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Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

The Lost Roles of Chevy Chase

Say what you will about the quality of Chevy Chase's movies, but you have to admit his influence on modern American comedy is vast. As Saturday Night Live's first breakout star, he was largely responsible for the show becoming a surprise hit, paving the way for every comedic actor and actress that followed in his footsteps by transitioning from castmember to movie star. On SNL, Chevy Chase co-created (with writer Herb Sargent) and hosted the segment Weekend Update, which has gone on to become the longest-running sketch on what has become arguably the most influential comedy show in this country’s history. Although fake TV news had existed prior to this on the BBC’s That Was the Week that Was and Laugh-In’s “News” segment, Weekend Update was the earliest fully-formed incarnation of modern American faux-journalism and it came to shape The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and even The Onion in the decades that followed.

As a movie star, Chase's misses outnumbered his hits by a wide margin, but he did manage to star in his fair share of comedy classics, including Fletch, Caddyshack, and National Lampoon's Vacation (the first one). In Vacation, he played a deadbeat dad to a dysfunctional family during a decade in which cheery, idealistic series like The Cosby Show and Family Ties were the predominant depictions of families in American pop culture. Married with Children and The Simpsons often get credit for turning this on its head and popularizing the dysfunctional family formula, but National Lampoon's Vacation did it first. Everything that has followed owes a little bit to the movie and Chevy Chase's bumbling father Clark Griswold.

While the late 90's saw Chevy Chase retreating from the spotlight to raise his daughters after a few bombs too many at the box office, he's had a late period career resurrection recently, courtesy of Dan Harmon. On Harmon's NBC sitcom Community, Chase plays senile moist-towlette mogul Pierce Hawthorne and is a crucial part of one of the most inventive comedies currently on the air. Community will be back for its third season tonight, and in honor of the show's return, let's take a look at the various movie and TV roles Chevy Chase turned down, wanted but didn't get, and the projects that were called off altogether. Read on to learn how one key decision by Chevy Chase could have prevented Tim Allen's movie career, the two pivotal roles for Tom Hanks that Chase passed up, and multiple botched attempts to revive the Vacation and Fletch franchises.

1. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
The role: Eric “Otter” Stratton
Who got it: Tim Matheson
Originally, John Belushi wasn't going to be the only Saturday Night Live star to appear in Animal House. With SNL at the peak of its popularity in the late 70's, the creative team behind Animal House wanted to cash in on the show's rampant success by casting Chevy Chase as Otter, Bill Murray as Boone, and Dan Aykroyd as D-Day. The part of Otter was even written for Chevy Chase. At the time, Chase had just left SNL and was selecting his first movie project, choosing between Animal House and the crime comedy Foul Play. In Live from New York, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s SNL oral history, director John Landis recalls that he didn't want Chevy Chase in Animal House because he thought he was too old and that he would feel above appearing in an ensemble piece because of his star stature. In the book, Landis details a lunch meeting with producer Ivan Reitman and Chevy Chase during which he attempted to dissuade Chase from starring in his movie:

“I said, ‘Chevy, if you take Foul Play, you’re then like Cary Grant; you’re opposite Goldie Hawn, a major sex star, you’re like Cary Grant. But if you take Animal House, you’re a top banana in an ensemble, like SNL.’ And under the table Ivan gave me I think the most vicious kick I’ve ever had. He was furious, but it worked: Chevy took the other movie.”

Without Chase, Animal House became the biggest comedy of all-time, breaking all sorts of box office records. Foul Play was still a hit, cracking 1978’s top 10 and successfully breaking Chevy Chase into movie stardom, but, if he had appeared in Animal House, it would have probably added to the film's pull with audiences, leading the film to become an even larger success. He didn't need Animal House to launch his movie career, as Foul Play served him well, but starring in Animal House might have shot Chevy Chase into the stratosphere.

