Variety takes a look back at the memorable comedian
It was 25 years ago today (March 5) that television and film star John Belushi died at the Chateau Marmont of a drug overdose. This is the original Variety story that ran on that day.
Cause of death is still undetermined for John Belushi, manic comedian whose body was found early Friday afternoon at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood.
An autopsy performed Saturday proved inconclusive, and Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi, under orders to avoid public speculation during his investigations, limited his statement to the information that, “The cause of death has not yet been established,” and that “no additional information will be released until further medical investigation and tests have been completed.” More examinations are to be undertaken today.
Rotund, 33 year-old performer who shot to fame on the television show “Saturday Night Live” and starred in such films as “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers” had checked into a $200-per-day bungalow at the hotel on Feb. 28 and reportedly was at work on the script for a Paramount film, variously called “Sweet Deception” and “Noble Rot,” which was due to begin filming in mid-April. He was also reportedly in physical training to shed some 40 pounds by that date.
On Friday, police briefly took into custody an unnamed woman who admitted that she had signed for room service breakfast at about 8 a.m. Friday and that afternoon arrived at the hotel driving Belushi’s rented Mercedes-Benz. She was released after several hours and was not considered a suspect in the investigation.
According to her testimony to police, she had awakened Belushi Friday morning and found that he was having difficulty breathing. After he drank some water, and possibly ate some breakfast, he apparently went back to sleep and she left about an hour later.
Having attempted to reach Belushi several times that morning, actor’s physical therapist William Wallace came to the bungalow at 12:15 p.m., discovered the body and called for hotel security guard and gardener Bruce Beckler to help him try to revive the actor via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. They abandoned their efforts after 20 minutes, and time of death was later put at about 10 a.m.
No foul play
Authorities indicated that there was no sign of foul play in the two-bedroom bungalow. Belushi’s nude body was discovered lying in bed, and initial speculation that he had died either from a heart attack or by choking on food was not supported by inconclusive autopsy results, as either of those causes of death is usually routinely determined. Other speculation centered on drugs, but no evidence has been forthcoming on that score.
Belushi was one of those rare performers who, to his many fans, just seemed funny no matter what he was doing.
Outrageous, endlessly energetic, quick to take on a dare and gifted with outstanding mimetic abilities and surprising physical grace, Belushi scored in every area of show business he tried- theatre, radio, tv, music and films.
As John Landis, his director on “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” said a few years ago, “If he doesn’t burn himself out, his potential is unlimited.”
Born to Albanian parents in Chicago and raised in the conservative suburb of Wheaton, Ill., Belushi was considered a virtually uncontrollable child who finally channeled his energy into both sports and theatre in high school. He was a linebacker and, for two years, captain of the high-school football team, went out for wrestling, track and baseball, was a member of the school drama club and played in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
During a 1966 summer session at Michigan State University, he played the lead in Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine,” and the following year was voted Homecoming King at high school.
In summer stock he played a Cardinal in Maxwell Anderson’s “Anne Of The Thousand Days” and at one of the several colleges he briefly attended, he appeared in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” but after participating in protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he and two friends decided to open a coffeehouse-style improvisational theatre at the Universal Life Church in Chicago.
After this folded, Belushi auditioned for and won a place in the Second City comedy improve company, where he worked steadily until 1972. Director Del Close played a major role in refining Belushi’s anarchic style, and the freewheeling format of the troupe provided an ideal outlet for Belushi’s multifaceted talents.
In 1972, Belushi left to join the cast of “National Lampoon’s Lemmings,” a satiric rock music review originally set for a six-week run but so successful that it played for 10 months. Belushi made a particular impression in the second-act Woodstock parody.
Belushi also wrote, directed and performed in the “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” which spawned several record albums, and in 1975 appeared in the Off Broadway production, “The National Lampoon Show,” which ran 180 performances.
In 1975, Belushi was chosen by producer Lorne Michaels to join Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garret Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner in the original cast of “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” on NBC’s “Saturday Night” (later “Saturday Night Live”).
Irreverent show caught on almost instantly and became one of the most influential tv shows ever broadcast, as well as the source of a wealth of talent that would later move on to greater access in other areas, particularly films.
After Chase left the show in 1976, Belushi became the focus of the most attention, convulsing audiences with his various characterizations, such as the grunting samurai, Greek luncheonette owner, rambling weather forecaster and killer bee.
Having initially performed music as a warm-up for “SNL’s” audiences, he and Aykroyd began performing their Blues Brothers rhythm ‘n’ blues duet on the air, which led to “Jake and Elwood Blues” opening for Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1978, SRO engagements of their own, the “Briefcase Full Of Blues” hit album and the 1980 musical film. Released in the summer of 1978, the low-budgeted “National Lampoon’s Animal House” went on to amass $74,000,000 in domestic rentals, making it by far the most successful comedy of all-time.
Belushi starred as the thoroughly gross, utterly unredeemed Bluto Blutarsky, running riot through the film wearing a toga and leaping at the chance for food fights but making people love him at the same time. In the wake of the film’s smash, Belushi made the cover of Newsweek.
In 1979, the year he and Aykroyd left “SNL,” Belushi appeared in supporting roles in Jack Nicholson’s “Goin’ South,” which was shot before “Animal House,” and as an aging high-school Lothario in “Old Boyfriends.” He and fellow “SNL” comic Bill Murray also supplied voices for the animated feature, “Shame Of The Jungle.”
Belushi next played a crazed fighter pilot in Steven Spielberg’s “1941” and then paired up with Aykroyd in “The Blues Brothers,” films which attracted sizeable audiences but had budgets which made profitability difficult.
His two 1981 releases, “Continental Divide,” in which he changed pace as a Chicago newspaper reporter in a romantic comedy, and “Neighbors,” a black comedy in which he played a suburbanite harassed by Aykroyd, met with indifferent boxoffice responses.
Aside from his Paramount project, Belushi at the time of his death was also planning to appear with Aykroyd in a comedy on the Abscam scandal written by John Guare and to be directed by Louis Malle.
He is survived by his widow, the former Judith Jacklin, his high-school sweetheart whom he married in 1977; his parents; three brothers, including actor Jim, now appearing in the Chicago production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and sister Marian.