In the fall of 1975, a new TV show debuted amid much hype and hoopla. Saturday Night Live promised to be a breath of fresh air on television. Unlike most network programming, which was either filmed or taped for broadcast at a later time, the ABC show would be as live as its title suggested. Hosted by sportscaster Howard Cosell, Saturday Night Live bombed and bombed big, but in the meantime, a show on a competing network with a similar title, Saturday Night, debuted rather quietly on the night of October 11. In the weeks ahead, the show that aired on NBC in the 11:30 p.m. - 1:00 a.m. time slot that affiliates had previously filled with Johnny Carson repeats or old movies, would become the talk of the nation. Although each episode had a guest host (everybody from George Carlin and Elliott Gould to Desi Arnaz and Broderick Crawford), the stars were the talented group of performers known as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. It took awhile for the public to learn most of their names, but one was on the tip of everyone's tongue from the beginning, due in part to his introduction at the start of Weekend Update, the faux news report he wrote and anchored: "I'm Chevy Chase - and you're not."
Born Cornelius Crane Chase in New York City on October 8, 1943, he acquired the nickname "Chevy" from his grandfather, though his inspiration remains unclear. His mother was a concert pianist and plumbing heiress, and his father a book editor with MacMillan. Chase credits his father, who died in 2005, for the sense of humor with which he would make his mark on the world. "He's a well-respected book editor," Chase told Playboy in 1988. "But he's the kind of person who will walk down the street and suddenly stop by a hydrant and lift his leg."
He was a pre-med student at Bard College, but upon graduation decided against pursuing a career in medicine. Instead, he played drums and keyboards in various bands while also honing his comedic skills with Channel One, an underground ensemble he formed in 1967. He also wrote for Mad magazine, then joined The National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1973 where his cast mates included John Belushi, another future star of Saturday Night. Chase and Belushi also appeared in the Lampoon's off-Broadway show Lemmings, and Chase made his big-screen debut in the ensemble of The Groove Tube, a 1974 spoof of television.
Chase became Saturday Night'sfirst breakout star by accident. He signed on strictly as a writer, but was thrust into the spotlight after he joined rehearsals for the first show. During the show's first season, he opened every broadcast with what became his trademark, a pratfall, which he followed with the announcement: "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Within the year, he was profiled in a cover story in New Yorkmagazine which praised him as "the funniest man in America," and was being touted as both the heir apparent to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and the next Cary Grant.
Saturday Night Live (as it was re-christened in 1976 following the cancellation of the Cosell show) was the first television show created by baby boomers who came of age when television was a fact of everyday life, and rock 'n roll was as much a philosophy as it was something to dance to. It cast a skeptical eye on American society and its sacred cows, bit the hand that fed it by spoofing television commercials and classic shows like Twilight Zone and Star Trek, welcomed rock n' roll icons like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as musical guests, and lampooned politicians with a savagery previously found only in the pages of National Lampoon, the magazine whose radio show provided much of the talent, as did the Second City comedy troupe. There was a method to the madness. "We wanted to redefine comedy the way the Beatles redefined what being a pop star was," producer Lorne Michaels recalled. It may have been an ensemble, but the preppie Chase was unquestionably the star of that first season.
Some of the show's most popular segments were those in which Chase appeared as a bumbling Gerald Ford, an imitation whose effectiveness was rather remarkable considering he made no attempt to look or sound like the 38thU.S. president. Recognizing the show's power, Ford agreed to appear on the program in April 1976, not only introducing the show ("Live from New York, it's Saturday Night"), but paraphrasing Chase's signature line ("I'm Gerald Ford, and you're not") in brief segments taped at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As the show's first breakout star, it was believed that Chase abandoned the program after that first landmark season to take advantage of lucrative movie deals being dangled by Hollywood studios. Chase denies that was the case. "I didn't make a movie for two or three years," he told Time in 2007. "There were no lucrative deals awaiting me. I left because I was in love with a girl in L.A." He later expressed regret at having bowed out after only one season. "I should have hung around for years. And I feel bad about it now."
Chase made occasional appearances on the show the next season, including as a contestant on a futuristic Jeopardy in which one of host Steve Martin's questions concerned a comedian whose career fizzled after leaving Saturday Night Live. "The answer is 'Who is Chevy Chase?'"