2. American Gigolo (1980)
The role: Julian Kaye
Who got it: Richard Gere
Chevy Chase turned down the lead role in this Paul Schrader film about a male escort caught up in a murder investigation, saying that he was uncomfortable with the sexual content of the film. A dark drama by an award-winning writer/director seems like an odd film to offer Chevy Chase, and I'm not sure if the smirking, sarcastic Chevy of the early 80's could have pulled it off. While Chase's peers Bill Murray, Robin Williams, and even Dan Aykroyd have found success in dramatic roles, Chase never really attempted anything but comedy. It was probably in Chase's best interest to have spent this year filming Caddyshack instead.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The role: Indiana Jones
Who got it: Harrison Ford
It sounds completely absurd, but, according to Popeater and IMDb, Chevy Chase was amongst the actors considered for the part of Indiana Jones in the franchise’s first installment. The Indiana Jones series became one of the decade’s most lucrative movie franchises and allowed Steven Spielberg to recover from the failure of his previous film, 1941, starring Chase’s SNL cohorts Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. It’s hard to imagine Chevy Chase’s Raiders being any good, and I imagine he was pretty far down the casting list. Chase’s portrayal of Indiana Jones would have been laughable at best and might have caused Spielberg’s career to slump even further.

4. Splash (1984)
The role: Allen Bauer
Who got it: Tom Hanks
Along with just about every other big-name actor in Hollywood at the time, Chevy Chase turned down the role of Allen Bauer in the mermaid rom-com Splash. Because Chase and others like Bill Murray, John Travolta, Michael Keaton, and Dudley Moore weren’t interested in the project, director Ron Howard went with Tom Hanks, who was then a sitcom star and not widely-known. Hanks often claims he was the 11th choice for the role. Splash became a breakout hit with Hanks as the lead. It was his first starring role in a feature film and established him as a bankable movie star. Tom Hanks had the dramatic chops to really commit to the character, making the fantastical premise of being in love with a mermaid seem plausible and grounded. With Chase in the lead role, he would have just been his usual smug, goofy self and may not have been able to sell the romantic aspect of the storyline as well as Hanks did. Chevy Chase accepting the part might have prevented Ron Howard from taking a chance on Hanks, subsequently placing a giant obstacle in the way of Hanks's rise to movie stardom, but Splash probably wouldn't have been as successful or as effective with Chase’s sarcastic, insincere comic persona front and center anyway.

5. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
The role: Either Jack or Frank Bauer
Who got it: Either Jeff or Beau Bridges
When The Fabulous Baker Boys first went into development in 1986, the studio was pushing for Bill Murray and Chevy Chase to star. The filmmakers, though, nixed this idea and went with a more traditional choice of real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges to play the lounge singer brothers. Since this is a romantic drama with plenty of singing, it seems odd to cast two guys who were primarily comedic actors with little musical experience in the title roles. Murray and Chase are a troublesome pair, too, given their history. Bill Murray replaced Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live back in 1977, but when Chase came back to host the show the following year, the two got into a screaming fistfight backstage. They were able to patch things up to film one scene together in Caddyshack, but aside from that, they haven't done any films together since. Casting these two difficult personalities alongside each other, especially at a time when both their fame and presumably their egos were peaking, seems like a troubling proposition and they're not exactly right for the roles either.

6. Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
The role: Sherman McCoy
Who got it: Tom Hanks
Author Tom Wolfe wanted Chevy Chase to star as Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy in this adaptation of his much-admired book of the same name. Tom Hanks ended up taking the role and the film bombed with critics and audiences alike. This was during a time when Chevy Chase was suffering from flop after flop at the box office (Fletch Lives, Nothing but Trouble), and another underperforming movie could have done him in. Bonfire of the Vanities likely wouldn't have been any more warmly received with Chevy Chase in Tom Hanks's place, and it was in Chase's best interest to steer clear of this one.

