John Belushi (24 January 1949, Chicago, Illinois – 5 March 1982, Hollywood, California) was a comic actor who achieved great success in television, motion pictures, and the music industry in a relatively short space of time. Between the years 1975 to 1982 Belushi became a cultural phenomenon in America, graced the covers of Rolling Stone and Newsweek, and was finally so famous that he was able to gain access to a private function at the White House without carrying any identification on his person. “All of the doors of the continent were open to him,” recalled his best friend Dan Aykroyd. “He was America’s guest.” January 1979 was Belushi’s miracle month, when he simultaneously held a number one spot in film (highest grossing comedy up to that time, National Lampoon's Animal House), television (highest rated late-night show, Saturday Night Live), and music (top album on the Billboard chart, Briefcase Full of Blues), a triple feat that has never been emulated. But his passionate, non-stop, over-the-top, wild and crazy lifestyle led to his untimely death from a drug overdose at the age of 33.
1949–1970 Growing up
Belushi’s parents were immigrants from Albania who settled in Humboldt Park, a working-class, immigrant neighborhood of Wheaton, Illinois, where Belushi’s father opened up two restaurants. Growing up, Belushi tried to hide his Albanian origins (in part because it was a Communist country), and told people that he was Greek.
Early on Belushi exhibited a gift for comedy and mimicry, and could reduce his mother to fits of hysterical laughter. As a teenager he listened incessantly to record albums by comedians Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart and acted them out, honing his sense of timing and style. His schoolmates would remember him as class-clownish but not buffoonish.
A thick-set, stubbly, motorcycle-riding Belushi was an engaging presence at Wheaton Central High School, where he was co-captain of the football team, homecoming king, and a popular actor in the theater productions, where his versatility so impressed his drama teacher, Dan Payne, that Payne helped get John a job in a summer-stock theater in 1967, when Belushi was eighteen. After one high school stage production, the school’s principal told Belushi’s parents, “John’s one in a million.”
After high school graduation, Belushi enrolled first at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater in the fall of 1967, where he studied drama; then, one year later, he entered the College of DuPage, where he eventually received a degree in general studies in June 1970. In order to evade the Vietnam War draft, Belushi then enrolled in the University of Illinois, Circle Campus, in Chicago, in the fall of 1970. He let his hair grow to his shoulders and became an anti-Vietnam War protestor.
During his years at DuPage, Belushi co-formed a comedy group with two friends called the West Compass Players, which performed skits in coffee houses and on the DuPage campus. Later, in Chicago, the West Compass Players rented a basement of the Universal Life Church and regularly performed comedic productions (called “blackouts”) for up for 48 people at $1 a ticket.
1971–1974 Early career
Second City 1971–1972
In February 1971, John, at age 22, quit the College of DuPage when he won a spot in The Second City, a well-respected comedy troupe based in Chicago. Earning him $150 a week, it was Belushi’s first adult job. The producer of Second City, Bernard Sahlins, later recalled, “He had that something that you can’t learn in school. Call it charisma, call it magnetism, he had it.”
Fellow cast members described the Belushi of this time as having “wild hair”, as “kind of strange looking”, and more often than not dressed in torn jeans and old shirts. Cast member Harold Ramis recalled, “John brought a street element . . . [that] cut through the intellectual pretence of the theater. He brought rock and roll to the show.” The irreverent Belushi was perfect for such parts as “The World’s Most Obnoxious Houseguest.”
Belushi had a riveting stage presence and fluency with improvisation which often upstaged the other actors. “Literally the second John walked onstage he grabbed everyone’s attention,” recalled one cast member. The drama critic of the Chicago Daily News wrote, “We all have our personal favorites and mine was John Belushi, who has only to step out on the stage to start me tittering like a schoolboy.” John kept the review in his wallet. Another cast member marvelled at Belushi’s ability to “come on, give one line and go off – and take the whole scene.” Ramis said, “John could steal a scene just by raising an eyebrow.”
National Lampoon 1973–1974
Belushi and his high school sweetheart, Judy Jacklin, moved to New York City late in 1972 when a new and greater job opportunity presented itself. National Lampoon magazine, a satirical monthly, was producing a comic stage play for off-Broadway entitled Lemmings, and Belushi won a prominent place in the cast, alongside a young Chevy Chase. The director of Lemmings, Tony Hendra, marvelled at Belushi’s “intense, chaotic presence...[he was] a ferocious package...his talent was just staggering”. Soon after opening on January 25, 1973, Lemmings brought Belushi to national prominence. New Yorker magazine’s review of the play commented, “Funniest of all is Mr. Belushi...a real discovery.” Time magazine described Belushi as “endearing”. Lemmings became a hit show, playing for months to sell-out audiences.
