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With the words, "Good evening - I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not," comedic actor Chevy Chase struck a chord with television audiences who delighted each week as the accident-prone goofball stumbled his way through sketches in the early days of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). With his aloof wit and detached demeanor, he represented a radical departure from angry comics of the day like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Leaving "SNL" at the height of his fame in 1976, Chase segued smoothly into stardom on the big screen in such comedy triumphs as "Foul Play" (1975), "Caddyshack" (1980) and "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983). He continued to rise with his classic turn as the bumbling investigative reporter, "Fletch" (1985), and reprised the bespectacled doofus Clark Griswald for "European Vacation" (1985). But from there, his career hit a long, slow slide with movies like "The Funny Farm" (1988), "Caddyshack II" (1988) and "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" (1992). Following a short-lived stint as a late night talk show host - a televised train wreck if there ever was one - Chase wallowed in the nadir of a career that at once looked bright and everlasting. Meanwhile, his reported reputation for being...
With the words, "Good evening - I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not," comedic actor Chevy Chase struck a chord with television audiences who delighted each week as the accident-prone goofball stumbled his way through sketches in the early days of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). With his aloof wit and detached demeanor, he represented a radical departure from angry comics of the day like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Leaving "SNL" at the height of his fame in 1976, Chase segued smoothly into stardom on the big screen in such comedy triumphs as "Foul Play" (1975), "Caddyshack" (1980) and "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983). He continued to rise with his classic turn as the bumbling investigative reporter, "Fletch" (1985), and reprised the bespectacled doofus Clark Griswald for "European Vacation" (1985). But from there, his career hit a long, slow slide with movies like "The Funny Farm" (1988), "Caddyshack II" (1988) and "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" (1992). Following a short-lived stint as a late night talk show host - a televised train wreck if there ever was one - Chase wallowed in the nadir of a career that at once looked bright and everlasting. Meanwhile, his reported reputation for being difficult and his addiction to cocaine was chronicled in numerous tell-all "SNL" books. But he emerged decades later with an acclaimed supporting turn on the hit show "Community" (NBC, 2009- ), which showed that Chase's brilliance as a giant in the pantheon of great twentieth century comedians had not waned.
Born Oct. 8, 1943 in Manhattan (though some sources cite Woodstock) to a well-to-do family, the youngster grew up swathed in fine luxuries and pedigree. His father, Edward Chase, was a prominent Manhattan book editor and magazine writer; his mother, Cathalene Parker Browning, was a concert pianist and the daughter of Admiral Miles Browning, who had played a large role in the Battle of Midway during WWII. A 14th-generation New Yorker who was listed in the Social Register at an early age, Chase's mother's ancestors arrived in Manhattan starting as early as 1624 - among them New York City mayors Stephanus Van Cortlandt and John Johnstone; General of New York Militia under George Washington, John Morin Scott; and Anne Hutchinson, dissident Puritan preacher and pioneer. Despite all that an affluent life afforded them, Chase's parents divorced when he was four years old, with his father remarrying into the Folger coffee family, while his mother's third marriage was to Juilliard School professor/ composer Lawrence Widdoes. Young Cornelius was given the nickname "Chevy" by his grandmother. As a descendant of the Scottish Clan Douglas, who repelled an English invasion at the Battle of Cheviot Hills ("Chevy Chase") in 1436, the name "Chevy" seemed appropriate to her.
Gifted both musically and athletically, Chase was also a cut-up, and often found himself suspended or expelled from private schools like New York City's Dalton School and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Still, he managed to graduate valedictorian from NYC's Riverdale Country School, followed by enrollment at Haverford College, only to be expelled after his first semester. Transferring to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, he studied pre-med and graduated with a degree in English in 1967. Instead of going to medical school, however, he joined a jazz band with classmates Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. At the time, Chase called the group "a bad jazz band," but sans Chase, the group would find later fame later as the successful act, Steely Dan. Gifted with absolute pitch, Chase played drums and keyboards for yet another band, a rock group called Chameleon Church, which recorded one album before disbanding in 1968. Still trying to figure out his life's plan, by the close of the decade, Chase took on a wide variety of odd jobs, including construction worker, truck driver, motorcycle messenger, audio engineer, wine store salesman, theater usher and supermarket produce manager.
