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Chris Farley: The Wild Ride and Sad End

“There’s only one who’s in control,” the comedian once said. “He’ll take me when He wants me. I just ask that He forgives me my sins.”

1993 File Photo of Chris Farley in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)1993 File Photo of Chris Farley in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)

Chris Farley in Los Angeles in 1993.

Barry King/WireImage/Getty

The last time I saw Chris Farley was early last summer, in the middle of the night, at the Sky Bar, a breezy, cool, happening joint on Sunset Boulevard, in L.A. He eased on out of his limo as big as ever, in black engineer’s boots, a black suit and a spread-collar lime-green shirt, all of which prompted a very slick Hollywood-type bystander to say to him, “Hey, hey, right on. I like your style, man.” It was Farley’s slick, Hollywood-pleasing style. Normally he preferred sloshing around in a T-shirt, faded Calvin Klein sweatpants and Birkenstocks. Even so, he guffawed loudly, puffed out his chest, barreled inside to a table reserved for him, bought a cigar from a cigar-selling blonde and lit the thing up. I can’t remember what he drank, but it wasn’t booze, because he wasn’t boozing then, I don’t think. Nor was he drugging, I don’t think. He was in a fine, merry mood, having just come from a Lakers game, during which he’d made a wonderful spectacle of himself, emitting loud, stadium-size fart noises and shouting profanities. He had also just finished making a new movie, Almost Heroes, of which he was proud. He was thinking about making the Fatty Arbuckle story, of which he eventually might be even prouder, since it would feature him in his first dramatic role. And he was earning somewhere in the area of $6 million a movie. “I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “All I know is, I’m good today. Real good.”

For a while we talked about his hero and Saturday Night Live predecessor, John Belushi. It was well known that Farley had been obsessed with Belushi, and people loved making much of this fact, since the two seemed to share a love of certain rather common excesses. Was he trying to be like him in some ways?

Farley tugged at his hair. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never met the man. Maybe I tried to be. But I don’t think so. Anyway, I’m fatter than him now.” He paused. “Did you know that he died at my age this year, at 33? Yeah. March 5, 1982.” He sucked on that cigar until it lit up his entire face, making of it a great big glowing pink orb. At times like this, he had the most pleasing and innocent of faces. He had none of that darkness so associated with Belushi, none of the addled, jaded irony. He looked happy. He looked expectant. He looked as though he was saying that when the clock finally clicked past his 34th birthday, then all this Belushi nonsense would fade away, because he would have outlived the man, and, finally, he would be out there all on his own.

He was quiet for a while. Then he excused himself from the table.

Five months later, on Dec. 18, his birthday still a ways off, he was found dead inside his rented 60th-floor high-rise apartment on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. In the days before his death, he was seen drinking at a bar called the Crobar and at a bar called Karma, at the Cheesecake Factory, at the Berghoff Cafe and at the Hunt Club, where he did a Wolfman Jack impression and let strippers drape themselves over his body. He’d arrived at the Hunt Club with his brother John. He said to a waitress, “Hey, pretty lady, can you get me and my partner a Jack and Coke?”

“He looked really bad,” the waitress later said.

On a Tuesday, he reportedly paid an exotic dancer named Autumn $300 to come to his pad and give him a lap dance. They were there amid his footballs and baseballs, his movie posters, his beloved cheesy clown art and the prized photo of him with Paul McCartney, from one of his favorite SNL sketches. He rolled a joint. He drank vodka and OJ. The girl danced. He seemed disoriented and unstable.

Chris Farley

One of the great comedians of his generation, Chris Farley died on December 18th, 1997 from a drug overdose at the age of 33.

John Farley found him two days later sprawled in the apartment entryway, clad only in his pajama bottoms. It would be weeks before a toxicology report could state the official cause of death; in the meantime, it looked as though it could have been from any number of things: from drug or alcohol use, sudden heart failure, choking or a stroke. The press speculated on his problems with cocaine and heroin and reported that the police found a foil packet containing a white powder under his body and a couple of vials containing anti-depressants. No one could say anything conclusively, except that given Farley’s history, “[His] may have been the least-surprising premature death of a celebrity in show-business history,” as one Chicago columnist put it.

Then came all the words of those who had known him. It was an outpouring of love. He was called a “sweetheart” and a “great guy.” He was called a “force of nature.” He was said to be an actor who was just about to “open up and show us what he could do.” Said Lorne Michaels, his boss at SNL and producer of his first two movies, “When he was being funny, it made everything else that happened fade into the background. It was what made him special. And people loved him. I loved him.”

