Chevy Chase was once one of the busiest and best-loved comedy actors around. One of many stars to get their big break on Saturday Night Live, Chase was at first every bit as in-demand as co-stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Somewhere along the way, however, the tide turned for Chase, thanks in no small part to the bridges he burned over many difficult, combative years.
Known best for the nice guy persona he brought to the Vacation films, behind the scenes Chase has a reputation for being one of the least pleasant men in Hollywood. Far from being revered, Chase is today often despised: The Telegraph remarked in 2018, “Bill Cosby is the most hated comedian in America. But if you were looking for a runner-up, Chevy Chase has to be in with a shout.”
SNL beginnings and movie stardom
Born Cornelius Crane Chase on October 8, 1943 in Manhattan, Chase started out pursuing a musical career before becoming a comedian in the late 60s. His big break came in 1973 when he found work as a writer and actor on the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Chase and a number of his National Lampoon co-stars, including John Belushi and Bill Murray, would go on to be members of the original cast on NBC’s groundbreaking comedy series Saturday Night Live (or, as it was originally known, Saturday Night).
In the early days of SNL, Chase was considered the show’s breakout star, winning Emmys and Golden Globes for his work. Arrogance was part of his persona: in his recurring role as a news anchor, his catchphrase became, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.”
The problem, according to his peers, was that Chase behaved similarly behind the scenes, and came to think of SNL as his show.
Chase’s particular brand of comedy was based around shock and put-downs. In the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Chase’s cruel humour was described as “viciously effective… [he] could find the one thing somebody was sensitive about – a pimple on the nose, perhaps – and then kid about it, mercilessly.”
This might have proved effective in performance, but it didn’t always go down well behind the scenes.
Even though cast and crew alike found Chase difficult to be around, there was still no question he was a key part of the show, so it was the cause of considerable surprise and anger when he quit SNL midway through its second season. When one of the staff writers asked Chase why, Chase is said to have replied, “money. Lots of money”.
His departure was a particular slap in the face to SNL’s producer and figurehead Lorne Michaels, beforehand a close friend of the comedian who reportedly knew nothing about Chase’s decision until it happened. In 1978, Chase made his big move into movies, taking the romantic lead opposite Goldie Hawn in the comedy Foul Play.
Feud with Bill Murray
Even so, Chase would return to SNL for a number of guest appearances – but things were less than peachy behind the scenes when he arrived, particularly between Chase and the funnyman who had taken over his vacant position, Bill Murray.
Not long before showtime, Murray confronted Chase over a disagreement, and things only escalated. Allegedly, after Chase said Murray’s pock-marked face “looked like something Neil Armstrong landed on”, and Murray called Chase a “medium talent”, an “awful” physical brawl between Chase and Murray erupted mere minutes before they were live on air.
Despite the notorious tension between the two, Chase and Murray were later cast alongside one another in 1980 comedy classic Caddyshack. Both men insisted that working on the film helped smooth things over between them: Chase told Sports Illustrated in 2010, “I have nothing but admiration and affection for Bill,” though Murray (who has quite the cantankerous reputation of his own) acknowledged they had “always had sort of a funny relationship.”
Although Caddyshack would ultimately become a well-loved hit, the film had a dark legacy as, in the wake of negative reviews, writer and producer Doug Kenney died after falling from a cliff in Hawaii; Chase had been the last person to see him alive.
1980 also saw Chase’s second marriage to Jacqueline Carlin end in divorce, with Carlin claiming Chase had made threats of violence against her. Carlin claimed Chase had “lost perspective” and asked the court to keep him away from her house.
Return to SNL: “He acted horribly to everyone”
Chase continued to return intermittently to Saturday Night Live, but he ruffled feathers every time he did so. Since his departure, Jane Curtin had taken over the show’s Weekend Report sketch, but when returning as guest host Chase insisted he be given this segment. Curtin felt he did this specifically to anger her: “Chevy was expecting [a reaction] that he wasn’t getting from me.”
Later, when Chase was guest host in 1985, he made digs at Robert Downey Jr, a young cast member of the time, by deriding his filmmaker father: Chase said to the actor, “Didn’t your father used to be a successful director? Whatever happened to him? Boy, he sure died, you know, he sure went to hell.”
