The silly season of U.S. youth is no longer just a rite of spring. In 1978 it also erupted in the fall when thousands of joyfully mindless undergraduates were not only feeling three sheets to the wind but wearing them as well. Toga parties, food fights and resurgent hedonism were but part of the aftershock of National Lampoon’s Animal House, a medium-budget movie with an astounding $87 million box office (so far) that could be outgrossed by only one thing—its star. As the grunting, belching “Bluto” Blutarsky—Delta House’s most unhousebroken animal—John Belushi turned a libidinal slob into Hollywood’s unlikeliest hero. One critic called him “the funniest fat comic actor since Jackie Gleason.”
To fans of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, that, of course, is not news but rather an update. But it wasn’t until Chevy Chase defected that Belushi’s belligerent Gerber baby faces, elevator eyebrows, Samurai characters and Greek luncheonette counterman made him the show’s first among equals. Now his movie fee has reportedly ballooned from $35,000 to $350,000 and he’s signed a three-picture deal with Universal. This year he appeared briefly (and, he says, regretfully) in Jack Nicholson’s Goin’ South, had his first straight role with Talia Shire in the unreleased Old Boyfriends and is currently playing what he calls a “really nuts” fighter pilot in Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Additionally, Belushi and Saturday Night buddy Dan Aykroyd have blown up their whiteface Blues Brothers soul-singing act into a record album and a few possibly self-indulgent tour dates.
Friends attest that Belushi is unaffected by the acclaim: He’s still married to Wheaton (III.) high school sweetheart Judy Jacklin, now a book designer, and he’s as sullen, moody and temperamentally intolerant as ever. “He can be great, cracking us up, and the next minute he’s a grizzly bear in heat,” reports a Goin’ South crewman. “The thing about John is that he is like a time bomb ready to explode at any minute,” agrees a Saturday Night Live writer. “John doesn’t want to be a ‘star’ the way Chevy Chase did,” points out Animal House producer Matty Simmons. “He knows that success can be tenuous.” As a kid growing up around Chicago, Belushi has said, “All we cared about was rock’n’roll and staying out of the Army.” And, yes, it’s true that during his quickie matriculation at the University of Michigan, John Belushi never went to a fraternity party.