What Tommy Chong Fans Might Not Know About The Star

By one metric, Tommy Chong is one of the most famous people around. Just think about it: When you hear the surname "Chong," who is the first person you think of? In most cases, it will no doubt be the pot-smoking, wise-cracking, laid-back hippy legend that is one half of the vaunted comic duo Cheech and Chong and also a noted actor, activist, businessman, and musician in his own right. In that surname recognition category, Chong joins celebrities like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Reese Witherspoon, Paul McCartney, and others who are first in line in the mind when their last names are mentioned. 

Given how famous Chong is — and especially considering how long he has been in the limelight, Cheech and Chong's eponymous debut album having been released in 1971 — there is still a lot about this veteran celebrity that many of his fans might not know. Fortunately, the more you learn about Chong, the more you'll likely come to like him. Unlike many people who tend to put on a face for the public, so to speak, Chong is essentially always playing the same role whether he is on screen, being interviewed, posting to Instagram, or sharing a private moment, that role simply being himself. 

That said, there are plenty of lesser-known details about Tommy Chong that will surprise you and a few that are sure to amuse you as well.

Chong was a successful musician before he got into comedy

Long before he and Cheech Marin were recording hit comedy songs like "Basketball Jones" or "Sister Mary Elephant," Tommy Chong was playing the guitar and performing in bands that were actually quite successful, making their mark on the Canadian music scene. According to Classic Motown, he was a member of the notable band the Vancouvers, who at one point in the later 1960s were an opening act for the superstar band the Supremes.

In a 1993 Nardwuar interview shared on YouTube, Chong reveals that he began to play guitar in his teenage years, being "about 16" when he "found out music could get you laid ... didn't matter what you looked like, either, you could be a geeky-looking guy, but if you played music, whoa! You get the girls." He started off his professional musical career with a group called The Shades (later renamed "Little Daddy & the Bachelors") based out of Vancouver, then went on to help found the Vancouvers. In addition to opening for major bands like the Supremes, the Vancouvers were also instrumental in helping the launch of acts including Ike and Tina Turner and, along with Bobby Taylor, discovering the Jackson 5. Still, Taylor has traditionally gotten the credit for launching that famed band and the unparalleled career of pop icon Michael Jackson (via Rolling Stone).

Chong is mixed race

Tommy Chong is of Chinese-Canadian descent, something that many people don't know, but it makes sense when you stop and consider his surname. According to My China Roots: "Chong is a common last name found among Overseas Chinese communities around the world. In fact, 'Chong' is the transliteration of several different Chinese surnames." 

Chong's full name is Thomas B. Kin Chong, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His father was named Stanley Chong and immigrated to Canada from China, while his mother, Lorna Jean Gilchrist, was of Irish and Scottish descent, as shared in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Chong has neither made his heritage a major part of his public identity nor has he ever obfuscated his Asian heritage. In fact, he even advocated for one of his bands to be called Four Ns and a C, in which the "N" and "C" were shorthand for racial epithets for people of African and Chinese ancestry, respectively, as per The Georgia Straight

He really did smoke that much pot

For Tommy Chong, the stoner act is no act at all: He has been a lifelong user of cannabis, if you count first smoking marijuana in his teenage years as lifelong. And as he told The Guardian in an extensive interview, his use of the substance was foundational to his comedic work with Cheech Marin. "For the most part we were always high. We always smoked a little before we went out there. That was part of the job," Chong said. He added: "It was my job as a writer and performer to deliver the goods. So if that meant being stoned, I gladly did it. I found that the more stoned I was, the more crazy the movie was, and the more successful we were."

Chong rarely smoked more than a joint on any given day, though, and often consumed even less than that, but he has tended to consume cannabis in some form almost every day of his life. These days, Chong reports often using edible cannabis products instead of smoking marijuana, such as eating marijuana-infused "gourmet cookies" that his wife helps him bake. As for other substances, Chong readily admits to having used cocaine, acid, ecstasy, and more, but in his Nardwuar interview, he claimed to consume very little alcohol and to never smoke cigarettes, saying nicotine "will kill you."

