Once upon a time, Chevy Chase was considered the funniest man in America. His work on Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon made him an Emmy-winning comedy icon. However, he’s now gained a new reputation and it’s a not a good one. Allegations of bad behavior constantly dog him, and reportedly his behind-the-scenes antics have made him a pariah more than once. So what happened to cause such a downfall?
Chevy Chase was born as Cornelius Crane Chase – a faintly pompous-sounding name and rather funny in itself. Perhaps he was always destined for comedy. His family ties ensured he had plenty of options available to him once he grew up: the Chases were wealthy New Yorkers who could trace their ancestries back to the Mayflower.
However, Chase’s early home life may not have been great. In a 2007 authorized biography by Rena Fruchter, titled I’m Chevy Chase… And You’re Not, he claimed that his concert pianist mother beat him as a child. Not only that, but her second husband allegedly abused him too. It was, Chase claimed in the book, “emotional and physical abuse that sometimes bordered on torture.”
Chase was one of five siblings, and according to the book he suffered the worst abuse out of all of them. His half-brother John, interviewed for the biography, claimed, “My mother, at her worst, was like an unleashed animal. It was at her hands, in her feral altered states, that [Chase] suffered the darkest of his secret torments.”
The book claimed that Chase and his siblings were sometimes smacked with hairbrushes or locked in closets as punishment. The former said in the publication that he spent his childhood struggling endlessly with “understanding how to survive such fear and despair and still be a ‘good’ child.”
In May 2007 Chase told People magazine why he’d released the biography. He said, “I waited until my mother and stepfather and anyone who could be hurt had passed away. It might point up one can survive a childhood filled with fear and a certain amount of pain and do something with one’s life.” Chase has definitely achieved a lot: his SNL bits and his movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation are popular and still talked about to this day.
But despite that comment about not wanting to cause hurt, Chase was still filled with anger towards his parents. The actor told People, “I’ll never forgive them. At their graves I didn’t. It was too hard for me. You would think a grown man could shake it off, as the coffin is being lowered, to say, ‘I forgive you.’ I don’t forgive.”
Chase’s childhood experiences haunted him after he became a parent himself, those close to him have said. He had three daughters with his third wife, Jayni Luke – these are Emily, Caley and Cydney. According to Jayni, who spoke to People along with her husband, “Subconsciously, he was expecting me to say horrible things to the children.”
In 2018 Chase gave an interview to The Washington Post where he slammed I’m Chevy Chase… And You’re Not. It was “hideous,” he said, and Rena Fruchter “had the sense of humor of an egg timer.” But perhaps the most revealing thing he said about it was, “Chevy Chase hiding in a closet from his mother? Good God. Take me for who I am now.”
But Jayni again had something to say, adding to the Washington Post, “[Chase] is an abused kid. One of the things that most of us have is, we know that our moms loved us, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to say that our fathers also loved us… there’s layers of lucky and grateful, and things that give you a good start in life, and a foundation and self-confidence, and give you a capacity to live without fear. And [Chase] doesn’t have those things.”
Come 1975, Chase became one of the founding members of the now-iconic Saturday Night Live. It catapulted him to stardom. In the course of his work on the show he ended up rubbing shoulders with powerful people, including President Ford, whom he parodied onscreen in displays of silliness and slapstick.
But even during the very first season of SNL, cracks were starting to show. One of the most famous skits the show ever provided was “Word Association” starring Chase alongside Richard Pryor. It was a satire of racial attitudes at the time, and, partly due to its use of the N-word, it quickly became infamous. But behind the scenes, Pryor and Chase weren’t remotely friends.
TV audiences would have seen a glimpse of the animosity between Pryor and Chase in May 1977, when they both appeared on The Tonight Show. And it was, to say the least, tense. At one point the latter made a joke about Pryor’s son being “a hooker” and Pryor rounded on him with, “What was it you said?” As a result, Chase quickly changed tack.
