From killer bees on 'Saturday Night Live' to Blutomania in 'Animal House,' the comedian finds success can be a double-edge sword
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."
John Belushi is not your basic great quote. He tends to not finish sentences before moving on to the next thought. He tends to say things like, "The sky is blue," and then five minutes later say. "Uh, lets put that sky-is-blue stuff off the record. It might offend my fans in Brooklyn," leaving the impression his career will be over, his wife will divorce him, and his cats eaten by wild dogs if you don't put your pen down. That's if he likes you. Once, a double-knit TV reporter wearing white shoes got him to sit down on the set of Animal House for an interview and asked how it was to work in movies, as opposed to live television. Belushi paused for a moment, shot him an I'll-eat-your-kneecaps-for-breakfast look and asked, "How much do you make, anyway?" A few days later, he talked more politely to a high-school reporter for over an hour, but told her that he got the original idea for Saturday Night Live while eating acid in the desert, and that sundry cast members were junkies, among other lies. She printed it straight.
Furthermore, when John Belushi bothers to be funny around reporters, much of the humor depends on him breaking into weird accents at unexpected moments. Black letters on white paper just cannot convey the humor of his Greek restaurant character suddenly showing up next to you in an airplane seat to Los Angeles and demanding. "Shut door! City of New York don't pay me to air-condition streets! What you want? We have very good strawberry pie. You just want grilled cheese? You cheap bastard!"
Nor is John Belushi much given to self-analysis. One of his great imitations is of Joe Cocker, the English R&B singer with the stage mannerisms of a cerebral palsy victim. Saturday Night Live fans usually do not remember individual sketches that well, but everyone remembers the night Belushi sang a duet with Cocker. For some it was hilarious, for others, it was cruel. Belushi himself won't even watch the tape. "It was all rehearsed," he says. "So I asked him to do it a long time before. It was just, uh . . . the answer . . . uh . . . I don't know why I did it. It was very emotional. Don't ask me why I did it."
All of this is to John Belushi's long-term advantage. He has as strong a sense of his own emotional integrity as anyone I have ever met. Some part of his mind is simply inviolable, and as long as he is in the public eye, people will want to know what John Belushi is really like. And John Belushi won't tell them.
In pursuit of the impossible dream, then, let us consider some biographical facts:
John Belushi was born January 24th, 1949. He is one-hundred-percent Albanian, which he refuses to discuss.* He seems to have been a nightmare to his schoolteachers. In the sixth grade, they demoted him to second grade to sober him out of his antics. Also in the sixth grade, his gym teacher announced in front of his class that he was the worst of her 400 students and kicked him in the balls. "They crushed the spirit out of me by the time I left," he insists.
Attending Wheaton, Illinois, Central High School, he acquired the nickname Wrestling Shoes from his cousins. "They were a couple of years older and much funnier than me." he recalls. "Every time I opened my mouth, they would cut me down. We were playing poker one New Year's Eve, and they won all my money. I left the table and suddenly burst into tears. They asked me what was wrong, and I said, 'That was for my wrestling shoes.' So they called me Wrestling Shoes ever after."
Bored by his classes, Belushi expended most of his energies playing drums in rock bands, acting in school shows and being captain of the football team. They were conference champions his junior year and finished in a tie for second place the following year. "I must have been the laziest captain they ever had," he says. "I was kicked off the team every year for loafing. The coach used to yell at us to do something or turn in our uniforms. If I felt I'd already done my best, I'd just run to the locker room and turn in my uniform. But I was always back the next day. I never missed a practice. It was a very valuable experience. After two-a-day practices at the end of summer, you feel there's nothing you can't do. I probably wouldn't have made it in New York if it hadn't been for that. As the coach used to say, 'No pain, no gain.'"
Belushi met his wife, Judy Jacklin, now a book designer, when he was senior and she a sophomore. "The first time I saw him was at a party," she recalls. "He was singing 'Louie, Louie' without slurring the dirty words."
