December 18, 1997 was a sad, sad day in the world of comedy. Farley was only 33 when he passed away, leaving family members, friends and countless fans longing to see him just one more time. What would the ‘90s have been without him, really? He basically dominated Saturday Night Live and stole the show in every comedic film he was in. Nobody mastered physical comedy the way Farley did.
Tragically, he left the world way too soon, before he could ever meet his full potential. What might be even more heartbreaking is that many of us only learned about the turmoil he was dealing with internally after he died. Since it’s never too late to learn about someone important, this is the life story of a comedy legend gone too soon.
He shouted, sweated, laughed, and fell down in the funniest way humanly possible. Chris Farley was the greatest physical comedian of his generation – a manic, Tasmanian devil of sorts who was surprisingly athletic while also clumsy as can be. He could make people laugh just by walking into a room.
But the thing is that it was all an act. As hilarious and wacky as his public persona was, he was – in many ways – the classic sad clown. While he made people laugh, he was dealing with a lot of internal pain. So what was it that made him suffer so much? And what led to his untimely death at such a young age?
Christopher Crosby Farley was born on February 15, 1964, to an oil contractor father and homemaker mother in Madison, Wisconsin. He was one of five children raised in an Irish-American household. Farley and his family would go to church, and he went to parochial schools, including Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart.
Growing up, many of his summers were spent as a camp-goer and counselor at Red Arrow Camp, near Minocqua, Wisconsin. By the time he reached his senior year of high school, he stood at 5’9” and 230 pounds. He was often mocked by his classmates because of his size, which was the beginning of a tactic that he would use for the rest of his brief life.
From an early age, Farley found a way to overcome any embarrassment from bullying: He would ridicule himself before anyone else could. He found that it would make people laugh and show them that he was in on the joke, too. Farley was always on the heavier side, and in an interview with Rolling Stone’s Erik Hedegaard, he confessed that it wasn’t easy for him.
Farley revealed that his childhood was full of bullying. He gave a sad list of all the names he was called as a kid, including “Tubby.” And, “of course, Fatso was standard,” he said. The way he handled it was by using his natural talent for comedy as a “defense mechanism.”
Farley, who was always a big guy, was remarkably graceful and athletic in his movements. It had a lot to do with his early years in sports. When he was a kid, he took up swimming. His brother Tom recalled Farley getting up on the blocks “as a 10-year-old and kids would start snickering at him.”
Once he hit the water “with those big, broad shoulders of his,” he would go into the butterfly stroke, “kicking up this rooster tail, and leave those kids in the dust.” Farley had the traditional build of a football player, and in high school, he made the all-city team as a defensive lineman.
His dream was to go pro after school, but even at his size, he realized he still wasn’t big enough to be an effective NFL player. Farley eventually graduated from Marquette University in 1986, majoring in both communications and theater. In college, he played rugby and discovered his love for comedy.
Since professional football was no longer an option, he had to find another way to make sense of his life. He drew inspiration from his hero John Belushi and made comedy his new “contact sport.” His future boss, SNL’s Lorne Michaels, described Farley as an athlete who “knew how to use his body” and “could play hurt.”
After graduating college, Farley moved to Chicago and joined the Second City comedy troupe (apparently on the same day as Stephen Colbert), which served as the training ground for comedic legends like Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Gilda Radner and John Belushi. At Second City, he learned that his physical comedy drew big laughs.
By 1989, he was promoted to the Mainstage and was a cast member of three shows: The Gods Must Be Lazy, It Was Thirty Years Ago Today, and Flag Smoking Permitted in Lobby Only. A year later, he got the gig of a lifetime – one that would establish him in the world of comedy…
In 1990, on the day he arrived at New York’s NBC’s Studio 8H, he walked past all those pictures of Belushi and Aykroyd and Bill Murray on the wall. With his long hair and disheveled look, Farley burst into the scene announcing his presence, shouting, “F***ing Farley!”
The SNL veterans glanced up, and one of them even said, “F***ing new guy.” Years later, Farley recalled how he “stuck out like a sore fucking thumb” during his start at SNL. Farley joined a cast that many to this day say was one of the best ever, including Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Tim Meadows and David Spade.
Farley indeed stuck out in more ways than one. When he first came on the show, Lorne Michaels and other cast members would say, “if Belushi and Aykroyd had a child, it would have been Chris.” He was on SNL for four years, and during that (relatively) short stint, he became one of the show’s biggest stars.
