‘A star from the get-go’

John Belushi at 70

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page -

What you need to un­der­stand about John Belushi,” the di­rec­tor Ivan Reit­man tells me, “is he re­ally was this ex­tra­or­di­nary talent. I’ve known a lot of fa­mous peo­ple but he was at the cen­tre of the zeit­geist in a way that’s hard to de­scribe now. But his fame took over to a de­gree I’d never seen be­fore and haven’t seen since.”

Belushi would have turned 70 this month, but in­stead he died aged 33 in 1982. Yet un­like other in­flu­en­tial comedians of that era who died young – Doug Ken­ney, the founder of the com­edy mag­a­zine Na­tional Lam­poon; Belushi’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) co-star Gilda Rad­ner – his leg­end burns bright. His face can still be seen on a mil­lion T-shirts and even more posters on the walls of those born decades af­ter he died. In 2015, Rolling Stone voted him the great­est of all of SNL’s 145 cast mem­bers, beat­ing Ed­die Mur­phy, Tina Fey and Bill Mur­ray. The mag­a­zine cited Belushi’s com­edy skills and phys­i­cal­ity – “a wrestler’s body with a dancer’s feet, some­thing boy­ishly vulnerable in his mad­ness” – as the rea­sons for his last­ing ap­peal, and this is all true. But it would be naive to pre­tend that Belushi’s pre­ma­ture death doesn’t play a part in his en­dur­ing rep­u­ta­tion.

Ever since he was found dead in the Chateau Mar­mont ho­tel in Hol­ly­wood, his heart stopped by an over­dose of co­caine and heroin, Belushi has be­come syn­ony­mous with he­do­nism, ap­petite, ex­cess – like his mem­o­rably greedy char­ac­ter Bluto in An­i­mal House. His con­sump­tion of nar­cotics, es­pe­cially co­caine, has be­come only more in­fa­mous since he died. This is thanks in no small part to Wired, the bi­og­ra­phy pub­lished shortly af­ter his death, writ­ten by Bob Wood­ward, which laid out in dead­en­ing de­tail how much co­caine Belushi took and when.

Belushi’s loved ones loathed Wired, and re­main wary of talk­ing to out­siders about him, re­sent­ful of how he has been re­duced to his ad­dic­tions. Belushi’s widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, puts it this way: “Sev­eral ar­ti­cles – and a rather well cir­cu­lated book – have cov­ered the drug story. It would be re­fresh­ing to have a story that ac­tu­ally cel­e­brated John’s beau­ti­ful life: his courage to forge the life he dreamed in an un­fa­mil­iar land­scape, his ded­i­ca­tion to his craft, his epic friend­ships and lov­ing tem­per­a­ment.”

But the life of Belushi can­not be told with­out ref­er­ence to his death. And as much as those close to him wish oth­ers would stop fo­cus­ing on the drugs, al­most all the peo­ple I speak to about him talk with­out prompting about the ef­fect drugs had on the man they loved. But it is also true that while the drugs might have added to his leg­end, he wouldn’t be a leg­endary co­me­dian if he had just been an ad­dict.

Belushi was born and raised in sub­ur­ban Chicago, the old­est son of Al­ba­nian im­mi­grants. “His par­ents never as­sim­i­lated and I think it was hard for John, go­ing to this all- Amer­i­can high school in the day and com­ing home to this very Al­ba­nian fam­ily in the evening,” says Pisano, who started dat­ing Belushi while they were at school to­gether. “John looked dif­fer­ent from all of us – dark, and there was a joke that he was born with a beard. So he was self-con­scious of his eth­nic­ity, and he never brought peo­ple back to his home – he al­ways went to other peo­ple’s houses.”

Whatever in­se­cu­ri­ties Belushi felt about his back­ground, he was a star from the get-go. At school, he was a foot­baller, a drum­mer in a band, a talent-show cham­pion and the home­com­ing king. Af­ter a brief foray into col­lege, he tried out for Sec­ond City, the Chicago im­pro­vi­sa­tional com­edy en­ter­prise that has since trained Steve Carell, Stephen Col­bert and Amy Poehler. He was – and re­mains – the only ac­tor to be hired di­rectly into the main troupe, as op­posed to hav­ing to train with the tour­ing com­pany first. Belushi, by now some­thing of a shaggy-haired, dope-smok­ing hippy, could do ex­treme gross-out jokes, but also sub­tle phys­i­cal com­edy, and he stole ev­ery sketch he was in.

“The first night I saw him im­pro­vis­ing on stage, I thought, ‘God, I will never take chances like that. I don’t have that kind of courage,’” Belushi’s fel­low Sec­ond City per­former, Harold Ramis, later re­called.

