The scene is an exercise in pop-culture déjà vu: Against the familiar backdrop of the original Saturday Night Live—wafting smoke, brick wall, bottle-cap art—the Blues Brothers are taking five, their sheet music propped open to “634-5789.” The stage is empty except for the shorter, stockier Blues Brother. His pudgy back to the camera, he stands, legs wide, noodling on a glitter-paint-red Fender Stratocaster guitar as if he can’t get enough. The cuffs of his black pants ride up to expose tacky white socks, the porkpie hat is tilted at a sloppy angle, and the shirttail hangs low. As he slowly turns to reveal himself, memory sharpens. The cocked eyebrow, the cigarette burning short at the corner of his mouth, the air of malicious mischief: It’s an eerie illusion—comedian John Belushi, live from New York and riding high.
But this is a soundstage in L.A., and the man is an unknown actor named Michael Chiklis, starring in a movie about the brilliant, tortured comic who succumbed in 1983 to the live-fast, die-young drug ethic. This is the Belushi whose personal life was laid open by journalist Bob Woodward in his 1984 best-seller, Wired. After four troubled years the screen version of the book is now being made, and it is the story of Belushi’s fascination with drugs, which culminated in his death by overdose. The decadence, the desperation, the ugly last night at the Chateau Marmont—they are hardly the stuff of show-business dreams, and the movie world’s animosity toward the project is palpable. It was the film no one wanted to touch, and now that it has finally been scripted, financed, cast and put into production, the arrows are flying all over Hollywood.
On one side of the battle are producers Edward Feldman and Charles Meeker, who contend that Wired is an honorable project too daring for Hollywood’s skittish power elite. On the other is a coterie of Belushi’s friends and colleagues, powerful industry loyalists who see Woodward as a scandalmonger and the filmmakers as voracious opportunists. “It’s definitely the movie Hollywood doesn’t want you to see,” asserts Woodward, “because it’s accurate. And it establishes two points: that Belushi wasn’t the only one using drugs and that the environment in Hollywood permitted, if not encouraged, Belushi to thrive as a drug addict.”
Bernie Brillstein, who was Belushi’s manager, dismisses the notion that there has been any concerted effort to short-circuit Wired. “Let me be real honest,” he says. “I don’t want the movie made. I think it’s a bad script—one about a friend of mine. But I can’t stop it. I keep hearing that [Creative Artists Agency head and Belushi pal] Mike Ovitz and Bernie Brillstein and Dan Aykroyd and—name seven other people—can stop anything. What is this, Hitler’s Germany? No one runs this town. It’s a bad joke.”
The filmmakers’ troubles began early on. In 1984, director Robert (Voices) Markowitz suggested shooting Wired as an avant-garde comedy noir in the spirit of Saturday Night Live. “It was a very big best-seller, yet no one in town would buy the movie rights,” says Feldman, whose credits include Save the Tiger and, Witness. “We saw it as a chance to do a very big, high-profile picture with a minimal investment.” After optioning the rights for $300,000, Feldman and Meeker began searching for backing. Financing fell through twice—and Markowitz had moved on to another project—before New Zealand-based Lion Screen Entertainment Ltd. stepped in with the requisite $13.5 million. “If it had been a traditional Hollywood source, I don’t know if the financing would have been put up,” says Meeker. Even with the money at hand, the producers spent five months trying to commission a script. “A lot of screenwriters and big playwrights were not interested,” says Feldman, “most of them for the reason that they were either friends with Belushi and that group, or they themselves had a drug background and found the subject very difficult.” Actors were resistant as well. Woodward’s book had pegged Robin Williams, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson as cocaine users, and no one knew how far the film would go in revealing their supposed exploits. “I could smell it,” says Feldman. “A lot of big stars were afraid they were going to be [portrayed]. The word was out around town: ‘This is too tough a project. Stay away from it.’ ”
An A-list of potential litigants weighed in with open warnings as the deal progressed. In September 1984, Joel Behr, a lawyer representing John Landis and Robert Weiss (producer of The Blues Brothers movie), outlined his clients’ objections in a letter to Feldman and Meeker, advising them, “We trust that you will so inform any proposed financiers and distributors.” The following spring, L.A. attorney Seth Hufstedler, on behalf of Bill Murray, Aykroyd, Brillstein, Ovitz, SNL producer Lorne Michaels, Landis, Weiss and Universal executive Sean Daniels, issued a sterner admonition: “You should not attempt to depict our clients in this project. It will constitute an invasion of their privacy and may well inaccurately depict them, giving rise to other liabilities.”
Not included on Hufstedler’s roster was Belushi’s widow, Judy Jacklin, who squared off against Woodward after Wired was published, charging that his portrait of her husband was inaccurate. Now living on Martha’s Vineyard and polishing her own biography of John, she refuses to comment on the project. “Judy wants to distance herself from the movie,” says sister Pam Jacklin, a Portland, Ore., attorney.
John’s brother, Jim Belushi, staged his own samurai-style protest in the summer of 1986, after reading the script. Belushi appeared at Feldman’s Paramount office and was told that he had left for the day. “He went into my office and trashed my desk,” Feldman says. “He said to my secretary, ‘Tell him I was here.’ And he left.” Says Belushi: “Warriors have cleared villages for lesser reasons.”
Now being directed by Larry Peerce, best known for Goodbye Columbus, the movie version of Wired is framed as a fantasy in which a guardian angel (Ray Sharkey) takes the deceased Belushi on a tour of his own life. A medley of SNL-style riffs, sketches and Blues Brothers’ numbers punctuated by poignant reflections, it is, in Woodward’s words, a “daring, high-risk approach.” But some would see it as simply macabre. In the opening scene, the dead Belushi is laid out in a zippered body bag on a gurney parked beside a gleaming autopsy table in the L.A. city morgue. When an attendant leaves a sandwich behind on the autopsy table, the script, by Earl MacRauch, calls for “the silence [to be] broken by the sound of the Belushi BELCH…then the arm of the portly corpse flops out of the bag and lands within striking distance of the attendant’s sandwich, scooping it up and delivering it into the body bag with an audible WHOOSH.”
The actors who did accept the roles aren’t worried that they will find themselves blacklisted when the film appears early next year, and some of them don’t in fact have much to lose. Says Gary Groomes, a Minneapolis comedian who plays Aykroyd: “Somebody asked me, ‘Don’t you think this is going to adversely affect your film career?’ And I said, ‘Until now I didn’t have a film career.’ ”
Before being cast as Belushi, Michael Chiklis, a 24-year-old Massachusetts native, had struggled as a musician, actor and stand-up comedian, and he says he has resolved his own conflicts. “Every night for four weeks I’ve had the same dream,” he reports. “Belushi and I are having coffee at an outdoor table…. The first thing he says is, ‘Whatever you do, just don’t screw me over.’ And I say, ‘No, that’s not what I’m after.’ And he says, ‘I know.’ And he likes me.”
“It’s really strange,” says the actor. “I tend to think it’s my subconscious trying to tell me it’s okay.”
Belushi loyalists are sure to disagree.
—By Michelle Green, with Jack Kelley in Los Angeles