Pratfalls, pain and laughter marked the short, reckless life of funnyman Chris Farley

By Alex Tresniowski
January 12, 1998 12:00 PM

CHRIS FARLEY, SWEAT POURING down his face, clutched his chest and yelled, “I’m about to have a heart attack!” It was Dec. 14, and Farley, the colossal comic with appetites as oversize as his talent, was at a party in Chicago’s hip dance club Karma, drinking heavily, doling out $50 tips and doing his usual over-the-top comedy bits for fans. The heart attack? Just another joke, another attempt to poke fun at himself and score some laughs. Still, says one partygoer, “I wondered if he really was having chest pains. He looked bad.”

Four days later no one was laughing when tragedy struck Christopher Crosby Farley for real. On Dec. 18, after a bacchanalian final week full of strippers, drugs and alcohol, Farley was found dead in his 60th-floor apartment in Chicago’s John Hancock tower. There, his brother John, 29, a Chicago actor, discovered the 5’8″, 296-lb. Farley, dressed in sweatpants and an open shirt, sprawled on his back in the foyer. No drugs were found in the apartment, and results of an autopsy were withheld pending tests.

Yet the prevailing speculation was that the shocking—though not entirely unexpected—death of Farley, at age 33, was a senseless replay of what happened to Farley’s idol John Belushi, the comic dervish who died of a heroin and cocaine overdose in 1982, also at 33. “He was obsessed with Belushi,” says Farley’s former drug counselor Dallas Taylor, who last saw the comic in August, just before Farley was kicked out of a Malibu rehab clinic for disruptive behavior. “Chris thought he needed to be loaded to excess in order to be accepted.” A shy kid from Wisconsin who regularly attended mass, including on the last Sunday of his life, Farley recently admitted to US magazine that “lust, gluttony, booze and drugs are most of the things I confess to. I can’t help it. I want to be a good Catholic, but I’m a hedonist.”

In that sense Farley’s death seems like another sorry chapter in the long-running Hollywood morality play that has lately featured actors Robert Downey Jr. and Christian Slater, who both recently received jail time after years of substance abuse. “In Hollywood, a world without boundaries, Chris was much more vulnerable,” says Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, who hired Farley for the show. “Chris yearned for and needed structure.”

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. “He always said, ‘They come to see the fat boy fall down,’ ” says Second City producer Joyce Sloane, who helped launch Farley’s career. “But I don’t think he liked being the fat boy. He had all these demons that he just could not fight.”

In the last few months those demons snagged Farley in a downward spiral. He was heavier than ever and, at a March SNL cast reunion in Aspen, seemed dangerously out of control. “There was a hyperawareness of what was going on with Chris,” says former SNL castmate Al Franken, while another source who was at the Aspen reunion recalls Farley sweating so profusely that SNL alum Jan Hooks, sitting next to him, worried that he was staining her suit.

The last week of his life was one epic binge. On the Sunday before he died, Farley partied into the night at Karma, then, back at his condo, freebased cocaine until 9 a.m. on Monday, according to a fellow reveler. Monday night featured a holiday party followed by more late-night club hopping. “He was partying too much and had no sense of direction,” says Chicago Bulls bad boy Dennis Rodman, who ran into Farley that night and had one of his bodyguards help him home. On Tuesday Farley hired an exotic dancer to entertain him at his condo, then hit his favorite after-hours spot, the Hunt Club.

Another exotic dancer, Heidi Hauser, told the Globe that she spent most of Wednesday with a sleep-deprived Farley as he consumed large amounts of cocaine, heroin and vodka. Hauser claims she left Farley, passed out on the floor of his foyer, at 3 a.m. on Thursday. It was there that Farley’s brother John made his grisly discovery 11 hours later. “Chris played Russian roulette with drugs and alcohol, and it caught up with him,” says hairstylist Jillian Seely, a close friend who attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with Farley five days before he died. “He wanted more than anything to be sober, but his addictions overtook him.”

