'Tommy Boy' at 25: Director Peter Segal shares wild Chris Farley stories
Peter Segal was a young director coming into his own in Hollywood when he first crossed paths with Chris Farley — the future star in Segal’s road-trip buddy comedy cult classic Tommy Boy, which arrived in cinemas 25 years ago. Segal met the fresh-faced Saturday Night Live neophyte and big-bodied ball of energy at the Hallmark greeting card store in Glendale, California, to capture a segment for Tom Arnold's 1991 HBO special The Naked Truth.
"He was not quite sober and clean at that point. So he was smoking a lot and drinking a lot of coffee to kind of keep the nerves at bay," Segal told Yahoo Entertainment.
Segal and Farley then moved to the Glendale Galleria, where the comedian's objective was to perform a bit where he tried to pick up women around the mall. Farley approached one woman with an orange in his hand and asked her to peel it. He had no fingernails, he told her. After the woman reluctantly obliged, Farley serenaded her with an impromptu love ballad.
"He was so fearless, it was unbelievable. Everything that we shot, it was like tears of laughter. … Literally, I thought he was the funniest guy on planet Earth," Segal recalled. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this guy is deranged, but in the greatest way.'"
Read more: Hear Chris Farley’s unused Shrek performance
A few years later, after Segal had made his feature film directorial debut with the farcical Frank Drebin threequel Naked Gun 33 1/3 — and Farley had become an SNL favourite thanks to characters like motivational speaker Matt "Van Down by the River" Foley, a Gap Girl, Bears superfan and Chippendale's dancer — an intriguing project arrived on Segal's desk.
The script was called Billy the Third: A Midwestern, a broad comedy written by Bonnie and Terry Turner (the husband-and-wife tandem who wrote for SNL before going on to create 3rd Rock From the Sun and That '70s Show) about mismatched stepbrothers who must save the family business. With SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels onboard to produce for Paramount Pictures, it was intended as vehicle for Farley and his sardonic late-night costar David Spade.
"Originally the story that Lorne had sort of pitched [Paramount chairwoman] Sherry Lansing was more akin to Step Brothers," says Segal, referring to the 2008 Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly comedy. "And I said, 'No, I don't think that is the story. I think it's the story of these two unlikely work associates who don't like each other being forced to work together to save the company and save the town. And the stepbrother [who would ultimately be played by Rob Lowe] is the villain, he's an ancillary character.'" Those two main characters would be the schlubby and clumsy automobile heir Tommy Callahan (Farley) and his late father's snarky assistant Richard Hayden (Spade), who embark on a cross-country road trip to save their Ohio plant.
Segal was particularly excited about reuniting with Farley. After their fateful mall shoot, Segal also directed in an episode of Tom Arnold's Roseanne spin-off, The Jackie Thomas Show. While Farley had played small roles in SNL sketch-based movies Wayne's World and Coneheads, this was his first starring role. "I thought, 'This is it. I would love to introduce this guy to the world as the new funny leading man,'" Segal says.
When they moved into pre-production, though, the script was in such rough shape that filming shifted from the summer into fall, right in the thick of SNL's schedule. That meant Farley and Spade had to fly back and forth between Toronto, where they shot the film Monday to Wednesday, and New York for the rigmarole of the live weekend shoot.
Read more: Everything new on Netflix in April
Segal estimates they only had 66 pages of script when they began filming. Everything else they made up as they went along. Segal and Fred Wolf, SNL's lead writer who simultaneously oversaw revisions on the film, began adding personal anecdotes to the script. Segal had recently parked too close to a gas pump and almost took off his car door, so that was added. Wolf had once forgotten to remove the oil can from under the hood of his car, leading to a minor explosion on the freeway, so that was added.
As expected with Farley and Spade involved, many of the film's funniest moments were pure improv, or ideas workshopped at the 11th hour. One day when Farley came out of the wardrobe trailer wearing his soon-to-be-iconic brown tweed suit, he asked his good friend Spade if it made him look fat. "No, your face does," Spade fired back. So that was added.
As Billy Madison director Tamra Davis told Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year, Farley's commitment to comedy was unparalleled; she recalled that he slammed six shots of espresso and held his breath until he was red in the face to film his cameo as Adam Sandler's bus driver. (Speaking of Billy Madison, the film was shooting in Toronto at the same time, and ultimately forced Segal and company to change their title from Billy the Third midway through production; they experimented with options like Fat Chance and XL before landing on Tommy Boy.)
Segal witnessed similar tactics from Farley on the set of their film. "There was a time out on the sailboat where he was supposed to get a little emotional, and he didn't have it at the moment, he wasn't quite there. So he started poking himself in the eye. I'm like, 'Chris, what the hell are you doing?' He's like, 'I can't cry, Pete! I need to cry!' I said, 'Chris, you're also going to be blind if you keep doing that.' He wanted to make his eyes water."