You surely remember his motivational speaker character Matt Foley, Cindy the Gap Girl, big-little Andrew Giuliani, and, of course, his Chippendales dancer character. Then, in 1994, after Farley made some small but promising cameos in movies like Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World 2 and Coneheads, Michaels had an idea.
Michaels came up with the bright idea to pair Farley with his emotional and physical opposite: David Spade. Tommy Boy was the first Farley/Spade project, and on its debut night, Michaels talked to Farley on the phone. “He was frightened,” Michaels remembered.
“He’s a sensitive and emotional guy, and he wanted it so badly to succeed, and it was not [critically] well received.” Then, the box-office results came in, and all was forgotten. The public simply loved him. “And that mattered,” Michaels stated. “What people thought of him mattered a great deal.”
It goes without saying that one of Farley’s most memorable bits is “Fat Guy in a Little Coat” from Tommy Boy. When Spade’s character Richard grows tired of the buffoonish antics of Farley’s Tommy, Tommy puts on Richard’s tiny blazer and chants “fat guy in a little coat.” He starts singing that line, swinging his arms around, and ultimately ripping the jacket right down the back.
“Chris was always doing that bit to me at work,” Spade revealed in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. He described how Farley would say, “Davey… turn around,” and Spade would say, “If this is Fat Guy in a Little Coat, I’m not turning around; it’s not funny anymore.” Farley would say, “No, I’ve got a whole new thing I’m doing,” and when Spade turned around, he would see Farley in his jacket, going, “Fat guy in little coat! Don’t you give up on it!”
Bob Odenkirk (from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) was once a writer on SNL. During the summer of 1990, he went to his hometown of Chicago to work with Second City, where he met Farley, who was polishing up his skills before joining the cast of SNL. It was for the Second City stage that Odenkirk and Farley created the character of Matt Foley, the ineffective and constantly-screaming motivational speaker.
You know, the guy who tries to scare kids by warning them they could wind up like him in “a van down by the river” before falling into and breaking something. There’s a real Matt Foley, by the way, and he was a close friend of Farley’s. The two played rugby together at college. Foley became a priest in Chicago and led Farley’s funeral service in 1997.
Foley’s catchphrase of “living in a van down by the river” didn’t take long to enter the pop cultural lexicon. Before Matt Foley popped up on national television, the sketch was given a new twist with the whole tripping over and flinging himself face down onto a coffee table. Sure, it was both shocking and funny and earned the laughs from Farley’s castmates in the skit who couldn’t hide their own laughter.
SNL writer Robert Smigel said he regretted adding that part to the sketch. “It worked really well,” he admitted, “but it inaugurated this trend of Chris being really clumsy and falling down a lot.” He added that this clumsiness “was actually the opposite of what Chris’s talents as a physical comedian were.”
The famous SNL Chippendales sketch from October 1990 was during Farley’s first season on the show. He played an aspiring dancer, competing against Patrick Swayze for the last spot in the male dancer show.
Dancing to Loverboy’s hit Working for the Weekend, Farley gave it that 110% that Michaels said he always gave (for the better or worse). The audience – in the studio and at home – couldn’t have been more entertained. The joke of the sketch came in the final moments, when the panel of judges confirmed that Swayze was indeed the obvious choice. But they did state that the Farley had the “sexiest moves.”
The I Am Chris Farley documentary framed that sketch as an “unqualified triumph,” and the moment Farley became a national star. But in The Chris Farley Show book, Tanner Colby and Farley’s older brother Tom sourced that sketch as controversial.
Jim Downey, who wrote the sketch, kept insisting that it was Farley’s dancing ability that elevated it. In his opinion, the audience was celebrating his bold and daring performance rather than just mocking his appearance. In other words, people were laughing WITH him and not AT him. (I happen to agree.)
That distinction was actually a constant pull throughout his career. And while the sketch was downright hilarious and seen as a triumph by some, there are others who strongly disagree. If you ask Odenkirk, the entire thing was “weak bull****.” He said Farley “never should have done it.”
Chris Rock, an SNL cast member at the time, felt it was a dangerous turning point for Farley. “That was a weird moment in Chris’s life,” Rock said. “As funny as that sketch was, and as many accolades, as he got for it, it’s one of the things that killed him. It really is. Something happened right then.”