Leaning toward the burgeoning, anti-establishment comedy movement of the day, Chase collaborated in 1966 with other college friends to form a comedy group called Channel One, whose first performance consisted of skits recorded on a primitive videotape system and played back in a small theater in Greenwich Village. Chase went on to star in another production called "Lemmings," a drug-humored take-off on Woodstock, as well as work on a National Lampoon radio show, where he first met and established a rivalry with fellow performer John Belushi. Soon thereafter, Chase moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a job as a writer for the Smothers Brothers act. After meeting and impressing young producer Lorne Michaels, who was casting comics and writers for his new late night sketch show experiment, "Saturday Night" (the "Live" would be added later that first season), Chase would go on to land the significant dual role of both writer and performer on the landmark first season of the smash show. Chase had initially met Michaels while both were standing in line at a film festival to see "Monty Python & the Holy Grail" (1975). They had struck up an immediate friendship, with Michaels laughing while Chase entertained fellow moviegoers with pratfalls as they all waited in line. When it came time to fill slots on his new show, Michaels did not hesitate to offer Chase the job.
Premiering in October of 1975, "Saturday Night" struck a chord almost immediately with a cynical public still licking its fresh wounds from Vietnam and Watergate. Anxious for anti-establishment humor, the public latched onto this apparent group of rag-tag comics called the "Not-Ready-for-Primetime-Players." And just as immediately, the public found its favorite in the scene-stealing Chase, who, unlike fellow performers like Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner who disappeared into character, often appeared in sketches as himself. When playing the bumbling President Gerald Ford, the youthful actor performed sans special hair and makeup, looking nothing like Ford, yet fans did not seem to care as long as he fell off ladders or absentmindedly stapled his hand to the Oval Office desk. Chase also appeared in many of the first year's opening sketches, often delivering the famous "Live, from New York - it's Saturday Night!" phrase which began each show. Most importantly, during each episode's news spoof, "Weekend Update" that he himself developed, instead of creating a character, he used his own unique name - a tradition which remained intact for decades. He definitely had made a name for himself as the standout, but it came with a rather large cost that Chase would live to regret years later when looking back on his all too brief "SNL" run.
Backstage, Chase was far from the favorite. Having earned a smug reputation for being antagonistic and egotistical, rumors persisted that he held himself above his fellow cast mates - most of whom were more talented sketch comedians than Chase himself. The fact that Chase had Michaels in his corner only exacerbated the hard feelings between an ensemble, which, at this early stage, should have been working together for the greater good. Particularly irked was the competitive Belushi, who felt it was he, not Chase, who deserved this level of acclaim. The cast division intensified after a Chase cover story in New York Magazine named him the "funniest man in America" and predicted he would be a shoo-in to replace Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1962- ).
After just one memorable year on "SNL," Chase made the mistake of believing his own press and left late night to make his mark in Hollywood. He would return to host the show in 1977, but it would end famously behind the scenes, when a legendary fistfight between Chase and his cocky replacement Bill Murray broke out in the dressing room. Belushi, who tried to break up the fight, found himself on the receiving end of a punch to the face. With Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner and now newbie Murray reigning supreme on his old show, Chase vowed never to return as host. As time went on and casts rotated, Chase would return to host the show several times through the years. And though he stayed for only one season, Chase had made a memorable impression as the guy with the funny-sounding name who had no peers in the pratfall department, and more importantly, who made "Weekend Update" the "SNL" mainstay it would become for decades.
