Belushi, John (1949-1982)

views updated

Belushi, John (1949-1982)

The name John Belushi conjures images of sword-wielding Samurai, cheeseburger-cooking Greek chefs, mashed-potato spewing human zits, and Ray Ban wearing ex-cons on a "mission from God." But his short life is also a popular metaphor for drug abuse and wild excess. His acting and comedy, undeniably energetic and highly creative, are overshadowed by his death, a tabloid cliché revisited every time another Hollywood star overdoses on drugs or alcohol.

In part, this sad legacy is influenced by Bob Woodward's clinical and unflattering biography, Wired (1984), in which Belushi is described as an insecure man who turns to cocaine and heroin to bolster his self-esteem. Woodward concluded that Belushi's extremes in personality were a representation of the 1970s and the drug-obsessed entertainment industry of the time. Yet this legacy is also inspired in part by Belushi's own stage, television, and movie personae, best exemplified in popular myth by his portrayal of the anti-establishment, hedonistic fraternity bum Bluto Blutarsky of National Lampoon's Animal House (1978). The dean's admonition that "fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life" can be seen as an unbidden warning to Belushi.

Belushi first came to public notice as a member of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. Led by Del Close, Second City used improvisational skits to entertain the audiences. While he later credited Close for teaching him how to be a part of an ensemble, Belushi's intense energy and raucous attitude soon began pushing the bounds of the troupe's comedy. In spite of Close's insistence that they were all a team, local reviews soon made it clear that Belushi was the "star" of the show. This soon earned him the notice of Tony Hendra, producer-director of the forthcoming National Lampoon Magazine's musical satire Lemmings. Belushi fascinated Hendra, and he offered him the role of the manic emcee that instigates the mass suicide of the audience in Lemmings.

At that time, National Lampoon Magazine was at the forefront of alternative comedy, the borderline humor that mocked religion, sex, illness, and even death. Lemmings was envisioned as an off-Broadway send-up of the Woodstock concert that would showcase the magazine's brand of humor. For Belushi, it was a marriage made in heaven. The show got rave reviews, its original six-week run being extended for ten months. In reviews, Belushi was singled out for particular praise, his performance outshining the rest of the cast, including newcomer Chevy Chase. He tied himself more closely with National Lampoon by working as a writer, director, and actor of the National Lampoon Radio Hour.

In the spring of 1975 Lorne Michaels asked Belushi to join the regular cast of a new show he was preparing for NBC television. Envisioned as a show to appeal to the 18-to-34 audience, Saturday Night Live (SNL) was broadcast live from the NBC studios in New York. The live aspect gave these younger audiences a sense of adventure, of never knowing what was going to happen next. The cast, which also included Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and others, billed themselves as the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," and set about redefining American television comedy in the irreverent image of Britain's Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Belushi was at first overshadowed by Chase, whose suave sophistication appealed to the viewers. He initially came to the audience's attention as a manic weatherman sitting next to Chase's deadpan "Weekly Update" anchorman, ending with his catchphrase "But nooooooooooooo!" When Chase departed for Hollywood at the end of the first season, Belushi became the viewers' new favorite. His most memorable SNL performances included the lunatic weather-man, a Samurai warrior with a short fuse and a long sword, the resentful leader of a band of killer bees, Joe Crocker, and a Greek chef that would cook only cheeseburgers. He cultivated the image of "bad boy" both on and off screen: a picture of the third season SNL cast has a grim looking Belushi standing to one side, eyes covered with sun glasses, cigarette in hand, with Gilda Radner's arm draped over his shoulder. While some of the others tried to affect a similar look (especially Aykroyd), only Belushi seemed to truly exude attitude.

Like Chase, Belushi was also looking to advance his career in Hollywood. He began his movie career with a bit part in Jack Nicholson's poorly received comedy-western Goin' South (1978). Months before it was released, however, his second movie project was in the theaters and thrilling audiences. Returning to National Lampoon, he was cast as the gross undergraduate Bluto Blutarsky in John Landis' National Lampoon's Animal House (1978).

Based in part on co-writer Chris Miller's college experiences in the 1960s, Animal House begins innocently enough with two freshmen seeking to pledge to the Delta House fraternity, a collection of politically incorrect and incorrigible students whose most intelligent member is averaging less than a 2.0 grade point average. The strait-laced dean of the school is determined to see Delta evicted from campus and its members expelled. The remainder of the movie is a series of skits about the run-ins between the dean and Delta House. Among these skits is Belushi's potato-spewing imitation of a zit.

