MOTW: Too Soon in Every Way: The Life and Death of John Belushi

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
September 26th, 2013

MOTW: Too Soon in Every Way: The Life and Death of John Belushi

There is a certain class of performers so wild, so over the top and revolutionary, that it sometimes seems the world just isn't able to hold them. It's the tragic fate of such brilliant talent to die young, having lived harder than most people dare. John Belushi was one such artist. In over a dozen years of stage, TV, and film performances, no one who worked with him ever heard him flub a line or miss a mark. Despite his incredibly heavy drinking, and even more incredible drug use, Belushi's unstoppable talent carried him through every performance as if he was born to it. As a performer, John Belushi was in his element.

John Belushi was born in Chicago in 1949, the son of first- and second-generation immigrants from Albania. Forsaking a more traditional Albanian name, his parents—whose own family name was Bellios—chose the American-sounding name of John. They raised their sons—three siblings would be added over the years—in the Albanian Orthodox church and by all accounts were a normal, conservative American family. John even married his high school sweetheart, Judy Jacklin.

The traditionalism ended early for Belushi, however, when he landed a spot in the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. It was 1971, and the troupe was already legendary. Second City had earned a reputation for attracting some of the hottest comedy talents of the day and for the wild lifestyles cast members enjoyed offstage. It was from Second City that Belushi first attracted attention. Within a year of starting with the troupe, an offer came for an off-Broadway production of "National Lampoon's Lemmings." The show was a satirical send-up of hippie culture in general and Woodstock in particular. It was here that Belushi first met Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest, other performers in the show.

Moving to New York in 1973, he immediately found work in radio as a regular on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour," a cutting-edge radio show that was syndicated nationally and heard on over 600 stations. Chevy Chase was also a regular, as were Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. The show was an important influence on their later careers, as many of the radio sketches they worked on together would later be adapted in the first season of "Saturday Night Live."

Whatever his early success, it was "Saturday Night Live" that put John Belushi's name on everyone's lips. The coarse, physically demanding style he had become known for had a way of filling up the small screen. In a cast notable for its amazing talent, Belushi was destined to be the breakout star. Fellow cast members recall how he just seemed to occupy the entire set when he was on, and audiences couldn't get enough of him. Belushi would perform on "SNL" for four years, until 1979.

In 1978, while still a regular on "SNL," Belushi starred in the role that shook the firmament. Originally, Belushi's role in "Animal House" (John Blutarsky, "Bluto") was purely a supporting one. In promotional materials, he was even billed lower than Kevin Bacon (Chip Diller). Belushi stole the show, as was his wont. Every single scene is a masterpiece; every shot of Belushi is memorable. Even the improvised moment when Bluto breaks the fourth wall while peeping on a sorority girl by turning to the audience and cocking an eyebrow was the stuff of cinematic legend. Belushi rode into 1979 as one of the biggest comedy stars in the world.

It was in 1979 that Belushi made what would be remembered as the worst mistake of his entire career; indeed, it's remembered as the worst mistake of every participant's career – agreeing to act in Steven Spielberg's "1941." The movie, which was intended as a hilarious spoof of the Japanese aggression in World War II, starring a number of actors who were notable for not being Japanese, failed to go over well with the public. It's difficult to blame Belushi for his decision to take the role as "1941" proved to be a terrible black mark for some of the best talent of the day. Not only was it written by comedy powerhouse Robert Zemeckis and directed by Steven Spielberg, but the cast had such heavy hitters as Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, and Robert Stack. On paper, the film couldn't miss; sometimes the stars just don't align.

Belushi recovered from "1941" with a string of hits. Starring with Aykroyd again, Belushi stole the show—again—as "Joliet" Jake Elwood in "The Blues Brothers." Also released during this period were "Continental Divide" and "Neighbors." The role of Peter Venkman in "Ghostbusters" was written for Belushi, as was the role of Emmett Fitz-Hume in "Spies Like Us." Tragically, though, Belushi's career was over.

On the morning of March 5, 1982, John Belushi was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his home on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Having spent the previous night indulging in a lethal combination of cocaine and heroin, Belushi's heart gave out in the early-morning hours. He was thirty-three years old.

John Belushi spent his brief career arcing through the entertainment industry like a meteor. He never paced himself, and he never held back. With tragic irony, it was these very traits that saw him gone too soon. Incidentally, his headstone bears a skull-and-crossbones engraving and the inscription, "I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on."