The Lost Roles of Chris Farley
Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy as we take a different actor, writer, or comedian each week and examine the parts they turned down, wanted but didn’t get, and the projects that fell apart altogether. This week, we turn our attention to Chris Farley, the beloved comedy actor who took Second City, Saturday Night Live, and the movie industry by storm before dying a tragic death at the hands of drugs at the age of 33 in 1997. Throughout his career, Farley was tied to some pretty big movie projects that he didn’t get to follow through on, including starring in a sunnier version of The Cable Guy, portraying Ignatius J. Reilly in the “cursed” movie version of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, and voicing the titular talking ogre in Shrek. It’s heartbreaking that Chris Farley was taken from us when he was so young, but by examining the projects he was working on just prior to his death, we can get a feel for where his career might have taken him, had tragedy not struck.
The Cable Guy (1996)
The role: The Cable Guy
Who got it: Jim Carrey
Chris Farley had a two-picture deal with Paramount that was about to run out by the time Tommy Boy was released in 1995 and became a surprise hit. With the contract close to ending, it sent the studio scrambling to get him in another movie. Farley and his representatives had just sold The Cable Guy to another studio with him attached to the lead role, but the folks at Paramount rushed a script for Black Sheep, which would once again pair him with David Spade, into development in hopes of scoring another hit. The studio had a script written and put the movie together quickly, which made it so Farley would have to turn down The Cable Guy. Simultaneously, the Cable Guy script got sent to Jim Carrey – who was on top of the world in 1995 with a recent string of hits under his belt – leading the other studio to lose interest in Farley. Carrey, Ben Stiller, and Judd Apatow were brought on to work on The Cable Guy and turned it into a dark comedy, which is very different from what the Farley version would have been.
The role: Ishmael
Who got it: Randy Quaid
Doug Robinson, Chris Farley’s agent, recalls in Tom Farley’s biography The Chris Farley Show that Farley was being considered to play Ishmael the Amish kid in the Farrelly Brothers’ bowling comedy Kingpin. Unfortunately, Farley’s deal with Paramount and the resulting production of Black Sheep forced him away from this project too.
The role: Joe Cooper
Who got it: Trey Parker
Farley turned down the lead role in David Zucker’s sports comedy BASEketball, according to Brian Cogan’s book Deconstructing South Park. After Farley passed on the project, Zucker went to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose show South Park had just become a major hit. Parker and Stone asked that the script be rewritten to reflect their raunchier sensibilities and the duo had a lot of input on the movie’s writing process, which made it very different from what the Chris Farley version of BASEketball would have been.
The role: Shrek
Who got it: Mike Myers
Chris Farley was hired to voice the ogre Shrek in the childrens’ movie of the same name in 1997. In The Chris Farley Show, Shrek writer Terry Rossio recalls, “For me, Chris’s comedic person was key to the creation of the Shrek character – a guy who rejected the world because the world rejected him.” This early version of Shrek was much different from the one we know now. According to a Jim Hill Media piece, “It was about a teenage ogre who wasn’t all that eager to go into the family business. You see, young Shrek didn’t really want to frighten people. He longed to make friends, help people. This ogre actually dreamed of becoming a knight.” Everyone involved in the film speaks fondly Farley’s recording sessions for Shrek, calling it one of his greatest performances. Rossio remembers, “The recording sessions were essentially everyone in the booth rolling off our chairs onto the floor, laughing our asses off.” Director Andrew Adamson said about the sessions:
“It didn’t make the final film, but at one stage there was a moment in the script where Shrek was walking along, singing ‘Feeling Groovy,’ Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Fifty-ninth Street Bridge’ song. Chris was just so into it. When we were recording, I kind of got the impression that he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to be doing a comedic take on the song or a sincere, heartfelt one. He was singing and putting himself out there in a way that was very touching. It made me see the longing in him to do something more genuine with his career. It made me feel bad, because we were in fact asking for a ‘funny’ version. But that he was willing to give it to us, even though he was so vulnerable about it, made it a very sad and touching moment.”
Chris Farley had finished 80-90% of his recording sessions at the time of his death (or 95%, according to his brother Tom), working up until a week prior to his passing. There was talk of having a Farley impersonator record the last portions but that plan was scrapped. Adamson recalls, “We spent almost a year banging our heads against the wall until Mike Myers was able to come onboard. Chris’s Shrek and Mike’s Shrek are really two completely different characters, as much as Chris and Mike are two completely different people.” Myers asked that the script be completely rewritten so that he wouldn’t be starring in the Chris Farley version of the film. After recording a good chunk of his dialogue, Myers decided he wanted to re-record it in a Scottish accent, which cost the studio $4-5 million to re-animate Shrek’s lip sync and other expenses, but it proved to be worth it and DreamWorks made that money back hundreds of times over.