Worse yet, Chase directed his brand of cruel humour at Terry Sweeney, who was SNL’s first openly gay cast member. By all accounts, Chase made a slew of homophobic jokes and suggested doing a sketch in which Sweeney was diagnosed with AIDS.
Later, Chase was begrudgingly forced to apologise, of which Sweeney recalls, “He was really furious that he had to apologise to me… And it was just awful. He acted horribly to me. He acted horribly to everyone.”
Almost ‘coming to blows’ on Three Amigos!
Chase’s proclivity for taking his provocative jokes a little too far also emerged on the set of Three Amigos! The 1986 comedy, which cast Chase alongside Steve Martin and Martin Short, was directed by John Landis, who at the time was on trial for manslaughter over an accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Whilst shooting a potentially dangerous scene, Chase made a crack which even he admitted was over the line.
“There was a time when the three of us were on a cliffside, 50 feet straight down, and there was nobody behind us with ropes tied to our belts or anything. Just kidding around, I made some hideous comment about John not taking precautions. Unfortunately we were wearing mikes and John could hear us talking. Boy, was he mad! We almost came to blows.”
It’s notable that in the years since Steve Martin and Martin Short have reunited on a number of projects, but neither of them worked with Chase again. In an interview with The Guardian about their recent TV series Only Murders in the Building, Martin and Short were asked how their new co-star Selena Gomez compares to Chase: Short replied, “Well, Selena listened,” to which Martin added, “I guess there couldn’t be two people more different.”
Christmas Vacation and career decline: “I need to work, but I can’t do it with this guy”
John Landis was not the only director to butt heads with Chase. When work began on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the director attached to the film was future Harry Potter filmmaker Chris Columbus, but work was barely underway on the film before Columbus quit because he couldn’t stand working with Chase.
The director told Chicago Magazine, at an initial dinner meeting “Chevy treated me like dirt. But I stuck it out…Then I had another meeting with Chevy, and it was worse. I called John [Hughes, writer and producer] and said, “There’s no way I can do this movie. I know I need to work, but I can’t do it with this guy.”
Things worked out well for Columbus, as John Hughes offered him the director’s chair on another Christmas comedy, Home Alone, which proved a bigger box office success. Christmas Vacation, meanwhile, would be Chase’s last real hit as a movie star.
Chris Columbus wouldn’t be the only director to bail on a project due to clashes with Chase. Ivan Reitman walked away from Memoirs of an Invisible Man over disagreements with the star, only to be replaced by the apparently similarly disgruntled John Carpenter.
After Memoirs flopped, Carpenter gave an interview in which, without naming Chase directly, he remarked that an actor he’d recently worked with could “burn in hell for all eternity.” Nor had the director changed his tune in January 2023, when he told Variety that Memoirs of an Invisible Man “was a horror show….let’s just say there were personalities on that film … he shall not be named who needs to be killed. No, no, no, that’s terrible. He needs to be set on fire.”
As the 90s rolled on, Chase’s standing in Hollywood declined. Despite the success of the early Vacation films and Fletch, Chase wound up making more flops than hits, and attempts at relaunching himself as a talk show host with The Chevy Chase Show proved an embarrassing failure. Seemingly none of this did much to teach Chase humility, as when he again returned as guest host on SNL in 1997, he once again succeeded in upsetting everyone.
The “venomous” Comedy Central roast
On top of insulting most of the SNL cast, which at this point included Will Ferrell, Chase also made lewd remarks to a female writer. The last straw came when Chase slapped cast member Cheri Oteri in the back of the head. After complaints to showrunner Lorne Michaels, Chase was officially banned from ever hosting SNL again, although he would make a brief appearance in 2015’s 40th anniversary special.
2002 saw Chase become the subject at a Comedy Central Roast, events which, not unlike Chase himself, are noted for their tendency to get a little below-the-belt with their humour. Slate Magazine reported that “even by roast standards, this night was venomous,” whilst noting that almost none of Chase’s well-known collaborators from years gone by made an appearance.
