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?"
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