Chris Farley: An Unrestrained Force of Nature

One of the wildest, sweetest stars of Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley was an unrestrained force of nature. As his breakout film "Tommy Boy" hits 25, we salute a comedy powerhouse
Chris Farley’s SNL sketch with Patrick Swayze in 1990

It is the evening of Saturday 27 October, 1990. At NBC Studios, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, show four of Saturday Night Live’s 16th season is a few minutes into its live broadcast. In the wings Chris Farley, a 26-year-old newcomer to the cast, is waiting for his cue. He is wearing male-stripper garb: tight black trousers, a tearaway shirt and dickie bow and collar. Next to him is one of the biggest movie stars of the moment, Patrick Swayze, who is similarly, and perhaps more credibly, attired.

Beyond a tinsel curtain, Loverboy’s ‘Working For The Weekend’ strikes up, and the two burst through the glitter and begin gyrating around the stage. Chris Farley doesn’t know it, but he is about to become a star.

Farley had arrived at the Mecca for American comedians, Studio 8H, just weeks earlier. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, after college he’d decamped to Chicago, the training school for the nation’s funnymen. There he’d studied improv under legendary guru Del Close, who had midwived the careers of Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and John Belushi, Farley’s hero.

Now he had arrived. He hadn’t had much screen-time in the previous three shows because the writers were still figuring out what to do with him. And, on paper, his first real sketch was not promising. It simply had Farley and Swayze auditioning for a single spot in the then ubiquitous male strip-troupe, The Chippendales. It probably only got on air because it used the guest and, even better, further flattered Swayze by showcasing the Dirty Dancing star’s sexy moves. Nobody had high hopes for it. At the very least, even if it wasn’t funny, everybody would get a couple of minutes of Swayze’s pecs.

But what happened was totally unexpected. As the pair grinded their way around the stage, the first thing that became apparent was that Farley might be carrying 2801b on a good day, but the kid could move. More than that, he was totally and completely committed to the idea that he was a shoo-in for the role as a male stripper. It was a whole underdog-to-top-dog movie pitch in one two-minute sketch.

As the music ended, a gasping, sweaty Farley glanced at the judges, his face radiating a pure, boundless optimism about his chances. It’s a funny, warm, sweetly uplifting moment, and there isn’t a cast member in SNL history before or after, including Belushi, who could deliver anything like it. “I knew in rehearsal that a star was born,” Mike Myers later said.

America began to fall in love with Chris Farley with that sketch. Tommy Boy, the movie he made five years later with David Spade, would only cement that affection. He was emerging as a unique talent, channelling a broad physical comedy that rivalled that of the masters of the silent era but with an underlying naivety and sweetness that shone through without ever cloying into schmaltz.

Seven years later, though, he would be dead, leaving behind a reputation as one of television and film’s most promising comic talents. And, perhaps, so much more.

Chris Farley

Farley had arrived on SNL as part of the Season 16 intake, which also included David Spade, a 26-year-old stand-up from Arizona.

David Spade, Farley’s best friend: “He came from this dinky little town in Wisconsin. Then he went to Chicago, which was kind of overwhelming. And then he took this big leap to New York. Even for me that was a shock. I’d never even been to New York and suddenly I’m living there, and having the most stressful job of my life. The show itself is the fun part. The stuff around it is where you can get into trouble. I met the guy and I saw his moves, which at first were what mattered to me the most. Then I started to see the other stuff.”

Farley had always been a big drinker. At college he had played rugby and was happy in the company of his fellow jock party animals. But New York offered new and more illicit pleasures. Drugs entered the picture — heroin, crack — and Farley would struggle for the rest of his short life with his addictions. “Everything about him was very watchable,” says Spade. “He didn’t have the stress of being funny or getting a lot of material like a lot of the people had there. He just had the stress of getting famous and having more attention and money and having access to more drugs, and everything that comes along with that.” Farley slowly revealed himself as a legit SNL breakout star. His energy and facility for wince-making pratfalls, as well as characters like Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker (a hapless life-coach whose catchphrase, “I live in a van, down by the river,” achieved instant quotability), made him a go-to player for the writing staff.

