Hard to imagine, but it’s 25 years ago today that Paramount released Tommy Boy, the road-trip comedy that featured the best representation of the movie star potential of Chris Farley. Paired with Saturday Night Live castmate and close friend David Spade, Farley’s athleticism and physical comic ability was used to maximum effect in a career cut way short as a life of excess caught up to him and he died at age 33 in 1997. Only two years after his breakout performance. Here, director Pete Segal recalls the unforgettable experience of working with him.
DEADLINE: Farley fans have his SNL skits and this movie to remind us of his combustible talent. How are you feeling on this quarter-century anniversary?
'Mean Girls' Broadway Musical Announces Permanent Closure Due To Covid Shutdown
PETE SEGAL: Fortunate that people are still talking about the movie, and sad that Chris isn’t here to share in this. I spoke to Spade the other day and described the love we’re getting this past week. It goes to show, you just never know when you’ll have a movie that gets talked about as much as this one, so long after it was release. It’s lightning in a bottle and we could not have predicted it, or what makes a movie resonate like this.
DEADLINE: As you put it together, you had a strong cast surround them including Brian Dennehy, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, and Chris and David built a rapport from SNL. When did you know when filming the scenes you had something exceptional?
SEGAL: I had worked with Chris a couple times before Tommy Boy. Once, with an HBO special with Tom Arnold that also had Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, and that’s where I met Judd Apatow. It was The Naked Truth, and we did three of them for HBO. From there, Tom got a spinoff from Roseanne on ABC, The Jackie Thomas Show, and Chris did a guest spot on the show as well. He played Tom’s brother. In real life, he was Tom’s best man at his — well, one of his weddings. When I got my first movie, The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, I thought, if there is any way for my next movie I could introduce the world to Chris as a leading man, that would be the leap of faith worth taking. And then across my desk came Billy III: A Midwestern. That was the beginning of it all.
DEADLINE: How close was that script to what we saw, with the raucous road trip, singing “Eres Tu,” fat guy in a little coat?
SEGAL: None of the scenes you just mentioned were in the original script. When Lorne [Michaels] pitched the idea to Sherry Lansing, he basically pitched the story of stepbrothers. Which was the Chris character and the Rob Lowe character. I felt that was the B story. The A story was these two guys who didn’t get along, forced to work together to save this company, and the town. We had so much difficulty developing the script into that, that we missed the summer hiatus from SNL and dipped right into sharing Chris and Dave with Saturday Night Live. They shot with us Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, traveled to New York Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then traveled back on Sunday.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a tough schedule.
SEGAL: Yes, but it allowed us to shape it. We started with only 66 pages, because Fred Wolf and I threw out the other script and started from scratch. We said to each other, the framework of this adventure is a road trip. We started writing on index cards things that happened to us, on the road, in our lives. I wrote down that I parked a little too far from the gas pump, and then backed up and hyper-extended my door. He wrote down how he forgot to take the oil can out of the engine of his car. And the hood flew up. That actually happened to Fred. That was a card. I remembered I was on a date in high school, on a lake in Arizona. It was a dead calm and some kids were heckling me from the shoreline and I yelled at them. I thought, Chris yells way better than I do, and that was a card. We slowly put together enough things that enabled us to get a green light. But we only had half a script, and if felt like I was laying out the train tracks right in front of the locomotive, every day. I had no idea how the movie was going to end.
DEADLINE: But you had what for my money was the funniest and most talented heavyset physical comic since Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. You add him to that mix, and how helpful was that to flesh out those 66 script pages into a movie?
SEGAL: Because I worked with Chris before, I knew there was another side to him that people hadn’t seen yet. Everybody had seen the big guy, screaming and crashing through tables. The Matt Foley thing. I knew there was a sensitive side. I knew if we could tap into that and show people that there was another side to Chris, that would be worthwhile. I often said to Chris that as a follow to Tommy Boy, I wanted to find something more in the realm of his version of Uncle Buck, which was that transitional movie for John Candy. For example, I knew Chris had a very strong relationship with his father. The father-son story in Tommy Boy, between Chris and Brian Dennehy, was the emotional backbone to the whole thing. I had the idea of Tommy talking to the spirit of his father as an ending but didn’t know how to crack it. Finally, Len Blum, who wrote Stripes, came in. I said “Len, help me. I’m drowning just figuring what to shoot every day, I don’t have time to figure out how this story ends.” He saw the assembled footage, the scene with Julie Warner on the lake, and said, “That’s a sweet scene. Let’s call that back for the end.” Great idea. But we’d gotten so lucky getting a dead calm on the lake for that shot, could we ask Mother Nature for that miracle twice? It was imperative for the scene, but we got it. The wind was dead, and we shot the ending late in the process.
