MOTW: A Bio of the Infamous Chevy Chase

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
December 5th, 2013

MOTW: A Bio of the Infamous Chevy Chase

Cornelius Crane Chase, better known to decades of comedy fans as "Chevy," was born in 1943 into a prominent Manhattan family that traces its roots all the way back to the Mayflower. He never felt comfortable with the pretense of high society, however, and spent most of his youth being rebellious, getting expelled from school, and embracing rock music. A talented musician, he played drums for a college band that included Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, two men would go on to form the long-lived rock band Steely Dan.

After college, Chase worked a number of odd jobs while trying to break into show business as a writer and comedian. In 1967, he helped found an underground comedy troupe called "Channel One," and got freelance jobs writing for "Mad Magazine" and the Smothers Brothers. By 1973, he had landed a full-time position with "The National Lampoon Radio Hour," a comedy ensemble that also included John Belushi, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the legendary Gilda Radner.

In 1974, NBC came to Lorne Michaels and asked him to create a variety show to fill a hole in its Saturday night schedule. Michaels raided the National Lampoon and Second City comedy troupes for talent, assembling the Not Ready for Prime Time Players to serve as sketch actors in between musical and comedy presentations on his new show. Chase was one of the founding members of "NBC's Saturday Night," later to become "Saturday Night Live." He was the first to utter the now-famous tagline "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" at the tail end of a John Belushi cold open sketch.

Chase became the first major breakout star of SNL, in part due to his gift for physical comedy. His pratfalls and portrayals of President Gerald Ford as a bumbling klutz became regular fixtures in the show's first season, and he served as the original anchor for the "Weekend Update" segment. When his contract ended in 1976, he became the first of the original members to leave the show, seeking his fortune in movies. Many of his compatriots would follow his example.

Early on, Chase missed an opportunity that would have placed him in one of the most iconic films of the decade. The producers of "National Lampoon's Animal House" wanted him to play the role of Otter, writing the part specifically to suit his comedy style. He turned down the opportunity, choosing to star in the comedy/mystery film "Foul Play" instead, a film that quickly faded into history. His next film, "Caddyshack," proved much more enduring, and he enjoyed several successful hits in the early 1980s. In 1983, Chase stumbled into what would become his most famous role, patriarch Clark Griswold in the film "National Lampoon's Vacation."

Throughout the rest of the 1980s, Chase had success after success. "Vacation" spawned a number of sequels, including "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" in 1989, a film that has become a staple of NBC's holiday programming. He also took on the title role in two adaptations of Gregory McDonald's "Fletch" novels, but the series failed to take off after the sequel. During this period, he also appeared in the iconic video for Paul Simon's song, "You Can Call Me Al," lip-synching the lyrics and playing instruments.

In the 1990s, Chase's career took a downturn. "Nothing But Trouble," "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," and "Cops and Robbersons" all underperformed at the box office, and the triple failure tainted his star quality somewhat. In 1993, he tried to launch a talk show on the Fox network, only to have it canceled after a short six-week run. With the exception of one more return to the well in 1997's "Vegas Vacation," Chase dropped out of the spotlight for a time.

In the 21st century, Chase turned to minor character roles to rebuild his career, initially with mixed success. In 2009, he returned to television, first with a guest-starring arc on the spy comedy "Chuck" and later as one of the ensemble stars of the comedy series "Community." As Pierce Hawthorne, Chase brought his genius for physical comedy back to the forefront, turning simple acts like trying to dismount from a drum kit or preparing a hot dog into elaborate comedy routines. Eventually, though, he became dissatisfied with his character's direction, and after a public feud with Dan Harmon that resulted in major personnel shuffles behind the scenes, Chase left the show after the fourth season. In March of 2012, his former "Saturday Night Live" costar Dan Aykroyd announced that they were collaborating on a new film, their first such project since 1991.