Who Was John Belushi?
John Belushi was an actor and comedian, one of the first performers on Saturday Night Live and one half of the Blues Brothers. Known for his legendary characters and sketches on Saturday Night Live, Belushi imbued his brilliant performances with a manic, boisterous energy that has never seen before or since. He died due to an accidental overdose on March 5, 1982, at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont.
John Belushi was born on January 24, 1949, in Wheaton, Illinois. One of four children born to Albanian immigrants, he was good at getting laughs in high school. Belushi was also captain of his school's football team and played in a rock band as a drummer. More than anything, however, he wanted to be an actor.
After high school, Belushi performed in summer stock productions before starting college. He attended the University of Wisconsin and the College of DuPage where he graduated with an associate degree in 1970. The next year, Belushi made a big splash in the Chicago comedy scene as a member of the legendary Second City improvisational troupe. He wowed audiences with his over-the-top impressions of Marlon Brando, singer Joe Cocker, and others.
Comedy Career and 'Saturday Night Live'
In 1973, Belushi was selected to appear in an off-Broadway production of Lemmings, a collection of comedy sketches by the staff of the National Lampoon, a popular, but offbeat humor magazine. He received great reviews for his work on the show. Two years later, producer Lorne Michaels asked Belushi to join the cast of his new late-night comedy show, Saturday Night Live.
Premiering on October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live featured nine talented comedians boldly going where television had not gone before. Along with Belushi, there was Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, George Coe, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner. The show soon became a hit and Belushi became one of its breakout stars. Some of his most famous characters were a sword-wielding samurai, a killer bee and a cone-headed alien named Kuldroth. Belushi also continued making fun of the famous with hilarious takes on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Kissinger, Truman Capote and William Shatner. While he was on Saturday Night Live, there were many stories going around about rampant drug use by the members of the cast. To deal with pressures and his own insecurities, Belushi is said to have done cocaine and other drugs.
Movies: 'Animal House'
Not long after starting the show, Belushi married his high school sweetheart, Judith Jacklin, in 1976. Two years later, he made the move to the big screen with the hit comedy National Lampoon's Animal House, directed by John Landis. Playing Bluto Blutarsky, Belushi created one of the film's most memorable characters: the thoroughly gross, barely verbal frat brother whose immortal lines included "toga, toga, toga" and "food fight." The havoc created by Bluto and the rest of his Delta House brothers against their school has become one of the most famous college comedies of all time.
Belushi's other 1978 film effort was less successful. Only in a small part, he appeared in the western flop Goin' South with Jack Nicholson and Mary Steenburgen. The next year, he took on a serious role in Old Boyfriends with Talia Shire, which failed to find an audience. Belushi fans wanted him to see him return to a Bluto-like character, not in a dramatic part. He returned to comedy with 1941 (1979) as Captain Will Bill Kelso. The film was loosely based on a historical incident when a Japanese submarine was off the West Coast after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Belushi played a manic National Guard pilot, who along with some other concerned citizens, including an overeager tank sergeant played by Aykroyd, tries to protect a California small town under siege from the Japanese. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film was a complete flop and received numerous bad reviews. A review in The New York Times said that it was "less comic than cumbersome, as much fun as a 40-pound wristwatch."
'Blues Brothers' and Other Movies
In real life, Belushi and Aykroyd were good friends. While on Saturday Night Live, the two of them developed a blues parody act known as the Blues Brothers. The duo recorded an album, 1978's Briefcase Full of Blues, which had some success, and toured the country with a backup band. While Belushi and Aykroyd left Saturday Night Live in 1979, they continued working together as their musical alter egos. They brought Jake and Elwood Blues to the big screen in 1980. The Blues Brothers begins when "Joliet" Jake Blues (Belushi) is released from prison. His brother Elwood (Aykroyd) picks him up and the two visit the Chicago orphanage where they grew up. There they learn that they are on "a mission from God" to save the orphanage. The Blues brothers work on reuniting the members of their old band to raise money to fulfill their mission. The outlandish comedy had crazy car chases, neo-Nazis and nearly everything else but the kitchen sink in it. The film also featured several musical cameos by such talented recording artists as Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and James Brown.
Focusing on his film career, Belushi was frustrated with the response to his next two films. In Continental Divide (1981), he played a Chicago journalist who falls for a reclusive eagle expert (Blair Brown) he tracks down in the Rocky Mountains. Critic Roger Ebert described his performance as having "a surprising tenderness and charm." Despite mostly warm reviews, the film was a box office disappointment. Reunited with Aykroyd, Belushi starred in Neighbors (1981). The roles were reversed for the film as Belushi played a mostly straight, subdued man up against Aykroyd's loud and obnoxious character who has moved in next door to him. Again, audiences were disappointed to not see Belushi as a manic ball of comic energy and this affected the film's reception by the public.
Overdose and Death
For his next project, Belushi became active behind the scenes and wrote the screenplay for Noble Rot. But he was also struggling with his drug problem. In the months leading up to his death, he was reportedly spending about $2,500 a week on his habit, according to People magazine. Belushi was traveling back and forth between his home in New York City and California to work on the script in 1982. During the final week of his life, Belushi rented a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, a popular hotel for the Hollywood set. He was also doing a lot of drugs at the time. On the night of March 4, 1982, he was reportedly partying with the likes of Robin Williams. The next day Belushi was found dead in his hotel room. Only thirty-three years old, he died from a drug overdose of a combination of cocaine and heroin, also known as a "speedball." The woman who was with him and had supplied him with drugs, Cathy Smith, was questioned by the police and released.
On March 9, 1982, Belushi was buried near his home in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Many were shocked and saddened by the comedian's sudden death. "His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs," Williams told Entertainment Weekly. "Hollywood was toxic to him. People wanted him to be the Belushi they'd seen on screen," said Michaels in the same article.
Despite the fact that it was an apparent overdose, there was still some mystery surrounding the exact circumstances of Belushi's death. Smith was later charged with murder and drug-related offenses after admitting that she supplied and administered "speedballs" to Belushi to the National Inquirer, which reportedly paid her $15,000 for her story. She pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and three of the drug charges and spent 15 months in prison.
The unanswered questions led Belushi's widow to ask journalist Bob Woodward to investigate her husband's death. The result was the book Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi (1984). His family was dismayed by the book, expressing their concern that it was not a fair portrait of the man they had known and loved. Jacklin Belushi wrote her own book on her experiences surrounding his death in Samurai Widow (1990) and later created her own portrait of her late husband entitled Belushi: A Biography (2005).
While Belushi has been gone for more than twenty years, the characters he created and the performances he gave are still being enjoyed by his fans. He was named one of television's top 25 stars by People magazine in 1989. His brother Jim also carries on the family name in entertainment, having been a cast member of Saturday Night Live and the star of the television sitcom According to Jim.
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