Chris Farley's Dramatic Ambitions For Black Sheep Came At The Expense Of David Spade

Penelope Spheeris' 1996 comedy film "Black Sheep" was the second film to feature David Spade and Chris Farley playing opposite each other as a traditional comedy duo. Their first was Peter Segal's 1995 film "Tommy Boy." The two had also previously appeared in Steve Barron's alien comedy "Coneheads," although they had no scenes together. "Black Sheep" was about Mike (Farley), the slovenly brother of a gubernatorial candidate named Al (Tim Matheson) who needs to run his campaign without his clumsy sibling getting in the way. To clear his path, Al hires Steve (Spade) to take Mike out of town for a few days while the campaign finishes. Spade and Farley take to the highways. Wacky road trip shenanigans ensue.

Spade and Farley made a good pairing as their comedy styles were immensely different. Farley was a broad, physical comedian who frequently played loud, clumsy characters unaware of their awkwardness. Spade, meanwhile, often played sarcastic and cynical characters who were disgusted by everything in the world. One was energetic and upbeat, the other laconic and ironic. Farley's characters would embarrass Spade, and Spade's characters would berate Farley. It was a healthy, classical comedy dynamic seen in pairings going back to Abbott and Costello. 

However, it seems this time-tested dynamic almost reached a breaking point on "Black Sheep," as neither actor felt terribly within their wheelhouse, and Spheeris wasn't interested in wrangling the two actors together, clearly preferring Farley over Spade. In the 2009 book "The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts," authors Tanner Colby and Tom Farley Jr. (Chris' older brother) interviewed Spade and Spheeris about their experience working on "Black Sheep," and there appeared to be a schism from the very start. 

Farley was lovable and positive

Although a broad comedy film, Chris Farley seemed to be under the impression that "Black Sheep" had the potential to be a more serious drama. As such, he wanted to downplay the comedy scenes between him and David Spade. Penelope Spheeris, meanwhile, thought Farley was the funny one, and Spade was far too caustic. As a result, Spade felt the crunch from both sides. Spheeris admitted as much, saying: 

"My problem with 'Black Sheep' was that then and to this day I find Chris Farley absolutely, brilliantly, hilariously funny. I don't think I've ever even smiled at anything David Spade's ever done. Chris was lovable and positive, and David was so bitter and negative. You take your pick. I still have a recording of a message David left on my answering machine. He said, 'You've spent this whole movie trying to cut my comedy balls off.'"

Spade was clearly not happy with the way he was being treated, feeling that his comedic talents — his razor-sharp sarcasm — weren't being employed to the height of his talents, or even at all. Although he and Farley had worked together on "Tommy Boy," Spade felt that the comedy in "Black Sheep" was stymied by his inability to work with and rehearse with Farley. He revealed that the pair were often kept separate, allowing them to fall out of comedic synch. After a while, Spade realized that he and his co-star were making two very different movies. Spade explained:

"The main problem was that Penelope separated us. She had Chris go off and do one thing and me go off and do another. We kept saying, 'Look, our characters just need to be together. We need to fight and bicker and do all that s***.'"

The comedic Spade, the dramatic Farley

David Spade's perception of "Black Sheep" was more in line with the actual finished feature. He felt that "Black Sheep" was meant to be a slapstick farce with characters falling over and getting comedically injured. Indeed, much of "Black Sheep" is devoted to the outsized Chris Farley tumbling down hills or falling off of things. Spade was present to provide bitter-colored commentary. At one point, however, Farley seemed to feel that "Black Sheep" was a relationship film about him and the Tim Matheson character.

According to Spade, Farley even tried to reduce his co-star's role in the film so that he could spend more time building his character dramatically. Spade, naturally, was upset by this. He said: 

"Chris wasn't helping much, because he thought he should be doing more dramatic stuff, that the movie should be more about his character and Tim Matheson's character and less about me. He even hinted that 'would I mind' if I got paid not to be in it so they could make it more of a dramedy. And I don't think he meant it to be offensive to me. He just wanted to act and didn't want to keep doing 'fatty falls down.' Personally, I thought it was too early; we needed more experience before we tried to do those things."

Costello & Costello

Perhaps after several buddy comedies, David Spade would have been proven right, and he and Chris Farley could indeed make more dramatic features. In 1996, however, it was not the time. Farley did get his wish, and Penelope Spheeris added more exchanges between Tim Matheson and him, leaving Spade all alone. Spade said:

"They added a few scenes for Chris and Tim to be a little more serious, and they had another writer come in to work on the ending. I didn't have Chris, and my humor is funny when I have someone to play off of."

Associate producer Eric Newman also noted the tension on-set, seeing that Spheeris wanted to make a Chris Farley movie, and not a Farley/Spade movie. And it all stemmed from the fact that Spheeris liked Farley's humor and didn't like Spade's. As such, all the powers at hand were turning "Black Sheep," clearly a comedy duo movie, into a star vehicle for one. Newman had an interesting analogy, saying:

"Actors need rules, and those rules need to come from the director. Penelope clearly didn't get David, and she really allowed him to meander. Chris Farley alone is the comedy team of Costello and Costello. You need the sharp-tongued straight man. You can pretend that you're just making a Chris Farley movie, but you're not. It's a Chris Farley/David Spade movie."

"Black Sheep" was a modest box office hit and got only warm reviews. In December 1997, Farley passed away at the age of 33 due to a drug overdose. His brother started the Chris Farley Foundation in response before shutting it down in 2012.

Spade was gracious and open about their working relationship. There were no hard feelings, and they had already talked about making a third film together