CHEECH AND Chong, the Laurel and Hardy of the marijuana generation, have long been hounded with predictions that they're losing their audience. After all, pot is out, hippies are out of sight, and the "counterculture" has gone the way of 50-cent gasoline.
But the marijuana-flavored comedy team now celebrating 11 years in show business has become one of Hollywood's hottest properties.
Cheech and Chong's first film, the $2-million "Up in Smoke," was released in 1978 with the advertising tagline "Don't Go Straight To See This Movie." Since then, it reportedly has grossed over $104 million worldwide at the box office.
"I wish I could say I was surprised by how successful 'Up In Smoke' was," Chong said recently. "To me, it was just indicated a real lack of product. We're the only ones doing what we do.
"What we talk about -- weed, weed smoking and our sort of attitude toward life -- is carried obviously by a lot of people, but never projected on the screen or portrayed by anybody.
"Like in all the movies you see on television or on the screen, guys like us get blown away. Dope, you know -- greed always overshadowed everything. The guys with the headbands always lost."
But there were no losers at Universal Studios recently as "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie" wound up filming beside another Universal Comedy, in production, "The Blues Brothers," starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the characters they began on TV's "Saturday Night Live."
The casts of the two movies, both due out next summer, mingled in the alley between soundstages on break.
Tommy Chong and Richard Marin (Cheech) ambled down the alley toward lunch as foot trafic was momentarily stopped around a rotound figure in a dark suit captivating a small crowd from "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie" with his jokes. It was John Beluhi's stand-in.
After splitting $50,000 to write and star in "Up In Smoke," Cheech and Chong scored $2 million "up front in a plain brown wrapper" to make the first sequel with Universal, said Cheech, adding that the pair will also recieve a hefty 50 percent of the profits from Universal. It is doubtful that Belushi and Aykroyd can top that.
"Cheech and Chong's Next Movie" completed filming in and around Los Angeles with Chong directing for the first time and a cost of $5 million, according to the studio.
Cheech, visited at two locations in three days, had a perpetual underchuckle percolating in his throat to go with a near constant smile of delight at the actor's performances, the asides made by crew members, the business of making movies, etc. It's no wonder.
According to Cheech and the pair's manager, Howard Brown, Cheech and Chong have a "play-or-pay" contract with Colubia Pictures for their third movie, for $2.5 million and 50 percent of he profits again.
"Those numbers are pretty high," concedad a Universal executive associated with "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie" talking in general about salaries, "but not out of line with what people are getting other places in town."
Chong, who is half canadian and half Chinese, met Cheech in Vancouver in 1969, while Chong was organizing a topless improvisational revue at his parents' nightclub and Cheech was avoiding the draft. An Hispanic who grew up in Watts, Cheech recalled: "I was delivering carpets and Tommy offered me the job of staying up all night, getting loaded, hanging out with naked chicks, and it paid $5 more."
Since then, it has paid a great deal more. Cheech and Chong's albums have sold between four and five million copies, according to A&M Records, the pair's former distributor. "Big Bambu," their second album, released in up until Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy,'" said a Warner Brothers Records spokesman.
After purchasing Cheech and Chong's Ode Records catalogue of five albums in 1972 and simultaneously releasing the "Up In Smoke" soundtrack. Warners has sold 236,000 soundtrack albums and 367,000 copies of the pair's previous LP's
Now 41, Chong wears the wire-rim glasses, bandana headband and vintage denim vest of a '60s diehard. He's looking and acting so laid-back, in fact, that while directing a scene on busy Holywood Boulevard in front of the Garden Court Apartments, he was approached by a high-school girl selling candy bars.
In "Up In Smoke," Cheech played Pedro, a slightly hyper "low rider," as Cheech describes that Hispanic character. Chong played his friend, Man (as in "Hey, Man"). They were a couple of unemployed musicians whose ongoing search for a lid of grass lovingly parodied the drug culture. The movie has a girl who snorts Ajax, a battle of the punk-rock bands, a soporific hippie chich who never stops talking, some bathroom humor, and a stoned-out Vietman veteran.