The success of Lemmings led to Belushi playing a major role in the new National Lampoon Radio Hour, which billed itself as sixty minutes of “mirth, merriment, and racial slurs”. It debuted on November 17, 1973. Next came the National Lampoon Show, another stage show of comic skits which played New York City and also went on the road; playing alongside Belushi was a young Bill Murray.
It was in this theater stage-based period of Belushi’s life, both in Chicago and New York, where Belushi’s incipient drug problem began in earnest. He was smoking marijuana, experimenting with LSD and magic mushrooms, snorting cocaine, and taking Quaaludes. Christopher Guest, a member of the Lemmings cast, later remarked, “Drugs were rampant at that time. And he wasn’t the only one who was stoned.” Tony Hendra later analyzed it this way: “I do believe that there was something very sad at John’s core. There was some deep dissatisfaction that poisoned him, and that he just had no way of filling.” Janis Hirsch, an employee of National Lampoon, explained, “He just didn’t have limits, with anything. If you gave him a loaf of bread, he’d eat the whole loaf of bread. If you gave him a bag of drugs, he’d do the whole bag of drugs.”
Hirsch went on to say, “John could eat a chef’s salad with his hands, but he also had a sweetness to him that most people can’t imagine.”
Saturday Night Live
In 1975 Belushi auditioned for and won a spot as one of the original seven “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” of Saturday Night Live, a television show that would be widely hailed by media critics as one of the most groundbreaking and influential shows in American history. In the words of respected Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, “Saturday Night Live is more than just a television show...There’d never been anything like it in TV.”
Saturday Night Live was a program consisting of comedy sketches and musical interludes, and occupied NBC’s 11:30 pm to 1:00 am time slot. Its format was one-of-a-kind, unlike anything else on the air at the time. When it debuted on national television on October 11, 1975, Belushi was the star of the opening sketch, which was staged prior to the titles.
SNL quickly became a hit, a phenomenon. Within a month of SNL’s debut, an NBC executive reported in a memo, “Saturday Night is getting the most attractive audience on television today.” Another NBC executive enthused, “The best demographics in the history of commercial TV.”
The most famous characters Belushi created for himself on the first season of SNL were the Japanese Samurai, who communicated in unintelligible grunts, and a parody of Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek. Co-starring with Belushi on SNL included Dan Aykroyd, who would become Belushi’s closest friend and business associate; and Chevy Chase, with whom Belushi had a strained relationship, as Chase fast became the most popular actor on the program. SNL’s success was confirmed when the show won four Emmy Awards on May 17, 1976: best comedy-variety series; best comedy writing; best comedy directing; and best supporting actor for a variety show (Chase).
But starring in the hottest show in television was hard work; making SNL meant a six-day work week toiling long hours on floor 17 of NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan; and Belushi resorted to cocaine more and more. “There were drugs [at SNL],” admitted one NBC executive. “Open an office door in the SNL suite,” Tom Shales wrote, “and you might well be enswirled in marijuana smoke.” Drug use was so rampant during the first couple of years of SNL that one history of the television show devotes an entire chapter to the subject. In morbid celebration of his excessive lifestyle, Belushi's birthday cake in January 1976 was a facsimile of a Quaalude. By the start of SNL’s season 2 in the fall of 1976, Belushi was earning $100,000 a year, and spending $500 of that a week on drugs. Cocaine was his daily habit, as he admitted to his physician on November 29, 1976, and he also admitted to taking mescaline regularly, also marijuana, four different kinds of amphetamines, Quaaludes, and he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day.
The self-medicated Belushi became infamous for his irreverent behavior; more than once he’d fall asleep with a lit cigarette, setting his mattress aflame. He was always disappearing for hours or days, leaving his friends to wonder if he were alive or dead. He would party all night, using limousines to flit from one nightclub to the next. One SNL writer recalled that Belushi’s punishing lifestyle sometimes left him too “narcotized” to perform on the show. Another SNL writer described the Belushi of this time as “zonko, out of his skull.”
