When John Belushi died at 33, following his injection with a mixture of cocaine and heroin at a bungalow on the grounds of the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood, his widow, Judy Jacklin, was left not only distraught but bewildered—confused by conflicting reports about the comedian’s final days in L.A. Exaggerated newspaper accounts of Belushi’s heroin use, the maddening silence of friends and the brusque treatment by L.A. police only heightened her determination to learn the answers to several troubling questions. Why had no one pulled Belushi back from the brink as he moved recklessly closer to his own destruction? Actors Robin Williams and Robert De Niro had been in Belushi’s hotel room the day he died—what had been their role in the tragedy? And why had drug supplier Cathy Smith, charged with administering the fatal speedball injection on March 5, 1982, been allowed to skip town for Canada after brief police questioning? “The whole thing made me understand much more clearly how people who have lost someone they love, and just don’t know where they are, can’t let go,” says Jacklin, 33. “I guess because you just can’t understand death, you want to know the facts. Somehow when you get to those facts, it makes it easier to let go.”
Believing that hidden facts are most efficiently revealed by a reporter trained in the arts of discovery, Jacklin contacted Bob Woodward and proposed that he write a series of articles about her husband’s last days. When Woodward agreed to the project, which later evolved into a book, Jacklin bared her soul—and Belushi’s—in 21 face-to-face conversations and hours of phone calls over a period of a year and a half. Anxious for the book to succeed, she encouraged dozens of friends, including Dan Aykroyd, director John Landis and Penny Marshall to cooperate with Woodward’s investigation. She also agreed to give Woodward total editorial control over the project—a decision she would come to regret.
Jacklin had anticipated a book that would tell not only the horrific story of her husband’s descent into drugs, but would present him in all his fullness as the funny, warm, vulnerable man she remembered. Instead, she maintains, Woodward has produced a bleak, narrowly focused work in which Belushi emerges as a bloated, drug-crazed monster caroming disastrously from one hit to the next. Last February, uneasy over the direction of the book after she learned its title, Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, Jacklin tried to break off her working relationship with Woodward and demanded the return of several photographs she had provided. Woodward, she says, agreed to her request, but then used five of the photos anyway. As a result, Jacklin has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., charging Woodward with copyright infringement. Far more important to her than any misuse of the photographs is her sad sense of betrayal. “I feel that I lose personally,” she says. “He could never have written the book without me.”
Jacklin is currently working on her own memoirs of life with Belushi, Don’t Look Back in Anger, and on Titters 101: An Introduction to Women’s Literature, a college-textbook parody on which she is collaborating with comedy writers Anne Beatts and Deanne Stillman. Last week, at the rustic beachfront home on Martha’s Vineyard that was her husband’s retreat from the shattering pressures of show business, she discussed her feelings about Woodward’s book with PEOPLE Assistant Editor Joshua Hammer.
When I read Wired at home in New York City two weeks ago, I’d already been given a rundown by my sister, so I knew what to expect. Pam was upset by it. She thought it was a dark, negative portrait, with none of the side of John that she knew and not enough understanding of why anyone would put up with him. That’s pretty much the way I feel, too. One of the biggest problems for me is that too much of the book is devoted to the last week of John’s life, so people who were very minor characters in his life become very major characters in Woodward’s book. That’s okay in terms of certain things. One of my objectives was to deromanticize drug use, and that’s certainly been done here. It’s like hour by hour, you gotta get through that week. It’s hard to believe anyone went through it. In a way, that’s powerful, but it’s so overstated that it loses its impact.
Ironically, Bob Woodward did tell me at the beginning that he was interested in John as a man—that he wanted to see how a person gets where he did. And that seemed fair to me. That’s how we started. I was totally honest with him. I doubt anyone has ever made such an open attempt at explaining about a person like John. Nor is anyone likely to again.
My feeling was that John’s was an important American story, that John really reflected America and our generation and that, in a sense, he destroyed himself. John wasn’t an average drug user, but he certainly wasn’t a junkie either. And I thought stressing that was important, I thought people had to realize that there was a struggle on John’s part to overcome drugs, and that it typified the consequence of this American way we have of playing with dangerous things. The struggle was far more important than the destruction.
I think that comes through in Wired, especially toward the beginning. But there’s no balance. The book is subtitled The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, but all that comes across is “A Guy on Drugs.” It may be a true portrait of the craziness of drugs, but it’s not really a human portrait. Every single bad time of my life is there—minus all the reasons that made it worth staying with John.
One of the worst examples of what Woodward does is his description of the filming of Neighbors [John Avildsen’s 1981 film co-starring Belushi and Aykroyd]. Someone reading that would assume that John was drug-crazed air through Neighbors. John did go overboard with coke on the set, but to me the most important thing was that he stopped. He finished the movie without drugs. And this was the first time he was able to turn around during a project. Part of his drug use cycle was that once he started going, he’d say, “I can’t stop until I’m done with this movie. There’s no way. I’ve got to finish.”
In my opinion, there’s very little in Wired that shows John’s wanting to move away from drugs. Woodward only quotes me occasionally saying, “He wants to get away.” Believe me, if I didn’t think John wanted to get away from drugs, I wouldn’t have been there, walking around and telling people not to give him any. It was a complicated and confusing time, and I made mistakes. But I’m not insane. Woodward thinks he portrayed me sympathetically; I think he portrayed me pathetically. I sound like this madwoman running around throughout the book going, “You’ve got to stop [giving John drugs]! You’ve got to stop! Don’t you see what you’re doing? Aren’t you his friends?!”
