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Looming over the horizon, an aging ice cream truck with a grinning clown's head on top bounces over the rise and into view.
The bearded, bespectacled driver has the look of a Tibetan explorer who took a wrong turn halfway to Shangri-La. His short, wiry seatmate sports a Zapata mustache and a gaze that leaves no passing female fully clad.
They are Cheech and Chong ... and to those fans for whom they've come to stand for counterculture shock, they have done the unforgivable. They have signed on for a steady gig ... as ice cream vendors.
Worse yet, they have milked the sherbet trade for a fortune.
And since no one has ever done so well by dispensing popsicles -- nor done it with such glaring good humor -- certain people are getting suspicious. Especially the L.A.P.D.
"Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams" -- it rhymes with "ice creams" -- is the third outrageous outing for the screen's Number One comedy duo. Directed by Thomas Chong from a screenplay he wrote with his partner, Cheech Marin, the Columbia Pictures release takes the uninhibited pair to their next cinematic plateau.
In their first movie, "Up in Smoke," Cheech and Chong were out of work, deep in debt, and hustling for a buck by doing anything the law disallowed.
The film -- frantic, funny and free -- was the runaway comedy hit of 1978, and established the pair as their generation's answer to Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Martin & Lewis.
The picture's enormous box office success, in fact, made them the screen's most successful comedy team of all time.
In their next movie, prophetically titled "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie," the pair flirted with solvency, thanks to Cheech's go-fer job on a movie studio backlot.
Again the box office boomed, until the combined total of both Cheech and Chong movies passed the $160 million mark.
Clearly the scrambling, hustling, conniving, duping duo hit the mark with young moviegoers. "It was like there was this great nerve running through everybody," recalls Cheech, "and it was where we were."
But how did they get that way ... Cheech of the peppery stream of chatter, Chong of the laidback lunacy?
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When they first burst into prominence back in 1970, each had followed his own offbeat path to a nightclub in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they found they played well off each other.
Cheech, born Richard Marin in the barrios of East Los Angeles, earned his nickname from "cheecharone," a Chicano delicacy made of deep-fried pork skins, also known as cracklings. And "crackling" he was, by his own admission.
"I was a wise-ass in school," he says now. "I got away with it because I was little and cute."
He was also one of eight --children of a Los Angeles police officer, who eventually moved his family to L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, a suburb considered advantaged.
During high school Cheech frequently played hooky to cruise with what "lowriders" he could find, but still managed to graduate with straight A's. It was also during this time that he started singing with neighborhood rock bands, among them Rompin' Richie and the Rockin' Robins, and Captain Shagnasty and his Loch Ness Pickles.
Ever the hustler even then, he put himself through college working as a dishwasher and janitor. After earning a B.A. in English from Cal State Northridge, he went north in 1968 to study the potter's art with a renowned teacher whose home was in Calgary.
The hustling, Dallas-like metropolis, nestling in the Canadian Rockies and world-famous for its rodeos, oil riches and wide-open lifestyle, seems somehow fitting as the place where Tommy Chong grew up.
Born in Edmonton, Alberta's capital city a few hundred miles farther north, Chong and his family soon moved down the road a piece, to a town on the outskirts of Calgary called Dog Patch. Tommy figures his father, a truck driver, made the move because "he'd been wounded in World War II, and there was a veteran's hospital in Calgary. He bought a five-hundred dollar house in Dog Patch, and raised his family on fifty dollars a week."
While the senior Chong was Chinese, Tommy's mother was Scotch-Irish. The ethnic mixture accounts not only for his one-of-a kind appearance -- as Cheech puts it, "He was the first kind of whatever it is he is that I'd ever seen" -- but also presumably shaped his personality into its wary inscrutability. He is not at all the dazed hippie he often pretends to portray.
In fact, his undeniable high intelligence surfaced early, at first sending him into the fantasy world of movie addiction when he was still a youngster. ("My idea of a perfect Saturday was to take all my pocket money and wander from movie house to movie house," he recalls.)
But Dog Patch was "a tough place," he goes on, "and we used to box with homemade gloves made out of burlap." He was pretty good at the sport, even though "the burlap left marks when you got hit."
By eleven, though, he'd been given his first guitar, and started playing country-and-western music. Then a couple of years later the area's black families turned him on to rhythm and-blues, which reached that part of Canada via the porters on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Joshing that he quit high school "after I got too big for the football team," Chong in reality quit when he got his first job as a professional musician.
Working at survival jobs such as truck driving and roof-laying as he tried to form successful musical groups, he eventually came up with Western Canada's first R&B band, the Shades, so named for its ethnic mixture. When a particularly rowdy gig at Calgary's Canadian Legion Hall brought a mayoral request to leave town, the Shades split for Vancouver, where Chong bought his own place, an after-hours bistro called the Elegant Parlour. Still music-oriented, he played guitar for the house band -- Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.
Signed by Motown Records in 1965, the Vancouvers had at least one hit -- "Does Your Mama Know About Me," co-written by Chong and since recorded by the Jackson Five and others.
It was while he was on the road with the Vancouvers that Chong discovered improvisational comedy. Troupes like San Francisco's "Committee" and Chicago's "Second City" fired his imagination to such a pitch that he left his musical group and headed home to Vancouver where his brother's nightclub, the Shanghai Junk, would be his spawning ground in comedy.
"It was a topless joint and I didn't have the heart to fire the strippers," recalls Chong, "so when I turned the show into a comedy troupe known as 'City Works,' I put the girls in the skits. We had the only topless improvisational theatre in Canada."
Young would-be comics heard of the place, and showed up to try their wings. Among them was Cheech, by now weary of driving a delivery truck for a local rug merchant.
The relationship was cemented when Chong offered Cheech $60 a week to perform with "'City Works," five dollars more than he was making laying carpet. Two years later, when "City Works" disbanded, they teamed as Cheech and Chong and set out on a long road of one-night stands, ending up in California because they were tired of cold weather.
Performing at L.A.'s influential Troubadour Club, they were spotted by a record executive and signed. By the time their first record album, "Cheech & Chong," went gold, they were well into their second, "Big Bambu' -- voted 1972s No. 1 comedy album.
After their third, "Los Cochinos" ("The Pigs"), brought them a Grammy Award, their fourth, "Cheech & Chong's Wedding Album," so solidified their success that for four years the duo toured the concert circuit, polishing such celebrated routines as "Dave's Not Here" to a high gloss.
With their stunningly successful move into films, Cheech and Chong have settled into comfortable lives at last, with homes in L.A.'s poshest sections -- Malibu for Cheech, Bel-Air for Chong.
Again reflecting their generation, they have become family men, in love with their homes, their wives and their children.
Their explanation for such undeniable success?
"One reason, perhaps, that the kids like us," says Cheech, "is that if a couple of screw-ups like Cheech and Chong can make it through the world, without selling out, then there's hope for every youngster in the ghetto.
"We're living proof that heaven watches out for fools and small children."
Chong puts it another way. "What makes us so dangerous is that we're harmless."
- taken from Nice Dreams press kit, Columbia Pictures, 1981