LOS ANGELES - It was pot that made him famous and pot that helped put him in prison. So it seems only natural that Tommy Chong's first big gig since leaving the joint would be in a play called "The Marijuana-Logues."
"I'm trying to change my image," jokes the taller, bespectacled half of comedy's ultimate doper duo, Cheech and Chong.
Only in this case, it's not entirely a joke. At 65, with his long dark hair and beard turning seriously gray, Chong may still be talking about pot - but he's doing it off-Broadway.
"I'm trying to go from nightclubs to the legitimate stage," he says of his role in the three-man ensemble show at New York's Actors Theatre. "I love the fact that it's in New York. Legitimate theater. New York. That's always been my dream."
If that sounds surprising, it turns out that Thomas B. Kin Chong is full of surprises. For one thing, he's soft-spoken and articulate - nothing at all like the character he's played in films, nightclubs and on television and comedy albums for more than 30 years. The father of six says he hasn't touched marijuana in two years, joking that's why authorities found nearly a pound when they raided the Pacific Palisades home he shares with Shelby Chong, his wife of more than 30 years.
"In the old days, they wouldn't have found a seed," Chong says with a laugh, as he prepares to leave for New York.
Chong was never charged with marijuana possession because the agents who arrested him were looking for smoking materials made by Nice Dreams, a company named for one of his Cheech and Chong films, and had not included marijuana in the search warrant. He ended up serving nine months after pleading guilty to conspiring to sell drug paraphernalia.
He maintains that what authorities say were bongs and water pipes actually were examples of the fine blown-glass art he has exhibited over the years. He says he agreed to plead guilty to spare his son Paris, who ran Nice Dreams, any legal troubles.
"He put his heart and soul into it," Chong says quietly. Quickly brightening, he adds, "He's back in school now so it all worked out. He's studying to be a lawyer. I figure he may as well learn something the family can use."
Most of Chong's children have followed their father into acting, many appearing in his films. Best known is Rae Dawn Chong, who has appeared in dozens of movies including "The Color Purple" and "The Principal," as well as in the TV series "Wild Card." Other acting Chongs include son Marcus ("The Matrix"), daughters Robbi and Precious, and son Gilbran.
It was Precious Chong, her father says, who best described his nine months in prison as a "religious retreat," where he took part with fellow inmates in Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist and Lakota Sioux ceremonies. "Actually I enjoyed it," he says of prison. "It was like being at camp in a way."
Chong says it wasn't hard to give up marijuana because it's not physically addictive. In any event, he says, he was never that much of a stoner. "I was more into bodybuilding and things like that," he says. "My humor, it's always been observational, just cracking up at all the stupid things stoners do."
So he's hoping life won't imitate art when he appears in "The Marijuana-Logues" in New York through most of December and then on the West Coast (with cities to be announced) beginning in February.
"My fans usually show up the day after I go on," he jokes. Then, breaking into his more recognizable laid-back stoner drawl: "I was going to come down sooner, man, but then I fired one up and I got here - next year?"
Chong describes the three-man show, which has been running off-Broadway since March, as a parody of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," with the three actors comically addressing the rites and rituals of getting stoned.
"Instead of talking about our private parts, we spend the night talking about our smoking parts," he says.
The show's producer couldn't be happier.
"We've been off and on in discussions with Tommy about doing it since he got released several months ago, and we're real excited to have him," said producer Lee Marshall. "He's just a natural for the role. We're selling a lot of tickets in New York and I think when we go on the road we'll probably sell out everywhere we play."
While Marshall is a fan of Cheech and Chong, his children know Chong from television's "That '70s Show."
However the show fares, Chong doesn't seem to be wanting for work.
Since his July release from prison, he has been finishing an autobiography and plans to return next year to "That '70s Show" and his recurring role as Leo, the stoned-out, aging hippie. He doesn't know yet how his absence will be explained. "Maybe they'll say I was in jail," he chuckles.
After that there is the long-awaited return of Cheech and Chong. He and Cheech Marin haven't made a film together in 20 years, but a new one, still untitled, is in the works. It will reunite Pedro and Man, the bumbling dopers who staggered through the 1970s and 1980s in such films as "Up in Smoke," "Nice Dreams" and "Still Smokin'."
"No, they haven't gotten smarter with age," Chong says of the characters. "But they're still the same lovable guys."
The comedy team's long-dormant partnership, Chong adds, never amounted to an estrangement. Although they saw little of each other over the years, he says, they always kept in touch and remained friends. His partner agrees.
"I always cared about him and he always cared about me," Marin says. "We actually tried to get together a couple other times, but the timing wasn't right then."
So what broke them up?
"We just got sick of each other," Marin laughs. "We'd been together 17 years. We just kind of didn't want to listen to each other anymore. We both wanted to go our separate ways."
Since the split, Marin has sought to broaden his career, playing Don Johnson's detective sidekick in TV's "Nash Bridges" and taking roles in a variety of films. Chong, on the other hand, has generally stuck with the laid-back stoner role in such films as "Best Buds," "High Times Potluck" and "Far Out Man," also writing and directing the latter. In recent years he and his wife have toured with a nightclub act that features various versions of his stoner role.
Chong and Marin say they began planning their reunion before Chong's arrest. The incident was the first brush with the law either had in 50 years. Chong acknowledges being busted for joy-riding in his native Canada when he was 15. As for Cheech, now 58, "My dad was a cop," he says, explaining his impulse for staying out of trouble.
The two met in Canada, where Marin had moved after studying English at California State University, Northridge, and where Chong was running a topless nightclub that offered improvisational comedy. Chong had dropped out of high school to pursue music, touring for a time with the Vancouvers, for which he co-wrote the rhythm and blues hit, "Does Your Mama Know About Me."
Say what you will now about the subject of Cheech and Chong's humor, the two were ahead of their time in some respects. Decades before multiculturalism became hip, the Canadian-born Chong, whose truck driver father was Chinese, and Cheech, the Mexican-American son of a Los Angeles police officer, could bill themselves as the world's only "Chicano-Chinese-Canadian comedy team."
Though their act had its limits, its appeal endures.
"What Cheech and I did, and we still do, is we told the truth about a culture. And truth endures," Chong says. "We played the lowest common denominator, the stoner.... We not only made people laugh but we also reflected a society that's been around since the beginning of time."
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