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The untold truth of John Belushi

John Belushi wasn't just a star of Saturday Night Live, and one of its very first cast members, an original "Not Ready for Primetime Player" from 1975 to 1979. He might also be the greatest performer the show has ever seen, or ever will. (Rolling Stone ranked him the #1 SNL star of all time.) That's a well-deserved reputation: Belushi created and/or breathed life into a disparate group of hilarious and memorable characters in the show's peerless first era, from a journeyman Samurai to an out-of-shape Olympian who owes his success to "Little Chocolate Donuts," along with savage impressions of Henry Kissinger, Elizabeth Taylor, and William Shatner.

While still an SNL cast member, Belushi broke out as a film star, stealing classic comedies like National Lampoon's Animal House and The Blues Brothers. But before he could fully realize that potential, Belushi tragically died young in 1982, cutting an already brilliant career short. Here's a look into the life of the erstwhile Jake Elwood, Bluto, and Killer Bee. Toga, toga, toga…

He'd gladly crash on your couch

John Belushi was known by a lot of nicknames. He'd forever be associated with Bluto from Animal House, and he'll also always be Jake Blues to fans of the The Blues Brothers. His close friend and frequent collaborator Dan Aykroyd coined a nickname for Belushi as well: "America's Guest." While that sounds like a moniker given to a celebrity mainstay on 1970s talk shows like The Merv Griffin Show or The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, it reflects Belushi's weird habit of winding up in the private homes of strangers. 

For example, while filming The Blues Brothers in the middle of the night in Harvey, Illinois, Belushi disappeared from the set. Aykroyd seemed to know exactly where he was. He spotted a path that led to a house that still had its lights on. Aykroyd walked up, knocked on the door, and asked the man of the house if he'd seen one of the film's actors. "Oh, you mean Belushi?" the homeowner reportedly replied. "He came in here an hour ago and raided my fridge." Belushi was indeed present and accounted for, asleep on the living room couch. Aykroyd roused him and walked him back to the set.

It was his idea to stuff his face

Belushi took his freewheeling comedy stylings to the set of National Lampoon's Animal House. It became a box-office smash and made Belushi is a viable movie star (not to mention a permanent fixture in dorm rooms — that poster of Belushi wearing the shirt that simply reads "College" is a still from that movie). His character, John "Bluto" Blutarski, is an absolute lout, the definitive party animal and a servant to his own huge appetites for partying, women, and food. Belushi had such a lock on his character that he used that understanding to completely improvise one of the movie's most famous scenes.

As the cafeteria line sequence had been conceived, Belushi was supposed to walk past the food, loading his tray up with as much food as possible. Director John Landis planned to indicate what items he wanted Belushi to grab, but Belushi elevated it. Rather than just take a sandwich, for example, he squeezed it until it oozed out of its wrapping, and then he shoved it in his mouth. Then he kept doing that kind of thing. Belushi filmed the whole sequence without any sort of rehearsal, and all in one take.

That time he let a punk band rip up SNL

John Belushi provided some of the most wonderful moments in Saturday Night Live history, but he was also responsible for one of the show's most notorious incidents. In 1981, Belushi grew obsessed with Fear, a hardcore punk band out of Los Angeles. While he'd left the SNL cast in 1979, Belushi still somehow persuaded the show's brand-new producer Dick Ebersol to book the group as a musical guest. According to Ebersol in Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, Belushi "personally vouched that they were terrific and so on."

Fear performed on October 31, 1981 — a Halloween episode. The band's second performance of the night subsequently became, as Ebersol recounted, "so dark. They had films in it showing pumpkins that, as you carved the pumpkin, blood came out of each carving." Ebersol realized at that moment that he'd given Belushi "too much freedom," but by then it was too late, because Fear's entourage (including Belushi) started slam-dancing on the SNL stage, "banging off each other, banging into the audience, banging into cameramen." Ebersol had the control room cut out from the live broadcast to a pre-filmed comedy piece. Fear played on in the studio, where, all because of Belushi, the SNL facilities sustained $2,5000 worth of damages.

That's so Raven

John Belushi was a great comic actor with a lot of different comedy skills. He could do impressions, he could do gross-out humor, and he could even mix in music. Belushi obviously had some musical chops to go along with his comedy ones, exemplified from his famous, spot-on impression of Joe Cocker (which he did on Saturday Night Live) and his tenure as a Blues Brother. (His fake, then not-so-fake tribute band with Dan Aykroyd scored a #1 album in 1979 with Brief Case Full of Blues.) Music was a side gig for Belushi by the late '70s, but he'd actually started out as a musician long before he did comedy professionally.

In 1965, when he was just 16 years old, Belushi played drums for a garage rock band called the Ravens. The group recorded just one single, an original song called "Listen to Me Now." Since only somewhere between 40 and 200 copies of the record were pressed, "Listen to Me Now" didn't become a hit on pop chart, and the Ravens split up not long afterward.

No girls allowed!

Almost every single person from Saturday Night Live's original cast from the mid-'70s went on to have a legendary career in film and TV. Among those comedy icons: John Belushi, of course, as well as Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin. However, the breakout success of Radner and Curtin came no thanks to Belushi, who had some deeply ingrained sexism, which influenced his approach to SNL. 

According to Curtin on a 2011 women in comedy roundtable on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Belushi believed that "women are just fundamentally not funny." That patently wacky belief led Belushi to act like a real jerk on set. Curtin recounted that many potentially fantastic sketches contributed by female members of the writing staff never made it to air because they died during cast reads. "So you'd go to a table read, and if a woman writer had written a piece for John, he would not read it in his full voice," Curtin said. "He felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces written by women."