The writers at SNL discovered the shortcut to a sure laugh, and so, as the years went on, Farley was doing more and more falls and other physical comedy, which became more and more a form of self-beating. Whenever he would pretend to be angry with himself for saying or doing something inappropriate, he would slap his face and aggressively pull his hair.
When he did one of his recurring falls onstage, he did it for real with nothing but his own body to soften the blow. It only proved his willingness to do just about anything and everything for the good of a joke – to get the biggest laugh possible.
As it turns out, both Farley and his co-star and best friend Adam Sandler were “let go” from SNL in 1995. In a 2017 interview with The Daily Beast, Sandler revealed that they were fired. He remembers that day in 1995, saying that they “kind of quit at the same time as being fired.”
“It was the end of the run for us,” Sandler stated. After SNL, Farley made two more movies: Black Sheep, also co-starring Spade, and Beverly Hills Ninja, on his own. While both films bombed with the critics, they still made tons of money and brought him lots of fan love.
Farley was riddled by insecurity. He was never comfortable with his weight and secretly feared that if he lost it and his addictions that he might lose his comedic edge. Farley admitted to Rolling Stone that he was “always terrified.”
According to Farley, his overbearing behavior was a reaction to his fear of people. He was also deeply fearful of his movies not doing well and that he wouldn’t be hired for acting work. He also spoke about when the roar of laughter died down, “the most terrifying silence you’ve ever heard” followed.
All the love he got from his friends and audience just wasn’t enough for Farley. Who knows? Maybe he didn’t believe that he deserved the love he got. “This notion of love is something that would be a wonderful thing,” Farley once said. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it, other than the love of my family.”
Farley admitted that the concept of love was something beyond his grasp. “But I can imagine it, and longing for it makes me sad,” he honestly admitted. Farley did have a girlfriend, Lorri Bagley. The two met during one of Farley’s sober periods.
It’s no secret that Farley dealt with addiction during his life. In fact, he entered rehab several times during his time at SNL. In June of 1994, he gave a moving speech at a facility in Center City, Minnesota, in which he announced to a room full of addicts that he had been sober for over a year.
He finished off the speech with, “I know I can do it. We all can do it.” And he did… for three years. He was sober when he filmed Tommy Boy, which could be why he met Lorri. She had a part in the movie.
Do you remember the woman Spade spied on as she stripped down and dove into the hotel swimming pool? That was Lorri. After months of friendship and flirting, she became Farley’s girlfriend. Eventually, though, he fell off the wagon and relapsed.
Lorri was devastated. Before she broke it off with him, he cried and drank vodka all night, pleading with her, “How do I turn off the voices in my head?!” Farley was constantly struggling with his inner turmoil and became a glutton for booze, drugs, and food. Overconsumption was the only way he knew.
Farley was a man with vices, but he was also very self-aware. He went to Overeaters Anonymous as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and did stints at rehab and weight loss centers. He was still at a point where he felt he had a lot to lose, and he truly wanted to get better.
During his last two years, Farley made over 17 trips to rehab. He went to one detox center in Hazelden so often that his friend said, “they should’ve named a wing after him.” Unfortunately, none of his – or his friends’ – attempts did any good.
Farley’s friends and family were painfully aware of his troubles. Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, David Spade, Tom Arnold, and Farley’s own manager tried to get him to cut down on his excesses. One thing that people around him discovered was that the only thing that really worked was work.
Farley was aware that whenever he made movies, he had no choice but to stay clean. After all, the studios wanted to protect their investment, and so they made sure he was always on his best behavior. When he was making Almost Heroes, for instance, daily AA meetings were a requirement.
Before he passed away in late 1997, two projects were in the works. One was a biopic about the silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, which would have been his first drama. The other was Shrek. Farley actually recorded about 85% of his lines, but it was a version that was very different than the film we now know.
When he was recording his lines, the studio was stricter than usual, and he was being watched around the clock. Of course, Mike Myers took over the role after Farley’s death, but the film’s screenwriter Terry Rossio explained that the whole characterization of the big, green ogre was indeed heavily inspired by Farley.
