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Dada’s Boy

According to the book, Farley’s talent ran far deeper than the public ever knew. “Chris was never captured in either movies or TV as good as he was onstage,” says one of his former directors at Second City. “He was too explosive. He just seems flat in all those movies. It’s like watching a large animal in a cage.” His castmates say they watched him perform in awe. He looked like Jabba the Hutt but was trained in ballet; when he was happy, he did perfect spontaneous backflips. He could get laughs just by stepping onstage or make people cry in dramatic scenes. Alec Baldwin, in particular, can’t stop raving: “Whenever I was watching Chris perform I would think, ‘How do I get where he’s at? How do I get to be as funny and as honest and as warm?’ ”

Gradually, an almost unrecognizable Farley begins to emerge: a subtle, skillful Dada genius. Off the air, he apparently emitted comic signals up and down the register, including a few notes that might never have been heard before—but the great filter of mainstream American comedy allowed only the most obvious squawks. MacDonald describes a recurring gag in which Farley would pull him aside and say, “Anyways, Norm. Did I tell ya I seen my friend Bill the other day, and I says to him, I says, I look him right in the eye and I says to him, I says, I says to Bill, I says to him, get this, what I says to him is I says, get this, what I says, you won’t believe what I says to him, I says … ” He’d sustain the monologue for 25 minutes without ever getting to what he said. “He’d do it 200 different ways,” MacDonald says. “It would just get funnier and funnier and funnier. When you can reduce something to four words and be funny for 25 minutes without an actual joke or a punch line, that’s genius. It’s not even really comedy anymore. It’s almost like music, like jazz variations.” (Lorne Michaels agreed to give the bit 30 seconds on “Weekend Update”; it was eventually cut.)

Farley’s meatier talent almost won him an intriguing alternate film career: the lead in The Cable Guy, the Amish bowler in the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin, the voice of Shrek (in fact, he voiced most of the film before his death; Mike Myers revoiced it a year later), and—most tantalizing—the lead in a David Mamet drama about Fatty Arbuckle, the silent-film megastar whose career was ruined by false accusations of sexual assault. Unfortunately, a mercenary Hollywood system locked him into terrible movies, and seems to have triggered his final collapse. After reading a particularly terrible rewrite of Beverly Hills Ninja, Farley relapsed. (Later, he wept at the screening.)

Which brings us, regrettably, to Act Three. Reports of Farley’s lurid death, it turns out, have not been exaggerated. After a series of disastrous public appearances—he returned to host SNL with two hookers on his arm and staggered through the show on the verge of a heart attack—Farley partied for four straight days, smoked crack and snorted heroin with a call girl, then took her back to his apartment. When they argued about money, she got up to leave. He tried to follow but collapsed on the living room floor, struggling to breathe. His final words were “Don’t leave me.” She took pictures of him, stole his watch, wrote a note saying she’d had a lot of fun, and left. He died alone.

This is all more poignant because Farley seems to have been, in spite of his addictions and manipulations and occasional temper, an almost otherworldly sweetheart. He was deeply religious, affectionate, and charitable. He carried wheelchair-bound elderly people down staircases; he cried when he visited children in the cancer ward; he was the secret benefactor of a 70-year-old homeless-shelter resident named Willie. In fact, a handful of the book’s statements verge on hagiography. (MacDonald, for instance, makes Farley sound almost Christlike: “I don’t think Chris knew how to hate.”)

At the root of Farley’s tangled pathology was the most basic of all approval complexes: the need to please his father, a magnetic, corpulent, ultraconservative Irish-Catholic asphalt baron whose addictions to food and alcohol rivaled his famous son’s, and who was a world-class enabler. He gave his high-school-age kids drinking money, then refused to acknowledge their addictions as they grew up. He and Chris talked every day; Farley told friends that he stayed overweight for his father. Farley once lured his dad to a weight-loss clinic, only to see him walk out of the group therapy session, saying he didn’t have problems like those people. (He then took Farley on a binge-filled Florida vacation.) Just before Farley’s death, when his self-destructive behavior was particularly out of control, his friends and business associates wanted to freeze his assets—but his father denied consent. At the funeral, Farley’s father managed to struggle out of his chair—by then he weighed over 600 pounds—and wrapped his arms around the casket. He stopped drinking, cold turkey, and died just over a year later.