DEADLINE: Those great moments and lines. What of that came directly from Farley and Spade?
SEGAL: Many things. Fat guy in a little coat was something Chris would do in the SNL offices, but he never sang it. Just said it to annoy people. SNL at that time had one of its greatest casts, with Mike Myers, [Adam] Sandler, Farley, Spade and Chris Rock. And they all felt Farley was the funniest of all of them. But when we shot it, Chris wasn’t used to movie filming, where you had to aim the character this way, then turned it around and aimed it at the other person. He got a little bored when the camera turned onto Spade, and he started goofing around off-camera. He sang the lyrics to the song, and I was focused on Dave and didn’t notice. Then my editor, Bill Kerr, said, “Did you hear Chris off-camera, singing? Hilarious. Go back and reshoot it.” I said, “What are you talking about?” That was an accident. A friend of mine from high school became a Top Gun pilot. He told me, you know, that’s what all the Top Gun pilots sang as we got in our flight suits. Fat guy in a little coat. It stuck in the zeitgeist.
DEADLINE: Can you recall moments when he did something improvisational that far exceeded a scripted scene on the page?
SEGAL: I so wanted to tap into what made Chris so popular at the time on SNL. We knew Matt Foley was going to fall through a table and scream at somebody, which he did with the kids on the lake. There was a scene, we called it “The Hooks,” at the Callahan brake pad division, and I thought, “I’m not going to script anything.” I said, “Chris, this is a blank page. It’s all you. Let’s just let the gold happen.” He went up that day, didn’t have anything and got very mad at himself. I learned that day never to do that again. You always have to give somebody something they can embellish and make better. To go in with a blank page and say, “OK, this is Second City,” doesn’t work. We got a little something out of it, but I remember he was very hard on himself. Very competitive. He knew as we were beginning that since this was an original and not based on SNL characters … and at the time, that show’s ratings were very low, and so a lot of people expected us to fail. We were driving to meet Brian Dennehy to talk him into doing this. He turned to me and said, “Pete, everyone expects us to fail and our only victory has to be a success.” That was our battle cry, we were both in this together. He was competitive and because he was such a great athlete in high school, played rugby at Marquette, he was so hard on himself when he didn’t nail a scene. So I treated him like an athlete. When he got really amped up, I’d say, “Drop and give me 20.” He’d do the pushups and calm down and could concentrate on the scene. Sometimes, I would tell him to run around the quad at the college where we were filming, just to calm him down. He liked that structure. And not having written words on the page was no structure and I realized from then on, we had to keep laying out the train track in front of the locomotive every day.
DEADLINE: Your most treasured memory of Chris and that movie?
SEGAL: There were lots. The ending, because he got emotional because he had a great relationship with his father, just idolized his dad. When we figured out how to have him communicate with the spirit of his father, I could see him well up. He was tapping into his real feelings, and it was a sweet ending. We added the head bonk to remind people we were still trying to be funny and not too maudlin. That scene was very rewarding.
DEADLINE: Was the movie a hit?
SEGAL: Not right away. It opened No. 1, but only with a little over $8 million. It wasn’t until the 10th anniversary , when Paramount sent crews all over the country to interview the cast, made a bobblehead doll. I asked, “Why now,” and they said “Tommy Boy is a top 10 seller on video for us.” I said, “For this year?” They said, “No, for the all time history of Paramount Home Video.” I said, “You mean The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark, that top 10?” They said, “Yep.” VHS, you could have people discover the movie. It was never even released internationally. I know people in England who like it. I don’t know how they got it. Paramount felt nobody knew Dave and Chris, so let’s just make it a domestic release.
DEADLINE: Chris was larger than life onscreen, but his life was also full of excess. You could tell that last time he guest hosted SNL shortly before he died that he was in trouble. What was that part of working with Chris, at that time, like?
SEGAL: The episode of The Jackie Thomas Show, I remember Tom and Roseanne did an intervention. Chris was doing a lot of drugs at that time. I was directing the episode and when I yelled “Cut,’ he took a bow in front of the studio audience. They took his arm and led him to a waiting Town Car that took him off to rehab. A year later, when I worked with him on Tommy Boy, he was clean and sober. He met with his priest every night. He had replaced drugs with coffee, and cigarettes. But it was a great time for him. He was in control and happy. Dave had such a great friendship with him, and there was this “us against the world” feeling in trying to make a successful original story, that it was ironically a great time that I’m not sure any of us realized we were going through together at that moment.
DEADLINE: Adam Sandler’s return to SNL opened with a song about him getting fired, along with Farley. How long after your film did that happen?
