris Farley.
At a private screening Thursday night in University Square Theatre for “Black Sheep” — Farley’s raucous comedy which opens today — applause burst out when his name appeared during the opening credits.
Farley sat in the back row soaking it in — and watching everyone’s reaction as “Black Sheep” offered all the physical humor he could muster.
In one scene, a hunched Farley is working on a car repair. The camera shows his back side and zeroes in on a portion of his bare butt.
“I heard my mom say, `Oh, Lord,’ ” Farley says, sitting at a post-movie reception in Paisan’s. “But she hasn’t grounded me.”
Make no mistake, at 31, the Edgewood High School graduate is willing to do anything for a laugh.
In “Black Sheep,” he plays the bumbling brother of a candidate for governor. It reunites Farley with David Spade (as the aide assigned to keep him out of trouble). The duo also made “Tommy Boy” a surprise hit.
After Thursday’s screening – as the mostly well-dressed crowd (including UW Athletic Director Pat Richter, a Farley family friend) filed into the lobby – Chris was already doing a brief interview with Channel 27.
Recognized by boisterous college students standing in the frigid weather, Farley stepped away and signed autographs. When one asked about “Black Sheep,” he offered this tongue-in-cheek assessment: “It’s a lot like `Philadelphia.’ We tackle social issues head on.”
Of course, Farley’s bread and butter is pratfalls and loud comedy – and that’s why Hollywood takes notice.
Since departing from “Saturday Night Live” after five years last spring, he’s had two starring roles and two more are on the way.
Today, he leaves Madison to begin work on “Beverly Hills Ninja” – “Me in a ninja outfit,” he explains, “it’s a no-brainer.” He follows that with a comedy about a struggling explorer.
Knock-down comedy is his calling card. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Farley says of recent success.
During rare time off, Farley lives in Chicago, where his brothers John and Kevin (both of whom have cameos in “Black Sheep”) perform with the Second City troupe.
Chris says he misses “Saturday Night Live,” but he had to decline an invitation to host the Feb. 10 show to work on “Ninja.”
For now, Farley also avoids too much analysis about his budding film career.
“I do the best I can and I walk away and have a pizza,” he says.
With that, another interview ends. Farley politely excuses himself and steps over to the pizza.
(January 16, 1998)
Paying my respects to Chris Farley
The woman at Resurrection Cemetery in Madison gives directions by memory, handing me a map. A lot of people have walked into this office asking about Chris Farley’s resting place.
“You’re here,” she says, pointing to the map and using a marker. “Go to the mausoleum. Walk inside behind the chapel; it’s the top one on the left, unmarked.”
Unmarked? Pressed about that, she says it’ll probably be completed in 6-8 weeks.
Nearly one month after his death, I came here to get away from the Farley horror stories in Time, Entertainment Weekly, People, the tabloids and, this week, Rolling Stone.
Ugly, ugly stuff.
It appears everyone, except his fans, knew the severity of Farley’s drug and alcohol problems. Yet no one in show business was willing to harm Farley’s career.
After all, would the public have found Farley’s gluttonous humor appropriate if we knew of his countless failed tries at rehab?
Of course, anyone who ever met Farley knew he lived as if always at the wheel of a speeding car.
I noticed this first-hand when I interviewed him at length in ’93, ’95 and ’96. The last one was the most memorable.
He held a private screening for family and friends of his film “Black Sheep” at University Square 4. Afterward, he greeted everyone in the lobby while transformed into full motivational speaker Matt Foley-mode.
As his party moved across the courtyard to Paisan’s restaurant for a reception, Farley and I stayed behind.
That’s when UW students spotted him in the lobby and began banging relentlessly on the theater’s doors.
Farley jumped into action. He ran outside – it was below zero, fierce wind – and devoured the students’ attention.
Two dozen people gathered around him, practically mobbing him like teammates after a touchdown.
Cigarette dangling from his mouth and wearing only a suit jacket, Farley finally quieted the fans. Then he launched into a hilarious pitch for the lightweight comedy “Black Sheep.”
“It’s a lot like `Philadelphia,’ ” he shouted, tongue in cheek. “We tackle social issues head on.”
Twenty minutes later, Farley and I sat in a booth at Paisan’s. I asked if boisterous fans get in his face often.
“Yeah,” he said, “but I love it.”
He kept brushing off suggestions of mine that always being the life of the party could be bothersome – or even dangerous.
The only time he ever expressed concern for anything involving his career or his well-being was when I mentioned reports that he would get $6 million for his next film, “Beverly Hills Ninja.”
Farley’s face fell and he answered the question sternly.
“Oh, Tom, let’s not talk about that.”
To Farley, it never bothered him to have his salary plastered over Hollywood trade publications, but to have it mentioned in his hometown paper made him uncomfortable.
Now I stand behind the chapel of Resurrection Mausoleum. A couple of weeks ago, a who’s who of comedy stars gathered in the cold for Farley’s memorial service. Now it’s empty.
I’m saddened by Farley’s death; I’m angry at his demise.
I doubt I’ll ever understand how someone with a close family, talent, charisma, money, strong religious faith and so many fans could fall.
I’m alone in the mausoleum.
Before I leave, I look up at Farley’s tomb and thank him for the laughs.