The star who was too mean to succeed: Chevy Chase

'Saturday Night Live' made him a celebrity. Then things changed.
Published February 17 2015
Updated February 17 2015

From almost the moment Saturday Night Live first aired, the media swooned at the sight of Chevy Chase. New York magazine slapped him on the cover, declaring he was the next Johnny Carson. He did an op-ed for the New York Times, in which he introduced himself as: "Chevy Chase is Chevy Chase and you're not." All throughout 1975, the cleft chin was everywhere.

Then, in an interview with Vogue, a moment of introspection struck. "In this business you can come and go in a second," he confessed. "I could be flushed out tomorrow with a big smile and a handshake."

On Sunday night, Chase, 71, appeared flushed out. The night was the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, and things got awkward. There was Carson Daly, a barrage of cameras, and Chevy Chase, who seemed confused about where he was and what this was all about.

"Is Chevy Chase Okay?" Gawker asked. It was an appropriate question.

Daly informed Chase that he was once a part of SNL, which seemed to surprise Chase, who mulled the matter for a long moment. "I was!" he said, looking shaky.

Daly asked whether Chase was surprised the show has been on for 40 years. "I left after the first year because I thought this isn't going anywhere," Chase said. "... I liked (hosting). I liked it. But I missed it more for not being a part of the cast because I left after one year. I had reasons to leave. I'm sorry if I'm perspiring, but I just had to run through a gauntlet. But I liked it a lot, and I still like it."

The short interview hinted at Chase's tortured history with SNL. The show made Chase — turned an all-but unknown writer into an intrinsic part of the American zeitgeist — but also made him unlikable. "The ugly truth is that a lot of people don't love Chevy Chase," Entertainment Weekly once said. "They don't even like him. ... This isn't really surprising, because apparently the man possesses a truly spectacular talent for pissing people off."

While other SNL cast members of Chase's era — comedians like Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd — went on to become institutions, Chase never quite cashed in on his early promise. He turned in some popular early movies, then fizzled.

If there's a reason for that, reports suggest, it's Chase himself. He was a victim of too much success too fast during his year on SNL, which gave rise to such ego that today he's as remembered for bridges burned as for punchlines delivered. "When you become famous, you've got like a year or two where you act like a real asshole," Gawker quoted Bill Murray saying of Chase. "You can't help yourself. It happens to everybody. You've got like two years to pull it together — or it's permanent."

And Chase particularly had trouble pulling it together. "Nobody prepares you for what happens when you get famous, and I didn't handle it well," he told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. "I was young, new, hot star and I had this unbelievable arrogance. As time went on, the strident narcissism and arrogance slowly diminished. But I was definitely there. I'm older now. And a big crybaby."

Chase was never supposed to be a star. He was supposed be a writer. But after the first show, according to Grantland, a decision was made. "Sign him up," one NBC executive said, and soon people began to forget that it wasn't called The Chevy Chase Show — as his talk show, which failed in 1993 after five weeks, would be — but Saturday Night Live.

"At one point, NBC put a poster of the cast members up in the lobby outside 8H," writers Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad said. "Chevy's picture loomed larger than the rest, and the caption read: 'Chevy Chase and the Not Ready For Prime Time Players.' "

It went to Chase's head. "My first impression of Chevy was that he was really good-looking, but kind of mean," fellow SNL cast member Laraine Newman told Entertainment Weekly. "He teased in the way that a big brother would, (aiming for) exactly what would hurt your feelings the most. I say this as someone who loves him. And loves him a lot."

"He was also a viciously effective put-down artist, the sort who could find the one thing somebody was sensitive about — a pimple on the nose, perhaps — and then kid about it, mercilessly," according to Hill and Weingrad. One person who got the treatment was Murray, with whom he famously feuded, telling the future Oscar nominee his face looked like something Neil Armstrong had landed on.

Chase's tenure on SNL was not a happy one. He reportedly played one agent off another, had a falling out with producer Lorne Michaels and came to believe that he was bigger than the show.

So when a sketch writer approached Chase to ask why he was leaving, Chase reportedly had one answer. "Money," he said. "Lots of money."

Chase, of course, went on to a successful run in film. He hit the links in Caddyshack (1980). He went on Vacation (1983). He was Fletch (1985). He was one of The Three Amigos (1986.)

But while these movies are comedy classics of the late 20th century — quoted by junior-high boys, played ad nauseam on cable — they didn't take Chase to the next level. Murray, his former rival, is now an American icon, working regularly with big names such as Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. Chase works on the small screen — when he can. In 2012, he walked off the set of his last high-profile gig, Community.

When Chase mentioned a return to the show a few months ago, executives shrugged. "At this time, Chevy is not confirmed to appear in Season 6," a Sony spokesman told Us Weekly.

Today, Chase is as much the object of jokes as he is the one making them. "You made us laugh so much," Paul Shaffer said at a venomous roast of Chase in 2002. "And then inexplicably stopped in about 1978."

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