A Blues Brother and Belushi brother

John Belushi's legend has overshadowed the career of his brother, Jim Belushi, a successful actor in his own right, with films like About Last Night, the long-running sitcom According to Jim, and his own stint on Saturday Night Live. (He even took over for the elder Belushi as a Blues Brother.) 

The Belushi brothers had a relationship that was loving — and also complicated. "His approval was like the sunshine," Jim Belushi said at John Belushi's funeral. "You couldn't do much for John except get him an ashtray." Jim Belushi then recounted a story about a trip he and his brother once took to a bathhouse, where John surprised his younger brother by coming up behind him in a shower to wash his hair. "John never said, 'Hey, Jim, I love you,' but that day he did. Not in words. But he washed my hair."

In 2015, Jim Belushi was a guest on the Grown Ass Men podcast, where he discussed what it's like to come up in the world behind a famous sibling. "I'm always grateful to him for opening the door for me. I always look at it like, being in his shadow. But think about what a shadow is, the metaphor of it — it's shade. I'm in the cool of the day," Belushi said. However, he added that "John was so big that it kinda crushed you."

The night John Belushi died

On March 5, 1982, Belushi's body was found in his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, a celebrity-favored hotel in West Hollywood. He was 33, and he died after a drug bender; his drug dealer and constant companion at the time, Cathy Evelyn Smith, told the National Enquirer in 2017 that Belushi spent $8,000 on cocaine alone in the week leading up to his death.

Smith was eventually indicted on a murder charge, and the sordid details of Belushi's last hours were revealed during grand jury testimony by former SNL writer Nelson Lyon. The night of March 4, Lyon said he saw Smith inject Belushi several times with cocaine, and in a private room at The Roxy, a Sunset Strip nightclub, Smith gave Belushi and Lyon a dose of what he said gave him an "aggravated and extreme" feeling. It was a "speedball," a potent mixture of cocaine and heroin. The party continued at Belushi's bungalow, and after guests left, Smith shot up Belushi with one more speedball at about 3:30AM and called it a night.

The next morning, Smith returned to Belushi's bungalow, swarmed with police after the comedian's body had been found. While briefly detained, Smith fled to Canada but returned to the U.S. when prosecutors agreed to drop a murder charge if she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. She served 15 months for her role in Belushi's death.

He tried so hard to sober up

Belushi's appetite for drugs ultimately took his life, but he did try to get clean on several occasions. He eschewed drug rehabilitation facilities, preferring to do things like switch from hard drugs to beer or marijuana, and hire sobriety coaches who'd follow him around 24 hours a day and prevent him from ingesting anything forbidden. Belushi also tried prescription tranquilizers, health shakes, and psychiatry. Nothing worked for long.

In the summer of 1981, pal and fellow SNL legend Dan Aykroyd conspired with Belushi's wife, Judy, to help Belushi kick hard drugs. "Judy and me took him out of the city and prevented a lot of people from seeing him," Aykroyd told The Guardian, by retreating to Martha's Vineyard, the high-end coastal resort community in Massachusetts. "We put him in the hot tub, smoked some pot to ease him out. A beautiful summer." But, Aykroyd lamented, when Belushi returned to the fast-paced Hollywood scene, his old habits quickly returned, and six months later, he was gone.

He literally haunted Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters starred two Saturday Night Live legends in Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, but it was supposed to be a vehicle for Aykroyd and Belushi. Aykroyd, who co-wrote the movie with Harold Ramis, created the role of researcher-turned-ghostbuster Peter Venkman for his brother in blues, only casting Murray after Belushi died before filming started. As a tribute to their fallen friend, Aykroyd and Ramis asked Ghostbusters effects wizard Steve Johnson to design and build the creature that would ultimately come to be known as Slimer in Belushi's image.

The designer got down to work, with the spirit of his muse in mind (and nose). "So I pulled out a stack of headshots of John Belushi, poured a gram of cocaine on it, and started chopping lines up," Johnson told Bloody Disgusting. Johnson got so high that in his "cocaine-induced delusional paranoia," he believed that "John Belushi's ghost came to me to help me out." Johnson said the spirit of Belushi gave him some tips, posed for a while, and then told him to lay off the cocaine because "it'll kill you."

The movies he could have made

As one of the biggest and most popular comedy stars in the world, Belushi had his pick of film projects. He turned down a lot of them, and a few never made it to the screen, some because of Belushi's sudden death in 1982. For instance, there was almost a sequel to Belushi's breakout movie, National Lampoon's Animal House, but nobody at the Lampoon cared for it. Belushi also could've been in American Hustle. Well, sort of. That film is about the real-life Abscam scandal of the '70s, and John Guare wrote Moon Over Miami on the same subject with Belushi in mind. (Guare turned his script into a play.)

Director Jay Sandrich wanted Belushi to star in a romantic comedy called Sweet Deception. Belushi took over the movie and completely overhauled it into an unfinished script called Noble Rot. Co-written with SNL writer Don Novello, the screwball comedy concerned a bumbling winemaker's son (to be played by Belushi) who takes his family's wine to a competition.

Three Amigos was supposed to star co-writer Steve Martin and John Belushi, but Belushi said no, and it hit theaters years later with Martin Short. In 1981, not long before his death, Belushi talked about making Spies Like Us with Dan Aykroyd on NBC's Today. Owing to Belushi's death, it finally saw release in 1985, starring Chevy Chase.