The real Matt Foley remembers his friend Chris Farley
As Chris Farley documentary debuts, the real Matt Foley remembers his close friend
Matt Foley the motivational speaker lived in a van down by the river. The real Matt Foley -- the one Chris Farley named his iconic "Saturday Night Live" character after -- is head pastor at St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights and still misses his good friend.
Foley and Farley's close friendship started more than 30 years ago on the rugby field at Marquette University. It continued with backstage visits to "Saturday Night Live," phone calls from Mexico to New York, celebrations of Farley's sobriety dates, and prayers when he fell off the wagon. It ended on a cold Wisconsin day in December 1997 when Foley presided over Farley's funeral after the 33-year-old actor and comedian died of an overdose.
Foley is one of many friends and family members interviewed for a new documentary called "I Am Chris Farley." The film is at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago until Thursday and will play on the Spike TV cable channel Aug. 10.
The documentary is executive produced by Farley's brother Kevin and shows the gentler side of the famous comedian that Foley says is truer to his friend's spirit than his rowdy legacy.
Foley met Farley on the first day of rugby practice in 1982. Farley was a freshman. Foley was a year older and not sure what to think of the big guy who showed up to practice in nice shorts and a polo shirt with his collar popped.
"He was kind of a prepster. Rugby is a rugged group, and I thought he might have a difficult time. But he fit right in and he was a pretty decent athlete, too," Foley remembered.
Farley didn't hesitate to use his size to make others laugh, a skill that he would continue to capitalize on for years to come.
"He was really creative in terms of his physical comedy even back then," Foley said. After college the two were on the same traveling rugby team. When Foley was in seminary in Mundelein, Farley would come out to visit him, and they'd play basketball or talk about faith.
"He was very religious," Foley said. Farley attended daily Mass in college and continued to ask Foley for spiritual guidance as he struggled with addiction later in life.
A few years later, Foley was a newly ordained priest working in North Lawndale and Farley was onstage at Second City.
There, he invented an over-the-top but down-on-his-luck motivational speaker character that he based on both his father and his old football coach. If he had a friend in the audience the character that night would take the friend's name.
"My name is Matt Foley, and I'm a motivational speaker," Farley began one night when Foley was in the audience. The two went out after the show, and Farley told him he wanted to keep using that name.
When Farley got to "Saturday Night Live," he intended to bring the Matt Foley character with him.
On May 8, 1993, Foley got a call from his old friend. "Matt Foley is going to be on tonight; you've got to watch it," he said.
Foley turned in and heard his name on national TV for the first, but certainly not the last, time.
"It was a little shocking," he admitted. "But I thought the skit was hilarious."
Some consider it the best skit in "SNL" history. In it, Matt Foley yells, spits, breaks tables and throws himself around trying to get the message across to two kids (David Spade and Christina Applegate) that if they don't get their act together they, too, will have to live in a van down by the river.
In real life, Matt Foley is a mild-spoken priest who has spent his career bringing faith to some of the toughest places in the world. He spent six years at a mission in Mexico and eight years in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, and he did four tours of duty in Afghanistan as an Army chaplain before he became head pastor of St. James in Arlington Heights in 2013.
When the skit really took off, Foley was in Mexico. He didn't realize how popular it had become until one day when he tried to call Chris.
Close friends and family would use Farley's mother's maiden name when asking for his room at a hotel so the front desk would put them through, a trick Foley knew and used often while he was away.
Foley's call went through, but as soon as Farley heard, "This is Matt Foley," he hung up, assuming it was a crank call.
The next time he called, Foley amended his introduction -- "This is Father Matt Foley," he said -- and Farley stayed on the line.
Foley got to New York to see "Saturday Night Live" a few times a year, and Farley always insisted on bringing him backstage to meet his new friends, like Mike Myers and David Spade.
Foley admits he didn't always keep up with pop culture, which is why he once mistook Spade for Adam Sandler while backstage in Studio 8H.
"I don't think David Spade was too happy about that," Foley said.
Foley got a chance to make it up to Spade when he performed the marriage of Farley's brother Kevin, with Spade standing up as a groomsman.
It was no secret that Farley struggled with addiction through much of his adult life, but his friendship with Foley was a solace from the glare of fame.
"I don't drink or partake in any substances, so I think I was a good balance for him. It was a safe place for him," Foley said.
When Farley achieved his first year of sobriety, Foley flew out to New York and attended his AA meeting with him to celebrate. Farley made it to three years sober but then fell off the wagon several times and was reportedly in and out of rehab the last years of his life.
Addiction, said Foley, was a "brutal" thing for Farley. He helped as best he could, acting as a counselor as well as a friend. They bonded over their deep faith and attended Mass together during Foley's visits.
"He was very much aware of his struggle, but I think he was a good Catholic in practice because he recognized God's saving grace," Foley said.
During the summer of 1997, Foley came home to Chicago for a visit from his parish in Mexico. Farley was working on movies then and was back in Chicago living in the Hancock Center. He and Farley had lunch, worked out and spent the day together.
Walking down the street with Farley was always an experience, and this day was no different. People recognized him, and some asked for their favorite impression. Farley was kind to people who stopped him on the street, said Foley, noting there was a deep and sensitive person behind Farley's public persona, that he was a "real, tender, generous man." He always asked about Foley's brother, James, who has Down syndrome.
"That was the last time I saw him alive," Foley said.
Right before Christmas Foley would fly back to the Midwest again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin, to bury his friend.
While presiding over the funeral Foley could have looked out and seen Dan Aykroyd, Adam Sandler, Lorne Michaels or the sea of other famous faces in the crowd, but all he saw was Farley's mother and his siblings.
"People think about burying a celebrity, but the reality is you're burying someone's brother, someone's friend, someone's son. That is very painful," Foley said. "It was a very sad day."
After the funeral, Farley's mother asked Foley not to give any interviews. The media was hungry for details of Farley's life and death from anyone close to the comedian in his last days. He obliged.
Last year, though, Foley got a call from Mrs. Farley, who asked him to participate in the "I Am Chris Farley" documentary. He agreed and sat for a two-hour interview talking about his friend and reminiscing about old times.
He hasn't seen the movie yet but will be attending the premiere in Madison with the Farley family on Aug. 8.
Eighteen years have passed since Farley died, but Foley said he will never forget him.
"I think about him a lot. He was a very good friend," Foley said. "You think about growing old with somebody, but at 33 his life was ended. He's missed so many good things."
Foley wishes Farley could have met his own nieces and nephews, been to his brothers' weddings -- which Foley presided over -- and finally beat his addiction.
Once a year, Foley visits Farley's grave and celebrates Mass in the chapel there with his family.
"Most of us, we're much more complex than people portray us to be," Foley said. "There's the public persona and then there's the person you know as a family member and a friend. Chris was that character people think he was, but he was not that character all the time. He also had a reflective side, a spiritual side and a very caring side."
Foley saw that side often.
Like when Farley had just moved into a new apartment in New York and asked his ordained friend to come bless it.
Foley was walking around the apartment sprinkling holy water when he turned around and saw Farley following him, his hands folded like an altar server, quietly reciting the Hail Mary and Our Father prayers to himself.
"He was completely serious, but it cracked me up because it was just the two of us there and he looked so funny with his hands folded," Foley remembered. "But he was dead serious, and there was a tenderness in his face. It was a beautiful thing."