Farley was born in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, Thomas “Tom” Farley, Sr., owned an oil company, and his mother was Mary Anne (née Crosby), a housewife. He had four siblings: Tom Jr., Kevin, John, and Barbara. His cousin, Jim, is a vice president at Ford Motor Company. Farley’s family is traditionally Roman Catholic, and Farley attended numerous Catholic schools in his hometown, including Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart. According to Joel Murray, a fellow Second City cast member, Farley would “always make it to Mass”. Many of his summers were spent as a camper and counselor at Red Arrow Camp, near Minocqua, Wisconsin.
Farley graduated from Marquette University in 1986, with a concentration in communications and theater. After college, he worked with his father at the Scotch Oil Company in Madison. He got his start in professional comedy at the Ark Improv Theatre in Madison, and at the Improv Olympic theater in Chicago. He then performed at Chicago’s Second City Theatre, initially as part of Second City’s touring group. He was eventually promoted to their main stage.
Along with Chris Rock, Farley was one of two new Saturday Night Live cast members announced in the spring of 1990. On SNL, Farley frequently collaborated with his fellow cast members Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and David Spade, among others. This group came to be known as the “Bad Boys of SNL”. Popular characters performed by Farley included himself on The Chris Farley Show, a talk show in which Farley quite often “interviewed” the guest, got very nervous and asked simple-minded or irrelevant questions, such as what their favorite rock band was; Matt Foley, an over-the-top motivational speaker who constantly reminded other characters that he “lived in a van, down by the river”; Todd O’Connor of Bill Swerski’s Superfans, a group of stereotypical Chicagoans who constantly shouted “da Bears!”; a Chippendale’s dancer, in a famous sketch that paired him with guest host Patrick Swayze; one of the “Gap Girls”, who hung out together at a local mall; a stereotypical lunch lady, to the theme of Lunchlady Land performed by Adam Sandler; and Bennett Brauer, a Weekend Update commentator who often divulged his personal and hygienic problems via air quotes. Some of these characters were brought to SNL from his days at Second City. Farley also performed impersonations of Tom Arnold, who gave Farley’s eulogy at his private funeral; Andrew Giuliani, Jerry Garcia, Meat Loaf, Norman Schwarzkopf, Dom DeLuise, Roger Ebert, Carnie Wilson, Newt Gingrich, Mindy Cohn,Mama Cass, Hank Williams, Jr., and Rush Limbaugh were among the celebrities and real-life figures he portrayed.
Off-screen, Farley was well known for his pranks in the offices of Saturday Night Live. This would refer to Sandler and Farley making late-night prank phone calls from the SNL offices in Rockefeller Center, with Sandler speaking in an old woman’s voice and Farley farting into the phone and mooning cars from a limousine. Sandler told Conan O’Brien on The Tonight Show that NBC fired him and Farley from the show in 1995.
During his time on SNL, Farley had roles in the comedy films Wayne’s World, Coneheads, Airheads, and uncredited in Billy Madison. He also appeared in the Red Hot Chili Peppers music video for “Soul to Squeeze” which was a song featured on the Coneheads soundtrack.
After Farley and most of his fellow cast members were released from their contracts at Saturday Night Live following the 1994–1995 season, Farley began focusing on his film career. His first two major films co-starred his fellowSNL colleague and close friend David Spade. Together, the duo made the films Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. These were a success at the domestic box office, earning around $32 million each and gaining a large cult following on home video. They established Farley as a relatively bankable star and he was given the title role of Beverly Hills Ninja, which finished in first place at the box office on its opening weekend. However, drug and alcohol problems interfered throughout Farley’s film work, and production of his final film, Almost Heroes, was held up several times so Farley could attend rehab. After his premature death on December 18, 1997, his final completed films, Almost Heroes and Dirty Work, were released posthumously.
Farley was the original choice to voice the title character of the DreamWorks animated film Shrek, but died just before recording was finished. He was replaced by one of his SNL colleagues, Mike Myers. He was also planning a Matt Foley film and wanted to do another film with Spade (the movie eventually became Lost & Found). By the time of his death, Farley had also been in talks to co-star Vince Vaughn in the film The Gelfin and also to star in a biopic film about Fatty Arbuckle. Farley had also been in talks for the lead in an adaptation of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces.
By early 1997, a visible decline in Farley’s health was noted in the press. Following his final guest appearance on SNL on October 25, 1997, his hoarse voice and flushed skin were the subject of public scrutiny. In the final years of his life, Farley had sought treatment for obesity and drug abuse on 17 occasions. On December 18, 1997, he was found dead by his younger brother, John, in his apartment in the John Hancock Center in Chicago. An autopsy later revealed that Farley had died of a cocaine and morphine overdose early that morning. Advanced atherosclerosis was cited as a “significant contributing factor”. Farley’s death is often compared to that of his SNL idol John Belushi, who also died at age 33 of an accidental drug overdose consisting of cocaine (and heroin).
Farley’s private funeral was held at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Over 500 people attended his funeral, including many comedians who had worked with him on Saturday Night Live and on film. Absent was Farley’s former SNL castmate and close friend David Spade, who was later quoted as saying that he declined to attend Farley’s funeral because he “could not be in a room where Chris was in a box.” Farley’s remains were entombed at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery.
- February, 15, 1964
- Madison, Wisconsin
- December, 18, 1997
- Chicago, Illinois
- Resurrection Cemetery
- Madison, Wisconsin