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Tommy Chong has a message for Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and other parents facing jail time for their roles in the college admissions cheating scandal: Relax. Prison life isn’t so bad.
Chong would know. The Up in Smoke star spent nine months in prison in 2003 for running a company that sold bongs through the mail.
“We were under investigation for about a year,” Chong, 80, says on the latest episode of the ‘It Happened in Hollywood’ podcast. “The DEA would come around and some of them would have brush cuts and headbands on. They would follow me around.”
The $12 million investigation, code-named Operation Pipe Dreams, led federal agents to charge Chong with financing and promoting his company Chong Glass/Nice Dreams. Chong plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia in exchange for no charges being levied against his wife and son.
However, his request for community service was denied and he was sentenced to nine months in the low-security Taft Correctional Institution in Bakersfield, Calif. As Chong describes it, his time behind bars wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience.
“That’s why I want to tell Felicity Huffman relax,” Chong says. “You’re going on a mission. I swear to God. There’s no punishment in the federal prison. You get a computer. You get a nice comfortable cubicle. You’re in there with nice, intelligent people.”
One of the “nice, intelligent” people Chong met in Taft was Jordan Belfort, the stockbroker played by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. “He’s a genius,” Chong says of Belfort. “Without a doubt. A little crooked, but a genius.”
Chong says it was because of him that the memoir that eventually became the 2013 Martin Scorsese movie was ever written in the first place.
“I was writing a book and he’d come in after playing tennis. He’d go, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m writing a book.’ So Jordan goes, ‘I’m going to write a book, too!'” he recalls.
Belfort’s first stab at a book was a novel in the vein of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Chong read a few chapters and gave Belfort a rather harsh assessment.
“He got really mad. He got hurt,” Chong says. “He said, ‘What should I write?’ And I told him, ‘Write the stories you’ve been telling me every night!’ Every night he’d tell me a different story and they were crazy! The quaalude story and all the stuff that happened. Write that. That’s your book!'”
Belfort took his advice and The Wolf of Wall Street was eventually published by Bantam in 2007. A few years later, Chong and Belfort both crossed paths again, after both had served their time and were out on probation.
“We both got out and weren’t allowed to talk to each other,” Chong recalls. “But he drives up and beeps his horn and Ieans out the window and says, ‘I sold my book! They’re gonna make a movie! Wolf of Wall Street, man!'”