By the young age of 33, actor John Belushi had found fame and fortune as the comedic Samurai of screens both big and small, as well as a rhythm & blues showman of music hall stages and best selling records. A relatively small man of robust proportions and a mastery of eye-brow raising deadpan, Belushi translated his size into agility and laughs, which brought great creative success, but ultimately, fatal personal excess. In the seminal pop culture staples, television's legendary sketch show "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and the big screen comedy classics, "Animal House" (1979) and "The Blues Brothers" (1980), the actor found an ideal outlet for a persona that loomed so large, he seemed invincible. But in the end, like many troubled comics with appetites for destruction, a speedball felled the portly force of nature on March 5, 1982, stunning the world and serving as a wake-up call to all of Hollywood.
John Adam Belushi was born in Chicago, IL on Jan. 24, 1949; the son of an Albanian immigrant father, Adam, who owned a restaurant, and a mother, Agnes, who worked at a pharmacy. The couple raised John and his three siblings, including younger brother and future star Jim, in nearby Wheaton, IL, where he began his formal education at Edison Middle School. Belushi was assumed to be the heir to his father's restaurant business, but while attending Wheaton Central High School, Belushi came into his own as a star athlete, gravitating towards sports like football, track and wrestling. He also excelled in drama class, kept his teachers in stitches with his sharp wit and spot-on imitations, and rocked audiences in a band. The consummate star-in-waiting, Belushi was an all-conference middle-linebacker and co-captain of the school's team and, ultimately, homecoming king in his senior year. A runner up for most popular student on campus, the guy could, literally, do it all.
His sophomore year provided a personal milestone, when he met a comparatively quiet classmate and aspiring artist named Judy Jacklin, who became his devoted girlfriend. In 1966, Belushi took a summer program at Michigan State University, tackling Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," then ended up doing Summer Stock Theater the next year with the financial assistance of a high school acting teacher. Despite his love of performing, which was in evidence whenever he performed in Wheaton Central's variety shows, it was a career pursuit that seemed out of reach. Belushi hoped to eschew a football scholarship to the University of Western Illinois to attend The University of Illinois Wesleyan, but instead ended up at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for one year. He then returned home and enrolled in the College of DuPage, majoring in general studies. Throughout all the distance and time apart, his relationship with Jacklin remained strong and intact.
In the fall of 1971, like a man on a mission, Belushi decided to indulge his comedic side full-throttle, becoming the youngest troupe member to join Chicago's famed Second City comedy troop, a hotbed of talent such as Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. His signature piece was a much-revered impression of spastic crooner, Joe Cocker. From 1972-73, Belushi parlayed his Cocker impression mastered at Second City into a spot with National Lampoon's theatre company, performing alongside fellow comedian Chase in the New York stage show, "Lemmings." During the early New York days, Belushi took advantage of the decade's drug climate and increased his dalliances with drugs such as pot and acid. In 1974, he began writing for and producing National Lampoon's "The Radio Hour" alongside comics Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis until the show ended its run in 1975.
In 1975, Belushi became a part of the inaugural cast of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" - cheekily dubbed the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" - which included fellow Second City alums Chase, Radner and Murray. Producer Lorne Michaels - who was initially reluctant to hire Belushi, sensing he would be uncontrollable - was won over the minute Belushi whipped out his signature grunting Samurai character. Around this time, Belushi went up to scope out Second City's newly formed theater in Toronto to try to land the Canadian comedian Dan Aykroyd for "S.N.L." The two bonded instantly while hanging at a local blues pub. It was to become a legendary friendship. It was also the magical night in which Aykroyd introduced the rock-oriented Belushi to the blues, which would inform not just their future Jake and Elwood "Blues Brothers" personas, but their lives as well.
