Much of promise was lost when SNL comedian Chris Farley left the world via the same method (speedball) and almost the identical age (33) as John Belushi in 1997. Unlike Belushi, Farley had no apparent aspirations to be a serious actor, but there were superficial similarities to his predecessor in that he was a scenery-chewing, overweight, overindulging improv comedian who had come out of Second City in Chicago. When he debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1990, I found that kind of irritating, and I was initially unimpressed by his mortifying, socially awkward characters. But pretty soon he won me over, as he gained both confidence and momentum. There was quite simply MORE of him. He had a huge amount of energy (no doubt assisted by his favorite medicines) and a willingness to make big, sloppy slapstick that few in the modern era have possessed. I’ve seen him take many a fall that would break many a lesser man’s neck. Farley was at once larger, louder and more low-brow than Belushi, not that we have to constantly compare him to his hero. Also there were cultural differences. Belushi was Albanian; Farley wore his Irishness on his sleeve. (I love the photo above — he was frequently outfitted in a blazer with a badly tied tie and an askew collar and uncombed hair — just like the Catholic schoolboy he once had been).
Originally from Wisconsin, Farley did his time at Second City, where he worked with the likes of Bob Odenkirk, with whom he also worked at SNL. The early ’90s SNL cast is probably my second favorite after the original bunch. It included David Spade (who became Farley’s comedy partner), Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, Norm McDonald, et al. The comedy was darker during the Bush I/Clinton era, and Farley went very far out on the edge a lot of the time, all too willing to humiliate himself, to the glee of the audience.
As will happen, SNL fame led to supporting parts in films: he had small roles in Wayne’s World (1992), Coneheads (1993), Wayne’s World 2 (1993), Airheads (1994) and Billy Madison (1995). In 1995 he left SNL and began to star in his own comedies. It is in these film comedies where you begin to see his promise. I am especially fond of the first two, Tommy Boy (1995) and Black Sheep (1996) where he formed a sort of a loose comedy team with David Spade, who played straight man to Farley’s extravagant trouble-maker. After this, he made Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), which is kind of like Kung Fu Panda starring a human cartoon. In the historical Lewis-and-Clark comedy Almost Heroes (1998, directed by Christopher Guest) the Spade role was played by Matthew Perry of Friends. I wrote a little about this movie here. Farley had a smaller role in Dirty Work (1998) with MacDonald.
Due to his early death there is a heartbreaking list of cinematic never-wasses. The most major is the animated feature Shrek (2001), originally intended as a vehicle for Farley. Hello? The character is an OGRE! It would have been great. Farley had reportedly recorded most of his lines but died before the work was completed, so the part was recast with Meyers. He had also been in talks to star in a bio-pic about Fatty Arbuckle, and to play Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. There was also talk of him appearing in a third Ghostbusters film. Some other sad never-wasses: The Cable Guy (1996) was originally intended for Farley, and as such, would have made a great deal more sense with him in the role (as opposed to the game but stretching Jim Carrey). Farley’s ass crack undoubtedly would have been a MAJOR production value! That same year it was also hoped that he would play the Randy Quaid role in the Farrelly Brothers’ Kingpin. In both cases, other commitments kept him from take those parts.
And drugs kept him from taking any other ones. Life is fleeting. Appreciate it while it’s here.
To learn more about the variety arts (including TV variety), please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.