A sordid tale of fame, drugs and death played out its final scene at one of Hollywood’s most low-key, private accommodations. That’s how much of the news media chose to present the shocking death of actor John Belushi on March 5, 1982, in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, California.
One of the founding players when Saturday Night Live burst onto television screens in 1975, Belushi parlayed his early comedic triumphs on the small screen into movie success with National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 and The Blues Brothers in 1980. But only two years later, following roles in a handful of tepidly-received films and a growing dependence on alcohol and illegal substances, the actor, who delighted audiences as Jake “Joliet” Blues and SNL’s Samurai Hitman, was dead at age 33 from an accidental drug overdose of a combination of cocaine and heroin, also known as “speedball.”
Belushi spent his final week in the environs of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. By the time he checked in at the front desk of the Chateau Marmont on the night of February 28, 1982, Belushi was “a time bomb, a waste site, a mess. Sweaty, flabby, edgy, pale, disheveled, worn to a stump at 33,” author Shawn Levy writes in The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont.
Belushi was trying to revive his movie career
Struggling to get his movie career back on track following lackluster critical and box office reception to recent roles in Continental Divide and Neighbors, Belushi had ensconced himself in bungalow number three in order to work on the script for, and take meetings about Noble Rot, a romantic comedy set in the early years of the California wine industry. But the work was not going well, according to Levy’s book, and Paramount was keen for him to do a film based on The Joy of Sex before Noble Rot. Belushi’s attention span was limited and his speech often incoherent, his clothes were dirty and he appeared unbathed, his bungalow was in a constant state of disarray.
'The Blues Brothers' had a budget allocated for cocaine
His all-or-nothing approach to comedy was mirrored in his appetites off the stage, whether for drugs, food or alcohol. His heavy drug use was already apparent during the filming of The Blues Brothers. “We had a budget in the movie for cocaine for night shoots,” co-star Dan Aykroyd told Vanity Fair in 2012. “Everyone did it, including me. Never to excess, and not ever to where I wanted to buy it or have it. [But] John, he just loved what it did. It sort of brought him alive at night – that superpower feeling where you start to talk and converse and figure you can solve all the world’s problems.”
Belushi struggled with depression and bounced around the L.A. party scene
Belushi spent the majority of his final week in and around the Sunset Strip, hopscotching from one party scene to the next, be it the Roxy nightclub, Rainbow Bar and Grill and the restaurant Dan Tana’s on Santa Monica Boulevard, to name a few. His Chateau Marmont bungalow became a stop on the circuit after the clubs closed at 2 am, including visits from friends Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
Belushi’s wife, Judy, who he married in 1976, had remained at their residence in New York and had heard little from her husband in his final week. They spoke on March 4 and she recalled he sounded better – more frustrated than depressed – but she knew his drug use was out of control, according to the 1984 biography Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi by Bob Woodward.
That same day Belushi contacted Cathy Smith, an addict and sometimes dealer who had been procuring drugs for and administering shots to the needle-averse comedy star. Belushi had also visited his manager, Bernie Brillstein, and had asked for $1,500 in cash to buy a new guitar. “I’m not going to give you the money,” Brillstein is quoted as saying in Wired. “You’ll use it on drugs.” Later in the day, Brillstein says he relented and gave Belushi cash.
Robert De Niro and Robin Williams were two of the last people to ever see Belushi
On the evening of Thursday, March 4, De Niro and actor Harry Dean Stanton stopped by Belushi’s bungalow to urge him to go with them to dinner at Dan Tana’s and then to On the Rox, an exclusive Sunset Strip club. They found the room in a trashed state with Belushi and Smith amidst empty wine bottles, dirty laundry and pizza boxes.
Agreeing to return after On the Rox closed, De Niro and Stanton left. Williams had met the actors at the nightclub and all planned on stopping by Belushi’s bungalow after Williams performed an unscheduled set at The Comedy Store. Williams arrived alone to find Belushi and Smith both in an inebriated state. According to The Castle on Sunset, Williams, like De Niro before him, found the scene unsettling and left after talking with Belushi – who had been complaining of feeling ill that evening – and doing a small amount of cocaine. De Niro, too, stopped by for a brief interaction before returning to his own suite at the Chateau Marmont sometime after 3 a.m. Belushi and Smith reportedly continued injecting cocaine mixed with heroin.
Later that morning, breakfast was delivered to the bungalow where Smith signed for it. Belushi was sleeping by then, having complained earlier about chest congestion. According to Wired, Smith checked on Belushi again at around 10:15 a.m. before departing the bungalow, taking with her the syringe and spoon they had been using in case the maid turned up to clean the room.
Belushi's trainer discovered his lifeless body
It was around noon when Bill Wallace, Belushi’s physical trainer and sometimes bodyguard arrived at the bungalow to drop off a typewriter and tape recorder Belushi had requested. Letting himself in with his key, Wallace found the star in bed and not breathing. After repeatedly administering CPR to no effect, Wallace called Brillstein who had his secretary call for the paramedics. Brillstein headed for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where he assumed Belushi would be transported to and sent his assistant, Joel Briskin, to Chateau Marmont.
On his arrival at the bungalow, Briskin found Wallace weeping and still trying to revive Belushi. “John’s dead!” Wallace cried. An ambulance arrived and after EMTs assessed Belushi’s state he was declared him dead.
Reporters and camera crews swarmed the hotel, turning the once understated Hollywood institution into a circus, and lumbering it with a reputation forever linked to Belushi’s death.
Belushi's official cause of death was 'acute cocaine and heroin intoxication'
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office would eventually attribute Belushi’s death to “acute cocaine and heroin intoxication.” According to the examining pathologist, there were enough drugs in his body to kill even a healthy man, which Belushi was not. The autopsy report also listed abnormalities that included pulmonary congestion with distended lungs, a swollen brain, an enlarged liver and obesity.
After returning to the bungalow, Smith was questioned by police and released. She would later be charged with murder and drug-related offenses after telling the National Enquirer she supplied and injected “speedballs” to Belushi. Smith spent 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and three of the drug charges. “I know I’m the last person who saw him alive. I know what he did for the last 24 hours,” Smith told Rolling Stone in 1982. “It was just the Hollywood scene, really, nothing out of the ordinary.”
In 2015, Rolling Stone voted Belushi the greatest of all the SNL players, beating Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Tina Fey.
Though he left behind only a handful of starring roles, Belushi’s legacy has, if anything, grown over time. His widow, who is outspoken in her displeasure of Woodward’s biography Wired, believes Belushi’s talent is overshadowed by the circumstances of his death. “Several articles – and a rather well-known book – have covered the drug story,” Judy Belushi Pisano said to the Guardian in early 2019. “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.”