Indeed, almost everyone loved Farley, and it was a genuine love, not a Hollywood love. Of course, he could be a royal pain in the ass, what with his loudness and his farting and his occasional boorishness around women and his frequent backsliding when it came to his efforts to conquer his fondness for food and drink and drugs. But with Farley, you simply had to cast that stuff aside and hop on board, although it never hurt to try to get him to take it easy, to sober up, cut out the drugs and lose weight. Many people did just that over the years. But when Farley listened, it was often only for the briefest of moments. Then he had to go back to the business of being Farley, because that’s what he was mostly in the business of being.

During our few days together, Farley ate Swiss-cheese burgers with sides of macaroni and cheese, drank coffee with shots of espresso, smoked cigarettes, went shopping for a velvet smoking jacket at Rochester’s Big and Tall shop, passed by a Barneys clothing store (“I’d love to lose weight and shop in there”), ogled the girls, gave a Beverly Hills beggar $30, enumerated awful, hurtful childhood nicknames (“Fartley, Lard Ass, Tubby and, of course, Fatso was standard”), discussed the key to comedy (“You enter strong and you exit strong, and you’re going to be OK”), recalled his run-in with Hustler magnate Larry Flynt at the Oscars (“He said, ‘It’s good to see somebody make it that didn’t make it all the way through puberty.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, fuck you, asshole!'”) and talked about his terrors.

He was always terrified, he said. He was terrified of people and crowds, hence his outrageous behavior, as a kind of smoke screen. He was terrified of the way he sucked up to studio execs. He was terrified of telling a killer joke because of the silence that followed the laughs (“It’s the most terrifying silence you’ve ever heard”). He was terrified that his movies would do shitty business and he’d never work again. He was terrified that he’d never find a woman who would love him for himself and with whom he could have kids, which is what he wanted most. He was terrified that whacking off to porn movies would seal his fate in the afterlife. He was terrified that if he lost weight, he’d no longer be funny. He was terrified of always having to be “the most outrageous guy in the room.”

As we drove around town in his rented red convertible, he also talked about his health. I asked him whether he counted dying young among his fears.

“I’m good, I’m healthy,” he roared. “Hell, my dad’s healthy, and he weighs 650 pounds!” He snorted, then continued, talking in a quieter way. “I mean, there’s no control in life, is there? There’s only one who’s in control, and He’ll take me when He wants me. I don’t want to know about it. It’s none of my business. But when it happens, I just ask that it won’t be painful and that He forgives me my sins.” At that, Farley came forth with a whole bunch of laughter, as if that was the only response to all the sins he might need forgiveness for. “Oh, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy,” he said humorously.

We were driving up La Cienega Boulevard and stopped at a traffic light. Just then, Farley saw a man standing in the median strip, selling large bags of oranges. “Oranges!” he shouted with great happiness.

We just sat there. Farley seemed to be living inside some kind of crux moment, a moment of possible change unlike any he had so far seen. Earlier, he had allowed as how he was getting older and when you got older, sometimes some of the monster lusts — for whatever you lusted after during your years up until then — left you alone. He said I was seeing him at just such a moment, in a sweet spot of his life. “You either wear out of that stuff or you do it till you die,” he said. “I just wore out of it.”

I asked Farley about the heroin and cocaine rumors. He was silent. “Let’s just say I had my share of fun,” he said finally. “I worry about talking about this, because I worry about kids who might think, ‘Whoa, man, that’s cool!’ Because in some ways, that’s what I did with my hero, Belushi. I thought that this is what you have to do to be cool. But all that shit does is kill someone. It is a demon that must be snuffed out. It is the end.”

The light changed. Farley pressed the pedal to the metal, his hair flung back off his forehead, and the man selling the oranges was left far behind.

Long before he was a big comedian, he was a big athlete. This was when he was a kid growing up in Madison, Wis., the son of a road-paving contractor, with three brothers and one sister. He was already overweight. But, for one thing, despite his size, he could swim. Boy, could he swim. “Chris would get up on the blocks as a 10-year-old and kids would start snickering at him,” his brother Tom once said. “Then he’d hit the water with those big, broad shoulders of his, go into the butterfly stroke, kicking up this rooster tail, and leave those kids in the dust.” Naturally, he was also a football player — at one time an all-city defensive lineman, of which he was always proud — and throughout high school he harbored the dream of becoming a pro. He stood 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 230 pounds. He was jumbo. But in his senior year, he realized he wouldn’t be jumbo enough. He would have to find another way to make sense of his life.

