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Whatever Works / CHEECH MARIN

A Comic Axed by His Own Club


Comedian and actor Cheech Marin, of Cheech and Chong fame, stars on "Nash Bridges" with Don Johnson. Marin, who did the voice of Banzai, a hyena in "The Lion King," plays a detective on the CBS-TV show. He and his wife, Patti Heid, live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the hourlong drama is filmed. They have three children--Carmen, 20, Joe, 13, and Jasmine, 6.

Question: Your dad was a policeman, and here you are playing a detective.

Answer: My dad--30 years LAPD--thinks it's the funniest thing he ever heard. "You're playing a policeman? Oh, God." Well, you know, it's funny because I'm basically doing him.

Q: How did you get the name Cheech?

A: Cheech is short for chicharron. Chicharrones are like deep-fried pig skins, you know, like bacon rind. Mexican potato chips. When I was a little baby, my uncle looked in the crib and said, "Oh, it looks like a little chicharron." To everybody else I was Richard, but to my family I was Cheech. So then when Tommy and I were putting together Cheech and Chong, we were trying to come up with a name: Marin and Chong. That sounded too corporate. Richard and Tommy. No.

Q: When you guys first met, Tommy owned a nightclub and had an improvisational theater?

A: Yeah. The City Works. He was a musician, and they always needed some place to play, so he started a club so they'd have a place. It evolved into a very successful after-hours club in Vancouver.

Q: The improv theater included topless dancers, a mime, a couple guitarists and some stand-up comics. Does that sum it up?

A: Uh-huh. His parents had turned the nightclub into the first topless joint in Vancouver. He wanted to do improv, but they kept the topless aspect of it so people would keep coming in. So it was like topless improv. Hippie burlesque. It had long hair and dope and nudity and sex and drugs but in a real kind of hostile environment at first because guys wanted to see naked chicks, not long-haired guys talking. It was really seen as absurd. I mean, it was surreal, you know, and that's where we got our chops. So, man, when we came out of there, we'd been out in the trenches, so our chops were enormous.

Q: How did you guys work the topless angle into your improv theater?

A: When the girls came out, they just danced a few numbers and shook 'em. The guys, the patrons, were real bored. They would sit there and drink, drink, drink and look up at the girls every once in a while--almost like wallpaper. So we started this thing where we'd come out onstage--fully clothed--and talk and then, all of a sudden, in the middle scene the girls would start to take off their clothes because we'd write it into the scene. And you could hear a pin drop. The only trouble was the patrons weren't drinking as much.

Q: So you were costing the club a lot of money.

A: Yeah, so we got kicked out of our own club because we weren't making the bills, you know? But it was an incredible theater. We did four hours of improv every night. [Back then] everybody else wanted to go to the hills to get their heads together. We had been in the hills. Our heads were together. We wanted to make some money, so Tommy and I consolidated what we had done with the troupe into two guys. And that's how we started.

Q: Is it true that you met Tommy while doing a stint in journalism, writing record reviews?

A: Yeah. I was working for a Canadian rock magazine and doing reviews. The editor knew Tommy and said, "You guys should get together." So I got sent by him to see the show. It was hilariously funny because it was so bad, but they did a couple things that just cracked me up. I said, "Well, sure. I could do this." One thing you have to be aware of when you're coming up in show business is when the door opens, walk through it. So many people don't. It doesn't open a lot. When the door opens, walk on through.

Q: What were some of the jobs you did when you were a kid?

A: Well, one of the very first--I had to have a Social Security card--was washing dishes at Newberry's Cafeteria, a five-and-dime store in Granada Hills. I was my son's age, around 13, 14. I did that after school for about a year or so. Then I had the paper routes and mowing lawns and all that kind of stuff. The summer between high school and college, I got a job at a machine shop, a factory, making airplane galleys--kitchen sections for airplanes. It was a big job, you know, and I did that all through college. I would work sometimes 40 to 50 hours a week and carry a full load.

Q: That was a lot of work.

A: It was. Hardly any time for partying, but I managed to slip it in there. There was always weekends, you know.

Q: Did your dad want you to work?

A: Oh, yeah. He was a big-time guy and showed me the advantage of working, and that's the thing I remember. I am most grateful to him for instilling the work ethic in me. I knew no matter where I went, or what circumstances I was thrown into, I knew how to work hard and I would be all right. That's the magic ingredient to any field of success. That's what I try to instill in my kids. Always trying to teach them the value of a work ethic.

Q: Does your son have to do chores?

A: Does chores all the time--washing the dishes every night. He cleans up, takes the trash out, walks the dog, baby-sits the sister. She has to clean up her room, keep all her things tidy. They get paid for it, and then we can take them to Toys R Us, and they can pick out anything they want.

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