One of the most significant moments in Chevy Chase’s life was when he met Frank Sinatra.
“Boy, that was a big thing for me to know him … He reminded me in some way of my dad. He was funny and smart, very much like my father — though not as much with the intellect.”
For once, Chase wasn’t trying to be funny. Unlike 10 seconds into our conversation when he told me he was naked, which was uttered in that typically silly, matter-of-fact, Chevy-Chase way, that in no way played lewd or creepy.
His Sinatra reverie was, in fact, heartfelt. It was a big deal. And Chase’s father — Edward Tinsley Chase, a Princeton-educated, prominent Manhattan book editor and writer — was an intellectual, plain and simple.
Chase expressed awe of both men— the Chairman of the Board and his dad, whom he calls “clearly the funniest man I ever knew.”
He admits that he owes his own sense of humor to his dad, claiming to have picked up on his “perspectives.” It’s a word he repeated frequently during our chat and, according to him, it’s the key to comedy.
“For me, a sense of humor is a sense of perspective … a way of gauging what’s good and what’s bad. And in so doing, you make people laugh,” he says. “Humor … is … about staying away from political correctness. It’s about saying and doing things to make people laugh. That’s the secret.”
Chase, whose storied start as an original cast member of “Saturday Night Live” led to a magical movie career in films such as “Three Amigos,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Fletch,” is en route to Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, as part of a limited-city tour aptly called “An Evening with Chevy Chase.”
It’s part of the larger Backlot Project, which is touted as “a celebration of pop culture, bringing stars of TV and film off the screen and into an exciting, intimate live setting just for fans.” The brainchild of Mills Entertainment, so far the Project has toured “Say Anything” with John Cusack, “Back to the Future” with Christopher Lloyd, “The Wrath of Khan” with William Shatner, and “Spaceballs” with Mel Brooks, among others.
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“Four or five years ago, we thought of presenting some celebs from films and maybe doing a sizzle reel,” says John Trembler, senior producer for Mills Entertainment. “But after giving it more thought, we considered giving a whole screening to these films that are so iconic. Many people haven’t seen them on the big screen in years, if at all.”
Chase will host an audience Q&A session following a screening of the 1980 film “Caddyshack,” which the American Film Institute considers one of the Top 100 comedies of all time.
It’s a stat that Chase was not aware of.
‘Be the ball’
Even though Borgata will screen “Caddyshack,” Chase says it doesn’t necessarily have to be the focus.
“Once we’ve shown ‘Caddyshack’ and I’m there with the audience … it’s no longer written. It’s all winging it,” says Chase, who made a similar stop in London recently, sans the actual movie screening. “There are no expectations and I’m not nervous — it’s easy and fun. I enjoy the back-and-forth with the audience — people asking questions, me never answering them.”
Chase, who has always preferred swinging a tennis racquet to a golf club, has no real answer as to why “Caddyshack,” a favorite among golfers everywhere, has had such longevity except to chalk it up to just being funny.
“I think because things were generally funnier back then … things weren’t so politically correct. We didn’t have much of that ... The important thing was that we stayed within the bounds and just winged it from there,” he says, adding that when filming the scene in Carl Spackler’s (Bill Murray) room — his favorite scene, by the way — “all of it was winged.”
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For decades, fans have been especially receptive to Chase’s self-described winging it. Quotes from “Caddyshack” and “Vacation” and “Fletch” — the dialogue of which Chase primarily improvised — have become barstool babble for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers alike.
When I mentioned this to Chase, he impressed upon me not recognizing the ubiquitousness of his now-famous lines, and seemed genuinely pleased to know it.
“I don’t get to see or hear what you’re saying. I just live my life with my kids and wife and dogs and cats.” A lifelong animal lover, he highly recommends pet ownership. “It teaches you so much about life and about yourself.”
‘It’s a quest — a quest for fun’
Guarded at the start of our interview, Chase loosened up midway, especially when recounting early career stories which veered from funny to poignant.
He laughed his way through the retelling of the very first SNL sketch he wrote when he and Dan Aykroyd were “interior demolitionists,” as well as the famous “Babs’ uvula” sketch with the late Gilda Radner.
