Saturday, March 5, 2011

John Belushi R.I.P.

It was 29 years ago today that John Belushi died of a drug overdose at age 33. He rose to fame on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, though it took him awhile to make his mark. When the show debuted with little fanfare in fall 1975, Chevy Chase was the most prominent member of the cast, opening each show with a pratfall and anchoring the high profile Weekend Update. Chase had preppy good looks that made him a natural for media stardom. He also had an ego that couldn’t resist the big offers that Hollywood was dangling before him. After one season, Chase was gone, and Belushi slowly emerged to become SNL’s most popular performer.

It was, indeed, a slow rise. Until August 1978, some of the show’s more casual fans might have still been referring to him as “the fat guy on Saturday Night Live” more than by his name, but then came National Lampoon’s Animal House. One of the biggest grossing movies of the year, it actually starred Tim Matheson, a fresh-faced veteran of TV westerns (and a member of the Bonanza cast during the show’s final season in 1972-73) in a role that might have been ideal for Chase if he had been 10 years younger. Belushi played the obnoxious but lovable Blutto. His screen time was limited, but he owned the movie. He was prominently featured on the poster’s illustration, and the principal draw for audiences. Suddenly, Belushi was on the cover of Newsweek. Following close on the movie’s heels, A Briefcase Full of Blues, the first album by the Blues Brothers, the shades and Fedora wearing singing duo that Belushi formed with SNL pal Dan Ackroyd, went to number one on the charts. Then came Goin’ South, the Jack Nicholson-directed Western in which most of Belushi’s role as a bandido ended up on the cutting room floor, but it was nonetheless another credit that put his name and face before the public.

Television, even cutting-edge quality television, has a limited allure for those on the path to superstardom. When Hollywood called, Belushi packed his bags almost as quickly as Chase did, and, joined by Ackroyd, appeared in Steven Spielberg’s mega-budgeted mega-bomb, 1941, then took The Blues Brothers to the big screen in a John Landis-directed comedy whose laughs were often overwhelmed by action and musical numbers. In 1981, Belushi tried something different with the romantic comedy, Continental Divide, for which he earned the kind of notices that suggested critics, if not the public, were willing to accept him as something other than a likeable slob. He closed the year once more with Ackroyd in tow with Neighbors.

Having come of age at a time when rock ‘n’ roll stardom obliterated success in movies or TV, Belushi hung out with the Rolling Stones who appeared on the first Saturday Night Live of the 1978-79 season, and lived a life that even alarmed that poster boy for chemical excess, Keith Richards. Belushi lived like a rock star, and, sure enough, he died like one. On March 5, 1982, viewers tuning in to the nightly network newscasts saw his bloated body outlined under a white sheet as it was being removed from the Chateau Marmont where he had fatally partied the night before. Had he gone quietly and alone, he might have avoided the nasty headlines that followed. A groupie had been on the scene and recounted how she had injected Belushi with a “speedball” at his urging. It was all so tawdry that many let their sympathy for Belushi turn to contempt, and for them he was just another sleazebag junky whose troubles were self-inflicted. Bob Woodward’s Belushi bio, Wired, was equally unsympathetic when it appeared a few years later.

Now that the scandal has faded, Belushi is no less dead, but his work speaks for him more than his personal life. What we have are four seasons of Saturday Night Live where Belushi’s most famous character was probably the Samurai who one week operated a delicatessen, then reappeared as a hotel clerk, even a disco performer (Samurai Night Fever). There was also the diner sketch in which customers were served “cheeseburger” no matter what menu item they ordered. And who can forget his exasperated “But NO-O-O”? Then there are seven films, including a supporting role in the previously unmentioned Old Boyfriends starring Talia Shire, and a couple of Blues Brothers records. Does the work that exists display the promise of a talent that was still developing, or did we catch Belushi at his peak when his gifts were in full blossom?

More than any of his castmates, Belushi seemed to have the potential to segue into dramatic roles if he chose, and perhaps establish himself as a film actor of the first rank, on the order of Brando and DeNiro. We’ll never know. In an appearance on The Today Show with Ackroyd to promote Neighbors less than three months before his death, he expressed no desire to stretch his talent. Instead, he was planning to reteam with Ackroyd for another comedy, this one about spies. “In 10 years,” Ackroyd told Gene Shalit, “we’ll still be working together.” Sadly, that would not be the case, and Belushi’s role in Spies Like Us would be filled by his old rival, Chevy Chase.

The track record for movies starring SNL’s original alumni isn’t particularly distinguished, and most of them only appear rarely on the big screen these days. Ackroyd earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, but lately seems more preoccupied with UFOs than films, while Chevy Chase has been banished to a supporting role in a lame but successful NBC sitcom, Community. Bill Murray has had the most consistently successful and interesting film career, and was nominated for an Oscar as best actor for 2004's Lost in Translation (losing to Sean Penn in Mystic River), but he seems to fade in and out, with long stretches between film projects.

Would Belushi have fared better? Maybe, but he could very well have ended up in sitcom hell himself, or been reduced to reviving the Blues Brothers with Ackroyd on endless reunion tours. Like James Dean, Belushi left us with a mystery than can never be solved, and may keep his star burning brighter in death than it ever could have in life.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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