Fred Wolf, former SNL co-head writer: “I had been hearing about him from Spade and [Rob] Schneider and the cast. And they all said pretty much the same thing. That he was the funniest man they knew. He was like a force of nature on stage, but when I arrived full time and we met in person, he was much sweeter than I would have thought he would be.”

He had the ability to turn anything around, says Spade: “Chris could be plugged into any sketch and would make anything funnier even if he only had one line.” Wolf says that some of the writers made fun of him for writing Farley’s sketches. “They gave me a chart for ‘Fred’s sketches for Chris Farley’. It had three dials. One was ‘Make him yell’. The second was ‘Get him upset, so he will yell’. The third dial was ‘Make sure he yells’.”

SNL’s mercurial creator, Lorne Michaels, noticed his new cast-member’s burgeoning popularity. Hollywood was, by then, always on his mind: having seen what happened to the original players, and then Eddie Murphy, Michaels began developing SNL movie projects under his Broadway Video banner. In 1986 he had scored big at the box office with ¡The Three Amigos!, and then in 1992 with Mike Myers’ and Dana Carvey’s Wayne’s World. As Farley’s star grew relentlessly over the seasons, Michaels wondered if his next SNL movie breakout might be the kid from Wisconsin.

While Spade was always in Tommy Boy, he wasn’t originally the co-star. Rob Lowe, who had appeared in Wayne’s World, was mooted as the movie’s marquee name.

Lorne Michaels: “The genesis of Tommy Boy was with Lorne having the idea that Chris and I would be really funny as brothers. We were playing tennis one day and he said that that was something they were working on. I never got a sense of whether that was a ‘real’ idea or not until six months later. Then there was a script and in that version, now we’re not brothers, we’re stepbrothers.”

But even though the idea of the Sexiest Man Alive, Lowe, playing sibling to Farley’s chubby schlub drew on the identical hook of putting the unkempt Farley next to Patrick Swayze, it hadn’t appealed to Peter Segal, the 33-year-old director on whose desk the screenplay had landed.

Peter Segal: “The script [by SNL veteran writing team Bonnie and Terry Turner] was called ‘Billy The Third: A Midwestern’ ”. “Lome had pitched the movie to Sherry Lansing [Paramount’s legendary CEO] as the story of step-brothers that revolved around Chris and Rob Lowe’s characters. We changed the title — Adam Sandler was making Billy Madison, and we didn’t want two SNL movies with ‘Billy’ in the title. And I felt the story should revolve around Chris and Dave, whose characters don’t get along but who are forced to work together. Originally there was a whole sequence with Chris playing his own twin sister.”

Segal, whose only previous feature was The Naked Gun 331/3: The Final Insult (1994), had worked with Farley before on an HBO special and sitcom The Jackie Thomas Show. “I literally thought he was the funniest human being I had ever met,” remembers Segal. “But he was also very competitive. He wanted to show his SNL castmates that he could succeed as a leading man in a movie that wasn’t based on an SNL sketch, like Coneheads or Wayne’s World.”

After a chaotic pre-production period, during which Segal at one point tried to quit, Tommy Boy shot in Toronto, with the surrounding countryside doubling for the American Midwest through which Spade, now promoted to co-star, and Farley travel on their road trip. The story, still being written as the movie filmed, had Farley and Spade as a pair of breakpad salesmen desperately trying to sell enough product to save Tommy’s dead father’s factory from the evil machinations of his widow (Bo Derek) and her son (Lowe). “My main memory of it is just how funny David and Chris were together,” remembers Lowe. “Their friendship, and being so amused that they fought over me constantly like I was the hot girl. David and I made the cardinal mistake of going out one night and Chris totally lost it.”