Jacklin characterized Wheaton, a Chicago suburb, as the town where "Billy Graham went to college. It is heavily Republican and totally dry – you're not even supposed to have liquor in your home. Everyone moves there so their kids can go to the right schools; so they care very much about football games and beauty contests."
After graduation in 1967, Belushi took a year to break out of the Wheaton mold. Bored by acting in summer stock and bored by a brief attempt at college, he moved to Chicago and opened the Universal Life Church Coffee House near the university with two friends, Tino Insana and Steve Beshakas. For three years they put on their own comedy productions, serving the mostly student audience mu tea, Kool-Aide and passing around a jug of wine. "They were mostly tripping anyway," says Belushi. "Our subject matter was sex, drugs and violence." Dan Fogelberg was their opening act, for which they paid him seven dollars.
The club was located in a tough part of Chicago, however, and the local greasers were offended by its presence. One night, one of them tried to get in without paying, and Belushi came from backstage to deal with the problem.
"I paid," said the greaser. "You calling me a liar?"
"Yeah," said Belushi, 'I'm calling you a liar. Get out."
"Who are you?" said the greaser. "God?"
So Belushi pushed him out the door, threw him over a car hood and smashed him in the nose. "About fifty of his friends came out of the cracks in the sidewalk armed with boards and pipes." Belushi remembers. "There was a huge fight, but we finally got all our people inside and the show went on."
The greasers pounded on the windows during the performance and Belushi had an ever-growing bruise on his forehead as he acted. The audience didn't laugh a whole lot. Neither did the police when Belushi went to the station house with the kid whose nose he had broken. "Who threw the first punch?" asked the sergeant.
* Belushi expressed great dismay when I told him I'd been planning to use his Albanian heritage as a humorous motif in this profile. Since he is an expert in both comedy and imitating people with strange accents. I took his word that his ancestral homeland is not funny.
"Ahhhhhh, I guess I did," said Belushi, grabbing the greaser's hand. "What do you say we be friends?"
That was the end of the coffeehouse, but the experience won Belushi a gig with Second City, the improvisational troupe that has served as a sort of college for comedians over the years (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner are also graduates of Second City). He gives director Del Close much credit for refining his technique. "Del made us explore and work with the other actors," he says." He wanted us to take chances and not go for cheap laughs. I even took notes when he talked, It's very hard to be a good actor, you know. It's easy to be cute."
In 1973, he got a call from New York to join the National Lampoon's Lemmings, a musical production parodying the Woodstock culture, for which he perfected Joe Cocker and created the role of the announcer exhorting the chant for rain. "I chose him because he projected the feeling of a homicidal maniac." says director Tony Hendra. "Watching him act, you were always glad he hadn't taken up something more dangerous. During rehearsals, he went into a blue funk every third day and I would have to talk him out of going home to Chicago, but once he hit the stage, you knew he was in his element. He was always threatening to go over the edge, and the more dangerous the situation, the funnier."
A good example of how evenly balanced are his desires for success and destruction is how he got picked for Saturday Night Live. He and Aykroyd were the last hired for the cast – Aykroyd because of a reputation for not showing up at gigs, and Belushi because "I had a big chip on my shoulder. I thought all television was shit, and I let Lorne [Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live] know it. My own set at home was often covered with spit. The only reason I wanted to be on it was because Michael O'Donoghue was writing and it had a chance to be good."
Belushi auditioned with his beloved samurai character (his own invention after watching a Japanese film festival on educational TV) and won a position, but his attitude was little changed. "I'd been wearing a beard for five years," he recalls." One day Lorne suggested. 'Let's see what you look like with it off.' I came back the next day with the beard and he said, 'Why don't you just try shaving it once so we can see what it looks like?' I told him I didn't like shaving, and the next day he asked. 'Weren't you supposed to do something last night?' I told him I got sick, 'Let's see it off,' he said. So I finally shaved. My face is more expressive without it, I guess. And I couldn't play eleven-year-old kids in skits, like I've done, with a beard, I just grow it in the summer now."