7. The Player (1992)
The role: Griffin Mill
Who got it: Tim Robbins
In the early 90's Chevy Chase was interested in starring in this adaptation of the Michael Tolkin novel of the same name. Oddly enough, Chase's father, Edward “Ned” Chase, was a well-known editor and writer who was responsible for publishing the original book. Warner Brothers didn’t want Chase to star in the movie, instead casting Tim Robbins in his place when director Robert Altman signed on. The Player's a smart and funny Hollywood satire and it could have been exactly the right project for Chevy Chase at the time, allowing him to skewer the business that had been marginalizing him for the past several years. As I mentioned before, Chase's career hit the skids in the 90's with a string of box office duds, but The Player could have reversed this downward spiral by at least earning him some respect from critics and awards voters. Tim Robbins won a Golden Globe for the role, and the film was nominated for multiple Oscars.

8. Forrest Gump (1994)
The role: Forrest Gump
Who got it: Tom Hanks
Believe it or not, Chevy Chase was offered Forrest Gump early in the project's development. Chase turned the part down, and Tom Hanks, who had won an Oscar the previous year for Philadelphia, used the film to complete his transition from comedic to dramatic actor. Hanks embodied the character perfectly, and it's important to remember that Chevy Chase wouldn't have been as nice a fit for this role as Hanks. Forrest Gump was a significant turning point for Hanks, but it probably would have hurt the movie, possibly turning it into a joke, to have Chevy Chase take the lead role.

9. The Santa Clause (1994)
The role: Scott Calvin/Santa Claus
Who got it: Tim Allen
Chevy Chase was offered the starring role in The Santa Clause, but he had to turn it down due to a scheduling conflict. Sitcom dad Tim Allen stepped in to take his place. The Santa Clause ended up being Allen's breakthrough film role and the movie's runaway success is mostly the reason we're stuck with Tim Allen now. Allen's career began as kind of a low-rent Chevy Chase. His most famous live-action character, Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor, has a penchant for excessive Christmas lights and wacky injuries that seems to be taken directly out of the Griswold playbook. If Chase had taken the role in The Santa Clause, it could have prevented Tim Allen's smooth transition to movie stardom and guaranteed Chase a big holiday hit.

10. Toy Story (1995)
The role: Buzz Lightyear
Who got it: Tim Allen
Tim Allen’s other famous movie role (no offense, Wild Hogs!) was also turned down by Chevy Chase. According to IMDb.com, Allen was enthused about taking the role of Buzz Lightyear after hearing that Chevy Chase, whom he considered his biggest influence, had also been offered the part. Toy Story and Santa Clause movies are what have kept Allen’s career afloat amongst a sea of flops, and taking part in these two franchises could have likely done the same thing for Chevy Chase, preventing his career from fading in the late 90’s/early 00’s.

11. Hosting Saturday Night Live (1997-Present)
Chevy Chase's backstage behavior when hosting Saturday Night Live throughout the 80's and 90's was so bad that Lorne Michaels allegedly won't let him host the show anymore. In Live From New York, various castmembers recall Chase making lewd remarks to a female writer, yelling at the staff, and making fun of the career of castmember Robert Downey Jr.’s father to his face. Amongst the worst of Chase's actions, though, was during his 1985 hosting stint, when he suggested that the show's first (and so far only) openly gay castmember, Terry Sweeney, appear in a sketch where he has AIDS and they weigh him live on air each week. Chase has returned to the show numerous times since 1997 for bit roles and cameos, but he hasn't been asked back to host.

12. Son of Fletch (unproduced, in development 1997-1998)
A third Fletch film has been in the works since the late 90's, when the running idea was for Chevy Chase to serve in a mentor capacity to a new, younger Fletch. Chase hates the concept of passing the torch, instead wanting to play the lead role himself, but studios aren't really dying to finance a film starring an elderly man who hasn't toplined a successful film in over fifteen years.

One planned incarnation of the Fletch sequel was called Son of Fletch. Kevin Smith signed on to write and direct in 1997, with Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams set to star. He wanted to have Chase reprise his role of Irwin Fletcher in a supporting role as Lee's character’s mentor, but Smith lost interest in the project and studios since have only been interested in developing Fletch prequels about a much younger Fletch that Chevy Chase would presumably have no part in.

