John Belushi is dead! John Belushi lives!
Twenty-five years after John Belushi (1949-1982) died after culminating a four-day binge by drinking enough booze in one night to kill an elephant of alcohol poisoning, snorting enough coke to kill a rhino, and having a companion/drug dealer/fellow addict shoot him up, at his request, with enough "speedballs" mixing heroin and cocaine that one night and the following morning to kill a moose - all too many writers still can’t think straight about him.
During the last two-to-three years of his life, Belushi, who at his best was a wild man, careened down a path of steadily degenerating drug addiction. He either had a death wish, or at 33, still had a teenager’s sense of immortality. A third notion is that speedball abusers like Belushi are psychopaths, which could be interpreted to mean that he was so far gone as to be past thinking in terms of death or immortality.
According to Tanner Colby, however, none of the foregoing applies. Colby co-wrote a biography of the comic actor, Belushi; I guess that makes him an expert.
John Belushi, deep down, was a stable guy who knew who he was, had a lot of confidence, wasn’t superficial but with no great internal trouble. I think that what happened to him was largely due to fame. For a year and a half, he was as big as Elvis.
And deep down, I’m seven feet tall.
So much for experts. In case you’re wondering, Colby’s co-author was Belushi’s widow, Judy.
John Belushi was never as big as Elvis - and I'm not even an Elvis fan. And had he been a nameless junkie, no one would have gone to prison for what he did to himself. Indeed, considering the depths of his abuse of drugs and alcohol, it's amazing he lasted as long as he did.
The unsigned March 5 Associated Press article (post-obituary?) read by tens of millions, reeks of the sort of sentimentality typical of SNL alumni, rather than something written by a competent journalist. And then it goes them one better: "[He] brought renewed attention to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and other R&B giants." That suggests, ridiculously, that Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin had somehow faded into obscurity, until Belushi rescued them. The writer succeeds in one swell foop at racially patronizing both Belushi and two of the greatest singers of the recorded sound era.
The brief hagiography also approvingly quotes fellow comic Richard Belzer as calling Belushi an "impish genius."
And Tanner Colby is kidding, right? Very stable. No internal trouble. A regular Buddhist monk. Oddly enough, in a 2005 interview plugging his book, Colby painted a very different picture of Belushi.
Our book captures all three sides of John, I think. There’s the hardworking actor dedicated to his craft, there’s the warm, generous and lovable guy who was everybody’s best friend, and then there’s the wild and self-destructive John who was racked by his own insecurities and driven to extremes. Wired [another Belushi biography] focused exclusively on the third, but even then [journalist Bob] Woodward didn’t portray it accurately because you can’t understand it without the contrast of the other two.
When Belushi died, I gave in to sentimentalism, too. When his brother Jim came up, I looked down on him as a lightweight hanging on to his brother's coattails. I have since revised that estimate, and now think better of Jim Belushi.
John Belushi probably did "fulfill his potential." He had a good run: Four years of sometimes excellent work on the then new Saturday Night Live, and two movies, Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1981). The rest, you can forget.
(A few months ago, I tried watching the 1981 movie, Continental Divide, in which Belushi played a Chicago newspaper columnist supposedly based on the great Mike Royko, but could stand no more than about ten minutes. Not that the poorly written picture or even Belushi was awful during those ten minutes; he was o.k., and the picture was a boring blah-to-bad. I’ll watch "blah-to-bad," if my seven-year-old really wants to, but not even he felt passionate about the picture.)
John Belushi was a talented guy, but Chaplin he wasn't. Nor was he Keaton or Lloyd or Marx or Gleason or Silvers or Van Dyke. He wasn’t Robin Williams or Billy Crystal. He simply did not have the sort of talent to justify such hype. That may sound cruel, but I bet you that 25 years after Dick Van Dyke dies, people won’t be swooning the way they just did over John Belushi. But as anyone who saw him on his first eponymous sitcom, his special Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, in Bye Bye Birdie (stage and screen), Mary Poppins (1964), The Comic (1969), and in his various supporting movie roles knows, Van Dyke had that sort of talent!
And much the same could be said of Van Dyke’s octogenarian contemporary, Andy Griffith, who started out as a comic monologuist, who gave brilliant performances in the 1957 Elia Kazan drama, A Face in the Crowd and the stage and screen versions of the comedy No Time for Sergeants, and for eight seasons carried one of the greatest shows in TV history, The Andy Griffith Show, which was for many years the only show to end its run #1 in the Nielsens.
I guess Van Dyke and Griffith just lived too long.
Sometimes dying young is the best career move of all.
