Family & Companions
One-half of the popular counterculture comedy duo Cheech and Chong, Tommy Chong was a stand-up comic, actor and director whose stage and screen persona - a deeply narcotized but philosophical stoner, usually named "Man" - was the yin to Richard Marin's talkative, omnivorous "Cheech" in a series of Grammy-winning comedy albums and films. A native of Canada, Chong emerged from that country's rock music scene, but found success on the comedy circuit with the Los Angeles-born Marin; their comedy team played up the absurdity of mainstream America's reaction to the drug culture of the 1970s, as well as the loopy logic that was part of the marijuana lifestyle. The success of their comedy albums led to a film career beginning with 1978's "Up in Smoke," but by the mid-80s, their act had run out of gas, leading to the duo's breakup in 1985. While Cheech Marin enjoyed success in film and on television, Chong floundered in the decades that followed, with a 2003 conviction for selling drug paraphernalia a particular low point. However, his 2008 reunion with Marin as the beloved Cheech and Chong proved that their decades-old material still held a fresh buzz for veteran fans and newcomers alike.
Thomas B. Kin Chong was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on May 24, 1938. His father, Stanley Chong, a truck driver, was Chinese, while mother Lorna Jean Gilchrist was Scotch-Irish, resulting in a mix that partner Marin later described as "the first kind of whatever he is that I'd ever seen." The senior Chong had been wounded during service in World War II, and relocated the family to an area called Dog Patch outside of Calgary, where he made use of the veterans' hospital. By all accounts, Dog Patch was a rough neighborhood, and the younger Chong found solace in the movies and in music. By the age of 11, he was playing in local country music bands. Rhythm & blues and rock-n-roll came his way via the African-American families in the neighborhood who worked as porters on the Canadian Pacific Highway. Convinced that his future lay in music, he either quit or graduated from Western Canada High School in Calgary and began playing with a soul group called The Shades, so named for their mixed ethnicities - singer Bobby Taylor was Native American and Puerto Rican, while the other members were black.
The group was impolitely asked to leave Calgary after one too many out-of-control performances, so Chong and the group lit out for Vancouver, British Columbia, where he bought a club called the Blues Palace. There, the Shades performed as Little Daddy and The Bachelors, and built a considerable following by laying soul covers for Canadian audiences and U.S. visitors. For a brief period, the band took Chong's suggestion that they rename themselves after the racial epithets that applied to their heritages - the moniker was "Four N-----s and a Ch--k," but wiser heads prevailed, and the outfit billed themselves as Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. Claims that a pre-stardom Jimi Hendrix played with the group during this period were unsubstantiated, largely by Chong.
In 1965, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson of the Supremes heard the band at the Elegant Parlor in Vancouver and arranged for them to be signed to Motown head Berry Gordy's subsidiary label, Gordy Records. They moved to Detroit to record their eponymous debut label, which featured the Chong-composed single "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" The track broke the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968, and the band went on tour in support of Motown vocalist Chris Clark. The jaunt turned out to be their last - Clark canned Chong and bassist Wes Henderson after they skipped out on a gig to apply for Green Cards in order to perform in the States. Taylor later became the first producer for the Jackson Five, who opened for the Vancouvers in 1968.
Chong fell into comedy while on tour with the Vancouvers. He became infatuated with the most revolutionary improvisational groups of the period, like The Committee from San Francisco and Chicago's Second City troupe. Inspired, he launched his own group, City Works, from the stage of a strip club in Vancouver. Unable to fire the dancers who performed at the club, he integrated them into the act, launching what he called the first "topless improvisational theatre in Canada." Chong met Richard "Cheech" Marin in the late 1960s, after the latter had moved to Canada to evade the Vietnam War draft. Like Chong, he was a musician who had performed with bands in his native Los Angeles, and fell into comedy as a diversion from his day job as a carpet layer. The pair clicked, and Chong invited Marin to join City Works. When the troupe disbanded, the pair began touring as a musical comedy act, eventually landing in California, primarily to escape the punishing Canadian winter.
