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That's how comedian Chris Farley is described by his former boss, the guy largely responsible for turning the burly Wisconsin native into one of the biggest TV and movie stars of his lamentably too-short era.

Chris Farley


Chris Farley

Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live, is one of many comedy notables who contribute stories and sad reminiscences in the new documentary I Am Chris Farley, which has its Canadian TV première on Thursday, Sept. 3 at 10:30 p.m. on Movie Central.

It's a heartwarming but ultimately heartbreaking film that celebrates the life of a unique comic genius without ever sidestepping the personal problems that pushed him ever deeper into the lifestyle excesses that led to his death in 1997, at age 33.

As described here, Farley was a guy whose rise to stardom was as inevitable as his drug- and booze-fuelled demise. The product of a rather average Midwestern upbringing in Madison, Wis., he was a rough-and-tumble kid who competed with his four siblings to win the attention and approval of his parents.

Humour was his tool of choice, and Farley employed it constantly, in loud, show-offy fashion.

"Chris was the middle child, the black sheep, the strange one," recalls his brother, Kevin. "He always wanted to outdo me."

His childhood was filled with family gatherings, football and summers at Camp Red Arrow; it was during those camp experiences that young Farley first caught the performing bug. High school was more about acting out than acting, but after he arrived at Marquette University, Farley found himself drawn to structured performing-arts activities (in addition to boozy misbehaviour on the school's rugby team) and, after taking the stage during the annual Marquette Follies variety show, had his own personal "This is it" moment.

After trying unsuccessfully to work at his father's paving company -- a failure that would later be reflected in his first hit movie, Tommy Boy -- Farley and friend Pat Finn headed to Chicago to try their luck with the legendary Second City troupe.

The rest, as they say....

"The second I saw him, I knew he was going to be a giant star," recalls Mike Myers, who preceded Farley in making the jump to SNL and recommended that Michaels take a look at the big guy for his next round of casting.

Farley quickly became the biggest part of Second City's shows in Chicago, and his leap to stardom at SNL followed in rather short order.

But the party-guy excesses that had been part of his college life and rugby post-game antics became serious problems when fame and money were introduced into the equation.

"He was a very sweet guy... before midnight," recalls actor/comedian Bob Saget. "He was as open and like a six-year old as he was dark. And the darkness was compelling, but not something you really wanted to be around."

I Am Chris Farley boasts a wealth of film and video footage -- from early home movies and grainy tapes of Second City performances to classic clips from SNL and subsequent feature films -- and is equally rich in the reflections it offers from siblings, friends and co-workers.

One of the documentary's most poignant moments is an interview clip with Farley himself, clearly from a time when he was feeling very small despite the large-scale success his movie career had brought.

"I think when Fatty falls down, everybody goes home happy," he says of his on-screen work. "It's easier than dialogue; I don't have much of a brain."

Seventeen rehab stints and 16 fresh starts later, Farley's life ended, just a few weeks after a seemingly triumphant return to SNL as a guest host.

"I wasn't shocked, but I was very sad," recalls Myers.

Former Second City castmate Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) offers this well-considered perspective on his friend's life and death: "It's just rare that a person has that much joy and brings that much happiness to everyone around them. But with Chris, there's a limit to how wonderful it is to me, and that limit is when you kill yourself with drugs and alcohol. That's where it stops being so (expletive) magical."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

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Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.