Judy Jacklin, whom Belushi would marry on December 31, 1976, described this turbulent time in her biography of her husband: “It was rough. He was spending too much time at the show, too many nights on the town and too much money on coke.” SNL writer Marilyn Miller described Belushi as “a tornado that would spin itself round and round and then be exhausted.” At times Belushi tried to come to grips with his addictions, and began to see a psychiatrist in April 1977, but he soon quit. And yet, through all of his excesses, there was a sense of fun about Belushi that remained inextinguishable and winsome, as his wife recalled: “Sometimes we laughed so long we couldn’t remember why we were laughing.”
Chevy Chase had left SNL after the first season, and Belushi quickly became the audience favorite in the second season. SNL and Belushi alike were getting more and more popular. Tom Hanks, who would host the show many times over the years, recalled, “It was the cultural phenomenon of the age. It was truly as big as the Beatles.” In June 1977 Crawdaddy magazine did a cover story on Belushi with the headline: “The Most Dangerous Man on TV: Saturday Night’s John Belushi”. Belushi told the interviewer, with reference to his wild and crazy lifestyle: “When in doubt, I floor it.”
1978–1980 Film and music
During the first half of 1977 Belushi required surgery for torn cartilage in his knee; the accident occurred during one of his wild and crazy moments – he leapt from a stage while giving a college lecture. A secret that he kept from his wife for the next five years was this: for two months following the surgery, Belushi took heroin to dull the pain. “It was a terrible couple of months,” Judy recalled. “I’d thought that John was mixing coke and Quaaludes.” The specter of heroin, its dangerous and addictive and life-threatening qualities, would stalk Belushi for the rest of his life. “Believe me,” he would tell his wife more than once, “I want to stay away from that stuff.”
In August 1977, during the summer break from SNL, Belushi flew to Durango, Mexico, to play a small role in the Hollywood film Goin’ South, a western starring and directed by Jack Nicholson. Although the role was a bit part, Belushi explained his motives to his manager: “My father always wanted to see me on a horse.” Moreover, Belushi didn’t want to pass up the chance to work with Nicholson, who was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. But it was a tense set for Belushi, who didn’t feel comfortable in Mexico among Nicholson’s production executives, whom he did not know or warm to, and he and Judy both were grateful when the experience was over. However, Belushi and Nicholson remained friends for the rest of Belushi’s life.
SNL Season Three
Belushi returned to Manhattan in late September 1977 for the start of the third season of Saturday Night Live, whose Nielsen ratings would continue to rise. His popular characters included the manager of a Greek restaurant who urged cheeseburgers on all of his customers, and the editorialist during the Weekend Update (a mock newscast) who always became increasingly heated during his rant to the point of passing out, his catchphrase being: “but nooooo!”
In late October 1977, Belushi flew to the University of Oregon at Eugene to start the filming of what would be a crucial moment in his career: the film National Lampoon’s Animal House. He would have to commute back and forth between Oregon and Manhattan until the end of November 1977, when shooting was completed. A co-star of the film described the Belushi of this time as “tired”.
During SNL's third season, Belushi and Aykroyd opened the “Blues Bar”, a grungy place for after-show parties, located in Lower Manhattan. Although it resembled nothing so much as a flophouse or dive, cultural icons such as David Bowie, Keith Richards, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Grateful Dead were regular visitors. There was a tiny stage where Belushi could sing, and the jukebox was full of classic R&B tunes. Mitchell Glazer, journalist and one of Belushi’s best friends, recalled: “It was tiny, the floors were all ripped-up linoleum and it stunk.” This humble spot was the seed of the idea for the “House of Blues”, which would eventually grow into a multinational business empire co-founded by Aykroyd.
Movie offers kept coming in to Belushi, even though neither Goin’ South nor Animal House was yet released, and Belushi had yet to prove himself on the silver screen. In the spring of 1978, Belushi was paid $20,000 for six days of filming to co-star in Old Boyfriends, a film directed by Joan Tewkesbury, a former screenwriter for Robert Altman.
The Blues Brothers
The night of April 22, 1978, was arguably Belushi’s and Aykroyd’s most important appearance on Saturday Night Live. It was the night they showcased themselves for the first time as the Blues Brothers. Dressed in black suits, porkpie hats and Ray-Bans, and looking more like insurance salesmen than performers, they created the personas Jake and Elwood Blues, with Belushi (Jake) singing the blues in a growling voice, and Aykroyd playing harmonica. It was no game, however; their backing band was composed of famed musicians. Belushi danced around the stage with vigorous, humorous athleticism, and the crowd applauded them wildly. Comedian Steve Martin, who was hosting SNL that night, promptly invited the Blues Brothers to open for his series of comedy shows at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. Soon, the Blues Brothers would reappear on SNL to even greater acclaim, which would lead to both a record album and film deal for the pair.
