For eight years Cheech & Chong’s unique blend of tokes and jokes was confined to clubs and four gold records. Then, in 1978, their low-budget ($2 million) maiden movie, Up in Smoke, blissed out at the box office with a $47.3 million stash. Now, their follow-up, Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, has Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong tripping on the ultimate Hollywood high—not reefer but revenue madness. In its first seven weeks, Next Movie pulled in more than $30 million, with Cheech and Chong (who also directs) drawing 50 percent of the gross, on top of their $1 million apiece up front.
So who cares that the New York Times sniffed that the pair “constitute a visual affront to the straight world.” Retorts Cheech, 34, the Mexican-American son of an L.A. police sergeant: “Our movies show the state of the art of Middle America’s acceptance of dope. The avant-garde is always going to try stuff like PCP and freebasing, but those are the dope Nazis. We’re about as controversial as beer.” The same goes for their life offscreen. “We smoke a little pot and that’s it,” maintains Chong, 42, a Canadian-born fitness freak whose father is Chinese and mother a mix of Scotch, Irish and French. “I’ve got my body in such good shape that only a little taste will get it off.”
Indeed, fans have been more duped than doped by their heroes’ counterculture pose. C&C dote on their families, lovingly bought homes for their parents, invest in everything from shopping centers in the San Fernando Valley to San Diego land developments and own a piece of the Queensway Bay Hilton Hotel in Long Beach.
“Money allows you to care for somebody,” reckons Chong. Born in Edmonton, Canada, Chong recalls how his truck driver father struggled against anti-Chinese prejudice. His family encouraged his guitar playing, and he eventually quit high school for “Rock’n’Roll University.” After stints in R&B bands, he gave up guitar (“I wasn’t that great”) and later worked in a family-owned topless-cum-improv club in Vancouver called the Shanghai Junk. It was there that Chong met and hired Richard “Cheech” Marin in 1969.
A native of Watts, Cheech recalls “seeing three murders before I was 7. Our family dinner conversation was about child abuse, murder and rape, since my dad was a policeman.” (He now heads Los Angeles Mission College’s criminology department.) An “A” student through school, who admits he occasionally helped steal cars and “stripped them down,” Cheech got a B.A. in English at Cal State Northridge. Twenty-one when his parents divorced, he then moved to Canada to escape the draft and wound up teaming with Chong. “We did thousands of miles in eight years of touring, just me and him telling our stories,” says Cheech. “I’m more intimate with him than anyone in my life.”
Yet both are family men, if in a rather unusual way. Chong first married his childhood sweetheart, Maxine Sneed, in 1960. Their union produced two daughters—Rae Dawn, 19, and six-foot Robbi, 17—both models living in England. Maxine, now an executive with a black radio-trade magazine in L.A., displays no bitterness toward Chong, despite the fact that he traveled openly with the woman next door, Shelby Fiddis, before their 1970 split. “He was open and honest about Shelby, and the kids are happy in either house,” says Maxine. “No one’s been really hurt.”
Chong and Shelby, 31, who have three children of their own—daughter Precious, 12, and sons Paris, 6, and month-old Gilbran—return Maxine’s affection. “When I split with Maxine,” says Chong, “she supported Shelby and me by loaning us her car, babysitting and giving us money while we were struggling. In return, I still take care of her and always will.” Ironically, Shelby still refuses to marry Chong. “Nobody cheats on his mistress,” she winks. They have a Spanish-style house in Bel Air but just bought a second home in Vancouver, where Chong is designing a workout room and likes to cook his fresh-caught fish over a campfire.
Cheech and his waitress-turned-actress wife of five years, Rikki Morley, 29, adopted their first child—an 11-month-old girl, Carmen—in April. A faithful disciple of meditation who also spends time at home at his pottery wheel and kiln, Cheech has asked Rikki to stop actively seeking film roles (she had bits in Straight Time, Executive Action and Next Movie) to stay home with Carmen in their French country house on Trancas Beach. “That’s him into his Latin heritage,” she smiles, “but I like it.”
Cheech has other fantasies. “I can envision myself a Zen potter living above the sea in one room,” he says. His professional partner, though, foresees a less ascetic Utopia. “In 10 years,” muses Chong, “I’ll be on some giant yacht, going through tax returns with an army of accountants, on our way to my own Mediterranean island to pick up some dynamite, custom-grown hash.”
For now, though, they’re scoring pretty heavy stuff, deal-making in L.A. Columbia Pictures forked over $500,000 just for them to propose three film ideas—none of which was used—plus $1 million apiece for their next epic, which will follow still another tangent. “We have control,” brags Cheech, “and we didn’t have to sell out to get it.” Adds Chong triumphantly: “We own the whole store.”