The Superfans movie (unfilmed)
The role: Todd O’Connor
In the wake of Wayne’s World becoming a surprise blockbuster, Hollywood started greenlighting SNL movies right and left, hoping to find the next Wayne’s World. Robert Smigel left his job as Conan O’Brien’s head writer in 1994 to pen a movie version of the “Bill Swerski’s Superfans” sketches, which starred Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Smigel, and guest George Wendt as a quartet of Chicago sports fans who popularized the catchphrase “Da Bears.” Bob Odenkirk served as Smigel’s co-writer on the movie, which, according to an A.V. Club interview with Smigel, followed the Superfans coming into conflict with a businessman with no appreciation of sports who buys the Bears’ stadium and turns it into a luxury stadium for the rich. Smigel and Odenkirk were eyeing Martin Short to play the businessman, named Burton Kimkington. After a scathing review of SNL‘s 94-95 season in New York magazine, NBC put a stop to the development of all SNL spin-off movies. Another major roadblock in the way of the film was that, after Tommy Boy hit, Chris Farley’s representatives didn’t want him starring in an ensemble comedy.
Ghostbusters III: Hellbent (unfilmed)
Dan Aykroyd originally wrote the script for the third Ghostbusters movie (an updated version of which is still in development) in the mid-90s. The plot for Ghostbusters III: Hellbent concerned our favorite paranormal exterminators being transported into a version of Hell that resembles Manhattan. The idea was later used in a recent Ghostbusters video game. The movie also called for the Ghostbusters to pass the torch to a new generation. In a recent interview, Ghostbusters writer and star Harold Ramis explained, “Here’s how old the rumors are: Chris Farley was one of the rumors. It was going to be Chris Farley, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock.”
The role: Atuk
Famous for being a cursed movie in Hollywood, Atuk was writer Tod Carroll’s adaptation of Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s book The Incomporable Atuk, which told the story of an Eskimo warrior struggling to adapt to life in New York. According to The LA Times, the project passed through the hands of John Belushi, Sam Kinison, John Candy, and Chris Farley, with all of them dying tragic deaths shortly after reading the script. The Times reports that Farley was about to accept the role at the time of his death. Tod Carroll says he doesn’t believe these curse rumors because, you know, curses are silly.
A Confederacy of Dunces (unfilmed)
The role: Ignatius J. Reilly
Another “cursed” project, the movie adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces has been in development since the early ’80s, with many of the people who almost starred in Atuk (see above) also being attached to this one too before dying tragically young (or surviving). According to Slate, John Belushi was about to sign on to star for director Harold Ramis when he died, and John Candy and Chris Farley were each considered for the part before passing away. Confederacy of Dunces almost got made with Will Ferrell starring and David Gordon Green directing in 2005, but the project was shut down for mysterious reasons and everyone survived. Now, it looks like Zach Galifianakis is the latest person to be cast in the role, but don’t expect to see this movie hit theaters anytime soon, as it’ll probably take another 30 years to actually get made.
A Fatty Arbuckle biopic (unfilmed)
The role: Fatty Arbuckle
In 1997, Chris Farley began planning his first dramatic film, a biopic about silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, a heavyset actor who was falsely accused of manslaughter and rape in a highly-publicized trial before dying young of a heart attack. Farley met with playwright David Mamet, who agreed to write the movie. Farley’s manager Bernie Brillstein remembers meeting with Mamet in The Chris Farley Show:
“Chris came to the meeting at a little restaurant down in the Village, and he was the good Chris, the well-behaved Chris, because he couldn’t believe that David Mamet even wanted to meet him. Mamet loved him. It was a great meeting. He said yes before we got up from the table, and he wrote it for Chris. To this day, I know that it would have changed his career.”
Farley’s brother Tom remembers, “As soon as he heard little bits and pieces about Arbuckle’s life, he said, ‘This is me.’ It was the whole idea that nobody understands the real person underneath. ‘I’m going to tell them about the real Fatty Arbuckle, and maybe they’ll understand the real Chris Farley.'” The project got slowed down by Hollywood’s sluggish development process and, sadly, never came together before Chris Farley passed away.