When a force of nature like John Belushi is lost, 25 years isn’t time enough to ease the grief or erase the laughter.
Actor-comedian Richard Belzer still dreams about him from time to time, the unselfish friend and “impish genius” who devoured life. John Landis, who directed Belushi in “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” is still angry at him for dying foolishly and young.
“Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels feels an obligation to “restate the obvious,” that Belushi was profoundly talented and part of the show’s creative DNA.
By most measures, the round comic with the sharp edges left a small body of work when a drug overdose killed him at age 33 in March 1982. But his TV, movie and music performances proved influential, hitting the baby-boomer sweet spot and surviving despite pop culture’s truncated attention span.
Tragic death doesn’t diminish giftsBelushi burst the seams of comedy alongside like-minded performers and writers energized by the social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. He helped join humor and pop music in a lasting romance and brought renewed attention to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and other R&B giants.
He etched out the start of a promising acting career, and his best movies reshaped industry expectations by catering to newly empowered young consumers and pushing comedy into the blockbuster realm.
His legacy also includes the bleak Hollywood cliche of destructive behavior, now as much on display as ever with the revolving-door rehab stints of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.
For Belushi, his tragic death overshadows but can’t diminish his gifts.
Endlessly versatile, he inhabited the samurai deli guy, Joe Cocker, Captain Kirk and more on “Saturday Night Live.” He gave us Bluto (“Food fight!”) and Jake Blues, on a mission from God to save music. Always, there was a hint of intelligent mischief, if only in a masterfully lifted eyebrow.
In 1978, on the eve of his 30th birthday, Belushi had the No. 1 movie with “Animal House,” the No. 1 record (with partner Dan Aykroyd), “Briefcase Full of Blues” and was the heart of television’s hottest show.
“No one had broken through like he did,” said Bernie Brillstein, Belushi’s manager.
He always shared his good fortune and clout with friends, said Belzer (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”). When Belushi found out that Belzer was getting paid less than Belushi and others on a TV show, he threatened to walk unless there was parity.
“He was very generous, too, as a performer ... A lot of great performers raise the game of those around them. He was one of those people,” Belzer said.
On the second Blues Brothers album, Belushi included songs from musicians who could use the royalties.
‘He came into my room like a tornado’He also regularly lived up to his reputation for excess and excitement. At New York’s Drake Hotel in 1977, Landis met him for the first time to discuss doing “Animal House.”
“He came into my room like a tornado, this burst of energy,” the director recalled. “He immediately called room service, ordering bottles of champagne and Courvoisier and beer and shrimp cocktails for 20, vast amounts of food.”
The world was Belushi’s, for better and worse, as his contracts rose from $35,000 for “Animal House” to $2 million and more. As it had for others, success fueled destructive excess.
The comedian was found dead on March 5, 1982, in a hotel bungalow at the Chateau Marmont hotel on the fabled Sunset Strip.
Cathy Evelyn Smith, a drug dealer and user who was convicted of injecting Belushi with a fatal dose of heroin and cocaine, served 18 months in prison.
“If you have a lot of money in your pocket, you will attract a lot of women, you will attract a lot of followers and you will attract a lot of drugs,” Brillstein said. “The hangers-on job is to keep the king happy. They will never tell them they’re in danger of losing what they have.”
Belushi didn’t consider himself an addict despite increasingly prodigious drug use, said Tanner Colby, co-author of the 2005 biography “Belushi” (written with Belushi’s widow, Judith Belushi Pisano).
“John Belushi, deep down, was a stable guy who knew who he was, had a lot of confidence, wasn’t superficial but with no great internal trouble,” Colby said. “I think that what happened to him was largely due to fame. For a year and a half, he was as big as Elvis.”
Colby is working on a biography of Chris Farley, a later-generation “Saturday Night Live” star who was a drug-overdose victim in 1997, also at age 33. Director Landis had an unsettling encounter with Farley some six months before, in which Farley declared his admiration for “Animal House” and his desire to emulate Belushi.
“I found myself saying, ‘You know, Chris, John is not the best role model. John is dead,”’ Landis recalled.
(Farley’s family runs the Chris Farley Foundation to educate young people about the dangers of substance abuse and how to avoid peer pressure.)
Farley was in and out of rehab. Belushi lived in an era with fewer treatment options and, according to some accounts, much more acceptance of drug use.
In her autobiography “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” the late Oscar-winning producer Julia Phillips (“The Sting”) said she and friends dining at a posh Beverly Hills restaurant back then dumped cocaine on a dinner plate to “toot it off the ends of our steak knives.”
Friends tried to step inSome close to Belushi said they tried to stop him.
“Many times,” Landis said. “Do you know any drug addicts, alcoholics? ... It’s very, very difficult. It’s like saying to a person who has cancer, ‘Stop fooling around. Stop this [expletive] at once.”’
His friend faced a difficult fight, Belzer said.
“On some level he was gallantly struggling to straighten himself out, but the nature of the business, the nature of his personality and some of the people around him just made it harder,” he said. “That happens to a lot of celebrities, when no one can say ‘no’ around them.”
Landis saw the dire results. In 1978’s “Animal House,” Belushi was a disciplined and collaborative actor who took the “crazed, wild character” of frat boy Bluto and made him lovable, said the director.
“By the time of ‘The Blues Brothers’ (1980), he had a very bad drug problem,” Landis said, and it started undermining his work. His last project was 1981’s “Neighbors” with Aykroyd; he was set to make “Ghostbusters,” which filmed after his death with Bill Murray replacing him.
What might a clean Belushi have gone on to do? His career could have paralleled that of Murray, his former “Saturday Night Live” co-star who traveled from “Caddyshack” to a 2004 Oscar nomination for his poignant performance in “Lost in Translation.”
“I think John had a depth to his talent that would have allowed him to reinvent himself,” Michaels said.
Landis agrees. “He could have done anything.”