John wanted me to do that. He didn’t know how to say no, and he was looking for people to say no for him. Bringing in Smokey Wendell [a former Secret Service agent hired as Belushi’s personal watchdog] was John’s idea. No one forced Smokey on John. What is there in the book is that after several confrontations, during which John was constantly trying to dodge him, and Smokey was confiscating drugs, John turns around and says. “Thank you.”
I think Woodward felt there were many stories here but, he decided on the antidrug angle because he’s such a straight guy. I see exaggeration here. And I think a lot of people covered their asses when they talked to him. John’s doctors, for instance. Not one doctor ever told me that John was going to kill himself. Yet I find in the book they say, “Oh, I told him!” Why didn’t they ever tell me? I mean, I was there.
If John hadn’t died the week that he did, it might have happened another time. Until he got professional help, he would always have been a risk. He needed to have professional help to find out what it was that made him so insecure. I think there was hope there. But that’s one of the things missing from this book. There is no hope. Obviously the person who isn’t in this book is John Belushi. But I knew what he was trying to do. I remember one of those nights in December 1981 when he was on a binge, and he came home and cried, “I don’t want drugs to destroy my life!” But that doesn’t seem to be an important part of the story to Woodward.
I naively thought that Woodward would be more accurate than anyone else, but I don’t find that to be true at all. One thing that really bothered me is the story of the making of Goin’ South [the 1978 film starring Jack Nicholson and Mary Steenburgen in which Belushi played a bit part]. The book has John arriving on the set in Mexico, going to Nicholson’s, acting crazed and getting into a fight with the producer. Just for starters, that wasn’t how he arrived on the set. That happened the last week he was there. Because of production delays, John had to fly back to New York three or four times to shoot Saturday Night Live. The second time or so, he came down with walking pneumonia, and his doctor told him he couldn’t go back to Mexico for another 24 hours. We called Bernie [Brill-stein, Belushi’s manager] and told him this, and an hour later we got a call: “If John doesn’t get on the next plane to Mexico, they’ll sue him.” So he left, and he got there, and they didn’t use him for three days. It was during this time when the scene happened. Somebody may see no difference in that. But I sure do because it was a very frustrating time. The point is that I’m admitting, yes, John had a drug problem. He went overboard. But there was a reason—a lot of reasons—these things happened. That’s what’s lacking in this book—any understanding of why.
What adds to the distortion, I think, are the quotes that Woodward uses. I certainly told him who I thought were John’s friends. And they are very seldom in this book. Bill Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, was a close friend for several years, but he didn’t want to talk. James Taylor didn’t want to talk. Tino Insana [an actor and writer from Belushi’s pre-Second City days in Chicago] and Kathryn Walker, John’s co-star in Neighbors, are hardly there at all. Danny Aykroyd of course is in there. I don’t want to speak for Danny, but I know he didn’t enjoy talking to Woodward. I think he gave a very stilted interview. The people who are in Wired heavily knew John for a week or a month, or they knew him through various projects, and usually he was stoned. And that’s a part of him. It’s not like there was a twin brother who snuck out there or something. But you don’t get to see the other side.
I only cried twice when I read this. The first time was in that scene in the beginning, with Dan Payne, John’s high school drama teacher. He helped John land an acting job at a Chicago summer stock theater and secretly added $5 a month to John’s salary so he could afford to work there. I just felt there was a lot of love and a lot of guilt in the way he talked. I had never known he had put up the $5, and I thought it was very sweet. He helped John do what he wanted to do, and what that was seems to have killed him. I think there’s no connection, but I felt Dan was wondering whether there was. The other time I cried was the scene where John told me that Doug Kenney [National Lampoon founding editor] was dead.
I also felt very sad when I noticed how often people called John fat. That was one of his insecurities, which I thought of as a paranoia. Now I realize it wasn’t at all a paranoia but a reality. I’d heard people say mean things before, but when I heard so many friends and associates doing it so cruelly, it hurt me.
On the positive side, I do think the book will clear up once and for all that Robin Williams and Robert De Niro had nothing to do with John’s death. I had assumed all along that Williams and De Niro got themselves into a bad situation and then behaved badly. They didn’t know what to do, they were scared, so they didn’t talk to the family or to the press. They got themselves into a much worse situation than it was. Suddenly, it’s like John’s this person nobody ever wanted to admit knowing. And that was painful. Robin and I have talked several times, and I think it’s worked out well emotionally for both of us. I think the book will be good for him, because people have always thought there was more involvement that he weaseled out of. Robin’s one of the people in Wired who I think talked honestly about himself.
I can’t say this book doesn’t describe John. It describes him at times, certainly, and often well. But it’s just that so much is missing. I’m sad that it is that way. It’s frustrating. But I try to look at the positive. Because the worst has happened—and John died. I try to find something in it that can help other people. Lorne [Michaels, the original producer of Saturday Night Live] said something that I found very moving: “He died for our sins.” I hope people can understand that.
There’s a tremendous burden that has been lifted from me, simply because I was able to tell someone what happened. Even though Woodward didn’t tell it the way I told it to him, I still feel better for having told it. It’s written down, and even though it’s terribly painful to my family and to John’s family, there’s something terrific about the way it’s opened a dialogue. Because there was so much that couldn’t be said when he died. It was too painful, confusing and sad. I’ve already had some good conversations with people who were quoted, who called me to explain, “This is why I said what I said.” It has opened dialogue especially for our parents. Obviously it’s going to be very hard for them to read this book. I suspect they won’t make it through. I’ve already discussed the book with John’s mother, explaining about certain things and telling her, “I want you to understand how I perceived this. Talk to me.” And now we’re talking about these things. Drugs are so foreign to them, and we had our first real conversation about them. And that’s a beginning. It helps make me feel it was worth it.