Chris Farley’s death robbed the world of one of its funniest performers. His fearless, manic, and intensely physical comedy made him an overnight sensation in the early 90s, rising from the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago to cast member on Saturday Night Live within a few short years. In 1997, at the age of 33, he died from a drug overdose.
It’s difficult to look back on Farley’s career, from his hilarious turn as Matt Foley, the motivational speaker who lived in
a van down by the river (admit it, you read that with Farley’s distinctive delivery) to his feature films with Adam Sandler and David Spade, without thinking about what might have been.
Before he died, he had recorded 80-90% of the dialogue for Shrek; if he had lived, not only would the big green ogre been a lot different, but the film might have ushered in a second stage in his career after the disappointment of Beverly Hills Ninja. Farley had also been eyeing an adaption of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces, a more serious turn that could easily have seen him gaining the same acclaim as Jim Carrey in The Truman Show or Will Farrell in Stranger Than Fiction.
Farley’s tragic story follows an all-too-familiar script. His life and death most closely mirror his idol, John Belushi, who also died at 33 from an overdose of cocaine and opiates (in Belushi’s case, heroin; for Farley, it was morphine). Both enjoyed incredible success with the Saturday Night Live cast, and both lived large, pushed themselves to the limit—and beyond—for a laugh, and burned out far too young. In fact, in the Biography Channel’s "The Tragic Side of Comedy," friends of Farley recall that SNL producer Lorne Michaels threatened to fire Farley unless he got help because he’d already been through burying Belushi and couldn’t do it again.
Farley also identified with silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the original "fat man in a little coat," whose career was destroyed by false accusations of rape and manslaughter in 1921. Farley was working on a biopic of Arbuckle at the time of his death, and according to his brother, it was a deeply personal project: "This is me. I’m going to tell them about the real Fatty Arbuckle, and maybe they’ll understand the real Chris Farley."
According to the People article remembering him the month after his death, "What makes Farley’s fate even more poignant is the sense that his self-esteem woes and powerful addictions fueled his comic persona, that of a self-loathing slob who crashed through windows for laughs."
Most of his iconic performances were built around that persona, but there was much more to him than being the fat, hysterical guy on the brink of self-destruction. The Chippendales sketch with Patrick Swayze, for example, which despite the obvious joke that he was fat while Swayze was buff actually showcased Farley’s surprisingly nimble moves. Sadly, his addictions—to drugs, alcohol, food, and the need to be liked—got the better of him in the end. At least we’ll always have Tommy Boy.