For more info on the third Fletch film’s troubled development, check out The Lost Roles of the Unproduced Fletch Reboot

13. American Beauty (1999)
The role: Lester Burnham
Who got it: Kevin Spacey
After Chevy Chase passed up Forrest Gump, the movie won Best Picture at the Oscars and Tom Hanks won Best Actor for the role that Chase could have had. The same thing happened all over again, just five years later, when American Beauty and Kevin Spacey won these two top prizes for a part that could have belonged to Chevy Chase. Chase turned down the opportunity to star in American Beauty out of fear that it would hurt his family-friendly image. As with Forrest Gump, Chevy Chase probably wouldn't have experienced the same level of success as the person who was actually cast in American Beauty, but it's still interesting to note that he was offered well-regarded roles in these acclaimed films at a time when his movie career was faltering. Chevy Chase may not have won Best Actor if he had played Lester Burnham, but he would have been a hell of a lot closer to scoring some sort of trophy than he was with Vegas Vacation.

14. Alvin and the Chipmunks (2006)
The role: Dave Seville
Who got it: Jason Lee
The live-action Alvin and the Chipmunks movie had been in development for years, and at one point, presumably a full decade before the movie made it to theaters, the part of Dave was offered to Chevy Chase. By the time Alvin and the Chipmunks went into production in 2005, Chase was no longer a bankable movie star and the part went to Jason Lee, who was coincidentally supposed to be the heir to Chevy Chase's Fletch throne. Alvin and the Chipmunks was a monstrous hit, spawning two sequels and a ton of merchandise, but the titular chipmunks were the movie's star, not their human owner. As Jason Lee was, Chevy Chase would have been overshadowed by the cute CGI creatures (or probably animated creatures in the 1990's when the script was likely in his hands).

15. Australian Vacation, Swiss Family Griswold, and further entries in the National Lampoon's Vacation saga
Ideas for a fifth Vacation movie have been kicked around for some time, but, since Vegas Vacation failed to match its predecessors’ success, another installment in the franchise has yet to hit theaters. In the mid-80's, Chevy Chase began writing Australian Vacation with his European Vacation costar Eric Idle, but the two abandoned the project before they got very far into the scripting process. The idea resurfaced in the late 90's as the concept for a potential fifth movie, but the latest news is that the future of the Vacation franchise seems to be going in a different direction. John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, the writing team behind Horrible Bosses, sold an idea for a Vacation reboot that would follow Clark Griswold's son Rusty on a road trip with his family. The plan is for Chevy Chase to play a supporting role as Grandpa Clark Griswold along for the ride. Chase has recently been babbling about his idea for the next Vacation film, calling it Swiss Family Griswold. The concept is that the Griswolds take a trip on a cruise ship, only to dive overboard and become stranded on a remote island. Chevy's idea seems to be for him to still be the movie's star and the family's patriarch, which means it probably won't be getting off the ground anytime soon, unless he figures out how to age backwards or Community starts getting Two and a Half Men-sized ratings this next season.