In fact, Chase was apparently friends with very few people on SNL. Allegedly, none of the cast or writers liked spending time with him. In the 1985 book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night, authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad described Chase as “a viciously effective put-down artist” who was arrogant and a drug addict to boot.
Chase’s substance abuse problems are well documented. In October 1986, one year after he did the poorly received National Lampoon’s European Vacation, he went to the Betty Ford Center to begin rehab. His agent Pat Kingsley said that the actor had “dependency on prescription drugs relating to chronic and long-term back problems” as a result of doing his own stunts for comedy routines.
Chase left SNL in the middle of season two, claiming that he was doing so for love. In fact, he claimed he wanted to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Jacqueline Carlin, whom he ended up marrying. In his autobiography he wrote, “I left for a girl that I was in love with. It had nothing to with lucrative film deals awaiting me.”
However, as it turned out, Chase’s film career would last longer than his marriage to Carlin. They married in 1976 and were divorced by 1980. But Chase’s fame as a funnyman was increasing all the more. And, before too long, he was earning millions of dollars with every film he did.
Yet among people who knew him, Chase was desperately unpopular. When he came back to host SNL in 1977, he allegedly physically fought Bill Murray while the cameras were off. Reportedly, the fight broke up just seconds before they came back on. The two apparently didn’t make up until 1980, when they starred in Caddyshack together.
But, over the years, more serious accusations about Chase’s conduct on sets began to come out. In the mid-1980s he returned once more to host SNL and was allegedly highly homophobic to Terry Sweeney, the show’s first openly gay comedian. Among other things, he suggested a running joke where Sweeney was checked to see if he had AIDS.
In the book Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, first published in 2001, Sweeney spoke out about what had happened. “He was really furious that he had to apologize to me. He was just beside himself. And it was just awful. He acted horribly to me. He acted horribly to everyone.”
Live From New York contained several other anecdotes about Chase – few of which were good. According to Sweeney, Chase even insulted Robert Downey Jr.’s father direct to his face. “He said to Robert Downey Jr., ‘Didn’t your father used to be a successful director? Whatever happened to him? Boy, he sure died, you know, he sure went to hell.’ Downey turned ashen.”
An allegation of sexual harassment was also made against Chase in the Live From New York book. Famous actor Will Ferrell spoke about it, claiming that during a February 1997 episode Chase had been “going around the room and systematically riffing… when he got to one of our female writers, he made some reference like, ‘Maybe you can give me a hand job later.’ In hindsight, I wish we’d all gotten up and walked out of the room.”
Although he didn’t walk out of the room, Ferrell did get Chase banned from the show. During the filming of that episode he also witnessed Chase smack fellow cast member Cheri Oteri in the back of the head, and it was the last straw for everyone. That year, Chase was banned from SNL.
He did return for a few cameos afterwards, but things were never the same again. When Chase was roasted for a Comedy Central special in 2002, only a few SNL members showed up. And the roast got downright vicious, far more so usual. One of the few repeatable comments came from Greg Giraldo, who called Chase “living proof that you could actually snort the funniness right out of yourself.”
After that, Chase mostly stuck to guest-star parts on shows like Law & Order and Family Guy. His biggest role at that time was as a villain on the show Chuck. It was a massive comedown from his movie-star days. But in 2009 an opportunity fell into his lap – a major role on the sitcom Community.
Community could have spelled a major comeback for Chase, but it wasn’t to be. His character, Pierce Hawthorne, was a tiresome old bigot – and there was allegedly barely a distinction between character and actor. According to his co-star Joel McHale, Chase had no problem saying the N-word on set.
Speaking to Howard Stern in 2013, McHale claimed that Chase explained to him that “Richard Pryor told him it was okay to call him that.” But that didn’t fly with the diverse cast of Community, all of whom quickly began despairing of Chase. McHale related to Stern, “When I would try to talk to him about his attitude, he would just try to fight me. He physically wanted to fight me.”