Rossio explained how in the Farley version of Shrek, he was unhappy to be cast as the villain, and Farley’s comedic persona was key to the creation of the Shrek— a character “who rejected the world because the world rejected him.” When Farley died, there were talks of having an impersonator record the remaining lines, but that idea was ultimately scrapped.
According to the director Andrew Adamson they spent a year banging their heads against the wall until Mike Myers came on board. Once he did, he asked that the script be rewritten entirely. He didn’t want to star in “the Chris Farley version of the film.” (He had a point, and boy did he nail it.)
Speaking of Mike Meyers, in the documentary I Am Chris Farley, he spoke about doing improv with Farley at Second City and noted Farley’s reputation as a near-hazardous coworker. “I was scared to death because he had already knocked someone’s tooth out and gave someone else a scar just from being so crazy.”
It’s no surprise that someone with such inner struggles, in combination with addiction, can potentially go into fits of rage and be psychically aggressive. Farley was no exception. In 2016, Adam Sandler revealed that Farley had once threatened to punch David Spade.
At the time, Farley dismissed his threatening voicemail as a “joke message.” Spade later said that when they were shooting Tommy Boy it got much worse than that. Farley, who was sober at the time, hated when Spade went out for drinks with co-star Rob Lowe while he slept.
He got his revenge the next day. “He comes over, and he crunches my hand…with his boot,” Spade said. “And then I got up, and I threw my Diet Coke on him. It was straight out of Atlanta Housewives … Then he threw me down the stairs, and then they said ‘Action.’”
According to Adam Sandler, who was also a close friend of Farley’s, Farley had a serious and rather strange OCD quirk. Apparently, the comedian felt compelled to lick things. “Chris Farley, everywhere we went, was licking everything,” Sandler revealed on the Late Late Show.
One time, Farley, Sandler and some other comedians were walking down the street on their way to have dinner together. Farley suddenly stopped and told Sandler: “You just gotta give me a minute.” He then ran a hundred feet back, licked a mailbox, and ran right back.
There’s a book called The Second City Unscripted, written by Mike Thomas, which mentions several people who knew Farley during his improv days at the comedy theater. They described Farley as a person who showed clear symptoms of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).
The quirks reported in those days included touching the walls and stairs, kissing parking meters, licking the stage and his belt. Another Second City cast member, John Rubano, challenged Farley once about his behavior. Farley’s response was to simply turn around and walk away without saying a word.
Despite the interesting new projects he started doing near the end of his life and the best efforts made by Farley and those closest to him, his sobriety didn’t take. One night in July 1997, a friend of Farley’s spotted him at a Planet Hollywood opening, under the influence and putting on a big, loud show for the patrons.
When this friend suggested he slow down a bit, Farley smiled and said, “I want to live fast and die young.” His behavior at the party made The National Enquirer tabloid. As his descent got deeper and deeper, he was hanging out with dealers, users, and prostitutes. When he returned to SNL to host an episode in October of 1997, he was in a bad state, and everyone could see it.
He also stopped listening to his family and friends, who insisted he go to treatment again. On December 18, 1997, at the end of a four-day bender in Chicago, he overdosed on cocaine and morphine in his apartment. He was only 33. Unfortunately, it was his brother John who found him.
According to Biography, Farley also suffered from an “advanced” heart disease that caused a buildup in his arteries. His actual cause of death, though, was a drug overdose. The heart disease he had was called atherosclerosis, which turns fat, calcium, and other things in the blood into plaque.
As a side note, Whitney Houston had the same condition.
Farley’s unexpected (yet unsurprising) death was devastating. One columnist referred to it as the “least-surprising premature death of a celebrity in show business history.” Farley’s friend Jillian Seely said, “I know he wanted to get sober, but it was like he had cancer, and the chemo treatment didn’t work anymore.”
On the night of his overdose, a woman he paid to keep him company heard his last words before leaving him alone in his apartment (after stealing his watch and taking photos of him on the floor). According to her, his last words were, “Please don’t leave me.”
It’s rather eerie because it echoed the final words of his idol John Belushi: “Just don’t leave me alone.” Belushi, by the way, also died at 33. The bender that ended his life came not too long after he returned home from a brief stint at the Hazelden detox center in Minneapolis.
A regular churchgoer, he spent a few days going to Mass and doing Christmas preparations. He even baked cookies and got a fancy Christmas tree. His holiday cheer was soon eclipsed by his need for nightlife. Starting on December 14, he began bar-hopping through the city, accompanied by different ladies and tearing through a huge quantity of drugs and alcohol.