After Chase stole the show the first season - much to the very vocal Belushi's dismay - and left after season one for a film career - the rotund alpha-male comic quickly rose to prominence as thee cast member to watch; reviving early ideas such as the enraged Samurai and Joe Cocker, but also adding new bits, like the manic news commentator ("Buuuuut noooooo"); a dead-on Captain Kirk; "The Thing that Wouldn't Leave;" the Greek restaurant manager ("cheeseborger, cheeseborger, cheeseborger!"); and, along with Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, his brother, Jake Blues. Michaels originally allowed Aykroyd and Belushi to perform their seemingly novelty act as an audience warm-up act only before eventually booking them as that week's music guest. Things were going so well for Belushi, that by New Year's Eve of 1976, the comic and his high school sweetheart, Judy Jacklin, were married. That same year, as Belushi continued to fine-tune his onscreen comic bits, he lost an Emmy Award in the performance category, but won for writing along with a staff that included much of the cast.
As "S.N.L." became must-see television each week, Belushi was using his off-time to expand his feature film resume. From October to November of 1977, he was on location in Oregon filming John Landis' college classic, "Animal House" (1978) - a job he took immediately on of the heels of the Jack Nicholson-directed misfire, "Goin' South" (1978). Although his brief turn as a Mexican bandito in "Goin' South" was forgettable, it was as Bluto Blutarsky - the lovable, alcohol-swilling underachiever in "Animal House" - that Belushi was alive and in his manic element. The movie had a significant impact on mainstream culture - including starting waves of toga parties in fraternity houses across the country - and over the subsequent years, its bawdy hijinks were readily associated both with the genre of college movies and of an idealized college life itself.
"Animal House" was a hit and a turning point for Belushi's budding movie career. It also appeared to spell the beginning of the end of his tenure on "S.N.L." - a move he would make a year later. At the same time Bluto was the newly anointed arbiter of cool, he and Aykroyd had also taken their musical alter egos, Jake and Elwood, on the road with a successful tour in support of their 1978 debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues - an unexpected hit which landed at number one on the Billboard charts. So by the tender age of 29, Belushi achieved a powerful trifecta few entertainers ever achieve -starring in the #1 movie ("Animal House"), appearing on a #1 rated TV show ("S.N.L.") and holding fast at the top of the music charts. As expected, his ego began to run amok and his access and need for chemical stimulants increased - cocaine, to be specific - often to the point, where he was in no shape to go onstage Saturday nights, having been out all night the night before. Privately, his colleagues and family members - particularly his wife and manager, Bernie Brillstein - began to worry about these coke binges. But Belushi was so rock solid - dubbed "the Albanian Oak" by Aykroyd - few at that time felt it could derail him; that he would simply pull it together as he always had. Additionally, drugs - particularly cocaine - were done recreationally by everyone at that time, with nary a thought of how destructive they would later be proven to be.
As millions of Briefcase Full of Blues LPs continued to sell and Hollywood continued to knock harder, Belushi took a darker turn in the forgettable revenge drama, "Old Boyfriends" (1979) starring Talia Shire, before rising maverick director Steven Spielberg cast him as pilot Wild Bill Kelso - a lesser, airborne version of Bluto - alongside Aykroyd in the director's war satire "1941" (1979). During this time, Belushi left "S.N.L." for the bright lights of Hollywood, taking Aykroyd with him, much to the great dismay of both NBC and Michaels. Released in December, just after his final season on "S.N.L.," "1941" was a flop with a hefty price tag. Though most of the heat fell on Spielberg for failing so spectacularly, a shocked and momentarily humbled Belushi did not emerge unscathed.
There was no time to lament the setback, however, as the TV-free actor was already teaming up with director John Landis and Aykroyd on a more personal project - the big screen version of "The Blues Brothers" (1980). During the shoot, Belushi's manic work ethic made for a constant test of endurance - especially when coupled with his behind-the-scenes cocaine use. Belushi was so often coked out of his mind that he was unable to do even simple scenes sitting in the Bluesmobile. The road movie, co-written by Landis and Aykroyd, turned out to be a successful hybrid of music revival, car chases and comedy, but due to its bloated price tag, was deemed a financial disappointment when it was released that summer. In retrospect, however, it became a beloved and oft-quoted cult classic - "We're on a mission from God" being one of them - and did for R&B music and artists what "Animal House" did for increased fraternity pledging and Toga party proliferation.
