Chris Farley has long been considered one of the best comedians to ever grace the Saturday Night Live stage. His life, and death, have been the subject of praise and disappointment, a mixture of what was and what could have been.
Now Farley, who died at the age of 33, will be the subject of a brand-new documentary I Am Chris Farley, debuting tonight on Spike TV. The film, directed by Brent Hodge and Derik Murray will examine Farley’s life and his lasting legacy, as well as feature stories from his family and friends as well as former SNL castmates. Here’s what you need to know about Farley:
1. Farley Got His Start in Improve at Chicago’s Second City Theatre
Farley was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1964 to a traditional Roman Catholic Family and he grew up attending Catholic school. He graduated from Marquette University in 196 and joined his father, Tom, at the Scotch Oil Company in Madison shortly after.
However, the call to comedy was too strong for Farley to turn away from. He got his start in the business at a handful of improv groups, including the Ark Improv Theatre in Madison and the Improv Olympic in Chicago. Farley’s big break came when he joined Chicago’s Second City Theatre, initially as part of the organization’s touring group. He was eventually promoted to the main stage and, quite suddenly, a legend was born.
2. He Joined the Cast of ‘Saturday Night Live’ in 1990
Following his success on the improv stage, Farley joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990, joining with fellow comedians Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and David Spade to be known as the “Bad Boys of SNL.” His star rose quickly on the late night program and those that new Farley best knew this was where he belonged. His brother Kevin told The New York Post:
Once Chris got on “SNL,” I honestly knew that once the public saw what he could do, he wasn’t going to be one of those guys that left “SNL” and went into obscurity. I knew it was gonna get weird.
Farley’s most popular character might be Matt Foley, the over-the-top motivational speaker who constantly reminded other characters he “lived in a van, down by the river.” The Wisconsin native also joined host Patrick Swayze in a famous Chippendale’s skit and even portrayed himself on “The Chris Farley Show,” a mock talk show in which he brought in guests to interview.
Some of Farley’s characters had originally been created during his time at Second City.
3. He Left SNL After the 1994-95 Season to Focus on His Movie Career
Farley was released from his SNL contract after the 1994-95 season and, almost immediately, took to focusing on his budding film career. His first two major films also co-starred his friend and fellow late-night alum David Spade. Their movies, Tommy Boy and Black Sheep were financial, if not critical successes, grossing around $32 million each.
Farley starred on his own in Beverly Hills Ninja but off-screen issues and rehab stints made it difficult for him to book consistent work. The production of his final film, Almost Heroes, was stalled several times so that Farley could attend rehab.
4. Farley Was the Original Voice of Shrek in the Animated Film
Farley’s premature death halted an otherwise successful film career and the comedian left a handful of projects unfinished, including a role as the title character in the soon-to-be animated hit Shrek.
The comedian recorded between 80 and 90 percent of the voice work and recently released footage of the animated film shows a very different character than the ogre that Mike Myers would eventually come to personify. Shrek, which was produced by DreamWorks, went on to become one of the biggest animated franchises in history and Farley’s younger brother Kevin does not fault the studio for recasting the character:
Originally, the Shrek character was a little bit more like Chris, like a humble, bumbling innocent guy. The studio needed to do what they needed to do. It was a bad time, bad timing…a tragedy. Mike did a great job with Shrek. He knocked it out of the park.
According to reports, the studio is in negotiations for a fifth sequel and Dreamworks recently partnered with Merlin Entertainments to create a Shrek themed attraction “Far Far Away Adventure” in London.
5. He Died From a Cocaine & Morphine Overdose
In the final years of his life Farley fought obesity and drug abuse and sought treatment on over a dozen occasions. But, tragically, Farley’s battle was cut short in 1997 when, on December 18, his younger brother John found him dead in his Chicago apartment.
An autopsy revealed that Farley died of a cocaine and morphine overdose earlier that morning as well as advanced atherosclerosis, a thickening of the artery wall, which was said to play a contributing factor. Toxicology reports also found fluoxetine, an antidepressant, as well as traces of marijuana in his blood, although officials said those did not contribute to the comedian’s death. Farley’s funeral was held at Our Lady Queen of Peace in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin and was attended by over 500 people.
On August 26, 2005, Farley was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.