I want Robert Stigwood's legs broken!" shouts John Landis, twenty-seven-year-old director of Animal House, about the producer of Sergeant Pepper. Landis rarely talks below 110 decibels and is conceding nothing to the surrounding eaters at the Imperial Gardens, a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles. He is the only person I have ever met who is enthusiastic about everything.
"That movie is the worst piece of shit I have ever seen! The worst! I wish it had been filmed on nitrate so it would disintegrate! What a piece of shit!"
John Belushi, who eats faster than any human being I have ever met, is poking at his sushi with chopsticks. If he is at all self-conscious about being stared at, or worried that Robert Stigwood has enough money to break his friend's legs, it doesn't show in his face.
Ending his tirade against Stigwood's insatiable hunger for inanity a few minutes later, Landis points a chopstick at Belushi, "John Milius [the director of Dillinger and Magnum Force and screenwriter for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now] told me that Animal House was the best American movie since Patton," he continues to shout. "I don't know what that means, but you're his hero now. How many guys can yell 'No prisoners!' [In a final scene of Animal House, Bluto leads a raid on the bad guys] like John Belushi?" Landis shifts his shouting to me for a moment. "You know John did all his own stunts?"
"It's too late," says Belushi. "I told him about the rugby champion."
"Really?" shouts Landis. "That's too bad. I had everyone believing it was you."
"My own mother believes it was me swinging across the street on the sign," says Belushi. "I don't know why I had to tell him."
"Well, John did do most of his own stunts," shouts Landis. "The rugby champion double was great, though. He was very protective of John, and he would have gone out and gotten hit by cars if you'd asked him."
Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stops by the table with his girlfriend, Amy Irving (Carrie, The Fury), to say hello. He is, coincidentally, wearing an Animal House T-shirt – an omen of big bucks to come if there ever was one. "I've seen it three times," he says, sitting down at the table. "I like it because everyone gets fucked in every sense of the word. It had no cheap moralistic ending like Barnaby Jones. It was socially irresponsible."
"Socially irresponsible?" Landis shouts with a slight quaver. "How do you define that?"
Spielberg diplomatically changes the subject. "Anyway. I like the movie because it reminded me of my own college days at Cal State Long Beach. That's what I was like then. You know, Ken Kesey did one of his acid tests at a toga party we had. We filmed these pledges stealing traffic lights, and all my best friends ended up in the hospital."
"We met Kesey in Oregon during the filming," says Landis.
"Yeah," adds Belushi. "I'm thinking, 'At last, I'm meeting the great Ken Kesey,' and what is the only thing he wants to hear about? Killer bees. So we did them on the show that week."
It is decided that we should all go play miniature golf. When Belushi stands, his legs and torso make a 120-degree angle, caused by a pinched nerve in his back from lifting more boxes the day before we left for the Coast. Signing autographs like an overweight Groucho Marx, he makes his way slowly to the door, where we climb into Landis' station wagon. "Socially irresponsible?" Landis repeats as we drive down Sunset Boulevard. "If that were really true, he wouldn't have liked it."
"I wouldn't have been in it if had been an immoral movie," says Belushi.
John and I almost robbed a marina out in Ontario a couple of weeks ago," says Dan Aykroyd, Belushi's closest friend among the actors on Saturday Night Live. "I have some land on a lake up there, and he was helping me clear it for a cabin. When we finished, this other friend and I felt we needed a motor for our boat. As we were getting into my pickup truck – a 1941 Chrysler – John asked, "What are you doing?' I said, 'We're going to rob the marina. Wanna come?' He said, 'Lemme get my smokes.'
"It was about two a.m. and there was a radar trap about a mile up the road, so this cop car was cruising around with its light flashing. But John was right in there with the chain cutters at the wire fence. Unfortunately, the boat trailer didn't fit the hitch on my pickup, so we didn't actually steal anything. The point here is that John is not into larceny. He did it for friendship. It was a matter of 'You may be crazy, but you're my friend.'
"I want to stress that we did this above the border. Here, John is completely straight. In fact, he cooperates with the Justice Department and informs on drug users in the office."
