With the release of the recent Shrek footage featuring the work of Chris Farley and a documentary detailing his life, it’s hard not to think about what might’ve been for the former SNL cast-member’s career. While we’ve explored the personal side of Farley and the duality within his comedic presence, a look at an alternate career path isn’t something that’s been dived into at length. Possibly because it’s too sad, too speculative, or even too difficult to fathom the man as anything but a force of nature when it comes to performance.
That’s where the idea behind this piece begins. It’s something you see bounced around — with varying levels of tact and care — in comment sections and forums across the Internet, usually fueled by late night speculation during some random SNL clip, a showing of Tommy Boy on Comedy Central, or even reading a post on this very site. What would have become of Farley if he hadn’t succumb to his demons? How far would the arc of his career have soared and would he have even opted to stay in show business had he survived?
It’s not like this is the first time we’ve been given a glimpse at a possible future with Chris Farley. His turn as Shrek isn’t some hidden surprise that came from nowhere and it isn’t the only lingering thread from a career that was cut short by self destruction. There were even rumors that Farley was meant to take the Kevin James role in Grown Ups, something that has been hinted at by the cast numerous times since the film’s release. Rob Schneider even compares Kevin James to the late SNL great in this blurb about the film in SF Gate:
Comparing James to late SNL stalwart Chris Farley, he says, “Believe it or not, (Farley) was 330 pounds of grace. I think Kevin is graceful too. And you can’t learn to be likable; he’s one of the most likable guys you’ll ever see on screen.”
This is just a rumor, though, something that Chris Rock and David Spade confirmed during this bit from Howard Stern in 2010, while also noting that if Farley was alive, the role would’ve likely gone to him.
There’s no solid answer, especially since reality is cruel and final. But you can drag some firm possibilities out into the open by comparing Farley to his friends and contemporaries, the similar journeys of other celebrities, and the projects he was considering at the time of his passing. Take for example the promise behind a tentative film based on the life of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the silent film star whose life also ended early and was hindered by scandal stemming from a lengthy murder trial. It was apparently Farley’s dream project and would’ve been his first dramatic turn on screen had he stayed clean, something that seemed to be a sticking point with his brother Tom in the book, The Chris Farley Show:
Despite making money, Beverly Hills Ninja was largely an embarrassment. It bombed with critics and disappointed even hard-core fans. Chris found himself at a professional crossroads. Hollywood had typecast him as the clown, and he had been fully complicit in that, playing the part whenever he was called upon to do so. But fatty could only fall down so many times. Fortunately, a project had arrived with the potential to take Chris in a new direction. Earlier that year, Bernie Brillstein had brought Chris together with screenwriter and playwright David Mamet, and together they’d agreed to collaborate on Chris’s first dramatic film: a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle…
Chris was drawn to it for the man himself. Arbuckle was a brilliant physical comedian who loathed his extra girth and outsized persona, despite having made it his professional stock-in-trade. After years of being made to play the crazy fat guy, Chris was being asked to play the guy behind the crazy fat guy. He was being asked to play himself, a role he rarely performed for anyone. Much like Jackie Gleason’s turn as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, this was the role that would have fundamentally altered the course of Chris’s career.
Later in the book, Second City alum Tim O’Malley recounts how Farley obsessed over the role while deep in a pit of addiction. It was a hindrance to his well-being according to O’Malley, who attempted to coax Farley to get help for addiction before even attempting the project:
And that’s where I left it. That Fatty Arbuckle movie, that was the line in the sand. Either you get sober or you get dead.
Other parts that were lined up for Farley had he survived seemed to range from major comedy franchises to meaty roles meant to expand upon his presence in front of an audience. According to a look at the lost roles of Chris Farley over at Splitsider, Farley was one of the many names attached to A Confederacy of Dunces, the notoriously difficult project to get off the ground (with Nick Offerman being the latest to fill the role of Ignatius J. Reilly). There were also rumors about a version of Ghostbusters 3, something that Harold Ramis used to date the long rumored project in an interview with MTV back in 2009:
“Here’s how old the rumors are,” Ramis said. “Chris Farley was one of the rumors. It was going to be Chris Farley, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock.”
It’s easy to picture Chris Farley becoming an even bigger star than he was during his Saturday Night Live run, particularly if roles like those mentioned above came to be. But there’s also the cruelty of Hollywood and what it can do when someone is locked into a certain path. If you look at Farley’s final starring efforts — Beverly Hills Ninja and Almost Heroes — you’re met with poor critical response and a mixed bag of audience reviews. Then again, Farley’s films never really earned critical acclaim and he never got the chance to impress past the gooey, comical outer shell.
It is hard to draw a lot of conclusions from those Rotten Tomatoes ratings alone, but what happens if you compare it to one of his friends. What happens when you compare the body of work to Adam Sandler, the man most likely to give Farley a helping hand with a film and one of his closest friends?
The promise of dramatic roles or more challenging projects does not cement a successful transition from that one-dimensional area that Farley seemed to dislike, as we can see in The Chris Farley Show or I Am Chris Farley. Sandler has had his own shining moments with films like Punch Drunk Love and Funny People, but there’s always a Pixels or That’s My Boy waiting around the corner. For Farley, every film project about “Fatty” Arbuckle would have almost certainly been followed by a film like Beverly Hills Ninja or Black Sheep to supplement the risk. It has happened time and time again with bankable stars and it’s safe to say that Farley would experience the same thing.
So could we have seen Chris Farley in a film like Zookeeper? Would he have become a recurring character like Paul Blart? And worse, would audiences turn on him like they’ve seemingly turned on Sandler and others from the same class? It isn’t like they don’t read the reviews, hear the press, and experience the shock at the box office when their films bomb. And it’s also well noted that the older films of this generation are “better” than their current offerings, despite glaring similarities. Take this Rolling Stone retrospective on the luster of Sandler’s Billy Madison for example.
Despite noting that it is the same schtick, apparently the film is better than the newer productions. Nostalgia and evolving tastes come into play, something that our own Vince Mancini covered so well in his earlier piece on Farley’s Tommy Boy, noting how Farley still managed to play it differently than the others who currently earn so much derision:
Chris Farley’s appeal wasn’t that he was doing any kind of smart satire, it was that he would throw himself so thoroughly and so recklessly into dumb bits that you not only couldn’t help laughing, you had to love him for it. “But it’s just a fat guy falling down!” Sure, but when Chris Farley is the fat guy falling down, a fat guy falling down is more than just a fat guy falling down.
Kevin James can smirk and look put upon and sad when people make fat jokes, but he’s… coy. Like he’s trying to put something over on us. Farley was transparent. He was honestly hurting himself with those bits and he’d disguise neither how far he’d go to make you laugh nor how much it hurt (physically and emotionally) to do so. He’d eagerly crash through a table and you could feel real pain when he howled about it.
That aspect of Farley is something that would probably manage to set him apart from the others. It isn’t out of line to believe that he’d still appear alongside his friends, and you should probably hope he would because that’s what friends do. And that it would elevate the quality of the work and all of those involved (hopefully).
The sad truth is that we’ll never get to find out what would happen with Chris Farley’s career path. There’s only talk about what might’ve been and speculative wiki entries fueled by rumors and trivia. And there will always be roles that scream out, “he would’ve been great here.” Roles that he likely would’ve elevated in a memorable way. His track record — from lead roles to bit parts — supports that. There’s always something that jumps out.
Chris Farley’s tragic end carries so much sad weight with it, but thankfully the fond memories shine brighter. There will just always be the question of what might’ve been.