Animal House premiered on July 28, 1978, and quickly became one of the films of the decade. The New York Times called it “very funny” (and also "cheerfully sleazy"). It was the story of a bunch of party-loving college students of the fictional Faber College’s most infamous fraternity, the Delta House. Belushi, who was paid only $35,000 for the role, played the character of Bluto, an endearingly dim college student with a grade point average of 0.0. Directed by John Landis on a modest $2.7 million budget, the film quickly grossed over $60 million over the next three months.
Animal House played for the rest of year, eventually grossing $141,600,000 in America alone (and $200 million worldwide), becoming the highest grossing film comedy of all time (up to that time). As of October 2013, it is number 280 on America's all time box office list.
In terms of running time, Belushi appeared in only a quarter of the film, but he dominated the entire film because his screen presence was so vivid. “He had extraordinary physical and facial expressions,” Landis explained. “What I think is so successful is that John’s inner sweetness comes through. A lot of Bluto’s best moments weren’t scripted – it’s just John. He had tremendous warmth.”
Goin South opened in the first week of October and did little business, but no matter, Animal House had made Belushi one of the most recognized entertainers in America. On the basis of the film’s success, Belushi graced the cover of Newsweek on October 23, 1978.
Animal House was a phenomenon. College students across America emulated the most celebrated scenes in the film: the food fight and the toga party. The scene when Belushi travels down the cafeteria line, sampling food, putting hamburgers in his pocket, taking bites out of sandwiches then putting them back, is arguably the funniest film moment in Belushi’s career.
The way his wife Judy saw it, Belushi’s rambunctious, anti-establishment character (both his own and Bluto’s) reflected the late 1960s counterculture; he was a sixties radical in attitude and lifestyle, and this was responded to not only by 1970s audiences nostalgic for that past era, but also by the young, who identified with his rebellious streak. Bluto, who was Belushi, was as lovable as a panda bear, but with a subversive edge; and audiences responded to this humorous, dangerous mix of sensitivity and chaos.
“After Animal House, it became difficult for him to go anywhere without drawing attention and being approached,” Judy recalled. “People reacted to John. Heads turned, people pointed, smiled, yelled hello, came up to him. He was a larger-than-life kind of personality, yet one felt he was approachable.” People would scream his name, on the streets, in the audience of SNL: “BA-LOOSH-IE!” “I think John typified the American Dream to people,” Judy explained. “The son of an immigrant risen to fame and fortune on guts, talent, and hard work.”
Fans sometimes reacted to Belushi’s presence in strange ways. He was in a restaurant one time and a stranger pressed a hamburger into his face, perhaps thinking it was funny. Another time a fan walked up to Belushi, punched him in stomach and said, "Hey, Bluto!" But Belushi could be idiosyncratic with strangers as well. According to Aykroyd: “He would walk into the homes of complete strangers – I watched it happen – go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, have a sandwich, turn on the TV and go to sleep on the couch while the lucky home-dwellers watched in amazement and delight.”
On the basis of the popularity of Animal House, Belushi signed a $1.8 million, three picture deal with Universal Studios. His first film, for which he would be paid $350,000, would be 1941, directed by a young Steven Spielberg, one of the hottest filmmakers in the world at the time, coming off two immense hits, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 1941, a production so gigantic in scope that the cost was shared between two film studios (Universal and Columbia), was a satirical comedy based on an incident in February 1941 when a Japanese submarine fired five-inch shells at a petroleum refinery in Santa Barbara, causing a storm of fear and paranoia to sweep through Los Angeles. Spielberg, who had never directed a comedy before, wanted to emulate the wild and crazy atmosphere of Animal House and Saturday Night Live, and infamously described the film as “a celebration of paranoia.”
Filming on 1941 began in Los Angeles in October 1978. Both Belushi and Aykroyd, who also had a part in the film, would have to commute between L.A. and Manhattan until filming was finished. As it turned out, the principal photography of 1941 would drag on until the spring of 1979.
During Belushi’s time in Los Angeles, his drug use intensified, and he was snorting cocaine regularly. One of Spielberg’s assistants reported that Belushi was taking drugs “every few hours.” Belushi would show off to his drug dealer, saying “Look how much I can do” and snort an entire gram of cocaine at once.
