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'Saturday Night Live's' eight greatest stars

Darrell Hammond and Will FerrellWill Ferrell is back on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, hosting the show for the third time since leaving the cast in 2002. And those pining for the actor's glory days on the show will be reminded once again of just how big of a sketch comedy star Ferrell was during his tenure from 1995-2002.

And though his post-"SNL" career has had its share of hits ("Elf","Anchorman") and misses ("Land of the Lost," "Bewitched"), nothing has quite tarnished the huge amount of goodwill he built up playing such characters as the Spartan cheerleader, the cowbell guy in Blue Oyster Cult and President George W. Bush.

"SNL" is famous for being a launching pad for comedy stars. But it doesn't always work that way. Some have undistinguished "SNL" careers before blowing up huge after, like Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Rock. And others do well on the show before promptly vanishing into the mists of Hollywood.

But disregarding everything that happened after their time on the floor of Studio 8H in 30 Rockefeller Center, who were the biggest stars of "Saturday Night Live?" Which performers used the live sketch format to its fullest to connect to an audience?

Everyone has their favorites and (nearly) every current and former cast member has advocates. But these eight are widely regarded as the people who went on the air on a Saturday night and made it their own.

8. Darrell Hammond

Despite his serious personal problems (in his memoir he recounted his struggles with mental disorders while on the show), Hammond stayed with the high-pressure live gig for 14 seasons, longer than any other single cast member. He was also the oldest cast member to leave the show, departing in 2009 at age 53. He also distinguished himself by racking up the most celebrity impersonations on the show (107) including a belligerent Sean Connery as "Celebrity Jeopardy" contestant, President Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Chris Matthews. Though he hasn't transitioned into big-time comedy blockbusters or a hip cable series, it in no way diminishes his amazing track-record.

7. Gilda Radner

As the first cast member to be hired on "Saturday Night Live," Radner will always have a bit of an advantage over those who came later, but she did manage to pave the way for future female cast members by becoming a star even while going toe-to-toe with the rowdy boys club of Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Bill Murray. Radner's characters and catchphrases outlive her: Roseanne Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa (Barbara Walters even made mention of it again on "The View" a few weeks ago) and Emily Litella. Radner's post-"SNL" career was unspectacular and ended far too early in 1989, but her influence over the show remains after 30 years.

6. Will Ferrell

Ferrell was on "SNL" for seven seasons, leaving in 2002, just as his film career was about to launch into the stratosphere with "Old School" and "Elf." Though his tenure on the show overlapped with the Bush administration for just a couple of years, Ferrell's lumbering George W. was a force unto itself (and even got him a one-man Broadway show). His impression of James Lipton (host of "Inside the Actors Studio") has earned the praise of Lipton himself, and his aforementioned cowbell guy from Blue Oyster Cult is an original creation no one else could describe or replicate.

5. Dana Carvey

Carvey, along with his fellow cast members, helped make "SNL" a must-watch program again in the late '80s following many years of creative stagnation. Carvey's ability to create quote-worthy original characters, including the judgmental Church Lady and the body-building Hans (of Hans and Franz) made him a household name. But it was his ability to create versions of real life celebrities that could almost surpass the original in popularity that makes him one of "SNL's" all-time most valuable players. His Johnny Carson and Regis Philbin impersonations have been quoted more often than either Carson or Philbin themselves and President George H.W. Bush even quoted Carvey pretending to be him at the funeral of President Gerald Ford. Carvey left "SNL" in 1993 and has returned to host four times and won an Emmy for his work in 1993.

4. Mike Myers

In his book, "Gasping for Airtime," former cast member Jay Mohr recalled that Myers always wrote his sketches alone and they were always funny. That probably helps explain how Myers was so deftly able to distinguish himself on a cast already filled with powerful performers, such as Chris Farley. Myers' characters were quote-worthy (Linda Richman, host of "Coffee Talk") and unique (Dieter, host of "Sprockets") without ever relying on the familiarity of the celebrity impression. One of his most popular characters, Wayne, host of "Wayne's World," isn't easily described in a few sentences, yet he became the basis of one of "SNL's" most successful spin-off movies.

3. Chevy Chase

Chase was the first breakout star of "Saturday Night Live." His star ascended so rapidly, in fact, that he only stayed with the show for a single season. But despite his limited airtime, his influence has lasted far beyond the '70s. He managed to make a couple of isolated incidents -- President Gerald Ford tripping in public -- and use it to completely reshape the American public's view of the man. (Ford even stated in his autobiography that he believed Chase's impersonation influenced the 1976 presidential election). And his style of anchoring "Weekend Update" created the show's first catchphrase ("I'm Chevy Chase and you're not") which managed to work, even when the people quoting it weren't Chevy Chase.

2. Phil Hartman

Nicknamed "The Glue," Hartman was the kind of versatile performer who made any sketch he was in work, even if he didn't appear to the star of it. Like Hammond after him, Hartman was best known for his Bill Clinton impersonation. But he also did a great Frank Sinatra, Phil Donohue and Ronald Reagan as a secret evil genius. He left the show in 1994 and went on to a successful career as a supporting player on the sitcom "NewsRadio," but the deep respect of his former "SNL" peers continued on past his years on the show and even after his death in 1998. (His is perhaps the most shocking death of an "SNL" alum, even more than John Belushi's).

1. Eddie Murphy

Without the aid of a strong ensemble or writing, Murphy managed to be one of the only "SNL" superstars to come out of the post/pre-Lorne Michaels era of 1980-1985. (Michaels, who created the show, left in 1980 and returned in 1985). Murphy was just 19 when he joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in 1980. Yet he managed to eventually become the era's most memorable talent, with such characters as Gumby, Buckwheat (from "The Little Rascals"), and the urban version of Mr. Rogers, Mr. Robinson. Though many "SNL" performers had starred in movies while also performing on the show, he became the first marquee name to do both at the same time, and even became the first cast member to host the show while still being part of the cast. He replaced his ill "48 Hrs." co-star Nick Nolte at the last minute for a 1982 show.

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-- Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: Darrell Hammond, left, and Will Ferrell on "Saturday Night Live" in 2000. Credit: Mary Ellen Matthews / NBC.

 
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