The Truth Behind the McKay-Ferrell Split

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
December 5, 2021

“What an asshole!” I’m pretty sure that text I received this week, from a young writer-producer, was at least somewhat representative of the response around Hollywood to Adam McKay’s profile in Vanity Fair, where he finally explained the real reason for the 2019 demise of his 25-year creative partnership with comedy legend and universally-recognized nice guy Will Ferrell.   

If you didn’t see it, writer Joe Hagan lays out an explosive timeline of the end of the duo’s friendship and their Gary Sanchez Productions, purveyor of everything from Step Brothers to Succession: McKay and Ferrell had been drifting apart creatively, but “the final straw,” according to the story, was when McKay cast Ferrell as L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss in the upcoming HBO series about the 1980s team—and then abruptly recast the role with John C. Reilly, Ferrell’s best friend, failing to let Ferrell know before Reilly did. “I should have called him and I didn’t,” McKay says. “And Reilly did, of course, because Reilly, he’s a stand-up guy.” Ferrell and McKay then released a pleasant divorce statement to the media, but “it wasn’t true,” Hagan writes, with McKay saying, “I’m like, ‘Fuck, Ferrell’s never going to talk to me again. So it ended not well.’”

Pretty dramatic. I—like many others, I suspect—cringed when I read the story, and not just because Ferrell is probably my favorite comedic actor. (My Elf Halloween costume is still a reliable crowd-pleaser.) The Ferrell-McKay partnership, via Gary Sanchez and Funny or Die, had always struck me as one of the rare drama-free meldings of huge and complementary talents, dating back to their SNL days. But here, even as McKay was ostensibly issuing a mea culpa for mistreating his friend, he was also revealing that friend’s embarrassing rejection, while simultaneously claiming that said friend had such a thin skin that he cut personal and professional ties over a measly casting decision—all in the service of promoting McKay’s latest movie, Don’t Look Up.

The whole thing felt patronizing and passive-aggressive, especially considering that McKay’s post-SNL career got huge boosts thanks to his connection to Ferrell—and, if we’re honest, their divergent trajectories lately. It wasn’t lost on insiders that McKay is doing Oscar-level movie work with actors like Leo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence (I’ve seen Don’t Look Up; it’s fantastic), and Ferrell is starring in dreck like Eurovision and the Apple misfire The Shrink Next Door. McKay even seemed to twist the knife in recounting that Ferrell took the Buss recasting “as a way deeper hurt than I ever imagined and I tried to reach out to him, and I reminded him of some slights that were thrown my way that were never apologized for.”

Yuck. But as with most public breakups, there’s more to this story. I talked to a bunch of people around the situation, and it feels much different (and more complicated) than V.F. reported. First off, most insiders knew Gary Sanchez was all but dead way before the Lakers show ever came together. McKay had fired Jimmy Miller, his and Ferrell’s longtime manager, back in 2015, and people at both Gary Sanchez and Funny or Die knew there were Adam projects and Will projects. Succession, for instance, was very much a McKay endeavor, as was the Lakers show. And even a cursory look at the trade announcements reveals the Gary Sanchez split was formally announced on April 6, 2019, a few weeks before the Lakers pilot was ordered on April 23. I know pickups sometimes aren’t revealed when made, but sources close to McKay and HBO say the split indeed predated the pickup.

Also, while it’s true Ferrell very much wanted to play Buss, he was never actually cast. The creative team thought he didn’t look or carry himself like the flamboyant owner, but it was Michael Shannon, not John C. Reilly, who was cast and announced four months later, on Aug. 23. Ferrell is said to have been disappointed but understanding of Shannon as a radically different choice for the role. But Shannon tanked the read-through, so he was soon fired, and then McKay enlisted Reilly to replace Shannon, which was announced on Sept. 10. McKay began shooting the pilot a week later.

According to sources, Ferrell was indeed livid at not even being a fallback option once McKay’s first choice didn’t pan out, and it was doubly insulting that he heard about the rejection from Reilly, not McKay. But the company was already split, so it didn’t cause any breakup. V.F. seems to have been informed of this fact because it has corrected the story, acknowledging it “misstated the timing” of the split. McKay’s comments are still in there, though, which prompted me to wonder: If Ferrell was a Talladega Nights-era movie star, would McKay have refused to cast him, even as his backup? I’m guessing no, though HBO would probably point me to 10 times it passed on big stars who weren’t right for a role.