John Belushi has benefited from: His dying young; a sycophantic press; the general decline in talent that made and continues to make him seem greater than he was; the narcissism of people who think their own mediocre generation was the best; and his nostalgia function for people now in their late thirties and forties, for whom memories of watching Belushi are inseparable from memories of their youth. That writers and reporters got overwrought at his death and lost their minds was bad enough, but for them to remain delusional 25 years later, suggests they need to find another line of work.
The oddest aspect of the nostalgia is that during his brief career as a star, Belushi was singularly abusive towards media people. In a 1978 Belushi profile, Rolling Stone reporter Charles M. Young, a friend of Belushi’s, quoted the legendary Michael O'Donoghue, who had just left Saturday Night Live after serving as its head-writer for it its first three seasons.
The same violent urge that makes John great will also ultimately destroy him. I appeared with John once on Midday Live [a local New York talk program hosted by Bill Boggs]. Boggs kept asking him to do an Elvis Presley imitation, and I knew John had no ending for it. Finally he agreed, and to get out of the bit, he picked up a glass of water, threw it at Boggs, hit him in the chest and knocked over a table full of plants. You should have seen Steve Allen's face. It turned into the Hollywood Wax Museum. I don't see John ever becoming that stable. He's one-hundred-percent Albanian, you know, the only one you're ever likely to meet. I tell him Albanians are gypsies whose wagons broke down. I have this vision of him with a goose under his arm, trying to sneak out of the room. Yes, that is John: an Albanian goose thief. He's one of those hysterical personalities that will never be complete. I look for him to end up floating dead after the party. Comedy is a baby-seal hunt.
(Unfortunately, in 1994, at the age of 52, O’Donoghue’s head would explode in a cerebral hemorrhage. O’Donoghue was one of the first writers at the comedy magazine, The National Lampoon, which he had left to help start up Saturday Night Live.)
When his friend died, Young recalled:
Over the next year, I saw John occasionally at clubs and parties and once or twice at the Blues Bar, a dive he co-owned with Dan Aykroyd. We weren't close, exactly, but if you were a journalist, just having John not hate you was an accomplishment. A number of reporters speak bitterly of John to this day because he dumped food on their heads or spat on them. So it was with reluctance that I approached the writing of this profile. Sorting out one's obligations as a friend and as a journalist was especially excruciating in his case. The stakes seemed so much higher".
They may speak bitterly, but they don’t write bitterly about him.
When Belushi died, some Hollywood types - producers and directors, most notably - lost out on millions in potential earnings. And in a town where friends are about as rare as in Washington, Belushi had some friends. (Of course, most of his "friends" would be more accurately described as acquaintances, buddies, and associates.) Not only was he at times very generous - he reportedly shared much of his wealth, financing businesses for less wealthy buddies - but some people did care about him. And the lost fortunes and broken hearts are what makes Belushi’s death reverberate in Tinseltown, even today. And that’s why people who knew Belushi made sure that the companion/drug dealer/drug user who shot him with the fatal speedball, Cathy Evelyn Smith, was arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned.
Not that they had anything against drug abuse or drug dealing in general; hell, some of their best friends were drug dealers.
Had someone written a script about a last night on earth as dramatic as John Belushi’s, people would have sniggered in disbelief. As Corey Mitchell recounts, Belushi started out with Nelson Lyon, an old Saturday Night Live writer buddy and Cathy Smith, a former backup singer for The Band, who played many roles for Belushi, including being his main supplier of hard drugs. (Typical of such accounts, Smith is portrayed in the harshest possible light.) While club-hopping, the three ingested great quantities of alcohol and cocaine. And throughout the night and the next morning, Smith shot up the needle-shy Belushi several times with "speedballs."
In Belushi’s last hours, in his bungalow at the celebrity hotel, the Chateau Marmonte, he was visited at different times by Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. According to Corey Mitchell:
Comedian Robin Williams popped in and snorted a few lines of coke, but was creeped out by Smith. He thought she was a little too crusty [?] for Belushi and wondered what he was doing with this lowlife. Williams bolted and told Belushi, "If you ever get up again, call." Sometime after 3:00 AM, actor Robert DeNiro knocked on Belushi's door. He had been playing tag with Belushi all night. The scene inside the room was not pretty, so DeNiro decided to not stick around.
Before cleaning himself up, Robin Williams almost killed himself with cocaine. In his 1986 one-man show at the Metropolitan Opera House, he told a joke based on his experiences that became an instant classic.
