The son of a policeman, he was a Catholic school choir boy, considering the priesthood. But Richard “Cheech” Marin ultimately chose a different path — comedy, propelled by sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all chronicled in his entertaining new memoir, “Cheech is Not My Real Name… But Don’t Call Me Chong!”
Kepler’s Literary Foundation of Menlo Park will present Marin on stage, discussing — with fellow comic Will Durst — his remarkable life, on March 31 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center.
Marin says his embracing of the counterculture wasn’t a result of his rebelling against his background.
“It was actually an affirmation of my upbringing, because in Catholic school, they kept repeating this mantra — ‘Catholic education teaches you how to think.’ So I was analytical about things that were put in front of me. That didn’t necessarily turn out the way they wanted, but it was still that process.”
In college, Marin puffed on his first joint. It changed his life. He says it not only expanded his mind, but altered his entire perspective.
“All my life, my dad was like, ‘Don’t ever smoke marijuana, it’ll kill you.’ As soon as I got high, the first thought that occurred to me was, ‘What else have they been lying about?'”
In recent years, the movement to legalize marijuana has gained traction. The situation has clouded with the arrival of the Trump administration. Marin remains optimistic, however.
“I don’t think it’s going to be in doubt with the current administration, because I think they’re smart enough to know that the American public wants this to be legal — or else 30-some states would not legalize it. I don’t think either of them — (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions or Trump is going to take on 30 states over states rights, which they kind of proclaim is their philosophy.”
Marin served as a judge in Donald Trump’s 1999 Miss USA Pageant. “He was kind of a bully,” Marin says. “He was an obnoxious personality, as he is today. It’s not just his policies, which are divisive. His personality is so obnoxious. I just don’t want to hear this guy anymore.”
Marin has always had strong opinions. A member of the draft resistance movement in Los Angeles in the late ’60s, he fled to Canada. In Vancouver, he met Tommy Chong. The comedy magic was instantaneous. Success took a while longer.
They began at a strip joint, combining improv skits with naked dancers. Both men had musical backgrounds.
Marin says, “We view comedy as music. It has a certain rhythm, a certain beat. So our both being musicians was essential to our comedy.”
By 1971, the duo was recording smash comedy albums and playing arenas. The industry establishment was baffled.
“We always said, ‘We’re middle-of-the-road dopers. And this is the norm in America. You just don’t realize it yet.'”
They translated their comedic appeal to movies. Marin says, “It was the next logical progression, because the comedy teams that we admired all made movies — Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis.”
Though marijuana was a big part of the material, it wasn’t an element of the creative method. “We never wrote or recorded or made movies when we were high. Because it was a long process. And you would lose energy, lose focus. It had to be funny in real life. We recognized that right away,” Marin says.
Because it was such a convincing portrayal, moviegoers assumed that Marin really was Pedro, the perpetually stoned character from 1978’s “Up in Smoke.”
“I found that fascinating. I did an interview with a famous film critic at the time. He saw the movie and asked me a question. I gave this very long, involved answer. And he just kept staring at me. I said, ‘Dude, what’s up?’ He said, ‘You don’t speak with an accent.’ I thought, “Really? If this guy thinks I’m that guy, what must everybody else think? Cool!'”
Eventually, a rift fractured the duo, as Chong began to view himself as a cinematic auteur. Marin says, “We write together and have always. And directed together. I said, ‘I give you the credit, but I direct as much as you.’ And he acknowledges that. But he wanted, for some reason, to be the exclusive writer. And I said, ‘Well, this is not Cheech and Chong.'”
When the pair split, Marin carved out a diverse and successful solo career. He wrote, directed and starred in the well-received “Born in East L.A.” He acted in such films as “Desperado,” “Spy Kids” and “Tin Cup,” and provided voices for animated features including “The Lion King” and “Cars.” For six seasons, he co-starred with Don Johnson in the TV hit “Nash Bridges,” which was shot in the Bay Area.
But the demand for more Cheech and Chong performances never waned. Marin says, “People grew up on us. And then they became directors, like Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino. It’s like we really truly influenced other generations.”
Cheech and Chong have reunited and are embarking on a casino tour. But Marin doesn’t pour his money into the slots, preferring to invest his money where it can do some good. He has become one of the foremost collectors of Chicano art.
“I love art,” Marin says. “And I love being able to represent and promote Chicano art, because I think it’s the most wonderful school of art going. To be able help all these other artists and get their art in front of people is extremely rewarding.”
Gratification also comes to the 70-year-old Marin from the body of work he has created. “The reaction that I get from people on the street — they always have a smile on their face. They see me and tell me where they were the first time they heard something or saw something. And it’s always a positive thing. To be the recipient of that, is really rewarding.
“People come up to me, especially young actors, and say, ‘I wish I had the career you’ve had.’ And it makes me think, ‘I’ve had a career? Oh, cool. Whatever.'”
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.