Chase was born in Lower Manhattan, New York, and was raised in Woodstock, New York. His father, Edward Tinsley "Ned" Chase, was a prominent Manhattan book editor and magazine writer. His mother, Cathalene Parker (née Browning), a concert pianist and librettist, was the daughter of Admiral Miles Browning, who most notably served as Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance's Chief of Staff on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) at the Battle of Midway in World War II; she was adopted as a child by her stepfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt Crane, heir to The Crane Company, and took the name Cathalene Crane. Chase's paternal grandfather was artist/illustrator Edward Leigh Chase, and his great-uncle was painter/teacher Frank Swift Chase. His maternal grandmother, Cathalene (Parker), was an opera singer who performed several times at Carnegie Hall. Chase was named for his adoptive grandfather Cornelius, while the nickname Chevy was bestowed by his grandmother, derived from the medieval English Ballad of Chevy Chase. As a descendant of the Scottish Clan Douglas, the name seemed appropriate to her.
Chase is a 14th-generation New Yorker, and was listed in the Social Register at an early age. His mother's ancestors arrived in Manhattan starting in 1624 — among his ancestors are New York City mayors Stephanus Van Cortlandt and John Johnstone; the Schuyler family, through his ancestor Gertrude Schuyler, the wife of Stephanus Van Cortlandt; John Morin Scott, General of the New York Militia during the American Revolution; Anne Hutchinson, dissident Puritan preacher and healer; and Mayflower passengers and signers of the Mayflower Compact, John Howland, and the Pilgrim colonist leader and spiritual elder of the Plymouth Colony, William Brewster. According to his brother John:
[Chevy] once told me that people who defined themselves in terms of their ancestry were like potatoes — the best parts of them were underground. He disdained the pretension of my mother's side of the family, as embodied by her mother, Cattie.
As a child, Chase vacationed at Castle Hill, the Cranes' summer estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Chase's parents divorced when he was four; his father remarried into the Folgers coffee family, and his mother remarried twice. He has stated that he grew up in an upper middle class environment and that his adoptive maternal grandfather did not bequeath any assets to Chase's mother when he died. In a 2007 biography, Chase stated that he was physically and psychologically abused as a child by his mother and stepfather, John Cederquist. Both his parents died in 2005.
Chase was educated at Riverdale Country School, a boarding independent school in the Riverdale neighborhood of New York City, before being expelled. He ultimately graduated from the Stockbridge School, an independent boarding school in the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He then attended Haverford College during the 1962–1963 term, where he was noted for slapstick comedy and an absurd sense of physical humor (including his signature pratfalls and "sticking forks into his orifices"). During a 2009 interview on the Today show, he ostensibly verified the oft-publicized urban legend that he was expelled for harboring a cow in his fourth floor room, although his former roommate David Felson asserted in a 2003 interview that Chase left for academic reasons. Chase transferred to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he studied a pre-med curriculum and graduated in 1967 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.
Chase did not enter medical school, which meant he would be subject to the military draft. Chase was not drafted; when he appeared in January 1989 as the first guest of the just-launched late-night Pat Sajak Show, he said he had convinced his draft board he deserved a 4-F classification by "falsely claiming, among other things, that he had homosexual tendencies".
Chase played drums with the college band The Leather Canary, headed by school friends Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Chase has called the group "a bad jazz band"; Becker and Fagen later founded the successful group Steely Dan. Chase has absolute pitch. He played drums and keyboards for a rock band called Chamaeleon Church, which recorded one album for MGM Records before disbanding in 1969. To give the album a more soft-rock sound, producer Alan Lorber made several alterations in the mixing, including the muting of Chase's bass drum, and Chase was reportedly incensed when he heard the final mix. Before fame, Chase worked as a cab driver, truck driver, motorcycle messenger, construction worker, waiter, busboy, fruit picker, produce manager in a supermarket, audio engineer, salesman in a wine store, and theater usher.