Belushi caused delays in the filming of 1941, which distressed Spielberg, a self-professed “control freak”. During one such delay, when Belushi arrived not only late to the set but visibly intoxicated, Spielberg said, “You can’t do this to me!”
Writer Dave Thomas recalled visiting the 1941 set: “I asked Spielberg what was going on. ‘Danny’s gone to look for John,’ he said. ‘We’ve been waiting here since seven thirty.’ This was at noon, and so there were just tons of extras standing around, burning thousands of dollars per minute.”
Briefcase Full of Blues
1941 and SNL were not Belushi's and Aykroyd's only projects at this time. On the basis of the Blues Brothers’ popular appearances on SNL, Belushi and Aykroyd gathered together a band of some of the most highly respected blues musicians in America, including Donald Dunn and Steve Cropper, whom Aykroyd described as “legendary . . . real men of soul.” Their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, was released on December 5, 1978. It sold 50,000 copies in five days and a million copies in three weeks, becoming the fastest selling album that Atlantic Records had ever released. In all the album would eventually sell 3 million copies in total.
On New Years Eve 1978, the Blues Brothers played at San Francisco’s Winterland Coliseum along with famed acts such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Starship. Aykroyd recalled: “We [would have] two more albums, the movie, T-shirts, action figures. I think there was a pinball machine at one point. We were on top of the world.”
SNL Season Four
The fourth season of SNL would be its biggest yet, with 25 million people tuning in per week. But 1941 was still filming, Belushi and Aykroyd were having to commute coast to coast on a regular basis, and the pressure was getting to Belushi. SNL co-star Laraine Newman recalled of Belushi’s drug use: “It was that fourth year when things changed for John, when it slipped past being fun and became a serious problem.”
When actress Kate Jackson hosted the show in February 1979, that night would turn out to be Belushi’s most infamous experience in the NBC building. Before the telecast, Belushi was so intoxicated that an NBC physician informed Lorne Michaels, the show's executive producer, that if Belushi performed, there was a “fifty-fifty chance” he could die. Michaels infamously replied, “I’ll accept those odds!” Belushi performed that night, but only barely, and he was visibly impaired throughout the show. Paramedics had to stand watch, in case Belushi passed out from complications relating to fluid in his lungs. Aykroyd subsequently told Kate Jackson, “John is a bad boy, but a good man.”
Actor Richard Dreyfuss, another SNL host in this period, recalled: “During the final dress rehearsal, Belushi couldn’t stand up. He was falling around and mumbling and forgetting everything. Then the show came around and he was perfect.”
Meanwhile, filming on 1941 had dragged on so long, and Belushi’s lifestyle was so punishing, that one of the SNL writers jokingly distributed buttons saying: “John Belushi: 1949-1941”. In March 1979, Judy wrote in her diary: “There’s too much time in L.A., too much travelling, too many drugs.”
Old Boyfriends opened in March 1979 and quickly closed; fans were disappointed that Belushi had played it straight in the film. The American public wanted more of the Bluto persona.
Filming on 1941 finally ended in May 1979. Spielberg was bemused by the whole experience, calling the film a “demolition derby”. The production cost had reached $31.5 million, making 1941 one of the most expensive films ever made up to that time.
Also in the spring of 1979, both Belushi and Aykroyd announced that they were leaving Saturday Night Live. They wanted to focus exclusively on films and music.
The Blues Brothers
In July 1979, Belushi and his wife flew to Chicago to begin principal photography on The Blues Brothers (his second film in his Universal Studios contract), directed by John Landis and written by Aykroyd and Landis. Chicago was Belushi’s “home town” as it were and embraced him as a conquering hero. Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne welcomed Belushi and gave the film permission to film at the Richard J. Daley Center. The producer of The Blues Brothers, Robert Weiss, explained, “He was loved as a God in that town...He’d get mobbed and I’d have to get him through and save him from autograph seekers.”
Although Belushi had told his wife that “drugs were a problem and it wasn’t all fun and games anymore,” he was unable to stop taking them. Bob Tischler, producer of the Blues Brothers soundtrack, described this time: “John was going full throttle in terms of his partying.” Judy recalled, “By night, he was out on the loose and the whole of the city was his personal playground.” During this period, Belushi’s physician Dr. Bennett Braun preciently remarked that if Belushi didn’t change his lifestyle, “he has only two to three years to live.”