16. Other unproduced projects:
-Saturday Matinee (in development 1980's) – written by Chevy Chase and Saturday Night Live's twisted original head writer, Michael O'Donoghue, Saturday Matinee was a parody of the old-fashioned cinema experience, complete with a newsreel and short cartoon, that was set up as a project for Chase to star in. The feature portion of the film was called Planet of the Cheap Special Effects and was a vicious attack on Hollywood. As the script ballooned far past an acceptable length, Chase left the project rather than dealing with the studio forcing him and testy Michael O’Donoghue to trim their vision down. The script is said to be well-regarded amongst Hollywood insiders.
-It Never Rains (in development 1999) – This was supposed to be Blake Edwards's first film in six years at the time it was announced. An independent movie that would star Chevy Chase as a struggling writer, It Never Rains never came together. Edwards, a beloved comedy legend, passed away in 2006.
-Hitting the Wall (in development 1999) – This unproduced film was to be written and directed by Tom Davis, the other half of the comedy duo Franken & Davis and an original writer on Saturday Night Live. The story, based on Davis’s own experiences, followed an ex-SNL writer facing a midlife crisis, featuring “flashbacks, vignettes and skits in the style of [SNL].” Chevy Chase signed on to appear in a small part, along with fellow ex-SNLers Molly Shannon, Al Franken, and Bill Murray.
-Out of Order (in development 1997-1999) – This comedy, written and directed by SCTV's Dave Thomas, would have starred Chevy Chase as a lawyer fighting in a high-profile murder case against his attorney ex-girlfriend. Harold Ramis, a frequent collaborator of both Chase and Thomas, was on board to produce. Out of Order, along with a Strange Brew sequel called Home Brew, were supposed to be the first movies produced by Thomas's company Maple Palm Productions, but the company fell apart before filming began on either one.
-America's Most Terrible Things (2002, proposed TV series) – Lorne Michaels produced this pilot for an NBC sitcom that starred Chevy Chase as the father of three daughters in a modern day spin on My Three Sons. NBC passed on the pilot, never commissioning it to be turned into a full-on series. The vast majority of new TV pilots fail, and there's little reason to believe that this Chevy Chase one would have lasted had it been put on the air. If this had hypothetically become a hit, though, it would have resurrected Chevy Chase's career as a leading man (albeit on a much smaller screen), and he wouldn't have been interested in taking a supporting part on Community in the years that followed.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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  • Dekkoparsnip

    "Making light of the death of castmember Robert Downey Jr.’s father to his face." What is this? Robert Downey isn't dead now, and I don't think he was at the time his son was on SNL either. Or am I missing something?

    Fine article!

    • WeevilWobble

      @Dekkoparsnip Yes, that confused me too.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Dekkoparsnip Nice catch. There's a passage from "Live From New York" where Terry Sweeney tells a story about Chase speaking ill of Robert Downey Sr. and talking about how he died and went to hell. I assumed he was dead, my bad.

  • HerooftheBeach

    Chase is being ridiculous in not taking the proposed Vacation revival. He would make a fantastic mean granddad in the backseat, and even if the studio says his son would be the central character, that's definitely not how it would play out. It would be Chase's movie.

    Also, I admit to being a hater, but I always laugh when I see items about non-Bluto characters in Animal House being "written" for various actors. Outside of Belushi, all the frat brothers are just a smear of milquetoast white boy. The movie could have used another major persona to bring some life to it. Okay, done hating.

    • Dekkoparsnip

      @HerooftheBeach Really? I kind of love the sneering charm of Peter Rigert. Though, certainly the rest of the cast is fairly interchangable — what an underuse of Tom Hulce.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @HerooftheBeach Whenever I watch Animal House, the cast is better than I remember it, but I agree about Belushi's personality outshining everyone by a long shot. I think that's part of the reason Belushi stands out so much in the movie is that everyone else is so bland. I would have loved to see Chevy Chase or Bill Murray adding a little bit of personality to the film.

  • Louis N. Proyect@facebook

    I was good friends with Chevy (and Blythe Danner) at Bard College and have followed their careers with some interest. Here's something I wrote on SNL that draws on that experience:

    http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/11/07/saturday-night-live/

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    I wouldn't say Griswold is a "deadbeat dad" but a doofus. A deadbeat dad is generally meant to be a dad who skipped out on his family.
    Also, I wouldn't say Chase has limited musical experience. In college he played drums with a couple members of Steely Dan, has perfect pitch and is a fine pianist and plays sax as well. I don't know that Beau has any musical experience. Chase makes a lot of sense for that role.

  • http://mattpayton.tumblr.com/ Charles Bogle

    Wait a minute, Forrest Gump isn't already considered a joke?

    And Saturday Matinee sounds great. I would love to have seen that.

  • David Jackson@facebook

    As for "Fabulous Baker Boys," both Murray and Chase are pretty good musicians, with Chevy playing drums for an early incarnation of Steely Dan (I can't imagine too many more difficult gigs)