Chris Farley was born February 15, 1964, and would have been 58 years old today. For 33 years he graced this earth, bringing laughter and joy to millions of people across the world while simultaneously struggling with his own demons. He was a devout Catholic who spent many Sunday mornings in church, hungover and otherwise operating with the aid of whatever else was in his system at the time. He was a fan favorite on Saturday Night Live, playing many recurring characters such as motivational speaker Matt Foley, Chicago Bears superfan Todd O’Connor, Weekend Update commentator Bennet Brauer, and one of the Gap Girls. Plus there were the other great characters like a Chippendale’s dancer competing for a spot against Patrick Swayze, the man who was duped into drinking decaf coffee, and a partygoer in a fake beer commercial.
Outside SNL, Farley starred in a handful of well-received comedies such as Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. He also a generous man, donating time and money to many charitable efforts, many of them associated with the Catholic Church.
Off air, Chris Farley is probably most remembered for his struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and his weight. He was always a hefty man. His father was also a large man and in the midwestern, well-fed culture of Wisconsin where the Farleys lived it was easy to become big because of the availability of food. Even in his final years Farley sought treatment for his weight.
A bigger problem than his weight, however, was his affinity for drugs and alcohol. Farley began using drugs and alcohol in college and gradually began using more and more serious substances. At the height of his SNL days he was regularly using cocaine and heroin in addition to alcohol and cannabis. He would, occasionally, be clean for longish stretches of time. But it was never for too long, and eventually the iron hooks of crippling addiction would once again find their way into Farley, pulling him down a dark path that he had no desire to be in.
He was fired from Saturday Night Live in 1995, and Farley began yet another cycle of addiction, treatment, and relapse. In fact, in the two years before his death, Farley entered rehab no less than seventeen times. He was often compared to John Belushi, another hard-partying SNL alum who died at 33.
Farley came back to host Saturday Night Live on October 25, 1997, less than two months before he died. He was in terrible shape. His voice was coarse and weak, his skin was flushed and sweaty, and he generally looked so uncomfortable that at one point some of the producers suggested canceling the show. The show went on but went poorly, and in fact it is one of only two episodes that have been permanently pulled from syndication and streaming services (the other, by the way, was Steven Seagal).
On December 18, 1997, Chris Farley was found dead in his Chicago apartment. He died from an overdose of cocaine and heroin, commonly known as a speedball. He was 33 years old. His funeral was held in Wisconsin and over 500 people attended, including many of his fellow SNL cast members. David Spade did not attend because it would have been, understandably, too emotional.
In the aftermath of Chris Farley’s death there were even more comparisons made between him and John Belushi, who in addition to dying at the same age also died of an almost identical drug overdose.
This has, of course, been a very cursory examination of Chris Farley’s life. For those interested in learning more, Chris Farley’s brother Tom wrote an authorized biography called The Chris Farley Show, which includes commentary from people close to Chris from different periods in his life, including contributions from many from his SNL days. Growing up in the 1990s meant that Chris Farley was a huge influence on me. I have probably seen Tommy Boy sixty or seventy times by now, and there are many Chris Farley SNL sketches that I can quote verbatim. But he was not a role model and his existence should be viewed as a tragic lesson in battling demons while trying to entertain those around you. In many ways the Chris Farley story is sadly common, having similarities to John Belushi, John Candy, Robin Williams, and even Anthony Bourdain.
What we can say for certain is that in 1997 we lost a man who had already achieved so much and was destined to achieve much more. If Chris Farley had lived, there’s no telling what sort of stuff we would have gotten out of those Adam Sandler movies. Maybe we wouldn’t have even had to be subjected to Little Nicky or That’s My Boy. Or maybe Kevin James wouldn’t be in with that crew doing the Grown Ups movies and inexplicably playing Sean Payton in Happy Madison’s latest movie, Home Team. Chris Farley had an immense impact on comedy and there is a rather large group of adults out there who were likely heavily influenced by Chris Farley when they were children. So today we should celebrate the life of a man who brought so many good things to so many people.
Happy birthday, Chris Farley!