And of his size. The kids at school ridiculed him for it. His way of dealing with it was to ridicule himself before anyone else could. That made other people laugh. It got him attention. It got him friends. It got him a place in which he could exist. But it wasn’t until after seeing National Lampoon’s Animal House with his dad, and seeing the way John Belushi made his dad laugh, that Farley began to think maybe he should make comedy his contact sport. He went to Marquette University, graduated with a degree in theater and communications, and moved to Chicago, where, after some initial resistance — he was already making a reputation for himself as a superhuge party guy — he ended up on the main stage at Second City.

He loved it there. It had been the training ground for Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and, of course, his hero, Belushi, a pair of whose old boots he found at the theater and wore for two years straight, nonstop. Plus, onstage, he could live large, without limits. According to Farley, Second City director Del Close’s instructions to him were basically these: “Try to kill the audience. Fucking kill them. I want you to make them laugh so hard that they vomit and choke on their own vomit.” That suited Farley to a T, and pretty much he followed those instructions his entire career.

Of course, the outrageous Farley act was also the kind of act that, if toned down a bit, could play on TV. When Lorne Michaels came to Second City scouting talent, however, Farley missed his chance. A bit earlier, as a toxically deranged character called Whale Boy, he’d so attacked the stage that he snapped his ankle and couldn’t perform. But Michaels soon came to Chicago again, and this time Farley was on. The SNL producer signed him up.

Not long ago, farley was coming out of a photo shoot in L.A. when he happened upon Nicolas Cage just in the middle of his own photo shoot. Starring at the time in both Face/Off and Con Air, Cage was looking good and lean, a movie star of a different sort than Farley.

“How you doing?” Cage asked.

“Pretty good,” said Farley.

“I’m trying to look like a tough guy here,” said Cage, smiling.

“Yeah, man, you’re pretty cool,” said Farley with unconcealed admiration. “Me, they put a Carmen Miranda fruit basket on my head and put a Speedo bathing suit on me, covered me in hot butter and lemons.”

Cage’s eyes bugged out. “Did they really?”

“Nah,” said Farley.

Cage looked relieved. “Jesus,” he whispered.

Farley studied Cage. “Hey, Nick,” he said. “Good to see you, man.”

Walking away, Farley sighed. Cage could play comedy, romance or action. But not him. He was the guy they put in funny outfits and laughed at. The public wanted the Farley who faked his own coronary, who struggled, buffoonlike, to fit into a much smaller man’s jacket, and all the rest of it. But he had visions of changing this picture. One time, while watching fellow fatty John Candy play a serious role in the film JFK, Farley said, “Man, do you think I could do that?” He had plans, with the Fatty Arbuckle project, a drama. But even he didn’t think he’d be able to persevere if the public didn’t back him up all the way, right from the start. “If they don’t accept it, I’ll understand and abide by their wishes,” he once said, rather wistfully. “I signed on as the clown, and, by golly, I’ll keep up my end of the bargain.”

In 1990, on the day he arrived at NBC’s Studio 8H, in New York, he thought he was still living in the Nixon era. There were all those pictures of Belushi and Aykroyd and Bill Murray on the wall. Looking like some kind of speed-freak hobo, long hair hanging in his face, he burst upon the scene and announced his presence, shouting, “Fucking Farley!”

The old-hand SNL people glanced up. One of them said, “Fucking new guy.”

Many years later, Farley said, “I stuck out like a sore fucking thumb, man.”

The new cast members that season included Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Tim Meadows and David Spade, and it quickly became clear that Farley was indeed sticking out, in a great way. “When he first came on the show, we used to say, ‘If John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd] had had a child, it would have been Chris,’ ” says Lorne Michaels. “He broke out. He knew how to get laughs, how to take hold of an audience and deliver everything. But there’s a warm and generous part of Chris Farley that is just as big a part of his talent. I think audiences could just see right through to him, right through to his heart.”

He stayed at SNL for four years, during which time he became one of the show’s biggest stars, as motivational speaker Matt Foley, as Cindy the Gap Girl, as big-little Andrew Giuliani, as Carnie Phillips, as General Schwarzkopf, as anything fat or that could be played fat, as a Chippendales dancer, as Relapse Man. Then, in 1994, after Farley had shown promise in a couple of small movie roles (Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World 2 and Coneheads), Michaels got the bright idea to pair him up with his emotional and physical opposite, the thin, laconic David Spade.

The night that Tommy Boy, the first Farley/Spade effort, opened, Michaels talked to Farley on the phone. “He was frightened,” Michaels recalls. “He’s a sensitive and emotional guy, and he wanted it so badly to succeed, and it was not [critically] well received.” But when the box-office results came in, all that was forgotten. The public loved him. “And that mattered,” says Michaels. “What people thought of him mattered a great deal.” Farley left SNL later that year and made two more movies, Black Sheep, also co-starring Spade, and Beverly Hills Ninja, on his own. Both films bombed with the critics, and even Farley thought they were pretty wretched. Nonetheless, they made lots of money and brought him lots of love.