He does not consider himself an actor

Despite having appeared in numerous feature films and played roles in major hit television shows, Tommy Chong doesn't really consider himself an actor. During an interview with Forbes, Chong bluntly stated: "I'm not an actor. I'm Tommy Chong," clarifying that the roles he tended to accept simply had to involve him acting as himself. 'If you've got a part that'll work [for me], I'm there," he said. But as himself. Which makes sense, as you are basically watching the same person when you see his role as the Man in "Up In Smoke," as Leo on "That '70s Show," and, say, a Tommy Chong interview with a FOX news affiliate where he is not acting at all.

Chong has long drawn a clear distinction between himself and his longtime working partner, Richard "Cheech" Marin, in this regard. Chong said to Forbes: "Cheech is more of an actor, he went on to do 'Nash Bridges' and 'Tin Cup.'" To be clear, Chong is entirely happy with the arrangement, saying: "Me, I'm more like Leo in 'That '70s Show.' And I love that. You know, people don't have to wonder what I want in my dressing room. They know what gifts to buy me and how to make my day. I love being me, there's no work involved."

And when the non-actor formula has been working for decades, why change it now?

He is a lifelong bodybuilder

Sure, Tommy Chong first experimented with pot in his teenage years, but he also took up another habit that became a lifelong pursuit: weightlifting. "I started weightlifting when I was 16 at the Calgary Y," Chong told the Los Angeles Times. He added: "Then I ended up in Vancouver when I was 19, and that was when I started weight training under proper supervision. I've kept it up ever since." Despite the ostensibly unhealthy lifestyle oft associated with regular recreational drug use, Chong has actually devoted himself largely to healthy living even beyond just the working out. As he stated in an interview with The Green Fund: "With the bodybuilding comes diet, and with the diet comes the strict, strict diet because if you want to look halfway decent, you have to lose all that fat. And so, when I started smoking, I was very health conscious. And the only reason that I felt good about it is because all my bodybuilding heroes, it was the only substance that they would smoke. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance ... after he won a contest, he would light up and smoke a joint."

Over the many years, Chong has trained and worked out with Schwarzenegger, legendary 1960s California bodybuilder Vince Gironda, and noted trainer Tanner Martty, who helped prepare a then-76-year-old Chong for his turn on "Dancing with the Stars" (via the Los Angeles Times).

Chong is not American by birth

As discussed, Tommy Chong is not an American by birth, and he only became a naturalized citizen of the United States in the late 1980s, according to Google Arts and Culture. Chong was born in Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, and moved to Calgary, about 200 miles to the south, when he was still quite young (per The Canadian Encyclopedia). As a musician with The Shades, Chong spread his time between Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, as well as American cities like Chicago.

Chong did not spend much time in America prior to his meeting and subsequent partnering with Cheech Marin in the late 1960s, and he again cites bodybuilding as a major reason for his relocation to the United States. Chong told the Los Angeles Times: "One of the reasons I came to Los Angeles in 1968 was so I could live on the beach and train at Gold's Gym in Venice." Chong has spoken proudly of his Canadian heritage, most vocally when Canada legalized cannabis several years ago, per The Abbotsford News. (Though he did joke in a Nardwuar interview in the early 1990s that he was unsure whether or not he had lost his Canadian citizenship.)

He didn't mind prison that much

Tommy Chong was imprisoned in a California federal penitentiary from October 2003 to July 2004 after accepting a plea bargain that removed charges against his wife and son and had him plead guilty to online sales of marijuana-smoking paraphernalia via his family-owned company, Nice Dreams Enterprises. Or, as Chong put it, tweeting recently (via the New York Daily News): "I got nine months for selling bongs."  Which seems rather ridiculous now, less than two decades later, as cannabis itself becomes legal in state after state along with the hardware used to ingest it, but a crime was charged and a sentence handed down. Fortunately, Chong didn't much mind his time behind bars.

In fact, years later, as he said during an episode of the "It Happened In Hollywood" podcast (per The Hollywood Reporter), he even had some encouraging words for someone likely headed for the same length of stay in the same type of prison: "Relax ... There's no punishment in the federal prison. You get a computer. You get a nice comfortable cubicle. You're in there with nice, intelligent people." Chong regarded his time in the minimum security Taft Correctional Institution in Bakersfield, California, as more like an extended break from life — not quite a vacation, but hardly a punishing ordeal. While incarcerated, Chong wrote a book, made friends, and studied various religions. He also encouraged his new prison buddy, stock market cheat Jordan Belfort, to write a book, which Belfort did (the book became the source material for the movie "The Wolf of Wall Street").