Chase was a member of an early underground comedy ensemble called Channel One which he co-founded in 1967. He also wrote a one-page spoof on Mission: Impossible for MAD magazine in 1970 and was a writer for the short-lived Smothers Brothers TV show comeback in the spring of 1975. Chase made the move to comedy as a full-time career by 1973, when he became a cast member of The National Lampoon Radio Hour, a syndicated satirical radio series. The Lampoon Radio Hour also featured John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and Brian Doyle-Murray, all of whom later became "Not-Ready-For-Prime Time Players" on NBC Saturday Night (later retitled NBC's Saturday Night and finally Saturday Night Live). Chase and Belushi also appeared in National Lampoon's off-Broadway revue Lemmings, a sketch and musical send-up of popular youth culture (in which Chase also played the drums and piano during the musical numbers). He appeared in the theatrical release The Groove Tube which was directed by another co-founder of Channel One, Ken Shapiro, featuring several Channel One sketches.
Chase was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live (SNL), NBC's late-night comedy television show, beginning in October 1975. During the first season, he introduced every show except one with, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" The remark was often preceded by a pratfall, known as "The Fall of the Week". Chase became known for his skill at physical comedy. In one comedy sketch, he mimicked a real-life incident in which President Gerald Ford accidentally tripped while disembarking from Air Force One in Salzburg, Austria. This portrayal of President Ford as a bumbling klutz became a favorite device of Chase and helped form the popular concept of Ford as being a clumsy man. In later years, Chase met and became friendly with President Ford. Chase's physical stunts led to at least one self-injury.
Chase was the original anchor for the Weekend Update segment of SNL, and his catchphrase introduction, "I'm Chevy Chase... and you're not" became well known. His trademark conclusion, "Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow" was later resurrected by Jane Curtin and Tina Fey. Chase also wrote comedy material for Weekend Update. For example, he wrote and performed "The News for the Hard of Hearing". In this skit, Chase would read the top story of the day, aided by Garrett Morris, who would repeat the story by loudly shouting it. Chase claimed that his version of Weekend Update would later be the inspiration for other news satire shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. (Weekend Update was later revived as a segment on The Chevy Chase Show, a short-lived late-night talk-show produced by Chase and broadcast by Fox Broadcasting Company.)
Chase also performed in other skits on SNL including a recurring role as the Land Shark, a parody of the blockbuster movie Jaws. His racially charged "word association" skit opposite Richard Pryor from SNL's first season is frequently cited by television critics as one of the funniest (and most daring) skits in the show's history.
Chase was committed contractually to SNL for only one year as a writer, and became a cast member during rehearsals just before the show's premiere. He received two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award for his comedy writing and live comic acting on the show. In Rolling Stone's February 2015 appraisal of all 141 SNL cast members to date, Chase was ranked tenth in overall importance. "Strange as it sounds, Chase might be the most under-rated SNL player," they wrote. "It took him only one season to define the franchise ... without that deadpan arrogance, the whole SNL style of humor would fall flat."
In a 1975 New York magazine cover story, which called him "The funniest man in America", NBC executives referred to Chase as "The first real potential successor to Johnny Carson" and claimed he would begin guest-hosting The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson within six months of the article. Chase dismissed chatter that he could be the next Carson by telling New York, "I'd never be tied down for five years interviewing TV personalities." In fact, Chase did not even appear on the program until May 4, 1977, when he was promoting a prime time special for NBC. Carson later said of Chase; "He couldn't ad lib a fart after a baked bean dinner".
Chase acknowledged Ernie Kovacs' influence on his work in Saturday Night Live, and he thanked Kovacs during his acceptance speech for his Emmy Award. In addition, Chase spoke of Kovacs' influence on his work in an appearance in the 1982 Documentary called Ernie Kovacs: Television's Original Genius.
In late 1976, in the middle of the second season, Chase became the first member of the original cast to leave the show. While he landed starring roles in several films on the strength of his SNL notoriety, he asserted that the principal reason for his departure was his girlfriend Jacqueline Carlin's reluctance to move to New York. Chase moved to Los Angeles, married Carlin, and was replaced by Bill Murray, although he made a few appearances on the show during the second season.
