Born in 1967 in Irvine, California, Will Ferrell launched his career in comedy as a member of the Los Angeles-based improv group the Groundlings. Following his acclaimed seven-year run as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, he became one of the film industry's biggest comedic draws through off-color hits like Old School (2003) and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Ferrell also co-founded the popular video streaming site Funny or Die, and enjoyed success as a voiceover actor via animated features like Megamind (2010).
Actor, comedian. Born John William Ferrell on July 16, 1967, in Irvine, California. The oldest son of Righteous Brothers keyboardist Lee Ferrell and teacher Kay Ferrell, Will was—by his own admission—hardly the class clown as a student at University High School. Studious and somewhat quiet, Ferrell chose to make his mark on the football field, where he set a school record for most field goals made. Even in the more comfortable confines of his suburban home, Ferrell displayed little of the outrageous, funny outbursts that would later help define his career.
"Very even tempered, very easygoing," his mother recalled in an interview with Esquire. "You know those little Matchbox cars? Will would line up his Matchbox cars, by himself, and be totally happy. You'd say, 'You wanna go to Disneyland today or line up your cars?' and he'd have to think about it."
That's not to say Ferrell was a total straight man. A glimpse of his comedic skills showed up each morning at high school, when he disguised his voice to make the daily announcements over the P.A. system. Upon graduation in 1986, Ferrell stayed close to home, choosing to attend the University of Southern California at Los Angeles to pursue a degree in sports journalism. At USC, Ferrell joined the Delta Tau fraternity, and finished with a near-3.0 GPA.
After his graduation in 1989, Ferrell got his first taste of the NBC television world—not at Saturday Night Live (SNL), but as an intern for the network's sports department. As the story goes, Ferrell had an epiphany about where his true talents lay after ad-libbing an on-air joke that drew laughs from a crowd. Shortly afterward, Ferrell moved back home with his parents and began his pursuit of a career in comedy, taking acting classes and earning parts in regional theater.
Soon, Ferrell landed a regular spot with the Groundlings, a popular Los Angeles improv troupe that has, over the years, produced such noted SNLcast members as Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte and Kristen Wiig. Here, Ferrell honed his impersonation skills and caught a few TV breaks, earning guest spots on sitcoms like Fox's Living Single and ABC's Grace Under Fire.
"What I recognized when I started doing comedy was that I'm probably not the wittiest, not the fastest on my feet, but the one thing I can guarantee is that I won't hold anything back," Ferrell explained to Esquire. "It was just funnier to me, and it played funnier, when instead of just yelling at someone in a scene, you're yelling to the point where you're losing your voice—that one extra step. If that's what's called for within the context, isn't that our job as comedians?"
It was while performing with the Groundlings in the early 1990s that Ferrell first caught the attention of SNL founder and producer Lorne Michaels, who'd come to Los Angeles looking for new talent for his show. Ferrell was invited to an initial audition, and then asked to come back for another round.
"I had read how Adam Sandler, in his meeting with Lorne, had humped a chair and had him laughing so hard, he signed him on the spot," Ferrell said. "So I thought, I'm gonna go in there and be funny. I had a briefcase full of fake money, and as Lorne starts talking, I was gonna open it and start stacking piles of money on his desk. 'Lorne, you can say whatever you want, but we all know what really talks. And that's cold, hard cash. Now, I'm gonna walk outta here. You can take the cash if you want. Or not.' And then just leave and not come back."
Impersonations, however, and not payola were what eventually landed Ferrell on the SNL cast. The comedian used the audition time to showcase two of his favorite characters—Chicago Cubs sportscaster Harry Caray, and an overzealous father who screams at his son to get off the shed roof—that would later help make him a star of the show.
Ferrell's arrival at the New York City-based sketch comedy show in the fall of 1995 came at a tumultuous time for SNL. On the heels of a rough ratings stretch the year before, Michaels had chosen to clean house, retaining just a handful of veteran performers as he welcomed 14 new ones, including Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond and Cheri Oteri, alongside Ferrell.
