Chase, Chevy (1943—)

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Chase, Chevy (1943—)

Comedian, writer, and actor Chevy Chase met instant critical success and stardom on Saturday Night Live (SNL), first coming to public attention as the anchor of the show's "Weekend Update" news spoof with his resounding "Good evening. I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not!" His mastery of the pratfall, deadpan outrage, and upper-class demeanor made him a standout from the rest of the SNL cast, and only a year later, Chase was Hollywood-bound and starring in movies that capitalized on his SNL persona. Chase appeared as a guest host of SNL in February 1978, and the show received the highest ratings in its history.

Born Cornelius Crane Chase (his paternal grandmother gave him the nickname Chevy) on October 8, 1943, in New York City, Chase earned a bachelor's degree from Bard College in 1967. He worked on a series of low-level projects, developing his talents as a comedy performer and writer. In 1973 he appeared in the off-Broadway National Lampoon's Lemmings, a satire of the Woodstock festival, in which he portrayed a rabid motorcycle gang member and a John Denver type singing about a family freezing to death in the Rockies. In 1974 he wrote and performed for National Lampoon's White House Tapes and the National Lampoon Radio Hour. Chase went to Hollywood in 1975, where he wrote for Alan King (receiving the Writers Guild of America Award for a network special) and The Smothers Brothers television series.

While in a line for movie tickets, Chase met future SNL producer Lorne Michaels, who was so entertained by Chase's humor that he offered him a job writing for the new show, which debuted October 18, 1975. In addition to writing, however, Chase moved in front of the camera, sometimes with material he had written for "Weekend Update" just minutes before. Besides this role, he most famously appeared as President Gerald Ford. His impersonation focused on pratfalls, and served to create an image of a clumsy Ford, which the president himself enjoyed: Ford appeared in taped segments of one episode of SNL declaring "I'm Gerald Ford, and you're not." Chase won two Emmys—one for writing and one for performing—for his SNL work, but his standout success on a show that was supposed to rely on a repertory of actors led to strained relations with the equally popular John Belushi, Michaels, and other colleagues, especially since Chase was not being paid as a performer but as a writer. Chase left SNL in October 1976 and, tempted by movie offers, moved back to California.

In 1978, Chase's first major movie, Foul Play, received mixed reviews, but his name was enough to ensure that it was profitable. The movies that followed, including Caddyshack and Oh Heavenly Dog (both in 1980) also made some money, but Chase himself made negative comments about their artistic quality. In 1983, returning to his comedy roots, Chase starred as Clark Griswold, a role perfectly suited to his deadpan humor, in National Lampoon's Vacation. The movie was a great success and has since been followed by three sequels.

About this time, the actor also was coping with substance-abuse problems. Like many other early alumni of SNL, he was exposed to drugs early in his career, but he also had become addicted to painkillers for a degenerative-disk disease that had been triggered by his comic falls. He was able to wean himself from drugs through the Betty Ford clinic in the late 1980s. In the meantime, he continued to star in movies such as Fletch (1985).

His career began to flag at the start of the 1990s. Chase was heard to remark that he missed the danger of live television, so it came as no surprise to those that knew him that he took a major risk in launching The Chevy Chase Show, a late-night talk show which was one of several efforts by comedians in 1993 to fill the void left by the retirement of Johnny Carson. Like many of the others, it was soon canceled. Since then, Chase has made a number of attempts to revive his movie career. He made the fourth Vacation movie (Vegas Vacation) in 1997 and began work on a new Fletch movie in 1999. Many critics, however, see him as just going through the motions, cashing in on his name and characters before it is too late. The public, however, still thinks of him as Chevy Chase, man of many falls and few competitors.

—John J. Doherty

Further Reading:

"Chase, Chevy." Current Biography Yearbook. Edited by Charles Moritz. New York, H. W. Wilson Co., 1979.

Hill, Doug, and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York, Beech Tree, 1986.

Murphy, Mary. "He's Chevy Chase and They're Not." TV Guide. August 28-September 3, 1993, 14-17.