Belushi was then hired by the Na­tional Lam­poon to do its stage and ra­dio shows, along with Christo­pher Guest, Chevy Chase, Rad­ner, Bill Mur­ray and Ramis. This was per­haps the great­est gen­er­a­tion of young Amer­i­can comedic talent, and Belushi was at the very cen­tre of it. Reit­man pro­duced the off-Broad­way pro­duc­tion, the Na­tional Lam­poon Show. “I tried to di­rect them, but they all laughed that off – they di­rected them­selves. But while they didn’t lis­ten to me, they all lis­tened to John. He was the most re­mark­able per­former in this re­mark­able group. He would just walk on stage with this Brando-like charisma,” says Reit­man.

‘When I saw him m im­pro­vise on stage I thought: t: ‘I will never take ke chances like that’ at’

It was at this point that Belushi was hired to be in the first sea­son of SNL. “John was wary of TV at first, but he knew the most es­sen­tial thing: how to hold the au­di­ence in his hand. He never left the stage with­out con­nect­ing with the au­di­ence. So it wasn’t a sur­prise to me that he took off like he did,” says Lorne Michaels, SNL’s cre­ator and pro­ducer.

As much as the show made Belushi’s name, it was, Pisano tells me, “also some­thing of a bat­tle for him”. Belushi had strug­gled with Chase and Guest at Na­tional Lam­poon: “They had a pri­vate school, put-down kind of hu­mour, and John was an easy mark. He was from the mid­west, he was over­weight, he hadn’t grad­u­ated from col­lege, he was eth­nic – no, even bet­ter, he was Al­ba­nian. This was all good fodder,” she writes in Belushi, her 2005 bi­og­ra­phy of her late hus­band. This dy­namic re­peated it­self on SNL, as Chase was also hired in the first sea­son: “Chevy has a very quick wit and his hu­mour could be cruel. I think they were mu­tu­ally fond of each other, but they were com­pet­i­tive,” she says.

Belushi soon found his groove, though, and be­came the show’s star, thanks to his par­ody of Joe Cocker, his sa­mu­rai char­ac­ter, his fu­ri­ous weather man and, even­tu­ally, the Blues Broth­ers with his close friend Dan Aykroyd. But there were some com­plaints about his be­hav­iour. “He started to say: ‘I don’t want to do the girls’ scenes,’” says Pisano, mean­ing he would refuse to act in scenes writ­ten by women. Belushi was close to Rad­ner and hugely re­spected her as a co­me­dian, but other women on the show weren’t im­pressed. Fel­low SNL per­former Jane Curtin has since de­scribed his be­hav­iour as sex­ist.

“By the sec­ond sea­son, John was on cov­ers of mag­a­zines and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a whole new level of fame. It be­came over­whelm­ing for him, and that was ex­pressed in all the late nights, the drugs,” says Michaels.

In 1976, Ramis, along with the Na­tional Lam­poon’s Doug Ken­ney and Chris Miller, wrote a com­edy script about a col­lege frat house. Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios told them that un­less they got Belushi to play the toga-wear­ing, com­pul­sively eat­ing char­ac­ter Bluto they wouldn’t pro­duce the movie.

“So I went to New York to per­suade him,” says the di­rec­tor John Lan­dis. “We met in my ho­tel and dur­ing the meet­ing Belushi makes a call down to room ser­vice. Soon af­ter he left, and sud­denly all these wait­ers walk in with plates and plates of food: spaghetti, shrimp cock­tail, pie – ev­ery­thing on the menu. It was like some­thing out of a Marx broth­ers movie.”

The 70s was a decade of se­ri­ous film-mak­ing – Five Easy Pieces, The God­fa­ther – but An­i­mal House be­came one of the era’s defin­ing movies. Bluto was osten­si­bly a mi­nor char­ac­ter, a bully with an end­less ap­petite. But Belushi im­bued him with so much en­ergy he is still the first thing ev­ery­one thinks of about An­i­mal House.

At around this time, Belushi and Aykroyd started per­form­ing as the Blues Broth­ers. Belushi was now in the big­gest movie, the coolest TV show and in the most ex­cit­ing band around. Just walk­ing down the road to a diner would take him an hour, get­ting past all the fans.

“A lot of peo­ple who reach celebrity sta­tus shut down and don’t en­gage, but John al­ways wanted to en­gage with ev­ery­one. But you have to be very grounded to cope with all those de­mands,” says Pisano.

The most no­table film he made at this point was 1941, Steven Spiel­berg’s no­to­ri­ous turkey, and this be­came a pat­tern, with Belushi re­peat­edly mak­ing movies that failed to live up to ex­pec­ta­tions. The one ex­cep­tion was the sec­ond film that ce­mented his rep­u­ta­tion: The Blues Broth­ers.