Accounts of Farley’s dark side are myriad yet matched by stories of his incredible gift for making people laugh. Raised in an upscale section of Madison by Thomas Farley, an oil company owner, and Mary Anne, a housewife, Chris was “always an entertainer,” says Joel Maturi, his football coach at Madison’s private Edgewood High School. “But he was never mischievous in a harmful way.” As a sophomore at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Farley signed up on a lark for a campus variety show. “He came onstage and did a pratfall,” says Pat Finn, at that time his best friend, “and the place just went berserk.”

After seeing his father roar with laughter while watching John Belushi in Animal House, Farley knew his destiny. “He wanted to follow in John’s footsteps,” says Joyce Sloane of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe—Belushi’s old stomping grounds-for which Farley was hired in 1987. A brilliant physical comedian who was quickly promoted to Second City’s main stage, Farley was also beginning the reckless drinking and drug-taking that would plague him. “There was heavy betting that he wouldn’t make it a week on the main stage because of drugs and alcohol,” says his former teacher Del Close. “But he could always cut the gig.”

In 1990, Michaels snapped up Farley for Saturday Night Live. The following year the producer forced him to enter a drug-rehab clinic. Farley returned to the show three months later but continued indulging his runaway appetites for drugs, booze and food. “It’s not easy climbing out of that type of behavior,” says Tom Arnold, a longtime friend of Farley’s, who has been sober for eight years. In 1992, Arnold staged an intervention for Farley at the Hollywood office of Roseanne, his then wife. Not long after that meeting, Farley checked into Exodus, a rehab clinic in Marina del Rey, Calif. He stayed sober for three years.

But while Farley managed to corral his substance abuse, “he continued to binge on food and hookers,” says Dallas Taylor, the former drummer for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and now an addiction specialist. Actor Jay Mohr recalls sharing meals with Farley and their SNL cohort David Spade. “David used to tease him about putting butter on his steak,” says Mohr. “Chris would answer with his typical ‘Shut up, David!’ ” Shortly after the third anniversary of his sobriety, Farley fell off the wagon, and from that point on it was one failed rehab stint after another. Filmmaker Stu Matz recalls one SNL party at which Farley “was snorting coke like a vacuum cleaner.”

Farley left SNL in 1995—after creating memorable characters like inspirational speaker Matt Foley—and embarked on a movie career that included roles in Tommy Boy, his first starring part, Black Sheep, Beverly Hills Ninja and the upcoming Almost Heroes, with Matthew Perry. Despite his wealth and fame—Farley earned around $5 million a film—the comic, says his friend Jeff Michalski, was “undeniably lonely He never thought he fit in.”

Farley combated his insecurity by always being on, priming his antic behavior with drugs and coffee (he guzzled three cappuccinos before takes on the set of Tommy Boy). Farley’s reputation worsened: He had to attend daily AA meetings while filming Almost Heroes and was put under 24-hour watch while recording a voice for the upcoming animated film Shrek. When Farley guest-hosted SNL in October, he arrived for rehearsals drunk and, says Michaels, “way out of shape.” Says his friend Seely: “The times he could stay sober were becoming limited.”

Yet there were also signs that Farley wanted to get out of the fast lane. In October he talked of getting married and having children and, in December, announced to one of his brothers that he was going to the Hazelden rehab clinic in Center City, Minn., stating, “I cannot stop drinking.” (He never followed through.) Farley even bought a Christmas tree on Dec. 12, excitedly telling a worker who helped deliver it, “You made my Christmas so special.” It was not to be.

The close-knit Farley clan—his parents, older sister Barbara (a teacher in Madison), and brothers John, Kevin (an actor in Los Angeles) and Tom (a Connecticut banker)—gathered in Madison for Farley’s funeral on Dec. 23 and dealt with it “in typical Irish fashion,” says Tom, “with a lot of laughter and a lot of tears.” On the back of a program handed out to guests like Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Dan Aykroyd was “A Clown’s Prayer,” a copy of which Farley had carried in his wallet for years. It reads, in part, “As I stumble through this life, help me create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair.” That prayer, at least, was answered in Farley’s short life. Says Lorne Michaels: “The thing that made Chris beautiful was when he was making people laugh.”