The duo soon found that audiences responded more to their off-the-cuff jokes between songs than the musical numbers themselves, and refashioned themselves as a stand-up comedy team. Their humor was based largely around the growing popularity of marijuana in the counterculture, with Marin's high-energy, lascivious Chicano character offering the perfect balance to Chong's slower, spacier stage persona. A run at the famed Troubadour rock club in Los Angeles brought them to the attention of a Warner Bros. record executive, who signed them to a contract. Their first album, 1971's Cheech and Chong, was a massive hit with younger audiences, thanks to routines like "Dave," in which Marin, as the title character, cannot convince a deeply stoned Chong to let him into his own apartment ("Dave's not here, man") and the unexpectedly sweet "Santa Claus and His Old Lady." Its follow-up LP, Big Bambu (named after a brand of rolling paper) went to No. 1 on the comedy album charts, thanks to routines like "Sister Mary Elephant" and "Let's Make a Dope Deal." One bit finally gave a name to the pair's stage personas; Cheech was Pedro de Pacas, while Chong was simply "Man," which also served as the final word in all of his sentences.
Their third album, Los Cochinos (1973), earned them a Grammy, thanks to its novelty song, a soul parody called "Basketball Jones" which featured George Harrison, Billy Preston, Darlene Love and Michelle Phillips on its backing track. Its popularity, along with that of 1976's "Sleeping Beauty," sent them out on a national tour for the next four years. During this period, they began working with their album producer Lou Adler on a feature based on their early material. Adler and an uncredited Chong eventually directed "Up in Smoke" (1978), a loopy comedy about two dope-smoking musicians who launch an assault on a Battle of the Bands contest. The low-budget feature, promoted largely by the duo's idea to leave comic strips about the movie at bus benches, wound up becoming the 12th highest-grossing film of the year, and launched the pair as movie stars. They would release only one album during this period, 1980's Let's Make a New Dope Deal.
Chong would become the director of choice for nearly all subsequent Cheech and Chong movies, starting with 1980's "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie." Even more plot-free than "Up in Smoke," the film was not the success of its predecessor, though found its audience in a second-run release with "The Blues Brothers" (1980). "Nice Dreams" (1981) was a sort-of sequel to "Up in Smoke," with the pair running an ice cream company that sells treats made from marijuana, while "Things Are Tough All Over" (1982), directed by Thomas K. Avildsen, pitted them against their shady Arab bosses (also played by Cheech and Chong). A modest hit, it sent Chong back into the director's chair for "Still Smokin'" (1983), which was fashioned largely around footage of the pair on tour in Amsterdam.
By the middle of the decade, Cheech and Chong found that their audience were dwindling. Part of the reason was due to the anti-drug movement fueled by the Reagan administration, but the blame also rested on the duo themselves, who were clearly running out of ideas for their one-note personas. Attempts to branch out via the pirate comedy "Yellowbeard" (1983), starring many of Britain's best comics, and Martin Scorsese's surreal "After Hours" (1985), did little to change their fortunes. "The Corsican Brothers" (1984), based very loosely on the Alexandre Dumas novel, was an out-and-out failure that sent them back to the recording studio for a new album. Get Out of My Room (1985) proved to be their final LP collaboration for nearly two decades; a hit thanks to the song "Born in East L.A.," it was not able to prevent the pair from facing the reality that their act had run its course. Their friendship had also struck rocky ground; the popularity of "Born in East L.A." inspired Marin to turn his back on the drug-fueled humor of the act and strike out as a solo performer with a 1987 film based on the song. By all accounts, the split was acrimonious - not an uncommon outcome with onscreen teams who were also close friends offscreen.
