The Tragic 1997 Death Of Comedy Legend Chris Farley

In the 1990s, Chris Farley was one of the biggest names in American comedy. Having made his name as a dynamic and charismatic star of the improv scene in the Second City comedy club in Chicago — alongside fellow future star Steven Colbert — where his imposing figure matched with his natural dexterity and comic timing made him a physical comedy sensation.

He was soon discovered by "Saturday Night Live" kingpin Lorne Michaels, who knew that Farley's improv abilities and energetic performance style would transfer seamlessly to live TV. Beginning his tenure in 1990, Farley was one of a clutch of cast members — including Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Rock, who was also an "SNL" freshman (via Esquire) with whom he became good friends — who together contributed to a huge resurgence in "SNL's" popularity. As a regular cast member of "SNL," Farley starred in some of the best-loved sketches of the decade, including the memorable "Chris Farley Show" sketch in which he nervously interviewed big names such as Martin Scorsese and Paul McCartney, a contribution that Entertainment Weekly counted among his most enjoyable work.

Things were all looking up for Chris Farley in the early 1990s, but tragically he would not live to see the turn of the millennium. His shocking death came on December 18, 1997, when the comedian was just 33 years old.

Chris Farley's addiction issues

Along with fellow "Saturday Night Live" performers Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Rock, Chris Farley developed a reputation for his hard-partying, anything-goes lifestyle, with the group being dubbed the "Bad Boys of SNL," according to Esquire. Though it may have all looked like fun and games being involved in "SNL" in the early 1990s, behind the scenes things were beginning to unravel, especially for Farley. While he was becoming a firm fan favorite thanks to his high-octane performance in front of the camera, off the air his full-tilt commitment to partying soon morphed into drug and alcohol addiction, according to Rolling Stone. "He liked to have a good time, but he couldn't control it," said Lorne Michaels, via the same source. "As I used to say, the good news and the bad news about Chris is that he always gave 110%."

Michaels helped launch Farley as a movie star, too, pairing him with Spade for the hit comedy "Tommy Boy" in 1994. It was a huge smash, per Esquire, but before long his luck began to turn. Struggling with addiction, Farley was suspended from "SNL" as his tenure wore on, according to The Chicago Tribune, and he was fired from the show entirely in 1995.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The final months of Chris Farley's life

Chris Farley's movie career continued in towards the end of his life, but with some severe repercussions for his addictions and his health. Though his and David Spade's follow-up to "Tommy Boy," 1996's "Black Sleep," as well as 1997's "Beverley Hills Ninja," in which Farley took the starring role, were both commercially successful, Farley's Hollywood offerings were uniformly panned by movie critics. According to Farley's brother, Tom, via The Daily Beast, such maulings hit the sensitive comedian hard. Though Farley repeatedly checked himself into rehab to get sober, with the release of a new movie his nerves regarding what the critics would make of it led him to relapse again and again.

Farley's increased alcohol and drug use were noticeable to both his friends and his audiences, with the comedian continuing to gain weight and developing a raw, throaty voice. In an interview with Esquire, Chris Rock recently described the slow-motion feeling of knowing that his drug-addicted friend was likely going to meet a tragic end, but that there was nothing he could do to prevent it. "He was showing me his apartment. I leave, I see him out the window, and I was like, 'That's probably the last time I'm going to see him.' I knew."

The official cause of Chris Farley's death

Chris Farley's body was discovered in the entrance of his Chicago apartment by his brother, John, according to The Chicago Tribune. A report published in Entertainment Weekly the following year pieced together the details of Farley's final days. Reportedly, Farley had been on a four-day-long partying spree leading up to his death on December 18. He apparently solicited the services of a sex worker, who claimed that, rather than sexual contact, Farley paid her to help him get hold of some cocaine, and that it was obvious to her that Farley was "on a rampage." The Chicago Tribune confirms that the medical examiner later found fatal amounts of cocaine and morphine in his system, and his death was reported as an overdose by outlets including The New York Times.

Though Chris Farley's drug use was widely reported as being the main contributing factor toward his death at the age of 33, The Chicago Tribune reports that there were further medical discoveries that were unearthed by his autopsy. Per the source, Farley had been suffering from coronary atherosclerosis, a condition that causes the narrowing of the arteries. If it had been detected during his lifetime, he would likely have required heart surgery to correct it.

What Chris Farley might have done next

Chris Farley's last starring movie role was in "Almost Heroes," a buddy movie co-starring "Friends" actor Matthew Perry. The movie was released posthumously in 1998, as was the Norm Macdonald vehicle "Dirty Work," in which Farley also featured.

Both movies were critical and commercial bombs, which on the surface might have indicated that Farley's Hollywood career was about to bottom out even if he had lived long enough to continue it. However, since Farley's death, numerous details have emerged regarding projects that the much-loved comedian was lining up to become involved in that have certainly piqued the interest of his fans. 

Per AV Club, Farley was planning to take his first steps into the world of straight acting by taking the lead in a biopic of legendary silent screen comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, that was to be scripted by the award-winning playwright David Mamet. He was also looking at a role in a future "Ghostbusters" movie.

Most intriguing of all, however, is the fact that Farley was already in line to take the role of the title character in the first "Shrek" movie, playing opposite Eddie Murphy's Donkey. In fact, according to Fast Company, Farley had already recorded an estimated 85% of his lines before his untimely death, after which his role had to be passed to fellow "SNL" alumnus Mike Myers.

Friends' reactions to the death of Chris Farley

The world of comedy was in unanimous agreement that the untimely death of Chris Farley was a huge loss. Many stars of "Saturday Night Live" were at his funeral to pay their respects, including Farley's close friends Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, per the Athens Tribune. However, David Spade, who had starred alongside Farley in "Tommy Boy" and "Black Sheep," failed to turn up. Apparently, Spade's no-show was interpreted as a snub toward his deceased former co-star. However, years later Spade explained: "it was just too ... emotional, and I wouldn't be able to handle it," while he also claimed: "I think about him all the time" (via Yahoo).

Rock, too, still has raw feelings about the untimely death of Farley. In the 2008 biography of Farley "The Chris Farley Show," Rock recalled one of the most memorable of Farley's "SNL" performances, the "Chippendale's" sketch. In it, a shirtless Farley dances alongside Patrick Swayze, but according to Rock, the sketch was nothing more than a joke at Farley's expense. "It's just f****** mean. A more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn't have done it, but Chris wanted so much to be liked ... it's one of the things that killed him. It really is. Something happened right then."

And Farley still lives on in the minds of his friends in the comedy world, just as he does in those of his fans. In 2018, Adam Sandler returned to stand-up with a new special, "100% Fresh," which featured a tender song about Farley, whom he describes fondly as a "one-man party" (via YouTube).