With seemingly few limits to Belushi's abilities, his movie roles took a more eclectic turn, following "The Blues Brothers." Trying to outgrow his crazy persona, in "Continental Divide" (1981), he took on an unusually sedate role as a newspaper columnist who woos a bird expert up in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Reviews for his performance in a romantic leading man role were mixed, but one critic compared him to Spencer Tracy and that was all Belushi needed in order to get over the film's so-so box office take. Leading up to the grueling Colorado shoot, Belushi had begun to straighten out his life, hiring a round-the-clock drug enforcer, Smokey Wendell, to watch his every move. No small task, Wendell's job was prevent any drug slippages while Belushi tried to lose weight and get healthy for the romantic comedy. Fortunately, at this point in his life, Belushi allowed himself to be policed. Friends noticed a real change and were happy to see his weight down and spirits up. Unfortunately, his appetites being what they were, the respite would not be for long.
That December, Belushi and Aykroyd were back together onscreen in the feature comedy "Neighbors" (1981), an offbeat, dysfunctional look at suburban family life. Because Belushi had no faith in the comic sensibilities of director John Avildsen - previously of "Rocky" (1976) fame - filming was tense, to say the least, with a drugged up Belushi often refusing to leave his trailer. Additionally, he and his best friend switched roles - with Belushi playing straight guy to an over-the-top, obnoxious Aykroyd. Known for spitting mashed potatoes out of his mouth or breaking beer bottles against his head, playing the square was foreign territory for Belushi. His insecurities, coupled with his returning weight and anxiety over the film, culminated in one of the worst drug periods of Belushi's life - a period he would ultimately not survive. Upon the release of "Neighbors," fans who expected comic brilliance with the popular team were stymied with the uneven, unfunny - even dark movie.
By early 1982, Belushi's drug habits had worsened significantly - to the point where, even in the carefree era of recreational usage, there was no denying he was out of control. Drug enforcer Wendell was called in again to keep drugs from the comic, but it was an uphill battle, as everyone - from fans to fellow entertainers to clubgoers - would slip coke vials in his pocket just to say hello. Tipped off by Jacklin-Belushi, who was at the end of her rope, close friends Aykroyd, Landis and Brillstein, among others, were devising interventions and threats of rehab, even if it was against the comic's formidable will.
Feeling his career had already peaked and there was no where to go but down, Belushi decided to take his next film into his own hands. Despite the fact that he was no writer, he teamed up with fellow "S.N.L." writer-performer, Don Novello, to reconfigure an existing movie script called "Sweet Deception" into "Noble Rot," a comedy about winemaking. Paramount Pictures, the studio behind "Noble Rot," was nonplussed with the script and was instead pushing Belushi to star in a sophomoric comedy based on the popular book "The Joy of Sex." Meanwhile, Aykroyd had also intended for Belushi to star in the supernatural comedy, "Ghostbusters" (1984), which he was co-scripting with "Animal House" writer Harold Ramis. Belushi, who by this time was heavy into punk rock - to the point of alienating friends who would not listen to it - moved out to Hollywood to continue writing the film he felt would restore his cinematic mojo.
Holed up in a bungalow at Los Angeles' tony Chateau Marmont hotel on the Sunset Strip, Belushi hit the L.A. party scene harder than ever before - which, not surprisingly, resulted in a frustrated Novello having to write alone. At the same time, Paramount made it known that the "Noble Rot" drafts they were seeing were unacceptable. Feeling the pinch, Belushi put it into overdrive and let go of the wheel. During the nights scoring drugs and partying till dawn on the Sunset Strip at such clubs as the Roxy and the Rainbow, Belushi met a former backup singer and rock hanger-on named Cathy Smith. Smith, a junkie, introduced Belushi to the next step on the chemical ladder - heroin. Always afraid of needles and knowing heroin was the point-of-no-return, Belushi now began experimenting with the dangerous opiate; such was his desperation at that time. With Aykroyd secretly planning a flight to the West Coast to bring his friend back home, Belushi began a three-day binge. On March 5, after Hollywood pals Robin Williams and Robert De Niro left his bungalow in the early morning hours, Smith administered the umpteenth speedball - a concoction of heroin and cocaine by needle - to Belushi. In the morning, she took his car and left to run errands, checking on him in bed before leaving. While she was gone, Belushi's personal trainer, Bill Wallace, showed up to rouse his friend to work out; instead discovering he was not breathing. After frantically applying CPR and summoning medical help, Wallace knew it was too late for his friend. He immediately called Brillstein, who, in turn, broke the news to Aykroyd on the East Coast. Aykroyd raced to Jacklin-Belushi's side, hoping he could beat the media. There would be no intervention. The guilt would immediately consume them all.