Cheech plays two roles in "Cheech and "chong's Next Movie": a Rurl grass grower and his Hollywood cousin -- "the low rider" again, this time employed as a gofer at a movie studio.
"The low rider's always hustling the chicks and he thinks he's cool and he don't wanta associate with his cousin, 'cause he think's he's queer and he don't wanta deal with him," Cheech expained. "The country guy comes to a town to see his cousin and he has a whole bag of dope and wants to party with him, and he gets pawned off to Tommy instead. They go on a rampage together and have the best time imaginable. The low-rider, by being greedy, he misses it. The basic philosophy is what goes around comes aound."
To research the role, Cheech and Chong spent some time "soaking up the local color in Humboldt County," California -- reportedly the home of some thriving marijuana crops. The movie's outline has a marijuana field scene involving police, booby traps and cages full of characters "starts glowing and objects begin to fly around in the car." Hovering above is a spacecraft, a thing of glass tubes and spheres puffing smoke, seemingly a cross between a marijuana-smoker's bong and Steven Spieldberg's UFO in "Close Incounters of the Third Kind."
Before "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie) began shooting in October, a Universal excutive who asked to see a screenplay got instead a 60-page outling with a picture of Cheech and Chong on the cover -- which the executive interpreted to be "some kind of Halloween joke," said Howard Brown.
The beginning and the end of the script -- such as it was -- were abandoned, leaving more room of improvisation.
"The only reason we wrote a script [for "Up In Smoke"] or Paramount was because Lou Adler kept saying some guy wanted it. We never filmed any of it," Cheech said. Adler is themusic mogul who produced and directed thier first album in 1971, but creatative differences on the movie severed the relationship with a court settlemet. "I'd love to talk about it," said Cheech, rubbing a bottle of Mexican beer and winking exageratedly into the tape recorder, "but we can't.
Howard Brown signed on with Cheech and Chong in the middle of their legal dificulties with Adler and helped smooth that over while negotiating the new movies with Universal and Columbia. "These people at the studios put their money up without seeing anything but 'Up In Smoke,'" said Brown, who wore a brown sweater with his gold chains and orange knit pants when interviewed on location.
A sales-promotion millionaire who said he's been "hanging around trying to get in the movie business for five years," Brown said that part of the pair's appeal stems from the fact that, "They're the lowest-budgeted movie now in production at Universal and they have the most potential for a profit." Brown is negoatiating a $3-million price for Cheech and Chong's fourth movie with yet another studio, he said.
Cheech and Chong do not use any drugs at all, Brown said, describing his clients, "these boys," as family men and physical fitness nuts.
"What kills you in this business is success," said Chong, somewhat agreeing with Brown. "Once you have money, if you don't have the right habits, you'd kill yourself, like Freddie Prinze. Cheech and I figured a way out, how to handle success. First and foremost, we're health enthusiasts because in order to do the kind of drugs we do, you have to be healthy. That's basically our philosphy. When you're rich, you've gotta have strength."
The Marins live at the Malibu Colony. Chong, who has three teen-aged daughters and a five-year old son named Paris, is married for the second time and lives above Los Angeles in Bel-Air. He's also purchased the house of his childhood dreams, a plae in West Vancouver.
The two recently played the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vagas for a year, alternating with George Carlin, and Putnam gave them a $100,000 advance to write a book that Cheech said is tentatively titled, "How to Get Rich in Show Business, or Earn While You Learn."
But eariler, "As far as the industry and the public are concerned, we disapared for awhile," Chong said. "We got written off by people who write people off when they don't see 'em for awhile. The end of the hippe era, that's the end of Cheech and Chong." But there again, we're really balanced in a lot of ways, so we enjoy those down periods.
"The media people that have to deal with events that are happening now, they underestimate a Cheech and Chong. People have written off Christianity, religions. They'll say, 'that's the end of that one.' But there's no way you can lose a good idea."