BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — They called it “the place in Alabama.”
That’s where Chris Farley, a comedian who shot to stardom on “Saturday Night Live” in the early 90s and in several movies before dying in 1997 from a drug overdose, went in an attempt to get clean during Christmas in 1992.
For years, it was never revealed where in Alabama Farley had tried to clean up or what he went through to deal with his addictions. Now, 25 years after his death, stories of Farley’s time in Alabama are being told.
‘I wasn’t doing it again”
By the end of 1992, Chris Farley was already riding an incredible wave.
Farley, who had joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1990, had already done several characters that had proven popular with audiences–like the famous Chippendale’s Audition or Bill Swerski’s Superfans— and appeared in his first movie, “Wayne’s World.” However, Farley’s addictions were already a well-known fact to those who worked with him.
In “The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts,” brother Tom Farley and co-author Tanner Colby compiled an oral history of Chris Farley’s life, speaking to those who knew him in order to get a better sense of his life and what happened to him. Throughout the book, many references were made to Farley’s alcohol and drug abuse, which became an issue at SNL early on, resulting in trips to several rehabilitation clinics to get sober.
According to the book, things came to a head leading up to Christmas 1992, when actress Glenn Close was set to host the show. Believed to have been clean by that point, Farley and the cast were in the middle of a read-through for a sketch. During a break, he left and didn’t come back for the rest of the day.
“Chris left the show and went over to Hell’s Kitchen and scored some heroin,” Tom Farley wrote.
David Spade, a fellow SNL cast member who starred in two movies with Farley, was quoted in the book as later finding several bags of heroin in their shared office, causing Farley to lash out at him and leave. From there, producers and show creator Lorne Michaels found out the truth: Farley had relapsed.
In the book, Michaels spoke about how Farley was crying about his relapse.
“It was a very adolescent cri de coeur, an attempt to play on everyone’s sympathies,” Michaels said in the book. “But as soon as I heard it was heroin, I was having none of it. I had been through it with John (Belushi), and I wasn’t doing it again.”
From there, Michaels put Farley on leave from the show, going further by sending him to “the place in Alabama” to clean up.
“I don’t know where I had heard about the place in Alabama, but I thought it was exactly what he needed,” he said. “It was a real stripped-down, no-nonsense place. I had also seen enough of the Hollywood version of rehab where nothing actually happens. I wanted a place to get his undivided attention. That and the threat of losing the show were the only things that could do it.”
‘A cross between a convent and a boot camp’
Despite the clinic never being specifically named in the book, Farley had actually been sent to the Mary Lee Zawadski Clinic, a drug rehabilitation center in the basement of the Randolph County Hospital in Roanoke, Alabama, located nearly two hours from Birmingham.
“I chose it because it was a small hospital in a small town with no airport closeby,” said Mary Lee Zawadski, a drug addiction counselor who ran the clinic until it closed in 2000.
By the time Farley had come to the MLZ Clinic, Zawadski had already earned a reputation for her hard-nosed approach to drug treatment. One of those whom Zawadski treated early on was Kitty Dukakis, wife of former Massachusetts governor and presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis. In her memoir, “Now You Know,” Dukakis spoke candidly about her alcoholism and coming to Zawadski when she was running Self Discovery Inc. in Roanoke to get sober.
“I describe Self Discovery, Inc., lovingly as a cross between a convent and a boot camp. It is a program of such unrelenting intensity, it makes all the other places in which I’d been seem like country clubs by comparison. It was precisely what I needed.” Dukakis wrote. “I spent twenty-eight days there and during all that time I was told repeatedly that I was a mess, and that if I didn’t take control of my life I was going to die. I heard it so often, I finally began to believe it. Once I believed it, I could act upon it.
“It was painful, it was horrible, but at last I knew the truth.”
Zawadski agreed with Dukakis on her approach to drug treatment: if you messed up, you were out.
“These people were addicts. They were not movie stars,” she said. “They were addicts first and they needed to get well.”
Zawadski said that when she first met Farley, the good and bad parts of him were already on full display.
“He was a very kind, kind man and caring, very sweet,” Zawadski said. “But Chris had little self-control. He was very impulsive. He could get in trouble.”
Zawadski said that early on, she tried to hit home with Farley what he needed to do to get clean. From there, he began to take the program seriously.
“He changed in two weeks,” she said. “He stopped being a clown. He stopped trying to be funny with people. He stopped the Hollywood part and he got serious.”
Farley quickly became involved in working toward his sobriety, Zawadski said, going to group meetings and even talking to new patients about what was expected of them. She said he even got the other patients together to perform a skit about her and the program while at the clinic.
“He followed directions, he did all his assignments, and he was very serious,” she said. “He was a very serious recovering person at that time.”
After a few weeks, Farley left Alabama and went back to New York to rejoin the cast and crew on SNL, all with a renewed sense of living a sober life. One part of “The Chris Farley Story” captures a speech Farley gave to a drug rehabilitation center in Minnesota in 1994. During the speech, Farley talked about what his time in Alabama meant to him.
“It was exactly what I needed, a good kick in the rear end,” Farley was quoted as saying. “They told me stuff like ‘You’re arrogant. You’re complying.’ They made me cry every single day. They’d say that if you pick up drugs and alcohol, you’re a baby. I didn’t like to be called a baby. I didn’t like to be called arrogant. I didn’t like to be called all those things that I was.”
At the time, Farley said one of the worst aspects of being in treatment in Alabama was being away from his friends and family during the holidays.
“Man, what a horrible place to be over Christmas, you know? Hearing ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas..’ when I’m in a stinky hospital ward,” he said. “But I did things in this treatment that I didn’t do before, like making sure I made my bed every day. I practiced what I would be doing on the outside. I prayed to God in the morning to please keep me sober that day, and then I’d thank Him for keeping me sober every night.”
The second time around
Despite the gains Farley seemed to make in Alabama, sobriety would not remain a long-term way of life for him.
Soon, he would relapse again, setting off a string of attempts for him to get clean, including a second trip to Alabama in 1997. However, by the second time around, Farley was not as ready to get sober, Zawadski said.
“The second time he came back, he was totally different,” she said. “He was an ass. He was arrogant.”
“People sat in the bleachers the whole night to wait for him,” she said. “That gave him tears.”
Within nine months, Zawadski and many others across the country had tears of their own. On December 18, 1997, Farley died from a drug overdose in his apartment in Chicago. He was 33.
Zawadski, who has never spoken to the media about Farley’s time in her care, said things could’ve been very different for Farley had it not been for fame and all that it brings.
“Chris is someone, in my opinion, who should’ve worked at a bank or with people he could have fun with,” she said. “Instead, he worked in a place that had no reality. LA is a place with no reality. He didn’t know how to handle it. It was too much for him.”
Years later, Zawadski still remembers that despite his demons, Farley was still incredibly kind, funny, and had a good heart.
“He was wonderful. We loved him,” she said. “It was just hard on him to beat Hollywood.”