For the next decade or so, Chong toiled in low-budget efforts like "Trip Wire" (1990) and "The Spirit of '76" (1990). There were attempts to carry on the Cheech and Chong tradition like "Far Out Man" (1990), with Chong as an addled hippie who crosses America in search of his family. Despite its wealth of cameos from his real friends and family, which included actress Rae Dawn Chong, former bandmate Bobby Taylor and even Marin himself, the film was a flop. There were occasional attempts to reunite with Marin, who by the 1990s had reinvented himself as a character actor on "Nash Bridges" (CBS, 1996-2001) and even in family films like "The Lion King" (1994), but nothing significant came to fruition. Chong eventually found regular work as Leo, the blissful owner of a photo hut on "That '70s Show" (Fox, 1998-2006), but the career upswing was short-lived.
In 2003, Chong was arrested for conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia via an Internet business called Nice Dreams, which had been launched by his son, Paris. The case never went to trial. Chong accepted a plea agreement from the U.S. Attorney's Office to serve jail time and pay a substantial fine in order to keep his son and second wife, Shelby, out of court. Chong eventually served nine months in prison from 2003 to 2004, and became a cause célèbre for marijuana advocates. The crux of their issue centered on the fact that of the 55 individuals arrested in the government stings that netted Chong, he was the only one without prior convictions to serve jail time. The case served as the focus of an award-winning documentary "a/k/a Tommy Chong" (2006) and a book by Chong himself, The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint (2006).
After his release, Chong resumed his career as a stand-up comic with his wife, Shelby, serving as his foil and opening act. There were also occasional acting roles in low-budget features like "Evil Bong" (2006) and an increased presence on television news programs about questionable incarcerations, but the question that remained most on people's minds was a reunion with Marin. In 2008, the pair put aside their long-standing differences to launch a worldwide comedy tour. Though its motivation appeared to be largely financial - dubbed the "Felimony Tour" due to the large sums of money Chong owed for legal bills and Marin for his recent divorce - the resumed partnership was an immediate success, and spurred talk of a new movie and animated feature based on their comedy routines. A concert video, "Cheech and Chong's Hey, Watch This," was released on DVD in 2010. Following a relatively quiet year, one that included a supporting voice role - not surprisingly, as a character named Stone - in the animated sequel "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil" (2011) and a guest turn as a judge on the legal dramedy "Franklin & Bash" (TNT, 2010-14), Chong announced in the summer of 2012 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Describing the condition as a "slow stage one" form of the disease, Chong also revealed that he was, in part, treating his condition with hemp oil - just one more reason, he urged, as to why cannabis needed to be legalized.
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Co-wrote "Does Your Mama Know About Me"
Left the Vancouvers to perform improv work with Marin
Formed the comedy duo Cheech and Chong; began playing Canadian and U.S. nightclubs; opened for rock bands (date approximate)
Recorded comedy album Cheech & Chong; nominated for the 1971 Grammy for Best Comedy Recording
Feature debut as co-screenwriter, songwriter and actor (with Marin), "Up in Smoke"; was also uncredited as director
Feature directorial debut, "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie"; also acted and scripted with Marin
Lived in Paris with wife Shelby
Reunited with Marin for a small but pivotal part in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours"
Acted and performed a song for the Showtime cable TV special "Cheech and Chong Get Out of My Room"
Guest starred on the popular cop show "Miami Vice" (NBC)
Producing debut, served as executive producer on the unsold sitcom pilot "The Family Martinez," starring Robert Beltran; also scripted
Served as executive producer on short-lived CBS sitcom "Trial and Error"
Wrote, directed, and starred in the comedy "Far Out Man"
Began solo career with one-man comedy act
Landed recurring role as Leo, a stoner on the Fox sitcom "That 70's Show"; promoted to series regular during 2000-2001 season
Sentenced to nine months in federal prison and fined $20,000 for selling bongs and other drug paraphernalia over the Internet
Performed live in "The Marijuana-Logues" at the Actors Playhouse in New York
Co-starred in the stoner horror-comedy "Evil Bong"
Featured in the documentary "a/k/a Tommy Chong"
Reunited with Marin on a comedy tour
Co-starred with Marin in the documentary based on their reunion tour "Hey Watch This"