Bluto drank excessively, lived only to party, disrupted the campus, and urinated on the shoes of unsuspecting freshmen. It is Belushi's portrayal of Bluto that is one of the movie's most enduring images, virtually typecasting him as a gross, excessive, drinking party animal. For most of the movie his character speaks in grunts, his big monologue coming near the end when he encourages a demoralized Delta House to take its revenge on the dean: "What? Over? Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans [sic] bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!" The movie ends with a Delta-inspired riot at the college's Homecoming Parade. The characters then all head off into the sunset, with captions revealing their eventual fates (Bluto's was to become a senator).

The movie was vintage National Lampoon, and moviegoers loved it. It became the biggest earner of the year, critics attributing much of its success to Belushi. He wasn't so fortunate with his next movie, the romantic comedy Old Boyfriends (1979). To the public, Belushi was Bluto and the Samurai, and they had difficulty relating to him in a romantic role. As Wild Bill Kelso, in Steven Speilberg's flop 1941 (1979), Belushi played another character much like Bluto, this time in goggles and chewing on a stubby cigar.

During this time, Aykroyd and Belushi were cooperating on writing sketches for SNL, their partnership based on friendship and common interests. During a road trip they discovered a common love of blues music, and they returned to New York with an idea to develop a warm-up act for SNL, the Blues Brothers. Studio audiences were enthusiastic, and the actors convinced the producers to put the Blues Brothers on the telecast. The reaction was phenomenal. The Blues Brothers soon followed up their television success with a best-selling album (Briefcase Full of Blues), a hit single ("Soul Man") and a promotional tour. To Belushi, this was a dream come true: a rock band on tour with a best-selling record. The two stars decided it was time to quit television and concentrate on their movie and music careers.

Aykroyd, meanwhile, had teamed up with John Landis to bring the band to the big screen. The script they came up with began with Jake Blues (Belushi) being released from Joliet State Penitentiary and returning with his brother Elwood (Aykroyd) to the orphanage where they were raised. Learning it is to close unless they can get $5,000, the brothers decide to put their band back together. The first part of the movie concerns their attempts to find the rest of the band, while the second half involves the band's efforts to raise the money. Throughout, however, the brothers get involved in many car chases, destroying a mall in one scene and many of the Chicago Police Department's cars in another.

The Blues Brothers opened in 1980 to a mixed reception. The film was mainly criticized for the excess of car chases, but this is a part of the cult status The Blues Brothers achieved. The Animal House audience loved it, seeing the return of the Belushi they had missed in his other movies. While his character was not Bluto, it was the familiar back-flipping, blues-howling Joliet Jake from SNL. The opening scenes of the film further reinforced Belushi's bad-boy image, as his character is released from jail, promptly to go on the run from the police. Most critics, however, thought it was terrible, and one went so far as to criticize Landis for keeping Belushi's eyes covered for most of the movie with Jake's trademark Ray Bans.

Belushi had already moved on to his first dramatic role as reporter Ernie Souchak in Continental Divide (1981). He received good reviews, most of them expressing some surprise that he could do a dramatic role. The public, however, wanted still more of Bluto and Joliet Jake. Continental Divide barely broke even. He then returned to comedy, working on Neighbors (1981) with Aykroyd. The movie was a critical and box office disaster, in no small part due to the director's idea of having the partners switch roles, with Belushi playing the straight man to Aykroyd's quirky neighbor. The experience convinced Belushi that he needed more control of his movie projects, so he began working on a revision of the script for his next role in a movie called Noble Rot. He envisioned the role as a return to the Bluto character that his audience was demanding. However, by this time he was taking heroin. He died of a drug overdose before completing Noble Rot.

Sixteen years after his death (almost to the day) National Enquirer gave him the centerpiece of its story on unsolved Hollywood mysteries (March 3, 1998), rehashing conspiracy theories surrounding his death. His death had raised some questions, leading his widow, writer Judy Jacklin Belushi, to approach Woodward to investigate it. The result was Wired, more of an examination of Belushi's descent into drugs than a balanced portrait of the actor's life. Later, Belushi's family and friends were incensed when the book was made into a movie, which Rolling Stone called a "pathetic travesty" and an "insult" to his memory. In response to the book and the movie Jacklin published her own autobiography, Samurai Widow (1990), which Harold Ramis described as the perfect antidote to Wired. During the 1990s, a new generation discovered the actor and comedian that was John Belushi, while leaving his older fans wondering about what could have been. As one biography noted, Belushi helped to develop and make popular an energetic, creative form of improvisational comedy that continued to entertain audiences.

—John J. Doherty

Further Reading:

"Belushi, John." Current Biography Yearbook. 1980.

Jacklin Belushi, Judy. Samurai Widow. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1990.

John Belushi: Funny You Should Ask. Videocassette produced by Sue Nadell-Bailey. Weller/Grossman Productions, 1994.

Vickery-Bareford, Melissa. "Belushi, John." American National Biography. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Woodward, Bob. Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984.