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I'm Chevy Chase and you're not...

A few years ago you wouldn't have wanted to be Chevy Chase, either. He had left the jokes-and-tokes showcase of Saturday Night Live "burned-out," to make Hollywood comedies, "movies with just dogs and midgets," he calls them—flops, mostly, from Under the Rainbow to Oh Heavenly Dog. The press turned rabid on him, Chevy complains, with "cheap shots" like "Hey, you sold out." His career was faltering like Jerry Ford on high heels.

At the same time, Chevy's second marriage, to actress Jacqueline Carlin, was also on shaky ground. They separated in 1978 after 16 months of marriage, and divorced later. "A separation is so painful," Chevy says. "I really didn't have a carefree bachelor life. Mostly, I moped."

Not surprisingly he had turned to drugs and booze. He admits to being "self-destructive" then, though he denies with a laugh a rumor that he was stuffing $4,000 a week in cocaine up his nose. "Sure, I've done drugs," he admits. "I was growing up in the '60s, and you could hardly avoid them.... There really wasn't any experimentation with drugs that I hadn't tried. But I was never an over-the-line guy." Just miserable.

Today he can hardly keep from smiling. His National Lampoon's Vacation has emerged as this summer's hot-buttered comedy, an easy-to-swallow hit whose pretentions are as low as the laughs it goes for. Chevy's mood is equally upbeat. At 39 he says he finds it hard to identify with the depressed, indulgent Chevy Chase of just a few years ago. "I'm a lot happier now," he maintains. "I'm not that person, whoever that guy was."

The why is easy: Chevy's love of the past three years and his wife of one, Jayni, 26, who fell for him when she was a production coordinator on Rainbow. "When I met Jayni, what was I, a Bowery bum?" Chevy says. "She got me right out of the doldrums I'd been in for three years." Under her "very straight" influence, he says, "there is no smoking of pot, no drugs, no drinking. It's a very clean life."

Chances are it will stay that way, thanks to little Cydney Cathalene Chase, his first child, who arrived last January. Chevy was a nervous expectant father. "I was really terrified," he says. He and Jayni took Lamaze lessons from Dustin and Lisa Hoffman's teacher and read every child-care book around, "just out of total fear." They had expected a boy. "But when Cyd came out and I saw it was a girl," Chevy says, "I was in love immediately. I cut the umbilical cord and I held her for the first hour. She seemed to know my voice because, of course, I had been singing and talking to her through the belly for nine months."

To Chevy—as to any parent—this little one is more of a miracle than a person. "She's looking at everything," he says with amazement. "She grows at a pace that quadruples ours. The first couple of years, she'll never remember. But we'll never forget."

They do everything together: reading, playing piano and swimming in a backyard pool heated to 90° F for Cydney's comfort. "Instead of sitting inside and watching a ball game on Saturday, I'll go outside and walk her," Chevy says. "When I pick her up, I'm in heaven."

He crawls into Cydney's room on all fours, sneaking up on his sweetie just waking from her afternoon nap. Suddenly, he's onstage at her crib, mugging for her instead of a camera. She dissolves in happy laughter, clapping her hands and her feet. Cydney Chase has become Chevy's best audience. The littlest things make Chevy happy these days. "We bathe her every night in a ritual that we love," he says, "and we feed her together."

Both Chases like to cook. "I particularly like chopping things," Chevy says, "like veggies, my fingers..." Jayni once made rice cereal for Cydney, but she didn't know that it was supposed to be cooked. "It was hard, like little pellets," Chevy recalls. "Cyd kind of enjoyed it. She had no teeth and was sort of grinding it around in her mouth." Fortunately for 8-month-old Cyd, she's still breast-feeding.

Parenthood has not been entirely painless for Chevy. "I'm getting my face ripped," he says. "You know, the grabbing period. She's willing to take your eye out to explore it. I had a meeting with Warner's just after having my nose gouged by Cyd, so I had to walk in with a Kleenex up my nose and explain that my nose was bleeding because my child was beating me up.... What are you going to do? Throw her down and gouge her face?"

Chevy and Jayni are determined to be gentle parents. "We spank her nightly, just for discipline's sake," the old, irreverent Chevy cracks, then straight-faced declares: "I don't go along with the concept that you can spoil a baby. You can't."

Chevy, on the other hand, is becoming less spoiled and more disciplined to meet the demands of fatherhood. He has to stay in good shape now because keeping up with his daughter "is exhausting. The amount of work Cydney does with her feet while eating a bowl of prunes is unconscionable." He doesn't party anymore—"not only can't you, but I don't particularly want to." Chevy and Jayni entertain at home—Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Goldie Hawn and a few others. And though Chevy acknowledges "the basic childishness in me—I'm whatever I was at 6, only I make more—" he says he's more responsible now. "I think much more about the future—about pension funds, saving money. By the time Cydney's ready to go to school, I will need every residual from Foul Play I can put together for one year of college."

