Chevy Chase: Cut to the Chase
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation star Chevy Chase admits that reading A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live made him cry.
He was born Cornelius Crane Chase, like a name out of a J.P. Donleavy novel, but his grandmother thought he'd be stuck with "Corny" or "Neil" and renamed him Chevy. His grandfather was an equestrian portrait artist, his father a publisher, his mother musical and a good audience for his early humor. His parents separated when he was four and divorced two years later and he has no recollection of them ever being together, although he is close to both of them. It was his father who taught him that a sense of humor is the most important quality a person can have, and to this day he feels his father is the funniest man he knows.
School was a problem for Chevy Chase. He was kicked out twice from the Riverdale Country School in New York for disciplinary problems. He had a problem with authority figures and thought "a lot of the teachers were full of shit." At Haverford College, where he thought he'd major in medicine, the dean suggested that he take a year off and see a shrink. He wound up at Bard, which he preferred because it was coeducational.
He fell in love for the first time at 15 but when the girl kissed him with an open mouth he didn't know how to respond. "She broke up with me after two weeks when she found out that I didn't know that her belly button wasn't the right spot." He took jobs caring for a tennis court in Woodstock, driving a mail truck in Baltimore and working as a motorcycle messenger. He also wrote for Mad magazine and worked on a show called Channel One as well as for National Lampoon's Lemmings. His musical talent was self-learned; his comedy writing was of a high enough caliber to get him jobs writing for Alan King and the Smothers Brothers.
He was hired as a writer and performer for Saturday Night Live when it first began 15 years ago. He stayed for only one year, but what a year it was. His talent for mugging into the camera and falling down stairs, ladders, and tables soon brought him a popularity that landed him on the cover of magazines. Along with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman, he captured the hip young American audience who came out of the psychedelic sixties. Chase originated Weekend Update, a spoof on TV news, and often began the segment by saying, "Good evening, I'm Chevy Chase. . . and you're not."
He left the show, he said, to follow a girl who lived in California. He also left to follow a movie career, one which has brought him much fortune, if not the kind of critical success he had on Saturday Night Live. Some of his more popular films, like National Lampoon's Vacation, Caddyshacki, Foul Play and Fletch, have grossed between $40 and $70 million, and his most recent movie is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. He is currently earning $6 million a picture, and is about to move from his well-guarded home in the Pacific Palisades to a two-acre property in Mandeville Canyon. He and his third wife, Jayni, have three young daughters. It is his family that has changed him considerably. He is a much mellower man today at 46 than he was before he became a father. He stopped taking drugs some years ago, and has overcome an addiction to painkillers which he was on for his back -- "degenerative disc disease is what it's called. I realized there were more important things than killing myself and being unavailable emotionally and intellectually to my family."
It's a different Chevy Chase who sits now in his living room, complaining of the smell of garlic from the kitchen and of his daughters having to learn to ride their bikes on the tennis court and not in the street, reflecting on his life and career. It's a Chase who is filled with self-doubt. Whose priorities have shifted from career to family. But who still knows that he's Chevy Chase... and we're not.
CHASE: I've read your book, The Hustons. Jesus, that stuff with Ray Bradbury and Truman Capote... I wouldn't like to have been on the end of that stuff.
Bradbury still can't talk about his experience working, on Moby Dick. But he did finally strike out at Huston.
He should have kicked him in the balls. I feed on guys like Huston, guys who are bullies like that. I love 'em. I know them. I've seen them. And I like them head on. So I hate 'em. What you've done is really comprehensive, you can feel it, it's history the way you handle three generations. A biography is really a responsibility. It's a great book.
Thanks for the plug, but are you just saying that so I won't ask you why all the stories I've read about you always include descriptions of your arrogance, smugness, or of your being annoying?
I don't get that. I was that way 10 years ago. People in the press still feel I'm full of myself, and that until I act as if I'm not full of myself, at least by their standards, they are going to cut me down. And I don't like it. I don't understand it. Arrogant about what? Smug about what? Annoying to whom? The people that I see and work with and am around, including my friends, I don't think any of them would call me annoying or smug or arrogant. It's just not me. So after a while, reading these things hurts. That's the price you pay for being in the limelight. Brando's called arrogant. I suppose in some ways that's a compliment then. This great artist Marlon Brando, this genius, who is annoying, smug and arrogant. But with me, I don't read the genius and great artist part, I just read annoying, smug and arrogant. I don't tend to get nice press.
Why do you suppose that is?
I don't know why. They're not going to write: Here's a nice middle-class guy who cares about his family and works hard and who's really got very good values. Who gives a shit? They don't want to hear that. All the editors are going to say is, "I'm sorry, we can't use this unless you've got some shit on this guy."
But what about the critics, who also don't seem to be in your corner?
Critics are another thing altogether. There are so many movie critics now that are eminently quotable. They are all over the pages. "I give it a 10." Dixie Watley gives it a 4. Who are these people? There's a million of them. And there are only a couple you really want to read.
I will read Pauline Kael. I don't agree with her opinions of many of the pictures, but I read for the joy of reading something well written. Incidentally, she's never written about a picture of mine. Maybe she just feels my pictures aren't even worth it. Fine. But to go over the line about my best friend Steve Martin's pictures -- they're good, but his pictures aren't all that much better or worse than mine. But to see people like Steve and Robin Williams just being the golden boys consistently, even though they are my best friends, particularly Steve--I'd love to get a little of that myself.
Do you have any theories about why you're not getting the kind of reviews you feel you deserve?
I believe that it depends on what the critics' expectation of the artist they are dealing with is. And if that person doesn't live up to that expectation then they have a right to say something about it. After ten years of not living up to those expectations maybe they ought to lower their expectations and give me a good review for what it is I'm trying to do. Christmas Vacation will probably get panned and dumped all over because it's Clark Griswold mugging and getting laughs. Something that only very few people can do the way I do. And make it work.