Having relocated to Los Angeles with girlfriend and future wife Jacqueline Carlin, Chase landed his first major film role in the romantic comedy-mystery, "Foul Play" (1978) opposite Goldie Hawn, effectively turning down the part of Eric "Otter" Stratton in "National Lampoon's Animal House" in order to do so. Audiences loved he and Hawn's goofy onscreen chemistry, making "Foul Play" one of the biggest hits of the year. He led off the new decade co-starring opposite canine megastar Benji in the kiddie flick, "Oh Heavenly Dog" (1980) - which no doubt led to rounds of good-natured ribbing at "SNL" writer meetings. Fortunately, the laughs were on anyone who doubted Chase as a comic film lead. Later that year, Chase knocked one out of the park - or, in this case, golf course - with his role as the wealthy, casually aloof golfer Ty Webb in the mega-comedy classic, "Caddyshack." Co-starring with his former "SNL" nemesis, Bill Murray, Chase uttered countless, hilarious throwaway lines, including the infamous, "Be the ball, Danny."
Returning to leading man roles, the actor starred in two more romantic comedies: once again opposite Goldie Hawn in Neil Simon's "Seems like Old Times" (1980), followed by the dismal "Wizard of Oz" Munchkin farce, "Under the Rainbow" (1981) opposite Carrie Fisher. Undaunted by brutal "Rainbow" reviews, Chase jumped into his next film, "Modern Problems" (1981). Playing an air traffic controller who, after coming into contact with nuclear waste, gains telekinetic powers, Chase and the film drew middling reviews. Adding insult to injury, Chase had been nearly electrocuted while filming a stunt, an incident which, along with the end of his marriage prior to filming, sent the actor into a period of deep depression. Back with a vengeance only two years later, the new and improved Chase found himself the hilarious center of yet another modern comedy classic, "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983). As the well-meaning but clueless husband and father, Clark Griswold, Chase nailed every fumbling scene, whether awkwardly skinny-dipping with Christie Brinkley or falling asleep while driving his family across country to Wally World. The picture cemented Chase as a go-to comic and spawned three sequels of varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, he followed his Griswold immortality with the highly forgettable and critically lambasted comedy, "Deal of the Century" (1983).
Chase rebounded from the sting of "Deal of the Century" by crafting another memorable persona, the title character in the hit 1985 comedy, "Fletch." Despite the character's proclivity for accents and disguises and getting himself into and out of jams, Chase played the character remarkably straight, and made famous another slew of imminently quotable lines, including "Do you have the Beatles' White Album? Never mind, just get me a glass of hot fat. And bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia while you're out there." By the mid to late 1980s, Chase was on such a hot streak that even such middling films as "National Lampoon's European Vacation," (1985), "Spies Like Us" (1985) and "!Three Amigos!" (1986) were moneymakers. Chase later remarked that donning a sombrero alongside Steve Martin and Martin Short for "Amigos!" was the most fun he had ever had making a film. He also appeared in the video for the 1986 Paul Simon hit single, "You Can Call Me Al." The comic simply goofed off while lip-synching the song, much to the mock chagrin of Simon. Something simple simply worked and fans snapped up the single and voted the video to the top of MTV's countdowns. At the peak of his career, in 1987 and 1988, Chase continued his hot streak by hosting the prestigious Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, the next few years began the downward slide. Chase starred in the unfunny "Funny Farm," (1988) about a struggling urban writer and his wife who move to the country, followed by sequels to three of his previous hits; first, the critical bomb "Caddyshack II" (1988), followed by the modestly successful, "Fletch Lives!" (1989), and finally, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," (1989). Although a minor hit, the latter film grew more popular as the years went by, becoming a twisted kind of "It's a Wonderful Life"-style required holiday viewing. But after the poor box office showings of "Nothing But Trouble" (1991) - a fiasco co-starring Demi Moore that was so bad, it defied description - and director John Carpenter's quirky "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" (1992) which tried to harken back to his earlier leading man roles - Chase's career began to seriously flounder, never to recover his Eighties foothold.
