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Tommy Chong

Thomas "Tommy" B. Kin Chong (born May 24, 1938) is a Canadian comedian, actor and musician who is well-known for his stereotypical portrayals of hippie-era stoners. He is most widely known for his involvement in the marijuana-themed Cheech & Chong comedy movies with Cheech Marin. He played Leo Chingkwake on FOX's That '70s Show.

Biography

Early life

Chong was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the son of Lorna Jean (born Gilchrist), a waitress, and Stanley Chong, a truck driver. Chong's father was of Chinese descent and his mother was of Scots-Irish ancestry. Chong graduated from Victoria Composite High School, a school now recognized in Edmonton as a major performing and visual arts K-12 IB school. When Chong was still young, the family moved to Calgary, Alberta, to a neighbourhood Chong refers to as the Dog Patch. He says that his father had "been wounded in World War II, and there was a veterans' hospital in Calgary. He bought a five-hundred dollar house in Dog Patch, and raised his family on fifty dollars a week". He later went on to graduate from Victoria School back in Edmonton, Alberta.

Music career

By age eleven Chong was playing guitar, chiefly country-and-western music. Soon, he was introduced to rhythm and blues and became a professional musician. He formed one of Calgary's earliest rock and roll/rhythm and blues bands, the Colors or the Shades, but was eventually requested by the police to leave town after a particularly rowdy gig, according to his account. Chong and the Shades then left for the closest metropolis, Vancouver, where Chong bought a club, the Elegant Parlour, and played guitar and sang in the house band, a Motown-style band named Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. He co-wrote the Motown hit "Does Your Mama Know About Me," released in 1968.

It has been reported that Jimi Hendrix played with the group. Hendrix did briefly visit Vancouver in 1965, and ended up playing with Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. Chong disputes this ever happened and that any such appearance is a product of Taylor's "imagination."

Cheech & Chong

Later career

Cheech & Chong, while one of the most successful comedy acts of all time, experienced creative differences and split in 1985. This was devastating to Chong. To him, Cheech Marin was "closer than a wife. The only thing we didn't do was have sex." Of their split, he says, "It was like a death in the family. I don't know if I'll ever get over it". Chong was a recurring character and later a regular character as the hippie "Leo" during the second, third, fourth, seventh, and eighth seasons of That '70s Show. He also played a role as a hippie in Dharma and Greg.

Chong was originally going to voice the character of Shenzi the hyena in the Disney film The Lion King, which would have had him performing once more with Cheech Marin, who voiced Banzai. (The Shenzi character was later changed to be female, and voiced instead by Whoopi Goldberg.)

In September 2005 a/k/a Tommy Chong premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary, produced, written and directed by Josh Gilbert, chronicles Chong's comedic and personal history, which motivated Federal Prosecutor Mary Beth Buchanan to target him in the Justice Department's 12 million dollar sting, "Operation Pipe Dream", under Attorney General John Ashcroft. The project features interviews with Cheech Marin, Bill Maher, George Thorogood, Peter Coyote, Lou Adler, Eric Schlosser and Jay Leno.

Personal life

Chong was married to his first wife, Maxine Sneed from 1960 until their divorce in 1970. Their children were Rae Dawn (mother was 17 year old Gail, never married to Chong) and Robbi. He married his second wife Shelby in 1975. He has two children with her: sons Paris and Gilbran. And a daughter Precious Chong. Maxine Sneed's brother, Floyd Sneed, is the original drummer for Three Dog Night.

Both Robbi, Rae Dawn, and Marcus have pursued careers in acting. Although not widely recognized or active in the Asian Canadian community, Chong is certainly one of the most famous Asian Canadian hippies, and among the most famous Asian Canadian comics of all time. In the late 1980s, Chong became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Chong is a marijuana activist and is a supporter of marijuana legalization and medical use of marijuana. He is a regular contributor to Cannabis Culture Magazine and sits on the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) advisory board.

Legal trouble

US vs. Chong

In 2003, Chong was targeted by two American investigations code-named Operation Pipe Dream and Operation Headhunter, which sought out businesses selling drug paraphernalia, mostly water pipes. Operation Pipe Dream was run from Pittsburgh, PA. US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan oversaw the case. The estimated cost of Operation Pipe Dream was over $12 Million and included the resources of 2,000 law enforcement officers.

Chong was charged for his part in financing and promoting Chong Glass/Nice Dreams, a company started by his son Paris. Chong’s case never went through a federal trial; instead Chong came to a settlement with US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan’s office in which he admitted to distributing 7,500 bongs and water pipes on the Internet through Nice Dreams, a family company that was named for one of his movies. Chong agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia in exchange for non-prosecution of his wife, Shelby, and his son, Paris. Chong fully cooperated with the government and was the first of the Operation Pipe Dreams defendants to plead guilty.