After concluding the results of the autopsy, officials revealed that Belushi had been injected with a lethal "speedball." Shocked friends and family knew Belushi had had a massive coke problem, but few could accept that the comic had graduated to hardcore street drugs. Smith, who had been arrested as soon as she had returned with his car, later admitted to administering the fatal mixture. She was eventually charged with first-degree murder and, after a plea bargain down to involuntary manslaughter, was convicted for her part in his death, serving 18 months. Because Belushi was so beloved in the industry, his Albanian funeral on Martha's Vineyard, MA, only days after his shocking death, was a virtual who's-who of Hollywood royalty. Aykroyd led the funeral procession - which included the Bluesmobile - on his Harley to Abel Hill Cemetery, where mourners such as James Taylor, Bill Murray and Lorne Michaels paid their respects, helicopters hovering overhead. Their friend's death was slowly becoming a big wake-up call to them all.
Belushi's life had ended, but it seemed that a greater, more pronounced judgment on his legacy was soon at stake. As the first major drug casualty of the comedy world, the fact that he was Hollywood's reigning class clown and died doing what everyone else was still up to their noses doing, was suddenly anything but funny to a Hollywood. People became wary of being associated with him; some going so far as to denounce ever knowing him. It was this shifting impression of Belushi that was the tonal basis two years later for Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward's somber 1984 book about Belushi's self-implosion. The expose was a jolting look at a different side of Belushi, one pained by insecurities and locked in a constant struggle for dominance over his dependencies. The book's release immediately garnered disapproval from Belushi's close allies - most vocal among them, Aykroyd, Jacklin-Belushi and John's soon-to-be-famous brother, Jim.
Despite its splashy, tabloid style, Wired was a big seller. But if the book was a damaging blow to Belushi's legacy, a 1988 movie adaptation of the book by director Larry Peerce did far more to savage it. As much a narrative about Belushi's life as a paean to Woodward's book itself, the movie created fictional elements, such as a guardian angel (Ray Sharkey) who appeared in a Dickensian manner to walk Belushi through his life and point out all his mistakes. In the role of Belushi, newcomer Michael Chiklis did his best to salvage what became a muddled, critical and commercial dud. Chiklis, who would recover and go on to great success with his lead role on the police drama "The Shield" (FX, 2002- ), years later acknowledged that the film's ill will from audiences, Hollywood and members of Belushi's inner circle created a backlash that nearly derailed his career.
Through triumph and tragedy, perhaps, nothing could truly diminish the actor's mythical status, but Belushi's widow was determined to counterbalance the image of John-as-junkie. In 1991, Jacklin-Belushi published Samurai Widow, a more humanizing portrait of Belushi, their marriage, his addictions and her period of grief following his death. Years later and now remarried, Judy Belushi-Pisano, along with Aykroyd, brothers Jim and Billy, and even Chevy Chase, were proudly present for the unveiling of Belushi's star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 2004.
Shortly after, Belushi-Pisano followed up her personal memoir with a 2005 biography of her late husband, succinctly titled Belushi, which featured a collection of photos, stories and interviews with friends, colleagues and others who had been an influential part of his life. By then, numerous generations too young to remember Belushi as a cautionary tale, were left to appreciate his most important legacy -his brief, but inspired body of comedic work.