There was no need to ask that question in 1977. Chase was very prominent on that year's Oscar telecast where he offered hilarious instructions to the winners on how to hold the golden statuette without touching its genitals.
It wasn't until the summer of 1978 that a film starring Chase appeared in theaters. Foul Play was a romantic-comedy/thriller in the Hitchcock vein, with Chase as an unflappable if clumsy detective protecting Goldie Hawn. "For me at the time," Chase said, "the question was, could I actually be in a movie with somebody who's talented - Goldie - and actually be in something I'd never done before and actually try to act?"
By most accounts, he could. "Entire cast comes off very well," Variety reported, and Chase proved that those comparisons with Cary Grant weren't entirely off-base.
He hadn't abandoned television all together, though. Prior to leaving Saturday Night Live, he signed with NBC for several prime-time specials, one of which, The Chevy Chase National Humor Test, aired in 1979 to generally poor reviews. "Mr. Chase touches most of the appropriate bases, but with an underlined contempt rather than affection," John J. O' Connor wrote in The New York Times.
But his movie career was taking some odd turns. His second big-screen appearance came in 1980's Oh Heavenly Dog, co-starring Benji, the lovable mutt whose film debut in 1974 out performed that year's Oscar winner, The Godfather Part II,at the box-office. Chase played a private eye who is murdered, goes to Heaven, and is sent back to earth to solve the crime...as a dog!
"Satire has a curious way of catching up with itself," Roger Ebert observed in The Chicago Sun-Times. "Just a few short years ago, Chevy Chase was on Saturday Night Live, that sworn enemy of our national tendency toward the smarmy. Now Chevy Chase is playing Benji in a movie."
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Despite having three films in release in 1980, Chase made more news after an appearance on Tom Snyder's late night Tomorrow show that year than for any of his big-screen antics. It was then that Chase facetiously called Cary Grant a "homo," and was slapped with a $10 million lawsuit by the angry screen legend. The matter was settled out of court, but the incident not only earned him Grant's enmity but that of gay rights activists. Defending himself on David Letterman's show sometime later, he explained that it was the word "homo" that he found funny, and that if he had meant to insult gays he would have used a stronger pejorative. "I've had gay friends all of my life and have never been a bigot," he told Time in 2007. Grant may have been offended, but not enough to deny that Chase was a talented screen comedian. Asked if he'd seen any of Chase's films, he said he had. "He's not bad," the movie legend said.
Some of his films were bad, though, and Under the Rainbow is usually cited as one of the worst. Loosely based on the making of the 1938 classic, The Wizard of Oz, when thousands of midgets were recruited to play the Munchkins, the film was a madcap farce that Janet Maslin, in her New York Times review, noted had "ingenuity and momentum, or at least enough of the bizarre to hold an audience's attention."
Next, he played an air-traffic controller who develops telekinetic powers in Modern Problems.
"By my count, Modern Problems has four short but hilarious sequences," Vincent Canby wrote of Chase's Christmas 1981 release in The New York Times, "which means that the laughs come about every 24 minutes in a film that runs a little more than a hour and a half. That's not good enough even by television's standards."
Years later, Chase would express agreement with such barbs. "Modern Problems was awful," he said, but he also had some barbs of his own for the critics. "I don't particularly care for critics," he told Playboy. "These are guys who can't do it so, instead, they bust down a guy who spends two years of his life making a picture. In two minutes, on television!"
In summer 1983, he had no need to complain as National Lampoon's Vacation reached theaters and became his most popular film to date. As Clark Griswold, who takes his family on a disastrous cross country trip to the Walley World amusement park, Chase was at his befuddled best. Although a "family" movie, it had a sharp edge worthy of National Lampoon and was a perfect showcase for the irreverent star. One of the year's 10 biggest hits, the film, written by John Hughes and directed by SCTV alumnus Harold Ramis, would inspire three sequels and leave its fans asking for more. As Chase told Time in 2007, "People to this day keep saying, 'When is the next Vacation movie.'"
Deal of the Century teamed him with Sigourney Weaver, but was not a worthy follow-up. However, 1985's Fletch "allowed me to be myself. Fletch was the first one with me really winging it. Even though there was a script, the director allowed me to just go, and in many ways, I was directing the comedy."
