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John Belushi: Son of Samurai

From killer bees on 'Saturday Night Live' to Blutomania in 'Animal House,' John Belushi finds success can be a double-edge sword

August 10, 1978
 John Belushi
John Belushi
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

I feel really weird opening up my personal life this way," says John Belushi. "But what is there to see? Just a lot of old boxes." Hoisting one on my shoulder, I walk downstairs from his Greenwich Village apartment and dump it in the trunk of the Bluesmobile, a 1967 Dodge Monaco with a fresh coat of jet-black paint. Belushi has discovered a unique way of making reporters useful: if they must ask nosy questions, the least they can do is save you some bucks in moving expenses. Actually, there is more to see in the apartment than old boxes – enormous piles of dirty clothes, two Persian cats, an autographed picture of Ray Charles – but the day is hot, my wind short and my eye for the revealing detail concomitantly dull. As if to reward my efforts, he selects a revealing detail for me.

"They'd just shot me up with morphine," he says, indicating a photograph of himself as a dazed cowboy on the set of Go South, one of three movies Belushi acted in during the past year, in addition to twenty Saturday Night Live shows. "A squib exploded in my hand. We were in Mexico, so they just picked out the splinters and shot me up and we went on with the scene."

Did the morphine affect his acting ability?

"I don't know. It was just a gunfight . . . I think it'll be a great movie. It has Indians, Mexicans, Orientals, gold, railroads, barroom brawls, bank robberies, horse stealing, everything a Western should havebut no heavy violence."

Dressed in army fatigues and a white T-shirt, Belushi looks capable of handling any sort of violence. Or starting it. His face gives the permanent impression of demented anger lurking barely beneath the surface – an impression reinforced just now by an incipient beard (now that he is off Saturday Night for the summer) and a potbelly of the sort usually associated with redneck sheriffs. When he plays the samurai or the crazy weatherman on TV, the effect is hilarious, but up close it's disconcerting. I've known the guy for over a year and have never been quite sure he wasn't about to crush my knees with a brick.

The same violent urge that makes John great will also ultimately destroy him," says Michael O'Donoghue, a National Lampoon alumnus and writer for three seasons on Saturday Night Live. (This coming season, he is doing his own show, Television). O'Donoghue's humor is best exemplified by his infamous imitation of Tony Orlando and Dawn with needles poked in their eyes. He expects SNL to fall into "the enema bank" without him to keep the show in the mainstream of American humor.

"I appeared with John once on Midday Live [a local New York talk program hosted by Bill Boggs]." O'Donoghue continues. "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."

Sitting in the backyard of Belushi's new apartment after we have moved a Bluesmobile full of boxes into storage in the basement, Belushi counts the steps on the stairway to his second-floor balcony. He is pleased to discover they number thirteen, the same as on the gallows where he tries to hang Jack Nicholson in Goin' South. The huge new apartment has two floors and a chandeliered living room – highly suitable for a television star on the verge of almost certain movie stardom in the coming year. Maybe even the coming month, with Animal House, a comedy premiering in New York City July 28th and scheduled for release in 400 theaters by the middle of August. Universal is counting on a hit, having budgeted about $3.5 million for promotion (the movie itself cost $2.8 million). Their faith is well placed. Animal House is hilarious. Written by Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller of the National Lampoon and Harold Ramis, formerly of Playboy, the movie has much the same sensibility that made the Lampoon's high-school yearbook such a hit. The characters are all stereotypes, but such accurate ones that you recognize everyone you went to college with. Belushi plays Bluto, the most animallike member of the animal fraternity that is expelled from Faber College for crimes that amount to having a good time at the expense of good grades. They seek vengeance by destroying a villainous dean (a tad too villainous, probably. The guy uses four-letter words and is overly frank about his evil intentions. I've never known an educational administrator who didn't sleaze through life on an oil slick of euphemism), a villainous mayor and a villainous rival fraternity. The product of people in their midtwenties to early thirties, the film relays a message from a generation that marched against the war and held gross-out contests to a generation that gets congratulated in U.S. News and World Report for shutting up and wanting to go to medical school: go out and trash something, people, or you won't have anything to remember at your five-year reunion.

"I've seen Animal House two and a half times now at sneak previews with a real audience, and the reaction was great." says Belushi. "Your face ends up forty feet high and if you blow a line during the filming, you can just do it again. If you blow it on TV, it's gone forever. But I want to continue doing both next season. After that, I don't know."

Belushi's schedule this past season was overwhelming. On Sundays after the TV show, he flew to location (Durango, Mexico, for Goin' South; Eugene, Oregon, for Animal House; and Los Angeles for Old Boyfriends) and flew back on Thursdays for Saturday Night Live rehearsals. Because three days of stubble was required for two of the movies and outlawed on the show, just keeping his shaving schedule straight was complicated enough, let alone learning his lines. To keep his life together under such circumstances, I suggest he must be on a more even keel than he was during the first two years of the show.

"Those were very hard times . . . uh . . . very tough, dealing with fame and success, while trying to fulfill your responsibility to the audience," he says. "The trick is knowing what you want to do and then resolving to do everything you have to do to get there."

Does that mean his self-destructive tendencies are under control?

"I think it . . . uh . . . I don't know. It comes along with a certain kind of lifestyle, which you don't change after becoming well known. Everything becomes more heightened, takes on more urgency, and the tendency to self-destruct heightens too. I'm learning to cope and not deny my own success, but I still think it's not happening a lot. I get nervous, and I am capable of doing something to blow it on purpose. A lot of actors have that problem."

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