John Belushi, 1949-1982
It was a night like too many others in John Belushi’s frantic life, one in which he careened through the Hollywood nightscape as if at the mercy of his unrelenting drives and appetites. He dined on Sunset Strip with Robert De Niro, who was casting his new film; in it Belushi hoped to prove at last his skills as a “straight” actor. After that he drove to West Hollywood for the show at the Improv, where he went several times a week to keep up on the work of new comics. Then he returned to the Strip and stopped in at On the Rox, a private club known for spontaneous entertainment provided by visiting stars. After being introduced to Johnny Rivers, Belushi persuaded the singer to jam. “He got into the music real seriously,” Rivers remembers. “He was kind of quiet that night—it wasn’t like ha-ha party time.” They played until about 1:30 in the morning, but Belushi—dressed in jeans with a bandanna tied around his head—did not tire easily.
He always found it hard to wind down; friends said his Saturday Night Live skit about a persistent guest, “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave,” was Belushi. This night his mania was apparently fortified, as it often was, by cocaine. Sadly, perhaps fatally, he had just the antidote: Earlier that evening he had reportedly ordered a gram of heroin—a large and no doubt high-quality stash worth as much as $1,000 on the street. After his body was discovered the next morning in his bungalow at the Hotel Chateau Marmont, both heroin and cocaine were found in his bloodstream. Needle marks were found on his arm. The last person believed to have seen Belushi alive was Kathy Smith, a 34-year-old rock ‘n’ roll gofer known in L.A. for years as a dealer in heroin and cocaine.
Excess was a life-style for Belushi; he was a man without a sense of limits. He ate too much, drank too much, and, as those who knew him recalled last week, he indulged in a staggering spectrum of chemical diversions. “From ethyl chloride to Quaaludes,” says one associate, “he did every drug in the book.” Explains his old friend Sean Kelly, a National Lampoon contributing editor: “His act was to be a drug-crazed maniac. He took that persona around with him.”
Belushi’s life and art were one. If onscreen he was Bluto, the Animal House hell-raiser with a penchant for destroying beer cans and guitars, he went his celluloid image one better in reality. His nickname was “The Black Rhino,” and he regularly ran amok. Just two weeks before his death, Belushi was physically ejected from an L.A. convenience store at 2 a.m. when he insisted on buying liquor after hours. At the club he owned in Chicago one night in 1979 he guzzled whiskey from the bottle, howled “I’m afraid I’m getting drunk,” and dipped his head in a sinkful of ice for relief. Another time he appeared in Chicago’s elegant Pump Room in an Animal House T-shirt, and, unnerving the maître d’ with a look, he got a table instantly. Once seated, he theatrically demanded a telephone, explaining: “Some places you go to for the food, other places you go to for the telephones.”
Belushi’s philosophy was simple and direct: He believed in entertainment, exuberance and anarchy. “What rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be about was getting loose, enjoying it, going a little crazy and not caring how you act or dress,” he said a few years ago. “Now rock ‘n’ roll is at a standstill, I think—and comedy is taking its place as something exciting.” His friends say Belushi always wanted to be a rock star, and they find it bitterly ironic that he died in rock’s tragic tradition, just as Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon and Janis Joplin did—young, with drugs in his veins.
Those who knew him were saddened, not surprised, at his passing. “The same violent urge that makes John great will also ultimately destroy him,” SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue said a few years ago. “He’s one of those hysterical personalities that will never be complete. I look for him to end up floating dead after the party.” Several years ago, remembers one former National Lampoon staffer, Belushi was clowning with Doug Kenney, the magazine’s co-founder, who died in 1980 in an unexplained fall from a cliff in Hawaii. Belushi did an impromptu impression of Elvis Presley in his death throes. Kenney told him that it wasn’t funny. “But,” Belushi replied, “that’s the way we’re all going to die, Dougie.”
Comic genius is a curious gift, which appears in the most unexpected places. Belushi was the child of poor Albanian immigrants who settled in Wheaton, Ill. and worked their way into the middle class by operating restaurants in Chicago. For most of his childhood, John appeared to be an ail-American son. “Everyone said he was loud and raucous,” Wheaton neighbor Jack Nihill recalls, “but it was always ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ with me. He was very polite, a real straight kid.” In Wheaton Central High School, Belushi was far from the food-fighting wild man he later portrayed. A star linebacker on the football team, member of the Key Club and the class council, he was elected homecoming king in his senior year. “All in all, John was the kind of kid that a coach looks for,” says Howard Barnes, his football coach. “Certainly, he didn’t like to practice or do the drills, but as soon as you turned the lights on, he was super. You could tell even then that he loved to perform.”