Based on Gregory McDonald's novel that inspired several sequels, Fletch cast Chase as an investigative reporter who masquerades as a doctor, a basketball player, and an insurance salesman while trying to break up a drug ring. As Vincent Canby observed in his NYTimes review, Chase as Fletch "is very much like Mr. Chase the television personality. He manages simultaneously to act the material with a good deal of nonchalance and to float above it..."
National Lampoon's European Vacation brought the Griswolds back to the screen for a less funny follow-up, Spies Like Us teamed him with Saturday Night Live castmate Dan Ackroyd for an amusing farce not unlike the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Road movies (with Hope performing a cameo), and Three Amigos found him mugging along with Steve Martin and Martin Short in a comedy that Roger Ebert felt was made "with too much confidence and not enough desperation." The three stars plugged their movie by co-hosting Saturday Night Live.
Making people laugh can be a serious business, and those pratfalls with which Chase so memorably opened Saturday Night Live took their toll on his health. "Over the years, I've really worn myself down," he told Playboy, "so I have an illness called degenerative-disc disease, which once you have, you can't get rid of, and which is rather painful."
In 1986, an addiction to painkillers landed him in the Betty Ford Center where, he later said, "it wouldn't surprise me if everybody there is on the National Enquirer'spayroll."
Thankfully, Chase followed those tabloid headlines with one of his best films, Funny Farm, released in 1988. As a sportswriter who moves with his wife to the country for the peace and quiet he needs to write a novel, only to find chaos, Chase offered what many critics thought was his best performance. "He has everything just right this time," Roger Ebert wrote, "and he plays the character without his usual repertory of witty asides and laconic one-liners. It's a performance, not an appearance."
Funny Farm was followed by a trio of sequels, Caddyshack II, Fletch Lives, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but only the latter really found favor with his fans.
His movie career had its bumps (the wretched Nothing but Trouble, the disappointing Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and a supporting role in Hero starring Dustin Hoffman), but seemed to be proceeding along successfully enough, so it was a bit of a surprise when he agreed to embark on a nightly talk show for the Fox network in the fall of 1993. Appearing equally uncomfortable and uncommitted, Chase earned scathing reviews, and the show fizzled fast, and was cancelled after six weeks.
"The talk show that I went to Fox with was an entirely different concept than what was pushed on me," he said. "What I wanted had a whole different feel to it, much darker and more improv. But we never got there."
He was back in the multiplex with Cops and Robbersons as a cop show enthusiast who is a little too eager to welcome detective Jack Palance into his home for a stakeout. Despite that inspired pairing and seemingly surefire comedy premise, it was a laborious exercise with few laughs.
It was around this time that Chase moved his family back east to Bedford Corners, New York, and began to withdraw from show business. "(M)y daughters were about to reach puberty and I wanted to get them out of L.A.," he said. "I had a great 20 to 25 years, and I figured I would come back later ...it was time to be a dad and do it the right way."
There were more movies (Man of the House, Vegas Vacation, Dirty Work, Snow Day), but Chase kept a comparatively low profile. Taking time off from his career to be a family man made it difficult to get back in the game, however. Movie offers were scarce, but Chase proved he could be effective in drama when he played a bigot in a 2006 episode of Law and Order. He also appeared in two episodes of ABC's Brothers and Sisters with Sally Field in 2007.
"Ideally, I'd like to go right back to getting $7 million a picture and being the headliner," he said, but admitted "That's probably not going to happen."
Instead, the year 2009 finds him back where he started - on television, on NBC, as the member of an ensemble, in Community, a sitcom about life at a community college. Chase plays Pierce, a mature student with a fondness for wearing hippy beads.
"Chase can make us laugh with just a look," raved Heather Havrilesky at Salon.com, while TV Guide, which hailed the show for having "the instant feel of a classic-in-the-making sitcom," praised Chase's "memorably droll" performance.
As for Saturday Night Live, he still tunes in to, and occasionally turns up on, the show that made him famous. "I love it," he said of the 2007 version. "I really think it's a resurgence."
With Community scoring well with both critics and viewers, it looks like Chase is about to experience a well-deserved resurgence of his own.
--by Brian W. Fairbanks