SEGAL: Don’t know the timeline of how long he was on SNL after Tommy Boy. I know that after that movie, there were a bunch of movie offers that kept coming in for Chris, Dave and me. Some were good, and a lot were not. Lorne realized Chris was blowing up and so was Adam and Mike Myers. Even though the ratings were low, these were clearly superstars in the making, and it felt like it was hard to keep them on the show at the same time, and they began to peel off and build their movie careers. That was within a year of our movie.
DEADLINE: Chris was going to be the title character in The Cable Guy for like $3 million and they paid him more than that to stand down, so they could pay $20 million to Jim Carrey. Then Chris did Beverly Hills Ninja for $5 million, so he was on his own climb. When you look at all the movies he did before he died, how do you reflect on what you were able to capture in a moment where he was clean and sober and wanted to prove himself a movie star so badly?
SEGAL: It was lightning in a bottle. This was I think his most memorable role, but in a career that was far too short. I know he has aspirations to do the Fatty Arbuckle story, which would have been great. [Terry] Rossio and [Ted] Elliott told me when they wrote Shrek, at one time Chris was going to be the ogre and they said they patterned the ogre and donkey relationship after Spade and Farley, in Tommy Boy. His life was ahead of him, and he was just starting and that is what is so sad here. But at least we get to look back. That’s the magic of movies. You can look back at a moment in time of somebody’s life when things were good and see the kind of work they were able to do.
DEADLINE: I compared him to Curly Howard. Curly loved to make people laugh and work in a trio. But he was a good-looking, athletic guy who had to shave his head and hold that weight and that was frustrating having to stay that guy. What was Chris’s sense of self? Did he like himself? Get angry with his weight?
SEGAL: I worked with two different Chrises in his career. The troubled one and then the clean-and-healthy Chris. I didn’t see him a lot after Tommy Boy, so I wasn’t around for his relapse. There were times I could see he was frustrated. He had this saying: “Fatty falls down and everybody laughs.” He was tired of that. I said, “Let’s find a different story to tell. Let’s show them that’s only one gear you have, among many.” I still look at my poster hanging in my office. The words he wrote were: “Pete, come back to me.” That makes me a little emotional every time I read it because we didn’t have that opportunity to do it again and explore other aspects of his talents.
DEADLINE: But damn, you got some funny stuff. The Eres Tu scene, where he and Spade sing these songs in the demolished car. How much was made up on the fly?
SEGAL: “Eres Tu” was a not well-thought-out montage of songs. We had R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World” and those guys did a great job with that. I remember being out in the camera car in Toronto, freezing my ass off holding cue cards with all the lyrics to these songs. We got to “Eres Tu” and I thought, “We need to finish this montage with them singing something in Spanish and doing it really well.” I remember leaning over the hood of the car. “Eres Tu” I remember listening to while riding the bus to my high school. It stuck with me that should be the song. When Bill Kerr and I were in edit, we said, “Let’s hold off on the singing montage — it’s a mess and it’s not going to work at all.” We were able to figure it out and we chose a few others the guys sang and it worked out much better than we thought when we were filming it. A lot of the movie went that way. We were throwing spaghetti on the movie, seeing what might stick.
DEADLINE: Chris breaking into William Shatner’s Captain Kirk?
SEGAL: That one was him. I was trying to tap into every ounce of creative energy I could get out of Chris, and Dave. Chris came out of a wardrobe test in that iconic brown tweed jacket. He went up to Dave, “Hey, does this suit make me look fat?” Dave says, “No, your face does.” I went, “OK,, that’s going in the movie and thanks for that one. Any more?” I was desperate for material. Spade came up with the Carpenters song idea, but we combined that with the hood flying up, which was Fred’s story. And that became the most expensive set piece in the film. We were this little $15 million movie back in 1994 and we had this 18-wheeler that the special effects department built this turntable to have the car spin around. I thought, “What if all this has been built and this song joke doesn’t work?”
I just worked on a movie in Toronto called My Spy, which has been held up because of the coronavirus, and I’m not sure when it’s going to be released. It was only the second time I’d been back to Toronto. The special effects technician who worked on the turntable truck was working with me on My Spy. The idea was, every time I cued “hood fly up,” he’d tap two wires together to get it to go, because it wasn’t working and he did it the old-school way. He said: “I was 19 at the time. I had to manually get in that trunk as it was spinning around. And after you yelled cut, I opened the trunk, and threw up.” I didn’t remember that. He said, “Well, on my résumé for the last 25 years, people look at that credit, and that’s the one they want to talk about. And I tell them that story.” He took one for the team.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.