His friends also see the changes in Chevy. "It has brought out a new, non-cynical sense of humor," says Fonda. "I enjoy this new peek into Chevy Chase. And I think he is a riot with his daughter. Every child should have such a father."

Chevy's only regret is that he can't be a mother too. "I guess the worst thing is that I don't have breasts," he says. "I know that can be arranged, but I prefer to stay as I am. I can give her a bottle, but there's nothing like Mommy's breasts—and I can tell you firsthand."

What makes Chevy such a good father is really quite simple. "I have a love affair with children," he says. "I know what kids like and what makes them laugh." Making Vacation, he became almost a father to his onscreen kids—and a jester; his "son," Anthony Michael Hall, could hardly stop laughing during their scenes together.

Chevy has an impressive résumé as a father figure. "I took quite a hand," he says, "in helping raise my younger half brother and sisters." There were five, three from his mother's and two from his father's remarriages. When they divorced, Chevy and his full brother, Ned (a year-older lawyer in New York), lived with their mother, Cathalene, a former concert pianist and now a real estate agent. Their father, Ned, is a consultant for Macmillan publishing.

Chevy was also a camp counselor, able to handle troublemakers because he was one himself. That, says Chevy, was why he was kicked out of New York's Riverdale Country School: "I was a clown." At the progressive Stockbridge School in Massachusetts, he straightened up and graduated valedictorian. Next came Pennsylvania's Haverford College, where the dean suggested that he leave because of what Chevy shrugs off as "some shenanigans—your general Animal House stuff, but not quite that broad." On to Bard College in New York State, where Chevy studied American literature and teamed up with Ken Shapiro (later the director of Chevy's Modern Problems) to write and perform Channel One, a New York revue that was the basis for the movie The Groove Tube.

After graduation Chevy had considerable success as a comedy writer: for PBS' The Great American Dream Machine, off-Broadway's National Lampoon's Lemmings, Mad Magazine, The National Lampoon Radio Hour (with future Not Ready for Prime Time Players John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd) and the Smothers Brothers. Then, in 1975, came SNL. Chevy, a preppie before his time, was the instant star, upstaging Belushi, Aykroyd, et al. and winning two Emmys with his Presidential pratfalls and Weekend Update (which later stooped to cheap shots, he says, "Joan Rivers political stuff").

After one year on SNL, Chevy went Hollywood at $1 million a film. His first starring movie, Foul Play, was a hit; so was Caddyshack. But the rest—Rainbow, Modern Problems, Heavenly Dog and Seems Like Old Times—fizzled. Chevy was soon eclipsed on movie screens by buddy John Belushi, until Belushi's death by drugs last year. "What happened to John shocked me," Chevy says. "None of us ever knew him to be a junkie." Could Chevy have ever gone the way of Belushi? "Oh God no, never. As a matter of fact John used to come to me to help him get off the stuff. During the days when people were taking acid and that sort of thing, I just watched." Belushi's overdose, Chevy says, "was a fluke, but it's still a lesson: Don't screw around with things that are dangerous. It's not that we lost a great comic genius, but we lost, I lost, a good friend."

The good news was that Chevy found Jayni. The daughter of a mechanic from North Hollywood, Jayni had followed in the sneaker-steps of her two athletic brothers, decathaletes who'd competed against Bruce Jenner; she became a pentathalete. ("We're both athletic," Chevy says, "so Cydney is going to be something else!") Jayni gave up sports to study communications at the University of California at Santa Barbara, worked at NBC, then went to Rainbow where, she recalls, "There was some big guy [at 6'4', Chevy dwarfs her by 11 inches] coming into the production office flirting with me."

The two of them had a plan: fall in love, find a house, live together, get engaged, get married, have a baby. Finding the house was the hardest part. They looked at 50 before settling on a secluded, nouveau-Tudor, $1.4 million mansion in L.A.'s Pacific Palisades. They plan to build a two-story addition soon, with a playroom for the kid(s) and a sound studio for Chevy, who's a fine self-taught jazz pianist and drummer.

After they married (it was Chevy's third hitch; he won't talk about his first, a model whom he divorced after three years), a pregnant Jayni continued to work "on the road, getting fatter and fatter." She assisted on Vacation, and Chevy's next film, Deal of the Century with Sigourney Weaver, finished a week after Cydney was born and due out in October.

Chevy hasn't made a movie since Cydney's birth though he's planning to star as Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch, a fictional reporter. He's also working on a Vacation sequel set in Europe and a sort of sequel to Caddyshack set in an all-black country club.

There is another plan in the works, too. Chevy's so crazy about this child that he wants more. Little Cydney, however, is not making it easy. "The worst thing," Chevy says, "is that Jayni and I don't have a helluva lot of time in bed together, we're so exhausted.... You don't know that you'll be able to make another one—there's no time!" Rest assured, he'll make time.

  • Contributors:
  • David Wallace.