But maybe even all the love he got, from his friends and from his audience, wasn’t enough as it was, never mind what he might have gotten as a good-and-lean Farley or as a master-dramatic-thespian Farley. Maybe no one ever really spoke to him the way he hoped they would. It’s entirely possible that what he gave off is how he wanted it back: large and loud, the most outrageous love in the room. But who could match him? Who could be as big as that? Or maybe, at times, he simply didn’t believe the love. Or maybe, as when it came to women, he didn’t even know what love was. “This notion of love is something that would be a wonderful thing,” he once said to me. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it, other than the love of my family. At this point it’s something beyond my grasp. But I can imagine it, and longing for it makes me sad.”

“He was an athlete,” says Michaels. “He knew how to use his body. He was incredibly funny with it, and, as they say in football, he could play hurt. But some part of him never got hardened. He liked to have a good time, but he couldn’t control it. As I used to say, the good news and the bad news about Chris is that he always gave 110 percent.”

My father is a big man, 650 pounds,” Farley once said. “I worry about it. I love him dearly. I see him when he goes to the mall, and the fingers pointing and the laughing. It’s terrible to see the tear go down his fucking eye, and I go, ‘Goddamn it, man, he doesn’t want to be that big.’ People laugh and think it’s funny. But it’s very sad for the person afflicted.”

In part, it was Farley’s body that made people laugh. It thrust itself upon the world with a sort of awesome belligerence, a huge, angry-seeming thing, both magnificent and malignant, and in some ways quite beautiful. But Farley wasn’t just body. He was also soul. And his soul fed upon both his Wisconsin upbringing, which was devoutly religious and nearly small-town traditional, and on things New York and Hollywood, which were infinitely more sophisticated and dangerous.

Throwing Farley’s native insecurities aside, there were those who thought his troubles had lots to do with what he found in the big cities, as though he was some simple country rube who got snookered. Conversely, there were those who thought his problems had to do with his being a nice, albeit nutty, Wisconsin boy who just couldn’t say no to anyone or anything, since to do so would be rude.

In any event, by last summer he’d been in over his head for years, doing coke and heroin and mushrooms and pot, and drinking booze and eating too much. He had his heroic sober periods — during one of them, former SNL writer Bob Odenkirk saw him and thought, “Oh, my God, with that under control, he’s unstoppable!” — but mostly he was an equal-opportunity abuser. Almost everyone knew it, and almost everyone — among them Michaels, Spade, Aykroyd, his pal Tom Arnold and his manager, Marc Gurvitz, from Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, which had also once managed Belushi — tried to get him to help himself. He was in and out of weight-loss centers and drug-rehab clinics. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous meetings. But none of it took. Eventually he’d slip and take that one drink, say, that led to more and to worse.

Charna Halpern, a close friend from his Second City days, once threw a crack-smoking guy out of Farley’s apartment and yelled at Farley, “You should hang out with people who love you, not with people who just want to be able to sell a story to the tabloids one day and say, ‘I got high with Chris Farley before he died.’ “

At the same time, Farley was well aware of his faults. He admitted them often. He even knew that what he should really do was work constantly, idle hands being what they are. Indeed, with many millions of dollars at stake, Hollywood studios weren’t about to take any chances, so when Farley made a movie, they made sure he stayed clean. During the making of Almost Heroes, according to producer Denise DiNovi, he had to attend AA meetings daily. And while providing the lead voice for the DreamWorks animated movie Shrek, he was under watch 24 hours a day.

Last July, a tabloid reported that Farley had once again entered a weight-loss clinic. Two weeks later, another tabloid reported that he was actually in a rehab clinic, battling a heroin problem, although a Farley spokesman denied it.

Around this time, I happened to talk to Farley’s brother Tom, who said, “Every time I read something in the paper, it’s like, ‘Well, his managers want him to do this or that, and it’s good for his career, so he’s got to lose some weight or we won’t do this or that.’ And I’ve always said, ‘Well, shit, when is someone going to be concerned about his well-being?’ I don’t care if his career goes tomorrow. I’d rather have a live bum than a dead ex-star.”

