CHICAGO - One late night pushing early morning in early August 1990, Chris Farley bought me a drink.
I was sitting alone on a stool at the bar in the Old Town Ale House, a Chicago tavern within easy stumbling distance of The Second City.
Farley bought me a drink - two, actually - after introducing himself (I knew who he was) and thanking me for a Tribune review I had written the week before about the latest Second City revue, "Flag Smoking Permitted in Lobby Only."
It was a very good show. I gave it a rave review, noting "some of the show's more riotous moments: large-enough-to-have-everyone-make-Belushi-comparisons Chris Farley as a ranting motivational speaker ‘living in a van by the river'; (David) Pasquesi, Farley, Tim O'Malley and Bob Odenkirk as Mount Rushmore in song, ‘four stone guys who can't close their eyes.'"
Farley was taken with the comparison I had made to the former star. He asked me if I had ever seen Belushi on the SC stage and I said that I had. He asked me if I had ever "partied" with Belushi and I said that I had, in the company of many others at the Sneak Joint, the tiny tavern behind what was then the Earl of Old Town, brought back to life for a few months by Belushi and Dan Aykroyd during filming of "The Blues Brothers" movie here in 1979.
"That must have been the coolest place," Farley said. "I wish I could have been there."
After a while, he was joined by a couple of friends and I said good night and left the bar. Farley stayed. But soon he was gone. "Flag Smoking Permitted in Lobby Only" was his final Second City show. He moved on to "Saturday Night Live" and then "Tommy Boy" and the other movies.
He did spend off-camera time in his family home near Madison, Wis., and some time in Chicago. This is where his life ended after a wild and tragic binge. He was found dead Dec. 18, 1997, in his Hancock Building apartment. Cocaine and morphine overdose was the cause.
But I saw Farley again recently when I sat in the UP Comedy Club in the Second City complex, watching a documentary about his all-too-short life called "I Am Chris Farley." The room was packed, cocktails were served and people laughed.
My colleague Nina Metz said this about the film: "(The directors) avoid cinematic risks and instead take a standard approach: talking heads, with old performance clips interspersed. Which means the doc only goes so far, leaving you forever on the outside looking in and wondering about this man - talented, complicated, insecure and by all accounts quite lovely - and who he was, beyond surface appearances."
There is nothing in her assessment with which I can argue. But walking out of the movie and onto the street and standing on the corner of North and Wells, outside Second City, it was impossible not to remember the cold afternoon of March 5, 1982, when I stood at that very place and broke the news to passers-by that John Belushi had died and asked, for a newspaper story, "How do you feel?"
We know how we feel, don't we?
Few things are sadder than a life cut short.
Mike Royko, who was a longtime friend of the Belushi family, wrote this hours after John's death: "I learned a long time ago that life isn't always fair. But it shouldn't cheat this much."
Belushi and Farley were both 33 years old when they died.
We have all known, I'm sure, people who died too young, but in some cases those deaths take on a sick romantic tone: the "Live fast, die young" nature of it all. (Those for words, by the way, coined by Chicago writer Willard Motley in his 1947 novel "Knock on Any Door.")
We remember the famous ones - Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Bruce, Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman. This list is a long one - because we "knew" them, or think we did. They had become part of the soundtrack or laugh track of our lives, the film and video clips of our minds.
I have known, as I am sure many of you have, those of less renown who erased their futures with drink or drugs, who were done in by disease or depression or demons not so easily defined.
One who did not, though he came close, is O'Malley. He was a colleague of Farley's, co-star of the aforementioned "Flag Smoking" show and a member of SC's resident company from 1989 to 1993.
When Farley and Tim Meadows were plucked from the cast for "SNL," O'Malley says he "wondered when it would be my turn. My turn never came, and that disappointment, that anger, started to fuel my drug and alcohol use."
It was bad, too: "I was driving around in my underwear looking for some crack," he says. But with the help of his father and sister, he underwent a 90-day program at the Gateway Foundation here. He has been clean and sober ever since. He still regularly attends 12-step meetings and since 1996 has been a faculty member of The Second City Training Center.
He does not, sadly, appear in the documentary, nor do many other important characters in Farley's life. But many are quite prominent in "The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts," a book published in 2009. It's an authorized oral history compiled by Farley's older brother Tom and writer Tanner Colby. It is a fine book, offering a far more complete, if bleaker, look at Farley's life: his almost irresistible urge to please, his dysfunctional family (most notably his father), his immense talent and his attraction to all things - all things - Belushi.
From the book, here's Conan O'Brien, who, many may have forgotten, was a writer for "SNL": "Chris has borne the accusation of trying too hard to follow in Belushi's footsteps - an accusation with varying shades of truth. Chris' bad habits were very much his own, seeded in his DNA and showing up at keg parties long before Belushi's death."
Farley himself is quoted in the book, words he spoke in 1994 at a Hazelden drug rehabilitation center in Minnesota: "Belushi. I want to be like him in every way."
Near the end of his life, he was in conversation with playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet about collaborating on a film on the scandal that ruined silent film star Fatty Arbuckle.
"Mamet loved (Chris)," says movie producer Bernie Brillstein in the book. "(David) said yes before we got up from the table, and he wrote it for Chris."
That would have been something, don't you think? We'll never know.
In the book, O'Malley says: "The last 10 days of his life he called me every day. It was a slow, horrible thing." O'Malley tried to help, as he has tried and succeeded in helping dozens, maybe hundreds, of others since.
Now he says: "Too much emphasis is placed on the celebrities who die early. That's understandable. But look, addiction - booze or drugs - is not relegated to any one occupation. It's people in all professions. Guys in the trades who are surrounded by drinkers, they think it's part of the life.
"High-profile people get all of the attention. But what about the everyday drunks or addicts we never hear about? The sons and daughters, mothers and fathers? There is terrible tragedy there."
We talk about some mutual friends. We talk about Farley. On the morning before his death, the two men talked and O'Malley said, "I'm coming downtown for a (recovery group) meet at 6 o'clock. Call me if you want to go."
Farley never called and the next morning he was dead.
"I loved Chris dearly," says O'Malley. "His death just wrecked me."
Farley lives forever, of course, on the Internet, and in the minds of those who knew him or watched him in the flesh. Belushi too.