It's Chevy, pursuing late-night laughs


Time has been good to Chevy Chase.

The comic actor with the ever-present smirk will turn 50 in October. Yet despite the fact that his hair is thinning and turning a bit gray, he appears only slightly more mature than he did two decades ago on "Saturday Night Live."

In fact, Mr. Chase seems to have gotten better with age. He's calmer, more assured, more comfortable with himself.

Not that he's grown soft.

"A little edge, a little sarcasm, a little irony, a lot of good will and a little ill intent -- that sort of defines my style," Mr. Chase says.

The Emmy-winning satirist made a name for himself in the '70s, performing outrageous pratfalls and playing everybody's favorite news anchorman on "Saturday Night Live."

Each week he would open his popular "Weekend Update" spoof of newscasts by announcing, "Good evening. I'm Chevy Chase -- and you're not."

Now his faux newscasts will be a regular segment on "The Chevy Chase Show," which debuts tonight at 11 on WBFF (Channel 45).

Sitting in his large, living-room-type office at the Chevy Chase Theatre (a landmark building on Sunset Boulevard that was most recently the Aquarius Theatre), Mr. Chase recalls his early work on "Update."

"The story that sort of got me on the air was about the birth of a baby sandpiper at the zoo -- one of those fatuous stories they have at the end of the newscast. They used to end up with, 'Now our final story is a cute one . . .'

"I think the sandpiper was named Twinkle. In my version I announced its birth and then I said, 'But, unfortunately, baby Twinkle was killed by the baby hippopotamus born at the same time.'

"And I delivered it with a 'heh-heh-heh' and a smile, the way those newscasters do."

Though he has been busy making movies for the past 16 years -- "Cops & Robbersons," his 20th film, will be released in early 1994 -- Mr. Chase says he's always been more at ease doing television.

"I was embarrassed when I first saw 'Foul Play,' " he says, referring to his first film, which was released in 1978.

"I hated seeing myself try to act. At the time, it didn't feel natural."

He is happy to be back on late-night television, though he is aware he will be up against such big names as David Letterman, Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall.

"There will be guests on 'The Chevy Chase Show' and we will interview them," he says, "but it will have a lot more mirth and gaiety and aplomb and will be closer to my sensibilities than to other people's."

F: Viewers can expect Mr. Chase to shake things up a bit.

Comedy isn't always 'correct'

"This whole concept of political correctness is a nuisance," he says. "What does it mean? It means we're all hostage to various pressure groups that don't want to be offended.

"But the job of comedy is to punch holes in those things, to say, 'Loosen up!' I don't expect to break any big taboos. I just expect to be me.

"But let's be clear, I'm not being paid to be a good boy, you know. That wouldn't be funny."

Mr. Chase has never been a "good boy" -- not even when he was a student at Dalton, one of three prep schools he attended.

He straightened up a bit in college, attending Haverford in Pennsylvania, then Bard College in New York.

After graduating from Bard in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in English, Mr. Chase played piano with a short-lived rock group before moving on to such jobs as tennis pro, truck driver and bartender.

In 1973 he met Christopher Guest, who was putting together "National Lampoon's Lemmings," an off-Broadway satirical revue. Mr. Chase got a part in the show, in which he worked side-by-side with John Belushi.

A year later, while waiting on line to see a movie, he met Lorne Michaels, who was struck by Mr. Chase's sense of humor. Mr. Michaels was producing a new show for NBC -- "Saturday Night Live" -- and offered Mr. Chase a job.

Show business was an interesting choice for Mr. Chase, who comes from a distinguished, old-money family.

Born Cornelius Crane Chase in New York, he was quickly dubbed Chevy by his paternal grandmother -- perhaps after the posh Washington suburb.

His maternal great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Crane Valve Co., which was inherited by his grandfather, Cornelius Crane.

"My mom was a plumbing heiress," Mr. Chase explains, "but when Cornelius died, worth a hundred and something million bucks, he had already remarried.

"His new wife, some Japanese woman I never met, encouraged him to disown his former family. He left all his money to the Zen Buddhist Foundation."

Still, Mr. Chase had a comfortable upbringing. He remembers sailing on his rich grandfather's yacht in Ipswich, Mass., visiting his paternal grandparents in Woodstock, N.Y., and living in a Park Avenue world with his mother.

His father Edward Tinsley Chase, an editor and writer, and his mother Cathalene Crane Chase, a pianist, separated when Chevy was 4. He has kind words for both, calling his father "the funniest man I know" and his mother "a good laugher, very intelligent, a terrific pianist."

Mr. Chase's older brother Ned is an attorney, and he has five younger half-siblings. But he is the only performer in the group.

"Maybe the route I chose steered me away from competing with my father or older brother," he says. "They attained excellence I felt I couldn't match.

"It's the second-born thing, a built-in sense of inadequacy. I think in almost every case a couple is overprotective and proud with the first child. Second one comes along and even labor is shorter. And Dad knows just what to do, is not so nervous.

"Having three daughters, I see the 'second-child syndrome' in my second one.

Chronic pain

When one talks with the affable, seemingly relaxed Mr. Chase, it is hard to believe that he is in constant physical pain. Years of playing soccer and taking pratfalls left him with chronic back problems.

"I have degenerative-disc disease, and once you have it you never get rid of it," he says. "I haven't had lower-back problems in a long time, but I have pretty severe neck pain.

"I live with pain every day. And you always want comfort, so you go to painkillers. And you always have to watch it. You get over the line and before you know it you're addicted."

Mr. Chase went "over the line" in 1986, becoming addicted to the drugs that deadened the pain.

His doctors and his wife Jayni, whom he had wed in 1982 after two failed marriages, persuaded him to enter the Betty Ford Center. Though he didn't complete the 28-day program, he did stay for two weeks.

"I wasn't comfortable there," Mr. Chase says. "However, I did succeed. The fear of having to go back keeps you from ever taking too many drugs again.

"But these are ongoing, lifelong problems, and if you need help you go to a place like that."

Mr. Chase has been called many things over the years -- including stumblebum and smart aleck -- but the one that amuses him the most is "recovering anarchist."

There's not much to dislike about Mr. Chase's life these days.

His home in California's Pacific Palisades is a conventionally comfortable, well-appointed dwelling complete with manicured lawns, a guest house and four large dogs -- Labradors and golden retrievers -- two of which are named John and Gilda.

It's the sort of place Clark Griswold (his character in the "National Lampoon Vacation" films) would have bought if he had won a lottery.

In fact, Mr. Chase seems to have become the very thing he used to parody: a white-bread middle-aged man.

"And I couldn't be happier," he says.

/# New York Times Special Features

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