1997 could have been a really great year for Farley. He had just kicked off the release of his biggest film yet, Beverly Hills Ninja, which opened in January. It became his highest-grossing starring role. January was also the month when he shocked his fans with a guest appearance with future SNL star Kenan Thompson on the Nickelodeon series All That.
Farley was noticeably pale, sweaty, and out of breath, despite having been reportedly sober for several months at the time. People said he was in relatively good spirits after meeting with screenwriter David Mamet in late 1996 to discuss his first dramatic role in the Fatty Arbuckle biopic.
In March of 1997, Farley, Spade and some of his old SNL and Second City pals (including Conan O’Brien, Chevy Chase, and Bob Odenkirk) went to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. But things went downhill quickly.
In the 2008 book The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts, by Tanner Colby, Farley’s companions described how quickly it became clear that the star was in serious trouble. Two of Farley’s brothers, John and Kevin, were also on the trip and noticed how oddly he was behaving on the plane.
As soon as they landed in Aspen, Farley started using. Spade had to force Farley to cancel a formal dinner with Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, and Steve Martin due to his inebriation. Chevy Chase recalled his own desperate attempt to intervene.
“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,’” Chase told Farley. According to Odenkirk, the situation got worse as the trip wore on. Farley drifted toward a local party where people definitely didn’t have his best interests at heart.
Near the end of his life, Farley grew cynical about being the heavy guy, expressing that “fatty fall down” was his only go-to crowd-pleaser. Comedian Sarah Silverman recalls Farley once asking the SNL writer Jim Downey, in a childish voice, “Hey, Jim? Do you think it would help the show if I got even fatter?”
Writer Tom Davis recounts a conversation he once had with Farley about his idol Belushi. He asked Farley, “Chris, you don’t want to die like Belushi, do you?” He answered, “Oh, yeah, that’d be really cool.” That’s when Davis started crying. “I wept for him.”
In the summer of 1997, there were signs that Farley knew he was headed down a deadly path. But that didn’t mean that he was embracing it. Not long after, Farley got shockingly real during an interview with Playboy magazine, which happened to be one of the last times he spoke publicly about his addiction.
“I used to think that you could get to a level of success where the laws of the universe didn’t apply,” Farley said. “But they do. It’s still life on life’s terms, not on movie-star terms. I still have to work at relationships.”
Farley continued: “I still have to work on my weight and some of my other demons. Once I thought that if I just had enough in the bank, if I had enough fame, that it would be all right. But I’m a human being like everyone else. I’m not exempt.”
The last time that he made a public performance was on October 25, 1997, when he returned to SNL to host the show. In retrospect, the opening monologue bit – in which he ran and flattened Lorne Michaels’s desk – turned out to be a grim foreshadowing of the near future. And so, it was cut from SNL reruns.
Tommy Boy and Black Sheep director Peter Segal grieved over the loss of such a talent. “I thought he could win an Oscar one day,” he said. “I know people might think I’m crazy saying that, looking at his brief career, but I really believed in his talent. It was way beyond what he was showing.”
Lorne Michaels was also truly fond of Farley. “He knew how to use his body. He was incredibly funny with it… 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.”
Farley once spoke about his father, who was “a big man, 650 pounds,” he 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 f***ing eye.”
The thing that Farley struggled so much with was, in large part, what made people laugh. But Farley was so much more than his body; he was also soul. And his soul was all about his Wisconsin upbringing – the devoutly religious and small-town traditions. It’s all the things New York and Hollywood stood against.
His insecurities aside, many people thought his troubles had a lot to do with big city vices. It was almost as if he was a country boy lured in by the dark side of Hollywood. Then there were those who thought his problems had more to do with his being a nice (and wacky) Wisconsin boy who just couldn’t say no to people – because that would be rude.
A close friend from his Second City days, Charna Halpern, once threw some “crack-smoking guy” out of Farley’s apartment and then scolded him for it. “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.”
Farley knew he had idle hands. The studios had him under watch, but it wasn’t as if they truly cared about his well-bring. Tom Farley said that every time he read something in the paper, he thought to himself, “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.”
But Tom explained that when he read these tabloids about his brother, he wondered, “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.”