John Belushi occasionally dismisses his audience as 'the angel-dust crowd,' but it seems as if nearly everybody loves the guy. He cannot walk down the street without being recognized every twenty feet and greeted like a long-lost crazy uncle who used to bounce you on his knee (and maybe dropped you on your head a few times).
In nearly seventy shows on Saturday Night Live, he has taken part in an awesome number of skits, many of which he wrote himself. He has contributed a couple of comic catch phrases to the American language – "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger" and "But nooooo!" – just in time to replace Steve Martin's "Excuuuuse me!"
But no matter what role he plays, he is always John Belushi – unlike, say, Dan Aykroyd or Laraine Newman, who project little of their own personalities. Perhaps to his detriment, he is often the same violent lunatic character in whatever role he plays. Bluto in Animal House, for example, is not a significant departure from what he has accomplished on TV. The almost certain prospect of becoming a major star carries the danger of being typecast as a maniac for the rest of his life and ultimately boring his fans.
I doubt this will happen, because he would bore himself first. He could have spent the rest of his life as a killer bee, but he stopped before it became stale. He also has too many other talents. He and Aykroyd formed the Blues Brothers to warm up audiences before the show, ultimately made an appearance and now have a contract with Atlantic Records. They will open for Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in September. The album will be live (the backup band is as yet unchosen) and the cover will probably feature them changing a flat on the Bluesmobile.
Belushi's plans are hard to pin down. Depending on his mood, he will be happy doing Saturday Night Live for the rest of his life or never again (he has one year left on his contract). And he might do another movie, depending on if he can stand all the assholes in Hollywood.
His wife, Judy, who ought to know when to take him at his word, says he wants to be a serious actor. "In college I saw him play Danforth in The Crucible, and he was so intense that the other actors thought he was going to hurt them," she says. "When he does get a straight role, he will blow people away."
In Glen Glenn sound studios in Los Angeles, they are about to loop (that is, overdub) 'Old Boyfriends' so they can sell it to television.
"We have to get rid of all the fucks and cunts and piles of crap," says director Joan Tewkesbury kissing John Belushi hello. "This is for the TV version."
"Pile of crap?" says Belushi. "You can say that on TV."
"Listen, I've been fighting the censors for three years. I ought to know."
"Well, okay," concedes Tewkesbury. "But be thinking about substitutes for the other words."
The movie (due for fall release) stars Talia Shire, Rocky's girlfriend, as a woman who looks up her old boyfriends in order to avenge past humiliations. Belushi plays a guy who took her out in high school, ripped off her panties, wrapped them around a basketball and dribbled them down the court at a pep rally. She meets him again at age thirty-three in St. Paul, where he is singing lead in a rock band at high-school proms and renting tuxedos to students. In the scene Tewkesbury is looping, Shire drives Belushi to lovers' lane and becomes very aggressive. He doesn't know what to make of it at all.
"You college girls are all alike," he says in the movie. "You talk, talk, talk, when what you want is to fuck, fuck, fuck."
"How about neck, neck, neck?" suggests Tewkesbury. "I'm not going to say that!" objects Belushi at the microphone.
"Bang, bang, bang?" asks Tewkesbury.
"How about,' . . . when what you want is sex, sex, sex'?" Tewkesbury agrees, and they play the sentence about ten times before Belushi is synched exactly with the proper tone of voice. They play the rest of the scene – Shire takes off Belushi's pants, bids him to get out of the car so she can "rape" him on the ground, then drives off to leave him clad in his boxer shorts.
The character is apparently quite worried about his potence while Shire is unzipping his pants. "It didn't work out so well the last time I was up here," he says.
I laugh, and Belushi points at me. "What are you writing in your notebook? You fucker!"
"I'm writing you can't get it up."
"I'll kill you when we get out of here," he yells. "I'll kill you!"
Any other actor would be proud of such an effective scene. But not John Belushi, the former middle linebacker who loses his mind every Saturday night in front of millions of people for laughs. The Belushi up there on the screen is vulnerable in a way I've never seen before, achingly so. Maybe it's more fun to be a macho maniac, but this is great acting.
"It's not me, it's the role," moans Belushi. "I have to keep telling myself it's not me . . . "