He is very active on social media

Tommy Chong has a few thousand friends on Facebook, a platform to which he only occasionally adds photos or posts updates. He is more active on Twitter, where he has an impressive 530,000-plus followers. Chong tweets quite often and retweets posts from others with even more frequency. He is often active on the platform multiple times a day.

But it is on Instagram where Chong has the largest reach and where he remains truest to form. There, as @heytommychong, he has more than 2.6 million followers and has logged an impressive 12,600-plus posts at the time of this writing. Chong's Instagram posts are much like those you might expect to see from anyone just enjoying life (often high) rather than those of an account run by someone trying to create or hone an image. Chong posts everything from pictures and videos of him and his wife cooking or dancing to silly memes he finds funny to pictures of him with his grandkids. Chong also often posts images of him and Cheech together, uploads lots of cannabis-themed content, and sometimes puts up throwback images to his younger days.

Chong is in his mid-80s

Thomas B. Kin Chong was born on May 24, 1938, according to Celeb Stoner. Thus at the time of this writing, he is fast approaching his 84th birthday. Given that the current American male life expectancy at right around 78 years (per the National Center for Health Statistics), Chong is a pretty charming octogenarian. Despite having battled rectal cancer in the past decade — which he jokingly called "a pain in the butt," according to ABC News — he is overall in very good health for a man of his advanced years.

And yes, he attributes much of his good health to lifelong marijuana use, which he called "a great natural relaxer and painkiller" during a GQ interview. And not only did Chong treat many of the symptoms associated with his cancer with cannabis — he reported using marijuana suppositories — he also credited the substance with helping him deal with the illness emotionally and mentally, saying (via ABC News), "The main thing about pot is it affects your mental state. Instead of moaning and groaning about what you have, you start listening to music and reading books, and you get very creative. ... It takes the brain off: 'The glass is half-empty' and puts it on 'The glass is half-full.'"

He was 40 when Up in Smoke released

While already a success on the standup and comedy album circuit, Cheech and Chong's first feature film cemented stardom and gave them a "social currency," per a Rolling Stone article that takes a 40-year look back at the cult classic film "Up in Smoke." And given that "Up In Smoke" was released on September 15, 1978, Tommy Chong was a few months past his 40th birthday when the film came out.

Chong had already enjoyed modest success on the music scene, both in Canada and in some American markets like Chicago, and the comedy performances and recordings he did with Cheech Marin were well known in many circles. With "Up In Smoke," Chong began his journey toward true stardom and becoming a household name — a status that does not seem to phase him at all. Cheech and Chong went on to release multiple more movies following "Up In Smoke," including "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie," "Nice Dreams," "Still Smokin'," and "Things Are Tough All Over," to name a few. Chong served as the director on a number of the Cheech and Chong movies, and both he and Cheech usually received primary credit as the writers, though often scenes were improvised (as with the iconic moment a stray dog steals and eats Chong's burrito in "Up In Smoke," per Rolling Stone).

He still learns and tries new things as often as he can

At an age when most people would be kicking back and taking it slow, content to putter around and think back on the good old days, Tommy Chong remains thirsty for new experiences and new information. As noted, he began to explore an array of religions while in prison in 2003 and 2004. Then he went on "Dancing with the Stars" and mastered dances, including the notoriously complicated tango. And in the 2020s, he remains open to new things at all times. As he said during an Inside Hook interview: "With me, it's about not being able to accept, not being able to say, 'Okay, I really made it. I'm at the finish line, I've done it. I've done everything I've wanted to do.' I can't say that because I'm still learning things that I have to learn."

When asked about the secret to his interesting life and long, successful career, he again mentioned the embrace of the new and of being forward-looking, saying in part: "I really don't know. Just be ready for the new things. Embrace new. I've been around so many people, and they just cuss out everything. ... People resist new, I embrace it. I want to learn." And he wants to stay busy, too, as evidenced by a scheduled live show with Cheech this summer (per TicketSmarter), potential surprise visits to customers who make purchases from Cheech & Chong's Cannabis Company (via Los Angeles Magazine), plenty of personal travel, and of course, time with his grandkids.