Bizarrely, the story doesn’t end there. According to two separate sources, Ferrell has been telling friends and business associates that he didn’t do the Lakers project because of its negativity toward the team and his concerns over the tone, and he wants to be able to “hold his head high.” (Ferrell’s publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan Wasson, didn’t respond to my texts or email.) That sounds like sour grapes, but it’s true that Ferrell, a big L.A. sports fan, is a semi-regular presence courtside at Lakers games. And it’s absolutely true that the Buss family, the Lakers leadership, its 80s-era players, and the NBA in general all absolutely hate this show.   

None of those people are making any money off this, which might explain some displeasure—and the fact that Jeanie Buss, Jerry’s daughter and the team’s controlling owner, has set up her own behind-the-scenes Lakers project with Mindy Kaling at Netflix. But they also feel HBO and McKay have taken real people and turned them into a fictionalized ‘80s version of Entourage or Ballers. According to someone who’s seen the pilot, it’s raunchy, filled with drugs and womanizing, and it is said to portray Buss as a misogynist party boy. (Reilly may or may not wear a prosthetic penis to accentuate Buss’s “bulge”; one person told me that, but I didn’t confirm it, and I didn’t really want to spend my time that way.)

The Lakers declined to comment on the show when I reached out, and I’m told the NBA is wary of providing free publicity. That’s how the NFL handled the Will Smith movie Concussion when Sony released it, in 2015, at the height of the C.T.E. conversation, mostly just pretending it didn’t exist. But behind the scenes, I’m told NBA lawyers have already traded correspondence with HBO, warning they are “monitoring” and will take legal action if team trademarks and logos are used. (HBO declined to comment, but it handles the trademark issue on Ballers by using them judiciously and within fair use guidelines; and yes, I know that show is not about real people or presented as factual, so it’s a bit different.) NBA vs. HBO would be an interesting dispute, given that HBO’s sister company is Turner Broadcasting, which airs NBA games. I’m guessing Charles Barkley won’t be plugging the show during Inside the NBA.  

HBO and McKay, for their part, are leaning heavily on the facts as presented in Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime, which depicts a wild NBA lifestyle and posits that the era of Lakers greatness started with the 1979 drafting of Magic Johnson and ended with Magic’s announcement in 1991 that he was H.I.V. positive. Ex-Laker Rick Fox is a consultant, and Norm Nixon’s son plays him, but none of the Showtime greats are participating.     

I don’t know Magic, but I happen to be friendly with his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is also depicted in the show, and whom I worked with at The Hollywood Reporter. In addition to being the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a lynchpin of those Lakers teams, Kareem is a fantastic writer and thinker, so I was curious about his take, sight-unseen, on the idea of the show. “While I respect other artists’ rights to choose their subjects, I think the story of the Showtime Lakers is best told by those who actually lived through it because we know exactly what happened,” Kareem told me this weekend. His longtime manager, Deborah Morales, was less judicious with her words. “When the guy they cast to play Kareem got the part, he was super excited and reached out to me,” she texted me. “I don’t think that he realized the response that he was going to get, which was not very nice!” Morales predicts a backlash to the show: “I don’t think anybody who has accepted a part playing any of these characters will be embraced by anyone in the NBA or any of the players or any of their friends—and I certainly hope that I never bump into anyone associated with this show.”

HBO and McKay don’t have to care about Magic, Kareem, or Kareem’s manager, of course, and backlash is usually great press (just ask MGM execs what they think of the Gucci family coming out against House of Gucci). But it’s a long way from McKay and Kareem chatting like friends at a THR party I hosted in February 2019—right before McKay announced he was doing the Lakers show. That event led to this now unfortunate photo of the three of us.

None of that has to do with McKay’s relationship with Ferrell, which, according to insiders, hasn’t changed since the V.F. article (and its correction) came out. Another interpretation of McKay’s willingness to discuss this stuff is that he’s implicitly reaching out to Ferrell via the article, and that Ferrell might be more willing to engage now that McKay has fallen on his sword (sort of) publicly.

Who knows. Creative partnerships are tough; they often implode. Hopefully, the Lakers show is great, Ferrell finds some better projects, and this all ends with McKay, Ferrell and Reilly reuniting for Step Brothers 2.