Things then came to a head in 2012. Chase and Community’s show runner, Dan Harmon, began feuding so badly that the story leaked onto the internet. Chase left Harmon an obscene voicemail, and he retaliated by putting it online. By mid-season four the actor had left the show, and filmed a future cameo on a different set entirely. His former co-stars had little good to say about him afterwards, with Donald Glover publicly accusing him of racism in 2018.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Glover recollected that Chase would make jokes about race in between takes, and try to distract him while filming scenes. One of the things he said, Glover claimed, was, “People think you’re funnier because you’re black.” Glover himself left Community before the show’s end.
Dan Harmon backed Glover up in the interview. He said, “[Chase] was the first to realize how immensely gifted [Glover] was, and the way he expressed his jealousy was to try to throw [him] off. I remember apologizing to [Glover] after a particularly rough night of Chevy’s non-P.C. verbiage, and [he] said, ‘I don’t even worry about it.’”
Glover told The New Yorker, “I just saw [Chase] as fighting time – a true artist has to be okay with his reign being over. I can’t help him if he’s thrashing in the water. But I know there’s a human in there somewhere – he’s almost too human.” Asked for a comment by the publication, Chase himself said only, “I am saddened to hear that [Glover] perceived me in that light.”
Is it too late for Chevy Chase now? It might well be. Reportedly, a Community movie is in the planning stages without Chase’s involvement. He hasn’t had a leading role for many years. And come 2018 he made headlines for fighting yet again, this time with a driver who cut him off in traffic.
According to reports, the other driver kicked Chase in the shoulder after the two men started to argue. The man in question, Michael Landrio, told the New York Post that he had no idea Chase was a famous actor. He said, “I looked him up on Google and I still didn’t know who he was. He didn’t look like he looked when he made his movies.” Ouch.
Elsewhere, Chase’s spoke to The Washington Post in September 2018 and went in-depth into his troubles. The actor began by slamming the current version of SNL, saying, “A whole generation of s***heads laughs at the worst f***ing humor in the world. You know what I mean? How could you dare give that generation worse shit than they already have in their lives? It just drives me nuts.”
The interviewer asked Chase when he thought SNL was last funny. He answered, “I’d have to say, that after the first two years, it went downhill. Why am I saying that? Because I was in it? I guess. That’s a horrible thing to say. But certainly I never had more fun. I really loved it and enjoyed it. I didn’t see the same fun thing happening to the cast the next year.”
Chase’s family talked to The Washington Post about his struggles with alcohol. His daughter Caley told the publication she’d seen him drink more and more as time went on. Things had become so bad she stopped talking to him altogether, and then a doctor told her he had alcohol cardiomyopathy.
Caley explained to the Post, “At that point, I had given up and I assumed he would die soon.” And she wasn’t alone; his wife Jayni felt a similar way. Chase went to rehab to try and fix the problem, but it was unsuccessful. Following that, she apparently sent him a note reading, “I do not want to divorce you, but I can’t watch you hurt yourself anymore.”
However, Chase did manage to quit drinking. He told the Post it had happened about 18 months prior to the interview, and he had no idea how he managed to do it. He was taking stock of his life, it seemed. He added, “I’ve already done what I’ve done. I can’t change anything. And I’m old. I don’t have to worry about what I did anymore.”
Chase went on, “I know who I am. People know who I am who know me. And I’m proud to be who I am. Because I care about people, I care about feelings. I care about warmth, love. It’s everything.” And regarding the media pieces about his behavior, he said, “I guess the part they don’t write about is where I’m lying in bed, hurt by that, not going to sleep but thinking over and over, why would somebody write that? I’m highly sensitive. I don’t know it in my insensitive self.”
Has Chase burnt too many bridges now? Maybe. From 2017 he filmed a movie for Netflix called The Last Laugh – but, he recounted to The Washington Post, on his first day the director informed him, “You have a reputation.” And when the film was released in 2019 it received only middling reviews. Indeed, if he can make his way back, he has a long way to go.