Throughout the production of the film Belushi would struggle with his drug dependency. According to Judy, John’s out of control cocaine habit made their time in Chicago “difficult”. An intoxicated Belushi caused delays on the production of The Blues Brothers. On October 25, 1979, director Landis needed to film a scene with Belushi, only to discover that Belushi was catatonic from a drug cocktail of cocaine and Quaaludes. “You’re killing yourself!” Landis told him.
Late in October 1979, the production moved to Los Angeles for another three months of filming. Belushi attempted to moderate his drug intake, especially because he was pleased to be working with such musical greats as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown on the L.A. portion of The Blues Brothers.
Meanwhile, 1941 opened on December 18, 1979, and received devastatingly hostile reviews. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner called it “a film that will live in infamy”. But the public embraced it, and 1941 grossed $92,455,742 worldwide, which contradicted its reputation in the press as a “bomb”.
When production on The Blues Brothers wrapped on February 1, 1980, Belushi once more spiralled down into his drug hell. He would disappear for days at a time, only to resurface unwashed, dishevelled, worn down by his lifestyle. His wife, Landis, his manager, his brother James, his friends all tried to help him, but Belushi would listen to no one. He would say, “You can’t possibly understand.” Judy wrote in her diary, “What could be going inside this person to make him so unhappy?”
Finally, in the spring of 1980, Belushi admitted to Judy that his drug use was out of control, and promised to take control of himself. In April 1980, Belushi hired Richard “Smokey” Wendell, an ex-Secret Service man, to serve as his live-in personal assistant, to help him stay away from drugs. For the next couple of months Belushi tried to stay straight while preparing for a Blues Brothers concert tour.
The Blues Brothers film opened on June 27, 1980, and the reviews were as hostile as they’d been for 1941. “For a while [the critics] called us 1942,” recalled Robert Weiss. But the public embraced the film. Belushi and Aykroyd, as the iconic Jake and Elwood Blues, were on the covers of People and Rolling Stone; and the film grossed $115,229,890 worldwide. Landis complained to the British press that his film had been "a hit - not a flop!"
On the same day that The Blues Brothers opened, Belushi and Akyroyd and their backing band began a coast-to-coast, 20-show Blues Brothers concert tour which would last until the end of July. At this time Belushi remained off drugs, and warned his band to do the same. While the tour was immensely popular, it was hard work, “rough” and “grueling”, according to Aykroyd. “There were some nights when, after the concert, I went out with friends while John stayed in,” Judy recalled. “That was different.” “We didn’t have time to party,” Aykroyd explained.
When the successful Blues Brothers tour ended, Belushi and Judy took a trip to Europe and also relaxed in Martha’s Vineyard. Pulitzer prize-winning novelist William Styron, one of Belushi’s neighbors on the island, enjoyed what he called Belushi’s “pure unleashed hilarity”.
A still drug-free Belushi, intent on displaying his versatility as an actor, took on the role of a newspaperman opposite actress Blair Brown in Continental Divide, a romantic comedy written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Michael Apted. It would be his last film in the Universal Studios contact. He lost forty pounds for the role (5’9’’ in height, he slimmed down to 198 pounds) and remained off drugs for the duration of the production, which took place in Colorado, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He was in the best shape of his life. He had Judy, Smokey Wendell, and Bill Wallace, his personal trainer, all keeping a close eye on him. Filming wrapped in Los Angeles in December 1980. Bill Murray joked, “When John was doing Continental Divide, he was on a conditioning program, and he was real boring during that time. He’d come over to my house and ask for Diet 7-Up.”
The first four months of 1981 were the last calm time in Belushi’s life. He was coping with his drug dependency, there were no binges, and his “drug enforcer” Smokey Wendell departed the scene in March 1981.
On April 20, 1981, Belushi and Aykroyd were in New York for the first day of shooting of their latest film, Neighbors. Made by Columbia Pictures, it was a dark comedy based on the novel by Thomas Berger and directed by John G. Avildsen, the Academy Award winning director of Rocky. Belushi was paid $1,250,000 to star in the film. If, according to Judy, the film “looked like a walk-off World Series home run” – the producers were Richard Zanuck and David Brown, the producers of Jaws – Neighbors turned out to be an uncomfortable set, as Belushi feuded with the director relentlessly. “I made a bet with John that a fistfight was going to break out before it was all over,” recalled Bernie Brillstein, Belushi’s manager. David Brown said, “The mood on the set was such that our production coordinator answered the telephone, ‘General Hospital’.” Belushi’s drug intake intensified again, and delays in shooting occurred when Belushi was too intoxicated to perform. “It was pretty horrifying, really," Zanuck explained. "We were able to shoot around John during these [drug] episodes.” Shooting ended on June 29, 1981. It would be Belushi’s last movie.