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He’d segue into stories of “odd things” that happened — like the time when a fully suited Warren Beatty appeared from above the dunes in the hot Moroccan desert during the filming of “Spies Like Us.”
“Danny (Aykroyd) and I were sitting down to have lunch and we looked up to see these huge dunes that went on forever and ever … and there was sand everywhere. And all of a sudden, a couple of heads appeared And as they came over the dunes I yelled, ‘there’s a guy — in a suit!’” he laughs, remembering when director Elaine May and Beatty, who were filming “Ishtar,” appeared out of the middle of nowhere in the middle of the desert.
He’s not one to mince words about the business, his career or himself, and though he claims to not recognize how well-quoted his movie lines are or realize the significance of “Caddyshack” in pop culture, Chase still calls this tour “a big deal” for audiences. He goes on to lament that there are no great comedians anymore, and adds assertively that there are simply too many stand-up comedians on TV today.
“They think (stand up) is the bastion of humor, but that’s not true. It’s limited and generally self-deprecating. It’s just not interesting to me,” Chase says. “I just don’t care to see Jerry Seinfeld or someone up there doing short-lived pieces.”
As a kid growing up in New York, Chase reveled in the physical comedy and slapstick humor of comedic greats like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers — and he still appreciates their style.
“The batting of an eye, the way you turn your head — all of that is physical (comedy). I am very much a physical comedian and was luckily born with a lot of athleticism (to perform it),” he says. “And (their humor) was not politically correct — that’s killed comedy in some ways.
“’Your uvula is on the fritz!’” he inserts, apropos of nothing, and laughs.
So deep in the grave is comedy for Chase, that he has trouble envisioning it as a viable career choice nowadays.
“It’s very difficult … for me to imagine someone wanting to become a comedian today. I don’t even know what that is.”
He admits there is one person who he finds funny these days: Borat (he referred to the character name and not the actor, Sacha Baron Cohen).
“I’ve seen his pictures and he’s very funny,” he chuckles. “What he’s doing is close to ‘Fletch,’ being himself and making fun of things, screwing with people. He’s wonderful.”
Other funny folks are few and far between. He mentions Bill Murray and his brother Brian Doyle-Murray, a co-writer of “Caddyshack,” as well as the late John Belushi and Doug Kenney, founder of National Lampoon.
Just prior to his death, Chase took Kenney to Hawaii to help him sober up. It was shortly after “Caddyshack” was released.
“I miss him the most. He fell off a cliff, you know,” Chase says of his friend’s accidental death in 1980.
“He was drinking and getting high at … inopportune times ... I said I would take him (to Hawaii). We played a lot of tennis. He generally straightened out …” he trails off.
‘Sammy, you’re not going to sing for us, are you?’
Though the intimate evening at Borgata’s Music Box will screen “Caddyshack,” Chase actually has warmer recollections of making “Fletch,” the 1985 film where he played the title character, a newspaper reporter who tries to discover why a man has just paid him to murder him.
“I have such fond memories of ‘Fletch’ — which I just winged,” he says of the mostly improvised dialogue. “I loved making that movie — it’s so easy when you just do the lines you want … It’s just me. There’s no need to memorize when you have a director (Michael Ritchie) who says just go with it. Like when I’m walking down the hallway and singing, ‘Stranger in my pants …’ Where? What the heck?”
When reminiscing about the scene when Fletch interrupts a speaker at a lodge luncheon, Chase reveals that it was Sinatra and the Rat Pack who were the inspiration for his well-known line “Sammy, you’re not going to sing for us, are you?”
The memory caused him to muse over that chance meeting with Sinatra again. It’s clearly an encounter that still impresses him to this day.
“Marty Short and I went to his last singing event in L.A. It was wonderful. We went to this little bar after it. And I was getting ready to leave and Frank came in the back door,” he remembers with amazement. Chase, quieting down, began to speak softly and carefully, as if recalling a solemn reverie.
“Sinatra came up to me and said, ‘Hi, Chevy. What are you drinking?’ I said, ‘Whatever you are, Frank.’
“I’ll never forget it.”