Chase later hosted SNL eight times through 1997. He appeared on the show's 25th anniversary special in 1999, and was interviewed for a 2005 NBC special on the first five years of SNL. Later appearances included a Caddyshack skit featuring Bill Murray, a 1997 episode with guest host Chris Farley, as the Land Shark in a Weekend Update segment in 2001, another Weekend Update segment in 2007, and in Justin Timberlake's monologue in 2013 as a member of the Five-Timers Club, where he was reunited with his Three Amigos co-stars Steve Martin and Martin Short. He also participated in the 40th anniversary special in February 2015.
Chase's early film roles included Tunnel Vision, the box office hit Foul Play, and Oh! Heavenly Dog. The role of Eric 'Otter' Stratton in National Lampoon's Animal House was originally written with Chase in mind, but he turned the role down to work on Foul Play. The role went to Tim Matheson instead. Chase said in an interview that he chose to do Foul Play so he could do "real acting" for the first time in his career instead of just doing "schtick". Chase followed Foul Play with the successful Harold Ramis comedy Caddyshack, in 1980. That same year, he also reunited with Foul Play co-star Goldie Hawn for Neil Simon's Seems Like Old Times and released a self-titled record album, co-produced by Chase and Tom Scott, with novelty and cover versions of songs by Randy Newman, Barry White, Bob Marley, the Beatles, Donna Summer, Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Troggs, and The Sugarhill Gang.
Chase narrowly escaped death by electrocution during the filming of Modern Problems in 1980. During a sequence in which Chase's character wears "landing lights" as he dreams that he is an airplane, the lights malfunctioned and electrical current passed through Chase's arm, back, and neck muscles. The near-death experience caused Chase to experience a period of deep depression, as his marriage to Jacqueline had ended just prior to the start of filming. Chase continued his film career in 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation, directed by Ramis and written by John Hughes. He married Jayni Luke in 1982, and in 1985, he starred in Fletch, the first of two films based on Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch books. Chase joined SNL veterans Steve Martin and Martin Short in the Lorne Michaels-produced comedy ¡Three Amigos! in 1986, declaring in an interview that making ¡Three Amigos! was the most fun he had making a film. The trio hosted SNL that year, the only time the show has had three hosts on one show.
At the height of his career in the late 1980s, Chase earned around US$7 million per film and was a highly visible celebrity. He appeared alongside Paul Simon, one of his best friends, in Simon's 1986 second video for "You Can Call Me Al", in which he lip-syncs all of Simon's lyrics. Chase hosted the Academy Awards in 1987 and 1988, signing on to the proceedings in 1987 with the opener, "Good evening, Hollywood phonies!" Chase filmed a sequel to Vacation, 1985's National Lampoon's European Vacation and then a third, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, in 1989, which, thanks to its holiday theme, has become one of his more durable films, airing on NBC every December. He played saxophone onstage at Simon's free concert at the Great Lawn in Central Park in the summer of 1991. Later in 1991, he helped record and appeared in the music video "Voices That Care" to entertain and support U.S. troops involved in Operation Desert Storm, and supported the International Red Cross.
Chase's career took a downturn in the early 1990s. Chase had three consecutive film flops — 1991's Razzie Award-nominated Nothing but Trouble, 1992's Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and 1994's Cops & Robbersons. The three releases had a combined gross of $34 million in the United States. Even the durable Vacation series ground to a halt, following 1997's Vegas Vacation installment. Some of the more recent movies starring Chase (e.g., Vacuums, Rent-a-Husband, Goose!) have not been widely released in the United States. He returned to mainstream movie-making in 2006, co-starring with Tim Allen and Courteney Cox in the comedy Zoom, though it was both a critical and commercial failure.