Within a few short years, Ferrell had helped lead a ratings renaissance for SNL, prompting television audiences to return each week to his unique mix of new characters, including Steve Butabi, Marty Culp and Professor Roger Klarvin, and impersonations of figures such as President George W. Bush, Janet Reno and Neil Diamond. "Will is the glue that holds the show together," Michaels told People magazine in 1998. "He's the first choice of the writers for almost every sketch."
In 1998, Ferrell, who'd made a short but hilarious appearance in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), expanded his film work with a starring role in the SNL spinoff A Night at the Roxbury. The film, while a flop, signaled the start of his expansive movie credits.
As Ferrell was flooded with more and more movie offers, SNL producers became desperate to keep their franchise star. In 2001, the same year he delivered another scene-stealing turn in Zoolander, Ferrell accepted an unprecedented $350,000-plus salary from the program. A year later, though, Ferrell made the decision to leave the show for good.
Unlike other former cast members who departed SNL with grand illusions of Hollywood success, Ferrell proved to be one of the industry's more bankable comedic stars. Following a signature role in the 2003 film Old School, Ferrell found more success later that year as the hapless Buddy in the Christmas comedy Elf. Other hits followed in the form of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and Blades of Glory (2007). The body of work landed Ferrell in what the media described as the "Frat Pack," a group of comedic actors that included Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Steve Carell and Owenand Luke Wilson.
Ferrell eventually found it difficult to sustain the impressive success he enjoyed early in his film career. His 2008 features Semi-Pro and Step Brothers both failed to make a sizable impact on audiences, while his foray into adventure with Land of the Lost (2009) proved a total flop.
However, the comedian demonstrated he could roll with the punches and try on new things. In 2007, he teamed with writers Adam McKay and Chris Henchy to launch Funny or Die, a streaming video site that offered viewers the chance to vote on whether they liked the short clips presented. In early 2009, Ferrell reprised his impersonation of the outgoing president for a one-man Broadway show called You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush.
Ferrell slid seamlessly into the role of voice actor for the animated Megamind (2010), starring as the titular villain turned superhero. Two years later he drew positive reviews for Everything Must Go, a comedy that ventured further into the dramatic terrain only occasionally glimpsed in the actor's previous work.
Still, Ferrell knew not to stray too far from his true talents. He returned to familiar territory with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) and Zoolander 2 (2016), while delivering his signature over-the-top comedy with original characters in The Campaign (2012), Daddy's Home (2015) and The House (2017).
Ferrell's likable, popular personality was on display at the 2003 Boston Marathon, when the actor successfully completed the race in a time of just over four hours. It might have been better had he not been deluged with fans and fellow runners. "Kids were running next to me, snapping pictures," Ferrell said. "Runners were running up ahead and then having their buddies stand next to me, snapping. It was insane."
While generally regarded as quiet and unassuming off set, the intensely private Ferrell hasn't been afraid to put his politics out front. His portrayal of Bush was far from flattering, and his refusal to meet with the President while he was still in office, despite overtures from his staff, spoke volumes about his feelings for the politician. Ferrell chalked it up in part to "comedic purposes" out of fear of being influenced by him. But politics did play a role: "The other side of it is, from a political standpoint, I don't want to meet that guy," he said.
The actor has been known to use his comedic skills for a good cause. In 2009 he launched a series of sunscreen lotions, which featured a scantily clad Ferrell on the bottle alongside such titles as Sexy Hot Tan and Forbidden Fruit. All sales proceeds were steered to Cancer for College's College Willpowered Scholarship Fund, which hands out scholarships to cancer survivors and amputees. "I've always dreamed of owning a lotion company," Ferrell told reporters when the product debuted. "And I've always hated cancer."
A longtime sports fan, Ferrell in 2015 took part in another charity for Cancer for College, playing for 10 big league baseball teams over the course of a single spring training day. In 2016, it was announced he was joining the ownership group of the Los Angeles Football Club, which also included former athletic greats Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm.
In August 2000, Ferrell married his longtime girlfriend, Viveca Paulin, a Swedish-born art auctioneer. Both big dog lovers, they cared for three canines before plunging into parenthood with the birth of son Magnus in March 2004. A second son, Mattias, arrived in December 2006, and their third, Axel, was born in January 2010. All three sons were given the middle name of Paulin.