For Segal, Farley and Spade’s friendship provided valuable material for the evolving screenplay. “I read that they patterned The Ogre and The Donkey in Shrek after Chris and David in Tommy Boy” remembers the director [indeed, Farley was originally cast in Shrek, replaced by Mike Myers after his death]. “That makes total sense to me. Obviously they were best friends in real life, and they were constantly so hilarious. I carried a pad and pen with me whenever I was near them. I remember Chris coming out of wardrobe in his brown tweed suit and asking David if it made him look fat. And David replied, ‘No, your face does.’ Right! that’s in the movie…”

As well as the dumb yucks, what surprised Segal was the level of non-icky emotion Farley was bringing to the role of Tommy. Like he had with the unpromising Chippendale sketch, he was unexpectedly injecting the film with a heart that wasn’t necessarily on the page. “I wanted the film to have an emotional resonance,” remembers Segal. “Chris, I knew, had a very strong relationship with his father. When I had worked with him previously in television he had been put into rehab and his faith and his family kept him healthy and close to them. I knew that if I could tap into that, then there was the potential for some nice emotion. And that’s what happened.”

Tommy Boy opened at number one at the US box office in March 1995 with an $8 million weekend. In many ways it had been a happy accident, a serendipitous coming together of two talents, a genuine friendship and a writer and director who understood how to get those onto the screen.

“I truly didn’t really know that a movie had to have a heart and some grounding as well as being funny,” says Fred Wolf. “I would see Chris deliver lines a certain way and as a comic I would think, ‘Nononono, you have to kill with that line!’ And he was being sweet. But it made everything funnier because it came from a guy who was endearing to you. Whatever he showed on film was coming from deep inside. And that made it more authentic.”

And the film lives on. “It just became one of those movies people watch over and over,” says Spade. “It helped everybody’s careers. But I just got lucky. They could have thrown anyone in there. Chris was going to do well no matter what.”

In October 1997 Farley returned to SNL, this time as host. His battle with drugs was now so well-publicised that it formed the basis of the opening skit, Farley appearing in front of Michaels, assuring him he was clean enough to do the show.

The appearance was a disaster. The fact was that Farley was strung out, physically bigger than he had ever been and clearly suffering. It reeked of desperation. The unfunny cold open was so dismal it was cut for syndication, one of the few times the live show has been edited after the fact. “Let’s just say I had my share of fun,” Farley told journalist Erik Hedegaard a few months before his death. “I worry about talking about this because kids might think, ‘Woah man, so cool!’ Because in some ways that’s what I did with my hero Belushi. But all that shit does is kill someone.”

Despite his increasingly frequent relapses, Farley was possibly on the cusp of precisely the breakthrough Segal had predicted for him. He starred in two other films, Black Sheep (1996) and Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), neither as memorable as Tommy Boy, but just as big at the box office. He had narrowly missed out to Jim Carrey for the lead role in The Cable Guy. He was in negotiations to star in a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle, scripted by David Mamet, the kind of prestige project that had Academy Award written all over it. He had all but finished voicing Shrek. “He once told me he felt trapped in an idea,” remembers Peter Segal. ‘“Fatty fall down, make big laugh.’ He said he was kind of tired of that. Could he have made that Jim Carrey/Robin Williams move? That was what I think he was trying with the Fatty Arbuckle project.” Two months after the SNL hosting debacle, he was found dead, at 33. The same age as Belushi.

“Chris’s talent was so overwhelming,” remembers Spade. “But what happens in Hollywood is that the other bad stuff takes a back seat if you’re very talented. Everyone focuses on the good and brushes the other stuff under the table for as long as they can. I’d still be doing movies with him.”

For Segal the memories of making Tommy Boy, the film that showcases Farley at his deftly comic, irresistibly loveable best, are bittersweet; of a perfect little movie that happened more by accident than design, and of a talent on the verge of blossoming being cut suddenly short. “He had incredible range,” he says. “There were tremendous opportunities ahead of him, had things gone differently. I guess now we’ll never find out.” A poignant legacy for a bona fide star. —Adam Smith

Empire UK, November 2020

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