In September 1993, Chase hosted The Chevy Chase Show, a weeknight talk show, for the Fox Broadcasting Company. Though it had high commercial expectations, the show was cancelled by Fox after only five weeks. Chase later appeared in a commercial for Doritos, airing during the Super Bowl, in which he made humorous reference to the show's failure.
Chase was Hasty Pudding's 1993 Man of the Year, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. After having starred with Farrah Fawcett in the relatively successful Man of the House in 1995, he received The Harvard Lampoon's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.
In 1998, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
He was roasted by the New York Friars Club for a Comedy Central Television special in 2002. This roast was noted for being unusually vitriolic. The only cast members of Saturday Night Live's first season who appeared at the roast were Laraine Newman (one of the actors on the show), Al Franken, a bit player and writer on the show and eventually a U.S. Senator, and Paul Shaffer (a band leader on SNL in the 1970s and the host of the roast).
In 2005, Chase was the keynote speaker at Princeton University's Class Day, part of commencement activities.
On March 20, 2012, Dan Aykroyd announced through his Facebook page that he is working with Chase on a script for a new comedy that would star the two actors.
In 2015, Chase reprised his role as Clark Griswold in the fifth Vacation installment, simply titled Vacation. Unlike the previous four films in which Clark is the main protagonist, he only has a brief though pivotal Cameo appearance. In spite of largely negative critical reception, the film itself has proven to be a financial success grossing over $104 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing entry to date.
Chase guest-starred as an anti-Semitic murder suspect in "In Vino Veritas", the November 3, 2006 episode of Law & Order. He also guest-starred in the ABC drama series Brothers & Sisters in two episodes as a former love interest of Sally Field's character. Chase appeared in a prominent recurring role as villainous software magnate Ted Roark on the NBC spy-comedy Chuck. In 2009, Chase and Dan Aykroyd provided voices for the Family Guy episode "Spies Reminiscent of Us".
Chase starred in the NBC sitcom Community, as aging moist-towelette tycoon Pierce Hawthorne, starting in 2009. However, Chase left the show in 2012 after completing the majority of the episodes of Season 4. He returned for a cameo appearance in the Season 5 premiere. Though he had sometimes been involved in public disputes with creator Dan Harmon over the direction of the show, the role was nevertheless his most prominent in many years.
In 2010, he appeared in the film Hot Tub Time Machine, as well as a short online film featuring the Griswold Family, and in the Funny or Die original comedy sketch "Presidential Reunion", where he played President Ford alongside other current and former SNL president impersonators.
Chase has appeared in a number of television commercials, including Dollar Rent-a-Car (1996), Doritos (1996), History Channel (1999), a series of commercials for AAMI Insurance (Australia, 1999), Aflac (2003), Cola Turka (2003), T-Mobile (2009) and Chase Manhattan Bank (2010).
Chase has three daughters: Cydney (born 1983), Caley (born 1985), and Emily (born 1988). He lives with his third wife, Jayni (née Luke), in Bedford, New York.
Chevy's second marriage to Jacqueline Carlin was formalized on December 4, 1976. After 17 months, his marriage to Carlin was dissolved through a divorce. During this period, Chase's daily cocaine consumption was reportedly more than two grams (0.07 oz), and the side effects of such drug use were megalomania, paranoia, and incoherence.
In 1986, Chase was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment of an addiction to prescription painkillers. His use of these drugs reportedly began after he experienced ongoing back pain related to the many pratfalls he took beginning with his Saturday Night Live appearances. In 2010, he said that his drug abuse had been "low level". He entered Minnesota's Hazelden Clinic in September 2016 for treatment of an alcohol-related issue.
Chase is an active environmentalist, charity fundraiser, and political liberal. He raised money and campaigned for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential Election. Following the 2004 elections, Chase criticized President George W. Bush during a speech at a People for the American Way benefit at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts , referring to the President as an "uneducated, real lying schmuck" and a "dumb fuck". Event organizers and several Bush detractors present at the event distanced themselves from Chase's comments, with Norman Lear remarking, "He'll live with it, I won't."