At Illinois’ College of DuPage, he channeled that performer’s impulse into campus comedy routines. When Joyce Sloane, associate producer of Second City, the famous Chicago comedy troupe, traveled to DuPage to arrange for a performance, she found unexpected competition. “We don’t need Second City,” a campus official told her. “We’ve got a student who goes to see your shows and comes back and does it for us.” The student was, of course, Belushi. Sloane’s first reaction was feigned anger: “I’ll kill him.” Later, in 1971, when Second City was searching for talent, she invited her old nemesis to audition. “He came in and just blew everyone away,” she remembers.
Belushi honed his craft at Second City, but hungered for a bigger audience—and found it in New York in 1973, when he won a part in the cast of Lemmings, a cabaret spin-off of the National Lampoon magazine. “Belushi didn’t evolve,” says former National Lampoon editor-in-chief P.J. O’Rourke. “He came as a polished talent. It was all a matter of getting a hard front established to allow him to do what he wanted to do.” Belushi found his medium when he was recruited, in 1975, to join the original incarnation of the now legendary Saturday Night Live. “I hired him,” remembers Lome Michaels, SNL’s first producer, “because he walked into my office and started to abuse me. He said, ‘I can’t stand television,’ and that was just the kind of abuse I wanted to hear.”
Saturday Night Live revolutionized American comedy. In the ’60s, humor had grown cerebral and comedians became talking heads. Saturday Night Live grafted the irreverent, satirical humor of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl onto an older, simpler strain of comedy—the pratfall and the pie-in-the-face variety. Chevy Chase tripped over chairs, and Steve Martin clamped an arrow on his head. But next to Belushi’s wild creations—his samurai desk clerk, his Killer Bee—they were almost staid. “Chase was the first star of the show, but Belushi was the first to become the audience’s friend,” said Dick Ebersol, SNL’s current producer. “There was a huge bond.”
Saturday Night Live provided Belushi with a late-night cult audience, and Animal House blasted him into the big time. The film reveled in the sophomoric crudities of frat house humor, and with its belch in the face of civilized society Belushi proved the maxim of the 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin: “The urge for destruction is also a creative urge.”
But Belushi also had a softer side. Friends say that his marriage to high school sweetheart Judy Jacklin was strong to the end. “She was in love with him and he with her, and that is obvious to anyone who knows what they were like together,” says a friend. Songwriter Jerome “Doc” Pomus remembers that Belushi was particularly solicitous of elderly blues musicians in financial straits. “He wanted me to find somebody he could help,” Pomus says.
In recent years Belushi wanted to back away from his grotesque, buffoonish image, and his role as a newspaper columnist in Continental Divide was a step in that direction. When he talked to De Niro the night before his death, he agreed to take off 40 pounds and get into good physical shape for the part (in a Sergio Leone movie titled Once Upon a Time in America). That was not the limit of his aspiration. “I want to do different things all the time,” he said last fall. “I want to do big musical comedies with lots of car crashes. I want to do a romantic comedy that nobody thought I could do. And then do a comedy with Dan Aykroyd that is totally different from The Blues Brothers. I’m a comic actor, but I’m an actor too.”
Those dreams ended in the Chateau Marmont on the morning of March 5, but John Belushi did not die without a legacy. In Chicago that night, Belushi’s 27-year-old brother, Jim, who followed John into acting, starred in a road production of The Pirates of Penzance. After the show, he stood glassy-eyed in the lobby, sharing his grief with strangers. “John was a genius as a comic,” he said, staring at his feet. “He was the mentor for every actor who came around. He was the best. He gave me some advice once, when I got angry. He said, ‘Go out onstage like a bull in a bull ring.’ ” And then Jim Belushi walked out to his limousine, mugging all the way.
This story was written by Peter Carlson with reporting from Salley Rayl and Doris Bacon, Los Angeles; Connie Singer, Chicago; Lee Wohlfert-Wihlborg, Richard K. Rein and Michael Heaton, New York; and Gioia Diliberto, Martha’s Vineyard.