Belushi and Judy went to Martha’s Vineyard to relax for the summer. Once more Belushi tried to quit drugs. Aykroyd visited them and later said, “Every single day of that summer was great. . . . that was the happiest time for John. He was totally clean.”
When Continental Divide was released on September 18, 1981, the reviews were generally upbeat. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribute wrote, “Belushi is adorable.” Time magazine described the film as “superior,” and compared Belushi to Spenser Tracy. But during the publicity tour Belushi went on an extended cocaine binge. Zanuck recalled, “When he came back to L.A., he went backwards again.” Brillstein was taken aback to find Belushi “dazed” and “incoherent” at one meeting. Continental Divide grossed a disappointing $15,578,237; once again, audiences wanted the Bluto persona, and didn’t embrace Belushi as the “straight man”.
While Aykroyd, back in Manhattan, was scrupulously preparing further scripts for the two of them to star in together, such as Spies Like Us and Ghostbusters, Belushi, in Los Angeles, was becoming more and more unbalanced. The last six months of his life would be one long spiral down to a death by drugs.
During this time Belushi argued incessantly with Columbia Pictures to get a song by a punk rock band called Fear to play over the closing credits of Neighbors. When Belushi was firmly rebuffed by the Columbia executives, he “went wild”, in the words of Zanuck. Brillstein put it plainly: “he trashed the place.” Belushi, running riot through the office of the head of the studio’s music department, ripped a telephone out of the wall, smashed a desk, left lit cigarettes to burn wherever they lay. “When he was clean and sober he was the most wonderful man,” recalled friend Michael Klenfner. “When he was [on drugs], he was as big a horror as I’ve ever known.” David Brown thought he understood Belushi: “It was probably the corporate nature of the place. John was a maverick. He couldn’t stand it.”
Neighbors opened on December 18, 1981, and became the highest grossing movie in America over its opening weekend. It grossed $29,916,207 in all, and turned a profit for Columbia; but, once again, Belushi had played a “straight man”, and audiences evidently would much rather have seen him in the Bluto persona. Still, Belushi was popular enough to grace the cover of Rolling Stone yet again on January 21, 1982.
Belushi spent the last months of his life lost in a non-stop drug binge. He was a night owl, haunting the Playboy Mansion and nightclubs such as On The Rox on Sunset Boulevard. He tried to get a comedy script called Noble Rot off the ground at Paramount, but the executives there were resistant, which annoyed him. Judy, “tired of the battle” of dealing with her husband’s lifestyle, stayed away, living in a house they’d bought in Manhattan. During one of his last conversations with his wife, Belushi said: “I’m out of control!” Harold Ramis saw Belushi in this last period, and described Belushi’s condition as “exhausted” and one of “total despair”. Ramis ascribed Belushi’s emotional condition to cocaine.
On the night before Belushi’s death, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams visited him at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood, where he was staying in Bungalow 3. Each stayed for only a short time; the atmosphere, Williams recalled, was uncomfortable. Belushi was intoxicated on cocaine, Quaaludes, and heroin. What were once Belushi’s celebrated attributes, his “boundless energy” and “infectious enthusiasm” (in his wife’s words), were now lost: Belushi was near catatonic, filthy, overweight, and, in Williams’s view, melancholy and depressed. During the halting conversation, Belushi kept passing out for short periods of time.
Around noon on 5 March 1982, Bill Wallace, Belushi’s personal trainer, discovered Belushi lying unconscious in his bed in Bungalow 3. Wallace tried to revive him, but it was too late. The L.A. coroner would rule: death from injection of heroin and cocaine. The media converged on the back alley behind the Chateau Marmont hotel; Belushi’s death would be front page news across the country.
A woman named Cathy Evelyn Smith was led away in handcuffs from Bungalow 3. Later she fled to Canada. In March 1983, she was indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury and charged with second degree murder. After much legal wrangling, she was extradited from Canada and brought back to California. Agreeing to a plea bargain, she admitted giving Belushi a cocaine-heroin mixture, and was sentenced to three years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. She served fifteen months, then was deported to Canada in 1988.
