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...
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.
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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.”
Unlike his character
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 sons Marcus (“The Matrix”) and Gilbran, and daughters Robbi and Precious.
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 while he appears in “The Marijuana-Logues” in New York through most of this month 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.
Will return to TV series
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.
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 is in the works.
“No, they haven’t gotten smarter with age,” Chong says of the characters. “But they’re still the same lovable guys.”