When filming the "housekeeping!" scene that finds Tommy opening a motel door and subsequently dropping his blanket to the horror of Richard, Segal tried a few different versions before landing on Farley's T-shirt and beach-ball boxer shorts. In one, Farley just wore little panties. In another, he was buck naked, which inspired Farley to do a full-on Full Monty dance routine as Segal repeatedly yelled, "Cut!" and the crew howled. "I had to take those dailies and burn them because I didn't want them to ever get back to the studio and wind up on the internet," the director says.
Farley, who died of a drug overdose in 1997 at the age of 33, was "clean and sober" at the time of filming, Segal says. "And it was one of the best periods of his career. He saw his priest every night for counselling. He substituted caffeine and cigarettes for everything else. So that amped-up energy needed to be harnessed somehow. And the best way sometimes was physical exertion."
That meant the director had to sometimes get militant with Farley, who played football and rugby at Marquette University and performed his own stunts (walking into glass doors and steel beams, crashing into a table a la Matt Foley, etc.).
"There were times when he would get mad at himself for flubbing a line or not being able to nail a scene the way he had envisioned in his mind. And what I realised was I had to sort of appeal to Chris like as a coach to an athlete. A couple times I said, 'Drop me and give me 20.' And he'd do it. He'd do 20 push-ups and get right back up. And I'd be like, 'OK, now let's try it again,' meaning the scene. And it calmed him down. A couple times I said, 'Hey, take a lap around the quad' in the college campus, just to relax and calm down."
Farley and Spade were so close they were like brothers, which meant Segal also had to occasionally play the role of parent.
"They were exhausted going back and forth from New York to Toronto, so there were times [that] Spade got the brunt of [Farley’s] mercurial moods," Segal says. Then there was Spade's acerbic brand of humour, which is very biting and very personal. "I thought if these were two guys who didn't know each other, Chris would have definitely killed Spade. But he just thought Spade was the funniest guy in the world." Hence, the 'No, your face does' crack.
Spade ragged on Farley for his reliance on caffeine, and Farley returned the favour by mocking Spade’s regular consumption of tuna sandwiches, which he used to combat low-blood sugar.
At one point, though, Farley got flustered with Spade spending too much time with their costar Lowe. "He acted like a jilted lover," Segal says. "'I guess you like Rob better than you like me, huh, Dave?' I'm going, 'Oh my God, you're acting like a 2-year-old.'"
Through it all, Segal was still astounded by the comedic chops of both performers. The film's famous "Fat Man in a Little Coat" moment was born from an in-joke between Farley and Spade from their time goofing around with wardrobe at SNL's studios. Farley seemingly conjured the oft-recited line "Holy Schnikes!" out of thin air.
Segal recalls an exchange he had with Farley just minutes before the film's world premiere, held on Paramount's Los Angeles lot in perhaps a telltale sign that the studio didn't have much faith in its potential. "We had a private moment in the bathroom, I know that sounds weird, before we went into the theatre. I said, 'Dude, this is it. You made it. This is the premiere. We're here. And I’ve got to tell you, I'm so proud of one thing in particular. We've got two original catchphrases in the movie, and they're from you. 'Holy Schnikes!' and 'That's gonna leave a mark.' And he said, 'Well, "That's gonna leave a mark, I just stole that from Planes, Trains and Automobiles." I'm like, 'Um, what? You've been saying that line the entire time. … We're going into the premiere, dude, there's nothing I can do about that now!' So I guess we have one-and-a-half."
Call it an homage?
Tommy Boy opened to decent box-office numbers but less-than-stellar reviews. In fact, beloved film critic Roger Ebert put the comedy on his "Most Hated" list. It even notched Bo Derek, who turned up as Farley's stepmother and spoofed her celebrated bikini-clad sauntering out of the water in 10, a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Supporting Actress.
"You never really know what movies stick, and have a resonance and what movies do not," said Segal, who went on to direct films like My Fellow Americans (1996), Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Anger Management (2003), 50 First Dates (2004), Get Smart (2008), Grudge Match (2013) and this year's coronavirus-delayed My Spy.
After Tommy Boy premiered on home video, though, it soon became a certifiable cult favorite. It also holds a vital standing in comedy: Though Farley and Spade reunited a year later for the political camp-fest Black Sheep, it's Tommy Boy that remains his most treasured cinematic endeavour.
Segal began noticing the film's resonance a couple years after its release. He'd hear kids mimicking Spade's high-pitched "Housekeeping!" calls in hotels, and a friend of his from high school who served as a top gun fighter pilot told him that when he and his fellow aviators put on their flight suits, they all croon "Fat Man in a Little Coat."
"Fat Man in a Little Coat," by the way, could also count as an original catchphrase. So make that two-and-a-half.
Watch Billy Madison director Tamra Davis share her own Chris Farley stories: