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'Saturday Night Live' Turns 40!

The Not Ready for Prime Time Players proved to be plenty prepared

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    Live From New York …

    To mark Saturday Night Live’s 40th year on the air (NBC’s anniversary celebration airs Feb. 15), we bring you 16 top SNL vets (original cast, pictured) who developed their comedy chops on the show, then parlayed them into even greater fame. [Note: most of the quotes are drawn from Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's book, Live From New York]

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    Chevy Chase (1975-1976)

    His “Weekend Update” became an SNL cornerstone, making the actor a celebrity overnight. Chase left the show in 1976 to star in movies such as Foul Play and Caddyshack. “For a while he was fine,” his agent Bernie Brillstein reflected in Live From New York, “but he destroyed himself.” Vacation’s Clark Griswold and Community’s Pierce Hawthorne might agree.

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    Dan Aykroyd (1975-1979)

    No joke — Aykroyd (left, with John Belushi) considered becoming a Jesuit father in Ottawa before hitting comedy’s mother lode as a killer bee, a Conehead and a wild-and-crazy Czech brother on SNL’s first season. He won an Emmy for his writing, then left the show in 1979 to star in The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters and Trading Places. A decade later came an Oscar nomination for 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy.

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    Jane Curtin (1975-1980)

    As Prymaat the Conehead, the straight woman on SNL shares a tender moment with mate Beldar (Aykroyd). Curtin also played übernerd Mrs. Enid Loopner and anchored “Weekend Update” before going on to win two Emmys for Kate & Allie. Her Point/Counterpoint-style barb-slinging with Aykroyd gave us “Dan, you pompous ass!” and “Jane, you ignorant slut!”

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    John Belushi (1975-1979)

    “You never knew what was going to happen next” in a John Belushi samurai skit, Buck Henry said, “because John’s dialogue could not be written.” After playing John “Bluto” Blutarsky in Animal House (“Toga, toga!”), Belushi landed on the cover of Newsweek, left the show and costarred with Aykroyd in 1941, The Blues Brothers and Neighbors. An accidental drug overdose killed him in 1982.

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    Gilda Radner (1975-1980)

    Thinking she’d blown her audition, Radner (center, with Curtin and Bill Murray) pleaded with SNL creator Lorne Michaels, “Can I go now — back to Toronto?” He asked her to stay, treating us to Lisa Loopner, Baba Wawa and Roseanne Roseannadanna. Radner left SNL in 1980, then made Hanky Panky with — and later married — Gene Wilder. Her memoir, It’s Always Something, appeared in 1989, the year she died of ovarian cancer. She was 42.

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    Al Franken (1975-80, 1985-95)

    As prim self-affirmation guru Stuart Smalley, Franken constantly reassured others — and himself — “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” Like him they did — until he starred in Stuart Saves His Family (1995) on the big screen, which “lost about $15 million,” he has said. Franken bounced back by becoming a U.S. senator from Minnesota. Only you can help you now, Al.

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    The Muppets (1975-1976)

    “How do you fire the Muppets?” SNL creator Michaels once agonized. The “adult” Muppets that Jim Henson concocted for the show were reviled by just about everyone on both sides of the camera — except, perhaps, guest host Lily Tomlin, shown here with Skred. The antifur sentiment was captured by writer Michael O’Donoghue: “I won’t write for felt.” Henson laughed all the way to world fame with a TV series, specials and feature films.

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    Bill Murray (1977-1980)

    Something of an outcast at first, Murray (here with Laraine Newman, Paul Shaffer, Radner and Garrett Morris) broke through with an emotional appeal to the studio audience: “I don’t think I’m making it on the show.” And then Murray hiked up his pants as nerd Todd DiLaMuca (Noogies!), and his unique brand of comedy took off. He has since made films as varied as Caddyshack and Lost in Translation (Oscar nod) and become a mainstay of director Wes Anderson’s troupe.

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    Steve Martin (1976-2009)

    He’s been the Renaissance man of SNL alums — did we expect anything less from this king (Tut) of comedy? In addition to guest-hosting the show 15 times — one fewer than Alec Baldwin — Martin has starred in comic masterpieces (Bowfinger, Roxanne); written a memoir, three novels and a play; become an art collector; and won five Grammys, including three for his bluegrass banjo playing.

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    Eddie Murphy (1980-1984)

    The kinetic comic, shown here as a profane Gumby, left SNL and struck silver-screen gold as Detective Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. That led to other star turns, some memorable (Coming to America), others mortifying (Norbit). Last month the once-aloof Murphy revealed that he’ll appear on SNL’s 40th-anniversary show, musing, “Connecting with a live audience — that feeling is the best there is.”

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    Chris Rock (1990-1993)

    “I wouldn’t know what the f--- I was doing if I hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live,” said the fearless stand-up (left, with Chris Farley). “It’s the absolute best training you can have in show business.” And that’s no Big Ass Joke — borrowing from the title of the first of Rock’s five HBO comedy specials. Post-SNL, Rock has starred in Nurse Betty, made the documentary Good Hair and memorably hosted the Oscars in 2005.

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    Adam Sandler (1991-1995)

    Adam Sandler serenades Kevin Nealon with his famous “Red-Hooded Sweatshirt” song during this “Weekend Update” sketch. Sandler was a mere sixth-grader when “SNL was the biggest thing,” he recalled. “The younger guys on the show, we respected the older guys.” He and Nealon went on to make 12 films together, including Happy Gilmore and Anger Management.

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    Will Ferrell (1995-2002)

    You don’t know physical comedy until you’ve seen a galumphing Ferrell (center, with Chris Kattan and Chris Parnell) imitate a playful kitten in his SNL audition tape. Ferrell, part of a talent infusion in 1995-96, brought George Bush, Robert Goulet, Alex Trebek and “more cowbell” to SNL. His rich postshow film career includes Old School, Elf and Anchorman.

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    Tina Fey (1997-2006)

    She gave brains, class and sass to an aging show in need of reinvention. Fey channeled Sarah Palin to eerie effect and found a soul mate in Amy Poehler. “I think [Fey] is hysterically funny,” said Alec Baldwin, who would play a jerky NBC exec to her showrunner character on 30 Rock, the series Fey created to spoof her stint as SNL’s head writer.

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    Jimmy Fallon (1998-2004)

    “I’m the same age as the show,” Fallon told Live From New York authors Shales and Miller. “When I was 7 or 8, my parents used to tape it and show me and my sister only the ‘clean’ sketches.” (Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. Fallon.) Opposite Tina Fey, Jimmy made “Weekend Update” a showpiece again. His gifts for singing and dancing (Barry Gibb, anyone?) proved handy when he later hosted NBC’s Late Night and The Tonight Show.

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    Amy Poehler (2001-2008)

    Which do you think is funnier: Amy Poehler doing Hillary Clinton or Amy Poehler, nine months pregnant, rapping to the real Sarah Palin? We have SNL to thank for linking Poehler with Fey, her ideal comedy partner; the pair killed as cohosts of the Golden Globes ceremony from 2013 to 2015. Poehler’s six-year run as Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation has earned her five Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe.

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