Here's a little warning sign if you have a cocaine problem: Number one, if you come home to your house and there’s no furniture and your cat’s going "I'm out of here, prick!" Warning number two: If you have this dream, where you’re doing cocaine in your sleep, and you can't fall asleep and doing cocaine in your sleep and can't fall asleep AND YOU WAKE UP and you’re doing cocaine! BINGO! Number three, if on your tax forms, it says "50,000 dollars for snacks!" MAY DAY!
Although Robert DeNiro reportedly never had a drug problem, he has known many people who did, and has since become famous for his "interventions," one of which, in 1998, may have saved the life of actor Tom Sizemore. (In 2001, DeNiro’s ex-wife, Grace Hightower, claimed he had a drug problem, but that was in the context of a custody battle. Given that high-priced divorce lawyers representing women routinely coach their clients to charge their exes with having sexually molested their children, such charges have about as much prima facie credibility as a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times.
Sizemore had given a legendary performance as "Sgt. Mike Horvath" in Saving Private Ryan and did equally brilliant work as the star of TV’s L.A. Robbery-Homicide (2002), but a new arrest for domestic violence would cause the show to be cancelled, and was merely the beginning of yet another descent into hell for its star. Sizemore is an actor of a visceral power at times comparable to a young Brando or DeNiro, but as a drug-fueled psychopath, he may just outdo John Belushi.)
In 1982, not long after Belushi’s death, interview with Penthouse reporter Allan Sonnenschein interviewed his longtime Saturday Night Live colleague, "Blues Brother," and one of his closest friends, Dan Aykroyd, who expressed both his love for his late friend, and some honest, unsentimental observations about him.
PH: Do you think John was hanging around with the wrong people at the end?
Aykroyd: The people he really liked were worthwhile people. I'm not going to name names, but they were at the pinnacle of this industry--the best in music, rock-n-roll, films, and television. These were John's real friends, the people who were most worthwhile to him. And he would never have gotten into his drugged-out condition with them. Some of these vermin he was hanging around with at the end were talentless, worthless individuals with no specific skills or contributions to make to this world. And John could really be a monster, an out-of-control monster with them. He had to be straight with the people he held in esteem. He was respectful and more lucid in conversation and much more together when he was around people he respected. The reason he was with these other people is because they allowed any behavior.
Can we honestly say of someone who treated the famous and powerful with respect, while treating those with neither fame nor power like dirt, that he was a wonderful person? If you treat people you deal with who have done nothing to you like dirt, that makes you dirt, not them. While Belushi by all accounts had a good side, he was human, all-too-human. I’d love to see an account of Belushi treating mere civilians with respect.
(For a contrary case, many people of a certain age and political persuasion have derived much of the meaning in their lives, and in some cases, much of their income, from reviling Richard Nixon. And yet, as historian Irwin Gellman reported in his painstakingly researched biography of Nixon’s early political career, The Contender: Richard Nixon: The Congress Years, 1946 to 1952, people who worked for Nixon in relatively low-level jobs all recounted that he treated them with courtesy and respect.)
Charles Young’s obituary for Belushi embodies both the hagiographic and the realistic approach.
What is John's legacy? Primarily his work on Saturday Night Live. In the mid-Seventies a large portion of energy left rock & roll and exploded in comedy. Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Monty Python, Second City, the SNL cast, were all operating at a level the music business hadn't seen since the late Sixties. John had the Burn, that charismatic flame in the eyes that only the greatest artists in any field possess. If he'd sobered up and spent more time studying his craft, he could have been another De Niro or Brando. As it was, he never quite figured out that TV-skit acting and movie acting require different techniques. His movies weren't great. Most movies with the original cast members of SNL haven't been great. The energy went someplace else.
I thought Bob Woodward's biography Wired worked as a warning against drug abuse, but Woodward lacked the perspective to see why anyone could have loved John. I loved him because he didn't take s--t from anyone. And he was howlingly funny. His tragedy came in never realizing that drugs aren't rebellious, a common flaw in counterculture heroes.
"I loved him because he didn't take s--t from anyone!" That’s the way a teenager talks. That just won’t do. Excepting perhaps for mass-murdering mob capo di tutti capi and dictators, every grownup has to take at least some crap from someone. And as Young himself reported, an awful lot of people took an awful lot of crap from John Belushi. I can’t end this on a note of teenaged bravado.
The simplest and most concrete expression of John Belushi’s charm came from Dan Aykroyd, who confessed that he had loved his friend so much that he might have let Belushi talk him into shooting up together.
"When he came up to my family's farm to meet my parents, he got out of the car as my father was walking down the front steps and jumped up and did a flip for him! It was like, "Here I am. I'm Dan's friend. I'll do anything you want."