Community comeback and final implosion
After several years of comparative obscurity, Chase enjoyed a comeback in 2009 with Community, which marked the first time he had been a central cast member in a TV sitcom. Though never a massive ratings success, the series attracted rave reviews and a strong cult following, with many hailing it as a return to form for Chase.
Alas, the actor’s abrasive personality again prompted massive tension behind the scenes. Chase’s character on Community, ageing millionaire Pierce Hawthorne, is noted for his outdated sexist and racist attitudes – and by all accounts, Chase’s behaviour on set informed the writing.
He made provocative digs at co-star Donald Glover such as “people think you’re funnier because you’re black,” used racial slurs on set in the presence of Glover and the show’s other black lead Yvette Nicole Brown, and made sexist remarks about the show’s female cast members both on- and-off-set, including a joke about rape whilst on a panel.
Chase also clashed hard with Community’s creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, with the actor frequently criticising the show’s writing. This led Harmon, himself a volatile character, to lead the cast and crew in a chorus of “f*** you, Chevy” at a Christmas party, with Chase’s wife and children in attendance. (Harmon would later apologise for this.)
Even before leaving Community, Chase declared in a Huffington Post interview that agreeing to star in the show had been “a big mistake,” complaining that “the hours are hideous” and that sitcoms in general are “probably the lowest form of television.” He would leave the show during the fourth season, and his character was later killed off to prevent any chance of his return.
In the years since, Chase has clocked up a few credits, including the Hot Tub Time Machine movies, a cameo in the Vacation reboot and failed sitcom pilot Chevy. But Chase’s persona, which might have been endearing to some in his youth, is not so welcomed today; as Lorne Michaels observes, “Chevy does shock stuff, which is maybe more forgivable in a 25-year-old or 30-year-old than in a 50-year-old or 60-year-old.”
Friendships with Beverly D’Angelo and Dan Aykroyd
So is Chase simply an irredeemable character with no regard for anyone but himself? While many have nothing good to say about him, there are those who see him in a more favourable light. Dan Aykroyd calls him “one of the sweetest, largest-hearted… most magnanimous people I know.”
Chase’s Vacation series co-star Beverly D’Angelo remarks, “our paths have crossed professionally forever, but it’s because at the foundation we’re friends. I always said it was the chemistry between me and Chevy that created Ellen and Clark [Griswald], as much as the words that we had to say.”
Fellow SNL alumnus Dana Carvey speaks kindly of Chase, noting that after the cancellation of his TV series The Dana Carvey Show, Chase “was the only person who left a voice mail… saying you’re great, you’re brilliant, you will work. He gave me a pep talk out of the blue in a very sweet way.”
Community actor Joel McHale also says he remains on good terms with his former co-star, telling Larry King, “I got along with him very well. Chevy could be great sometimes.” McHale also paid affectionate homage to Chase by portraying him in A Stupid and Futile Gesture, a Netflix biopic of the late Doug Kenney.
“Chevy is an abused kid”
Even John Carpenter, who had an unhappy experience directing Chase in Memoirs of an Invisible Man, says that Chase still sends him a card every Christmas.
Chase’s antisocial behaviour could be attributed to his upbringing. Though born into an affluent middle-class New York family, Chase’s parents separated in his youth and he suffered from physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother and stepfather.
Chase’s wife Jayni Chase argues, “Chevy is an abused kid. One of the things that most of us have is, we know that our moms loved us, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to say that our fathers also loved us…
“[These are] things that give you a good start in life, and a foundation and self-confidence, and give you a capacity to live without fear. And Chevy doesn’t have those things.”
“I just don’t care”
While his rough childhood – along with a lifetime of substance abuse problems (including alcoholism and addiction to prescription painkillers) – might offer some explanation of the comedian’s issues, Chase himself resents his early troubles being dwelled upon: “Chevy Chase hiding in a closet from his mother? Good God. Take me for who I am now.”
Even as he finds few people left still willing to work with him, Chase himself has remained unrepentant: as recently as February 2022, he said of his bad reputation, “I don’t give a cr*p! I am who I am… I don’t know what to tell you, man. I just don’t care.”