Chris Farley's Dream Project Was A Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle Biopic

On a recent episode of the "Fly on the Wall" podcast, comedian Chris Rock talked about watching the Safdie brothers' film "Uncut Gems" and being incredibly impressed by Adam Sandler's performance. Rock was also made incredibly melancholy, however, as he immediately began to think of the later actor/comedian Chris Farley. Rock felt that, had Farley survived, he would have eventually had the opportunity to reveal his own dramatic acting chops, something Farley was never able to display in his film career prior. Rock and Farley both began performing on "Saturday Night Live" in 1990, and they both rose to fame rapidly. Farley, however, wrestled with addiction and health problems for many years, and died of an overdose in 1997. He was 33. 

Farley's death hit the world of comedy hard, and many of his friends and co-workers have come out over the years to say what a kind, shy, decent guy Farley was. His passing led to speculation over where his career would have gone, and the kinds of feature films he might have made into his 40s and 50s. Example: An old animatic, found online, revealed that Farley was to have voiced the main character in "Shrek" in the 2001 DreamWorks animated film, a role that would have most assuredly been a boon to his career. 

In the 2008 book "The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts," authors Tanner Colby and Tom Farley (the subject's brother) recalled a time when Farley had the opportunity to star in a movie that could have potentially put him on the path toward drama. In 1997, Farley was put into contact with star screenwriter David Mamet to work on a biographical film about famed silent-era comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

A short version of Arbuckle's story

Roscoe Arbuckle had a dramatic story that would have made for an Oscar-ready biopic. One of the silent era's more successful talents, Arbuckle began acting in 1908, appearing in dozens of shorts and features. He began directing in 1914, and helmed the bulk of his own movies, usually under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. He appeared opposite fellow silent film era star Buster Keaton in several movies, and continued to direct talkies into the early 1930s. Arbuckle died of a heart attack in 1933, on the same day he signed a major directing contract with Warner Bros. It was also his first wedding anniversary. He was 46. 

Arbuckle was also implicated in a sex crime scandal, often cited as the first major scandal of its type to hit Hollywood. The details are well-known to Hollywood history buffs: A young woman named Virginia Rappe became very ill and was hospitalized at a party Arbuckle was attending. Several people accused Arbuckle of assaulting Rappe, who later died of a bladder-related issue. Some of the details of the case were dark and violent. When the story was reported, William Randolph Hearst, the main publisher of the stories, painted Arbuckle as a monstrous lecher, despite the man having a reputation for being shy, chaste, and generally decent. Arbuckle was brought to trial three times, once on a manslaughter charge. Other actors spoke out against Arbuckle despite never having met him. Hearst got very rich. Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, but by then, many of his films had been banned. 

Chris Farley saw enormous potential in an Arbuckle biopic. He also, according to "The Chris Farley Show" book, saw a certain kind of kinship with Arbuckle, another Hollywood "funny fat guy" who simultaneously enjoyed and resented his public image as a goofball comedian.

The over/under on Beverly Hills Ninja

Farley seemingly wanted to build back a reputation after the release of Denis Dugan's "Beverly Hills Ninja," a slapstick martial arts farce that made a lot of money but was generally derided by critics. A silly film called "Beverly Hills Ninja" didn't inspire audience to think of Farley as a dramatic performer. It was then that the Arbuckle project passed Farley's desk. Here's an excerpt from "The Chris Farley Show," reprinted on Uproxx:

"Earlier that year, Bernie Brillstein had brought Chris together with screenwriter and playwright David Mamet, and together they'd agreed to collaborate on Chris's first dramatic film: a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle. Chris was drawn to it for the man himself. Arbuckle was a brilliant physical comedian who loathed his extra girth and outsized persona, despite having made it his professional stock-in-trade. After years of being made to play the crazy fat guy, Chris was being asked to play the guy behind the crazy fat guy."

It seemed completely logical, and Farley was certainly ready to do something more difficult and more personal. This would have been around the same time Miloš Forman's Andy Kaufman biopic "Man on the Moon" was in production, so the mood in Hollywood was primed to accept Farley's shift. "Show" saw the potential:

"He was being asked to play himself, a role he rarely performed for anyone. Much like Jackie Gleason's turn as Minnesota Fats in 'The Hustler,' this was the role that would have fundamentally altered the course of Chris's career."

Farley just needed to get sober first.

Other Farley projects

The book also features a quote from Second City alumnus Tim O'Malley, who recalls Farley's enthusiasm for playing Arbuckle, but also his struggles with drugs. O'Malley remembers saying this was going to be an inflection point in Farley's life: "And that's where I left it. That Fatty Arbuckle movie, that was the line in the sand. Either you get sober or you get dead." 

Sadly, Farley fell to the latter. 

The "Fatty" Arbuckle movie wasn't the only potentially dramatic project that Farley was potentially involved in. In the long, long journey of bringing John Kennedy Toole's celebrated novel "A Confederacy of Dunces" to the big screen, Farley was one of the names floated to play the bitter, comedic misanthrope Ignatius J. Reilly. Farley also had an interest in playing the title character in a screen adaptation of Mordecai Richler's 1963 novel "The Incomparable Atuk," but that, too, was in development hell for many, many years. 

By a strange coincidence, Farley, "Saturday Night Live" alum John Belushi, and late Canadian superstar John Candy were all at various points attached to "Atuk" adaptations as well as to biopics of "Fatty" Arbuckle. All three actors died while they were in the midst of talks for their respective projects.

The details of Farley's death were well-publicized, and his colleagues always have good things to say about him. His frequent on-screen collaborator David Spade has spoken out about their movies, saying he often saw Farley's more dramatic/actorly side coming out in between takes on the set of "Black Sheep." Their collaborations could have continued as well; the brightest moments of Farley's career were possibly still ahead of him.