Chevy Chase is often considered one of the most likeable comedic personalities of his generation, even though the immediate popularity he achieved following a single season on Saturday Night Live never translated into more than a couple hit movies, and none after the 1980s. The prematurely balding, intelligent, fast-talking Chase created a couple classic characters, notably Irwin M. Fletcher (aka Fletch) and Vacation's Clark Griswold, but his career is often thought of as plagued by misfires and missed opportunities, rather than touched by comic brilliance.
Born on October 8, 1943, in New York City, Cornelius Crane Chase became known as "Chevy" when his grandmother nicknamed him after Chevy Chase, the wealthy Maryland community. The 6'4" future writer and actor was valedictorian of his high school class before attending Bard College, where he earned a B.A. in English. With a pre-celebrity resumé as varied as any (tennis pro, truck driver, bartender), Chase spent his twenties as a comedy writer for such outlets as the Smothers Brothers and National Lampoon, the latter of which eventually led to a lucrative franchise of Vacation movies. Chase's first stint as a performer was with the New York comedy video workshop Channel One, which evolved into the 1974 film Groove Tube. This afforded Chase the necessary exposure to be hired by Lorne Michaels for the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975.
Initially hired on as a writer, Chase soon began appearing in front of the camera as the anchor of the popular Weekend Update segment of the ensemble variety show. With the catchphrase opening "Good evening, I'm Chevy Chase and you're not," and aided by his bumbling impersonation of President Gerald Ford, the actor quickly assumed breakout status, earning Emmys for both his writing and acting. He left after a single season to pursue film opportunities, but did not really strike gold until Caddyshack (1980), in which he played a rich golf pro who oozed confidence and a dry sarcastic wit three steps ahead of anyone else. These would become Chase's trademarks.
During the filming of his next project, Modern Problems (1981), Chase was nearly electrocuted when a gag involving landing lights attached to his body short-circuited. The experience sunk him into a deep depression. But he recovered his stride in 1983 with the release of National Lampoon's Vacation, the first of four in an eventual series of epic misadventures of the Griswold family (European Vacation , Christmas Vacation , Vegas Vacation ). As daffy father Clark, Chase turned the film into a huge hit, harnessing a likable befuddlement that kept the series going even as the sequels were increasingly less well received and tiresomely slapstick.
Chase's other big hit came in 1985, when he starred as the title character in Fletch, the film widely considered the actor's best and most complimentary of his sharp talent for wordplay. As an undercover newspaper reporter with a quick answer -- not to mention a goofy disguise -- for every situation, Chase created a classic comic hero with a genius for confusing his adversaries. He reprised the role in the lesser sequel Fletch Lives (1989).
Chase achieved moderate success by pairing with other Saturday Night Live alums in the mixed-bag comedies Spies Like Us (1985) and Three Amigos! (1986); though these had dedicated fans, they didn't achieve the critical praise of Fletch or Vacation. Despite an all-star cast, Caddyshack II (1988) went nowhere, and by the beginning of the 1990s, Chase had slipped from his status as a reliable comedic performer. Such well-documented failures as Nothing But Trouble (1991) and Cops and Robbersons (1994) became his crosses to bear during a decade that also saw the colossal failure of his Fox comeback variety show, which was canceled two months after it premiered in 1993. Chase was also arrested for drunk driving in 1995, just one incident in a career sometimes checkered by drug and alcohol abuse.
In later years, Chase has preferred family oriented films, starring in such features as Man of the House (1995) (opposite Jonathan Taylor Thomas) and the kiddie-on-holiday flick Snow Day (2000). This stance prompted Chase to turn down the comeback-worthy role that won Kevin Spacey an Oscar in American Beauty (1999); had he accepted, it might have resulted in a very different film. As Chase's work has shifted more to the supporting role variety, including Dirty Work (1998) and Orange County (2002), he has seemed more comfortable. A series of appearances in such innocuous comedies as Bad Meat, Goose on the Loose, and Doogal found Chase continuing to plateau, and in 2006 the former SNL heavyweight would take to the lab to help save the world in the children's superhero adventure Zoom.
In 2009 Chase was cast as a casually racist and sexist member of the study group at the heart of NBC's sitcom Community, and that program gave him some of the best reviews he'd had in quite some time. He appeared in the 2010 comedy Hot Tub Time Machine, and in 2011's Stay Cool. ~ Derek Armstrong, Rovi