His last big public moment was in October, when, after a stint in a rehab clinic, he flew to New York to host Saturday Night Live. He was supposed to arrive with someone to watch over him, but he came alone and already drinking. “The second I saw him at the first meeting, I knew he was looped,” says one SNL staffer. Indeed, the entire week was apparently a debauch; one report had Farley latching onto a bleached-blond escort on whom he spent $10,000, taking her to Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and maybe even paying for collagen injections to improve her lips.

“I think it was enormously important to Chris that he host the show,” says Lorne Michaels. “There was no question that he was in trouble. At the time it was like, ‘Do we give him the show? Is this encouraging him?’ But the thing that made Chris Farley beautiful was that he was funny, and how do you deny that to someone who is a performer, when that’s what they do and that’s how they feel the best about themselves? But he was not in shape the way he had been five years earlier; and while I felt good about the show, I think he was spent by [air time].”

It was not pleasant to see. In retrospect and even at the time, the opening skit seemed eerie and perhaps unwise and certainly unfunny. It starts off with Michaels wondering about Farley’s ability to host the show. Tim Meadows says, “I have never seen him so together. I’m telling you, he will be calm, he will be focused, and he will be good. . . . His party days are over. His last trip to the ‘spa’ did the trick!” Michaels asks how he can be sure Farley won’t screw up, upon which Farley bursts into the room in a black leather jacket, shouting, “Because I won’t!” To prove he’ll be good to his word, Farley then brings in his “sponsor,” in the form of aging ex-boozer Chevy Chase. The whole thing just had the wrong ring. No one in the segment looked at all comfortable. Then came Farley gulping for air during another sketch and Norm Macdonald imploring the audience to laugh after one of his own jokes bombed, “because it helps Farley have a little rest.” There were moments, of course, just not many of them. And yet, as always, Farley seemed hellbent on putting everything he had into every minute of his onscreen time.

After hosting SNL, he went back to rehab again, stayed a few weeks, went home for Thanksgiving and then returned to Chicago, to his high-rise apartment and his cheesy clown art. “I just like clowns,” he once told his friend Mancow Muller, a Chicago radio personality. “Clowns are funny. But if you look at them, they’re kinda sad, too.”

Said Muller, “Like you?”

Farley said, “Yeah.”

He was drinking a lot. He told his friend Jillian Seely that the SNL gig had been a nightmare for him, that it hadn’t been a good week for him at all.

Seely was not a girlfriend but a friend-friend who worked as a hairdresser across the street from his place and had 10 years of sobriety to her credit. By late November, she was growing increasingly worried. One day, a drunk Farley showed up at her job, and though his condition pissed her off, she started joking around with him, saying, “So, where’s the funeral going to be?” And, more seriously, “What are you doing? You’re going to die.” Sometimes she would go over to his place, and the two of them would lie in bed watching TV, drinking tea and eating bagels. On Thursday, Dec. 11, while hanging out in bed, Seely asked Farley whether something had happened to make him slip. He didn’t know. Whatever it was seemed to be beyond expressing. “I know he wanted to get sober,” Seely says. “But it was like he had cancer and the chemo treatment didn’t work anymore.”

A few days afterward, he went to Seely’s Christmas party and fell in love with her sugar cookies studded with M&Ms. He called them “alien cookies.” Thereafter, he phoned her every day to extol the virtues of the cookie. “Even though he was out of his mind, every time, he’d say, ‘I sure liked those alien cookies. Nothing better than those cookies!'” Seely recalls.

Muller had his final conversation with Farley the day before he died. Farley said he was excited about the coming new year and about seeing his family over Christmas. Muller brought up how unhealthy Farley had looked during his recent SNL appearance. “Yeah, yeah, I’m working on it,” Farley said, which was what he always said when Muller expressed his concerns.

Later that night, Seely had her final talk with Farley, on the phone. Seely said to him, “Honey, I want you to get some sleep.”

Farley said, “I’ll call you in an hour.”

To Seely, he didn’t sound good. He kept saying to her, “What’s going on? Get your ass over here!”

She didn’t go. She just didn’t want to see his booze bottles and then have to get angry and throw them all away. Like other of his friends, she’d had enough.

On the Sunday before his death, he attended evening Mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church and prayed just like he used to do during his Second City days. Then he went to an AA meeting. Nothing seemed to be working.

He was a man-child,” says Mancow Muller.

“His pain was very deep,” says Denise Di Novi.

“He was a happy boy, a sweet boy,” says Charna Halpern.

“For better or worse, he was true to himself,” says Lorne Michaels.

“He couldn’t get himself out,” says Jillian Seely.

“Like any sensible person, he despised L.A.,” says Del Close.

These are just things to be thought of, upon that large shadow of his passing over. As they say in football, he was playing hurt, and he had been for a long time.


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