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."
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