January 17, 1976 He Gave us Laughter

Prodigious abuse of drugs and alcohol got Belushi fired on multiple occasions, but he always came back.  John Belushi was an original.  There was no other.

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High School yearbook photo. “Killer” Belushi received a football scholarship to Western Illinois University, but turned it down.  He had other things to do.

Lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues (John Belushi) and harmonica player/backing vocalist Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) made their musical debut on January 17, 1976 in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live.

The Blues Brothers appeared on two more SNL sketches, both in 1978, before releasing their first album that same year: Briefcase Full of Blues. The Blues Brothers film created around the two characters was released in 1980.

Dan Aykroyd developed his musical talents during the late 1950s and early sixties at an Ottowa night club called Le Hibou (French for ‘the owl’), saying “I actually jammed behind Muddy Waters. S. P. Leary left the drum kit one night, and Muddy said ‘anybody out there play drums? I don’t have a drummer.’ And I walked on stage and we started, I don’t know, Little Red Rooster, something. He said ‘keep that beat going, you make Muddy feel good.”

Eric Idle of Monty Python was once an SNL guest host.  Idle paid the ultimate compliment to Aykroyd’s comedic ability, saying  he was “the only member of the SNL cast capable of being a Python“.

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John Belushi joined The Second City comedy troupe in 1971, playing off-Broadway in National Lampoon’s Lemmings, and played The National Lampoon Radio Hour from 1973 to ’75, a half-hour comedy program syndicated on over 600 stations.

hqdefault (10)He appeared from 1973 – ’75 on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, along with future SNL regulars Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. A number of radio segments went on to become SNL sketches in the show’s first couple of seasons.

Ackroyd tells a story about long days of rehearsals on the SNL set. An exhausted John Belushi would wander off and let himself into the house of a friend or a stranger, scrounging around for food and falling asleep in the house, unable to be found for the next day’s work. Such outings were the inspiration for the SNL horror-spoof sketch “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave”.

Prodigious abuse of drugs and alcohol got Belushi fired on multiple occasions, but he always came back.  John Belushi was an original.  There was no other.

thingAnimal House, the film that launched Belushi’s career on the big screen, almost didn’t happen.

The first draft of the screenplay by Harold Ramis and Douglas Kenney was about Charles Manson in High School, entitled Laser Orgy Girls. The script was rejected, unsurprisingly, leading to a three-month cram writing session and an entirely different cast. Even then, the project only got off the ground when Donald Sutherland signed up to play Professor Jennings.

“Faber College” is really the University of Oregon, the only school that would let the production on campus. Years earlier, the Dean had declined to allow The Graduate to film there. He wasn’t going to miss another shot at Hollywood. Without even reading the script, this guy gave the production such carte blanche, that he allowed the use of his own office to film the Dean Wormer scenes.

I wonder if he ever had second thoughts.

Remember the band at the Dexter Lake Club? “Otis Day” was played by actor DeWayne Jessie. Animal House became so popular and such a boost to Jesse’s career that he legally changed his name.  To this day, he still tours with the band as “Otis Day and the Knights”.

There’s a popular myth that Belushi actually “chugged” a fifth of Jack Daniels during that one scene, but it was really ice tea.  Even so, Belushi’s abuse of drugs and alcohol, were legendary.  He would hire “bodyguards” and “trainers” to keep him on the straight & narrow, and then slip out the door.  Periods of sobriety were usually in response to a specific challenge – doing a movie, meeting a film deadline –  the same challenges that drove him over the edge and into another bender.

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On the evening of March 4, 1982, Belushi spent the evening partying with Catherine Evelyn Smith, a former back-up singer and groupie for The Band described as a “strung-out addict and a drug dealer”, and former SNL writer Nelson Lyon.  The three ingested massive quantities of alcohol and even more cocaine, stumbling about the precincts of West Hollywood, looking for another party.

According to Smith, the pair ended up back at Belushi’s room at the Chateau Marmont, where Belushi asked her to shoot him up with a “Speedball”, a combined injection of heroine and cocaine.  Comedian Robin Williams and actor Robert DiNiro visited over the small hours of the morning, to find the pair in a daze.  Williams left around 3:00am saying “If you ever get up again, call.”

He later said he didn’t understand what Belushi was doing with “that lowlife”.

rs-28717-22878_lgJohn Belushi was found dead the following morning.  The cause of death was originally thought to be an accidental overdose.  Cathy Smith was extradited from Canada and tried on first degree murder charges following a National Enquirer interview in which she admitted giving Belushi eleven speedballs. A plea bargain reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter.  She served fifteen months in prison.

In his 1984 book Wired: The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi, investigative journalist and non-fiction author Bob Woodward writes of a man out of control. Belushi’s widow Judith Jacklin Belushi participated in the project, apparently hoping for a more sympathetic depiction. “Instead”, writes Rolling Stone, “she got 432 pages of cold facts, the majority of them drug related and ugly”.

Film critic, screenwriter, and author Roger Ebert wrote: “The protests over Woodward’s unflinching portrait of Belushi’s last days reminds me (not with a smile) of an old Irish joke. The mourners are gathered around the dead man’s coffin.
“What did he die of?” one asks the widow.
“He died of the drink,” she says.
“Did he go to AA?”
“He wasn’t that bad.””

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Judy arranged for a traditional Albanian Orthodox Christian funeral in which Belushi was interred, twice. The first was in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, an island just off Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. There, a classic New England slate tombstone, complete with skull and crossbones, marks the location. The inscription reads, “I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on.” An unmarked tombstone in an undisclosed location marks his final resting place.

John Adam Belushi is remembered on the Belushi family marker at his mother’s grave at Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois.  This stone reads, “HE GAVE US LAUGHTER”.

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