In an illuminating moment frozen in time in the biographical documentary I Am Chris Farley, a camera zeroes in on the late Saturday Night Live standout.
The year is 1995. Chris Farley’s on the set of his first bona fide post-SNL comedy vehicle, the road trip buddy pic Tommy Boy. It will soon become Farley’s most beloved cult comedy—and, thanks to critical pans, the bane of his tortured movie star existence.
The rising star is visibly stressed. He smiles through it anyway as he always did for his audience.
“When Fatty falls down, everyone goes home happy!” he jokes, the strain of enormous pressure betrayed in his eyes.
Within two years, the beloved comedian known for barreling his hefty frame with childlike abandon every Saturday night across the stages of NBC’s Studio 8H as Matt Foley the motivational speaker, Bears superfan Todd O’Connor, and countless more indelible characters would be gone, found dead of a drug overdose in his Chicago apartment at the age of 33.
“There’s a category of people that I work with that are infuriatingly talented,” SNL architect Lorne Michaels says at the start of I Am Chris Farley, taking a bittersweet trip down memory lane from his desk at SNL.
By the time Farley developed the health and addiction issues that would kill him seven years later, “there was some part of him that clearly trusted that if he was a little bit fucked up, it would be all right,” Michaels later muses. “Or maybe that that was where the magic came from.”
The first feature-length documentary to examine and exalt Farley’s tragic but bright life, I Am Chris Farley acknowledges the personal darkness that overtook the lovable performer as success hit and hounded him until his untimely death.
His fall came swiftly and publicly, the gory details plastered across the media. But filmmakers Brent Hodge (A Brony Tale) and Derik Murray’s I Am Chris Farley sought to present a more sensitive celebration of Farley’s life rather than dwell on his tragic True Hollywood Story end.
“We wanted to show his legacy, to see what kind of guy Chris Farley was and see this world, because you probably only saw him for four or five years of his career,” Murray told The Daily Beast.
With the blessing of the Farley family and Chris’s brother Kevin Farley onboard as executive producer, I Am Chris Farley traces Farley’s addiction issues and emotional fragility to a perfect storm of elements, suggesting that fame came too swiftly to the people-pleasing performer, and brought with it so much pressure in his personal life and professional career that his demons eventually, and inevitably, overtook him.
To that end, the documentary taps into a side of Farley that even his biggest fans haven’t seen: an idyllic suburban child clamoring for attention as one of five siblings, but always the funniest of them all; summers spent at camp nurturing the born performer within; years of partying with his fellow rugby players at Marquette University, cultivating a dependence on drink and companionship.
It traces how back in 1990, Michaels had hired a 26-year-old Farley fresh from the main stage at Chicago’s Second City, where the Wisconsin native had translated his lifelong flair for the limelight into a budding career in comedy. The effortlessly physical Farley, like John Belushi before him, bounded into every sketch with an infectious je ne sais quoi that endeared him to everyone at SNL.
Some comedians could be bitterly competitive for laughs. Farley, by all accounts, was just happy to be there. He struck up friendships with that generation’s new class of comedy talents, many of whom went on to realize the kind of mainstream careers that Farley might have had today if he’d only been able to handle success.
But in his final years, the cracks in Chris Farley’s buoyant façade were noticeably apparent to friends, family, and fans. His weight had ballooned and his voice grown raspy through years of substance abuse, despite over a dozen brushes with rehab.
Friends and family recall how the pressures of a Hollywood career drove Farley toward his addiction. “I was with him when he relapsed the first time,” says brother Tom Farley. Chris was anxious about seeing a cut of his latest film, Black Sheep, and worried that it would tank with critics like Tommy Boy had the year before.
“He was getting nervous and upset, and to see it onscreen was enough to set him off,” says Tom Farley. The next day, he got a call: Chris was back in rehab. He’d go on to have a similar relapse over his next film, Beverly Hills Ninja.
Farley infamously returned to host SNL in October of 1997, and noticeably struggled to deliver the kind of performance he could once do with ease. In I Am Chris Farley, Michaels reveals he brought Farley back “to make him go through it, to make him realize, This is what happened to you”—comedy as intervention.
Two months later, before completing his voice work on the animated film Shrek, Farley’s brother found him dead from an overdose of cocaine and morphine.
Pals David Spade, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Molly Shannon, Jay Mohr, and Dan Aykroyd pop up in I Am Chris Farley to share bittersweet memories of their late colleague and discuss the darkness that resurfaces every time the comedy world loses one of their own to addiction and suicide.
“I wasn’t shocked, but I was very sad,” says Myers of Farley’s death in 1997. Some, like Sandler, recall trying to warn Farley away from the lifestyle that eventually killed him. “[I said], ‘You’re gonna die from that, buddy, you’ve got to stop,’” says Sandler. “‘It’s not going to end right.’”
“It took months to go, ‘Okay, I can talk about this,’” says Spade, the comedian most associated professionally and personally with Farley. “It comes up in something every day… I think it will forever.”
“He was a very sweet guy before midnight,” says Bob Saget, who directed Farley in Dirty Work just before his death. “He was as open, like a 6-year-old, as he was dark. And the darkness was compelling, but not something you’d want to be around.” Like many of the comics in I Am Chris Farley, Saget gets emotional remembering his late friend. “All that love that came out of the guy was just his nature, that was him apologizing for a lot of stuff I wish he never had to apologize for,” he laments.
Odenkirk, whose collaborations with Farley included the iconic motivational speaker sketch, chimes in on a more sobering note. “With Chris, there’s a limit to how wonderful it is to me, and that limit is when you kill yourself with drugs and alcohol. That’s where it stops being so fucking magical.”
After shooting the documentary last year, Hodge and Murray took it first to Chris’s brother and fellow comedian Kevin Farley. “When we did show him a cut, it took him two hours to recover,” says Murray. “When he stopped crying, he said he loved the film.”