This sad shift in fame and fortunes culminated in the now legendarily short-lived 1993 talk show, "The Chevy Chase Show," which, essentially, put a final nail in Chase's career coffin. Up against David Letterman during his rejuvenation at CBS, and Conan O'Brien in his early days at NBC, Chase on Fox was already one show too many. But Chase himself was given scathing reviews, and he often appeared ill-at-ease live on camera. While the show included some highly original comic set pieces, the show failed to draw name guests and an audience, and was cancelled after just five weeks. Because of this very public failure, Chase and his talk show became not only the butt of many jokes, but a cautionary tale to anyone who thought that humor was the only necessary skill to host a successful late night talk show. As expected, Chase had a tough time recovering from the critical drubbing of his talk show. In fact, it spilled over to his film career as well, leading to appearances in a number of mediocre family-friendly comedies such as "Cops and Robbersons," (1994), "Man of the House" (1995) and "Vegas Vacation," (1997). Adding fuel to the fire, that same year, he appeared as a guest host on "SNL" but rumors again persisted that he treated cast and crew poorly and was not welcome back. He did make a cameo appearance again, however, in 1999.
With each year, things seemed to go from bad to worse for the comic legend. Another career misstep occurred when Chase turned down the lead role in the dark Best Picture Oscar winner, "American Beauty" (1999) - a part which earned Kevin Spacey an Academy Award - opting instead to focus on family films and small comedies like "Dirty Work" (1998) and "Snow Day" (2000). In 2002, he took part in Comedy Central's "New York Friar's Club Roast of Chevy Chase," where comics - many of whom were born after his "SNL" heyday - ripped into him for everything from his failed late night foray to his reportedly boorish reputation. It was, by all accounts, the least funny, most uncomfortable roast Comedy Central ever televised. Despite the career setbacks, he continued to work, albeit, in small parts like a high school principal in the Jack Black comedy "Orange County" (2002) or in small films like the Naomi Watts indie, "Ellie Parker" (2005). He also contributed his voice-over talents to a series of animated films, including "Karate Dog" (2004), "Doogal" (2006) and "Goose on the Loose" (2006). But after what seemed to fans like a lifetime of self-imposed exile from mainstream projects, the multi-talented Chase received a big welcome back for his return to television in a 2006 episode of "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010). The torn-from-the-headlines storyline about a movie star arrested for drunk driving while uttering racial slurs - i.e., Mel Gibson - garnered a fair amount of publicity and showcased Chase's impressive acting chops.
Chase revisited his old stomping ground to make a guest appearance on "Weekend Update" in 2007, and later that year guest-starred in two episodes of ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" (2006-2011) as a former love interest of Sally Field's character. His return to the spotlight also included a villainous recurring run as a software magnate on the NBC spy comedy, "Chuck" (NBC, 2007- ) and a guest starring voice-over alongside old friend Dan Aykroyd in the "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999-2002; 2005- ) episode "Spies Reminiscent of Us," a send-up of the pair's 1985 buddy comedy. In 2009, Chase debuted as a fulltime primetime player when he was cast on NBC's "Community" (2009- ), a well-received sitcom set at a community college in which Chase offered an expectedly genius portrayal of an aging corporate tycoon who goes back to college. Though not a big hit, "Community" attracted a consistent enough audience to keep the show on the air. Just as it seemed that his career was on the mend, Chase was once again the focal point of controversy, this time after a long-simmering feud between him and series creator Dan Harmon came to the fore. According to reports, Chase had walked off the set during filming of the season finale, which prompted Harmon to publicly chastise him at the wrap party with chants of "F*ck you, Chevy Chase!" in front of the actor's family. Chase then left a profanity-laced voicemail on Harmon's phone, which the executive producer played for a small crowd gathered to hear him speak at a comic book store. Audio of the event leaked onto the Internet and caused a stir big enough that eventually Harmon apologized on his blog.
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Named Man of the Year (1992) by Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the nation's oldest undergraduate dramatic group.
"Nobody prepares you for what happens when you get famous, and I didn't handle it well," says Chase. "I'm older now. And a big crybaby."---Chevy Chase to EW, August 13, 2004.
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