At Chong’s sentencing, Assistant US Attorney Mary McKeen Houghton stated in her sentencing arguments that Tommy Chong "used his public image to promote this crime" and marketed his products to children. US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan also was present at the sentencing and released a statement to the press stating, "there are consequences for violating the law, even if the violator is a well-known entertainer like Thomas Chong."

While Chong argued for community service and home detention at his sentencing, the district judge denied his requests and sentenced him to 9 months in federal prison, a fine of $20,000, forfeiture of $103,514, and the loss of all merchandise seized during the raid of his business. Chong served his sentence in Taft Correctional Institution from October 8, 2003 to July 7, 2004.

Controversy

While government officials denied that Chong was treated any differently from the other defendants, many felt that he was made an example of by the government. Soon afterwards, marijuana advocates started the Free Tommy Chong! movement that called for his release. The controversy over Chong’s prosecution centered on the rationale behind focusing on Chong as opposed to his son, Paris, the disparity in sentences that Tommy Chong received compared to other defendants, and the tactics that the DEA utilized in carrying out the investigation.

Paris, Tommy’s son, had started Nice Dreams in 1999. At the time of the allegations in the indictment, Paris was the CEO of the company that was the center of the investigation. Paris was never charged with a crime in relation to the investigation. When asked why the government had focused on Chong opposed to the company’s CEO, Paris, US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan responded that “Tommy Chong was the more responsible corporate officer because he financed and marketed the product.”

Of the 55 people targeted in the investigation, Chong was the only one without previous convictions who received jail time. When questioned on the disparity between sentences/fines that the other 54 individuals received compared to Chong, US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan stated, "He (Tommy Chong) wasn't the biggest supplier. He was a relatively new player, but he had the ability to market products like no other."

In investigating the operations of Nice Dreams, federal agents posed as head-shop owners from Pittsburgh’s neighboring Beaver County and pled with Paris to sell them his pipes through the mail to a fictitious shop in Beaver Falls. Paris had set in place a company prohibition against selling to Pittsburgh or anywhere in western Pennsylvania. The prohibition was put in place in response to the successful federal prosecution of Akhil Kumar Mishra and his wife, Rajeshwari, whose two head shops sold drug paraphernalia in the city’s downtown. To date, it is unclear how the prohibition was broken and there exist differing accounts as to who broke the company policy which resulted in the action that brought about the ability of the US Attorney to argue that jurisdiction for the crime rests in Pittsburgh opposed to California, the base of operations for Nice Dreams.

Aftermath

Since his release, Chong has been an avid critic of the case that has been brought against him. In December 2004, Chong was to appear in an off-Broadway show entitled The Marijuana-Logues, a parody of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. His legal concerns, including that audiences were actually smoking marijuana in some of the shows early in its tour ultimately caused him to cancel the show.

In 2006, Chong wrote a book about his experiences in jail and his interest in meditation, called The I Chong: Meditations From The Joint (ISBN 1-4169-1554-0). There was also a documentary film chronicling the Drug Enforcement Administration raid on his house and his subsequent jail sentence entitled a/k/a Tommy Chong. Chong has stated publicly that he has no ownership in the film.

Seizure of a/k/a Tommy Chong DVDs

On May 7, 2008, federal agents raided Spectrum Labs in an investigation related to Spectrum Labs’ detoxification products. The raid, one of nine during the day, was part of Operation True Test, an investigation being led by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. The investigation targeted companies that sell "masking products" that are supposed to help drug-users pass employer drug tests. Of the nine search warrants issued, none were for businesses within Mary Beth Buchanan's district, the Western District of Pennsylvania.

In executing their search warrant, the federal agents seized over 10,000 copies of Chong’s yet to be released documentary, a/k/a Tommy Chong. It has yet to be determined exactly why the DVDs were seized during the raid. Chong has speculated that the seizure may rest with prohibitions against one benefiting financially from a crime; however Chong has not released publicly that he has been charged with such an offense. In a statement released to the press, Chong stated "It's (the seizure of the DVDs) a way to punish the distributor financially. There's no way to get the DVDs back until the investigation is over." Chong also stated that he has no ownership in the film, a/k/a Tommy Chong.

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Reuniting with Cheech

In 2008, Cheech and Chong reunited and did a comedy tour.

Filmography

TV Series

Voices

Movies

References

External links

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