“By the time we made Blues Broth­ers, John was a mas­sive star, so it was dif­fer­ent work­ing with him on this than it was on An­i­mal House – he couldn’t go any­where, and he had this aw­ful ad­dic­tion to co­caine,” says Lan­dis. “We hired a guy to watch him and there were some re­ally scary mo­ments dur­ing the mak­ing of that movie. Peo­ple say now John was dif­fi­cult to work with, but he wasn’t. The only fight I had with him in all the time we worked to­gether was about drugs, so it wasn’t a tem­per­a­ment thing, it was a health thing.”

Belushi and Aykroyd were a hugely en­dear­ing dou­ble act, which was the se­cret to that film’s suc­cess. But it was ob­vi­ous that the en­ergy Belushi had in An­i­mal House was gone. In some Blues Broth­ers scenes, he seems barely en­gaged at all. “It was ex­tremely frus­trat­ing. John was so great, but he wasn’t able to give 100% in this movie. With ad­dic­tion, you can’t help some­one un­less they want it. It’s like of­fer­ing a drown­ing man your hand and they refuse it. It was ter­ri­ble. He went from be­ing this re­ally sweet guy to some­one hy­per and ma­ni­a­cal,” says Lan­dis.

Two years af­ter fin­ish­ing The Blues Broth­ers, Michaels met up with Belushi one evening in New York. “Hol­ly­wood was a whole new pres­sure for him, so, al­though he was still hi­lar­i­ous and the same John, he was so fran­tic. He’d just been in it for too long.” One month later, Belushi died in a ho­tel room af­ter a drug dealer shot him up with co­caine and heroin. At the time, many put Belushi’s drug ad­dic­tion down to his sud­den, dizzy­ing fame. But those clos­est to him think that is sim­plis­tic.

“John al­ways had an un­easi­ness in him­self, and he was try­ing to fill it with some­thing. I was an el­e­ment, but I wasn’t enough,” says Pisano. “And the drugs were a part of that ... I’m sure one’s child­hood has some­thing to do with it.”

The pho­tos from his fu­neral show a gen­er­a­tion of com­edy stars in shock. One of the most touch­ing im­ages is a bereft Bill Mur­ray putting a flower on Belushi’s cof­fin. Aykroyd was work­ing on a movie script for him­self and Belushi when he got the call that his best friend had died, and that film be­came Ghost­busters. It is not hard to imag­ine Belushi in the role of Venkman, which ce­mented Mur­ray’s fame. “It was clear that his spirit was within Danny’s script and I re­spected that,” says Reit­man, who di­rected Ghost­busters. “When we started to cre­ate the char­ac­ter of Slimer, this ro­tund lit­tle ghost who eats a lot, it made me think of John. We called him Slimer, but it was re­ally the spirit of John in all of our hearts.”

Belushi left be­hind a piti­fully small body of en­dur­ing work that be­lied his po­ten­tial. “There’s all this mythol­ogy around John but the bot­tom line is he was a charm­ing guy and a bril­liant per­former,” says Lan­dis. “He was strong like a trac­tor and smart like a bull and he re­ally could have gone on to do any­thing.”

Part of the fas­ci­na­tion with Belushi is that, in ret­ro­spect, he looks, as Pisano puts it, “like a sym­bol of the times”: the 60s dope-smok­ing hippy who brought rock’n’roll to com­edy in the 70s and was swal­lowed up by co­caine in the 80s. But his ap­peal lies in the man him­self: there was noth­ing aloof or un­touch­able about him, as was the case with a lot of comedians of that era. There was some­thing far more hu­man, more emo­tional about Belushi.

So while au­di­ences ad­mired Chase, Steve Martin and Mur­ray, they loved Belushi. He was as open and ex­posed as a sun­flower, and while it ul­ti­mately con­trib­uted to his undoing, it is also why so many peo­ple still feel a con­nec­tion to him.

“One of my favourite things in my of­fice is a Po­laroid of the two of us from 1976,” says Michaels. “I look at it and there was an in­no­cence to John then, a bright­ness. That’s what I re­mem­ber about him.”

‘Celebri­ties of­ten shut down, but John al­ways wanted to en­gage with ev­ery­one’

In a Saturday Night Live sketch, 1978; right, with Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Broth­ers

Belushi in a pub­lic­ity por­trait for the 1978 film An­i­mal House

Belushi with his wife Judy Belushi Pisano, circa 1976; right, Bill Mur­ray at Belushi’s fu­neral

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.