Belushi is buried in Abel’s Hill Cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard. The most prominent memorial is a big rock with “Belushi” chiselled into it. Aykroyd had led the procession from the church service to the cemetery on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. James Taylor sang “That Lonesome Road” at the graveside ceremony. Judy wore black for forty days, in accordance with Albanian customs in America.
James Belushi, John’s younger brother, said in a memorial service held in Manhattan: “One thing everyone remembers about John was his generosity. He was always giving.” Robin Williams said, “The sadness is that John could have done anything. He was like a comic Brando. He had ‘the thing’.” Aykroyd reflected, “I had eight years with John, and we had a ball every second, we had a ball. I just hope he’s waiting for me on the other side. I’m sure he’ll be.” Laraine Newman said, “John was typecast as an uncouth, boorish slob with no discipline, so you were constantly impressed to discover he was just the opposite.”
- Pisano, Belushi, p. xi; also Hill, Saturday Night, p. 180-1; Shales, Live from New York, p. 74.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 40; 158.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- Ibid., p. 43; 45.
- Ibid., p. 47
- Bob Woodward, Wired, p. 50.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 46; 47.
- Ibid., p. 57; 65.
- Bob Woodward, Wired, p. 62.
- Ibid., p. 53, 64-65; Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 165.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 70
- Ibid., p. 71
- Ibid., p. 72.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 3.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 81.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 177
- Woodward, Wired, p. 85, 93, 103.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 81
- Ibid., p. 80.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 172-177.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 81.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 103.
- Ibid., p. 105.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 239.
- Ibid., p. 240-1.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 113.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 233.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 111.
- Pisano, Belushi p. 126.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 96.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 240.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 51.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 119.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 143.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 169.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 112-115; Hill, Saturday Night, p.310; Pisano, Belushi, p. 274.
- National Lampoon's Animal House (1978). Box Office Mojo (28 July 1978). Retrieved on 3 October 2013.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 137; 141.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 132.
- Ibid., p. 1; 176.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 313.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p.1.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 312; Pisano, Belushi, p. 167.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 167.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 58.
- McBride, John. Steven Spielberg (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 304.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 155; 156; 159.
- Ibid., p. 159.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 174.
- Ibid., p. 157.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 334-5; Woodward, Wired, p. 161.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 162.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 307.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 176.
- Hill, Saturday Night, p. 335-6; Woodward, Wired, p. 163, Pisano, Belushi, p. 176.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 107.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 104.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 1982; Biskind, Peter, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), p. 383.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 165.
- McBride, Spielberg, p. 300; 301; 307.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 183-4.
- Ibid., p. 185.
- Pisano, p. 177.
- Ibid., p. 189.
- Ibid., p. 182.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 17.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 177.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 20; Pisano, Belushi, p. 190.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 191.
- McBride, Spielberg, p. 309; Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=1941.htm
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 198.
- Woodward, Wired, p.22; 161.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 202.
- Ibid., p. 192.
- Farber, Stephen and Marc Green. Outrageous Conduct (New York: Arbor House, 1988), p. 61.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 205; Woodward, Wired, p. 183.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 209.
- Ibid., p. 208.
- Ibid., p. 209.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 81.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 218; Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 68; Woodward, Wired, p. 194-5.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 218.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 205.
- Ibid., p. 208.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 232.
- Ibid., p. 235.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 218-9; 222; Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 186.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 237.
- Ibid., p. 240; 241.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 242).
- Ibid., p. 234.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 7.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 242.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 237.
- Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=continentaldivide.htm
- Woodward, Wired, p. 256-258; Pisano, Belushi, p. 242-243.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 254.
- Ibid., p. 243.
- Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=neighbors.htm
- Saginor, Jennifer. Playground (New York: Harper), p. 8; Woodward, Wired, p. 317; Pisano, Belushi, p. 242; 252.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 243.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 16; 29; Pisano, Belushi, p. 255.
- Pisano, Belushi, p. 252.
- Woodward, Wired, p. 398-399.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 1; Woodward, Wired, p. 398.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 49;77; 100-1; Woodward, Wired, p. 412-413.
- This is placed at the cemetery gate. Inside, there is a small headstone in the style of a seventeenth-century New England grave marker. There is also a memorial at the Belushi family plot at Elmwood Cemetery, River Grove, Illinois.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 67.
- Ibid., p. 56.
- Shales, Live from New York, p. 246-7.
- Ibid., p. 257.
- Belushi, Samurai Widow, p. 91-2.