He was one of the all time greats of American comedy. And behind his stage attitude lurked a restless soul with a penchant for self-destructive behaviour…
It was the night between 4th and 5th March 1982 and naturally enough for John Belushi (‘Animal House’, ‘1941’, ‘The Blues Brothers’, to name but a few) it was the usual mayhem and destruction. John had just turned 33 – he was born in Chicago on 24th January 1949 – and he had been pushing his luck for quite some time.
His career had taken off right from the outset in the early ’70s, ever since he had become an overnight TV star, (first with ‘National Lampoon’s Lemmings’ and then, from 1975, with the huge success of NBC’s Saturday Night Live). But at what a cost. Addicted to drugs since 1973, Belushi had also started hitting the bottle, especially when the reaction of the public was less than hoped for (see the box office flops of the two cult movies ‘Goin’ South’ and ‘Old Boyfriends’ in ’78 to’79).
And then there was his constant blowups with directors, his real true enemies. According to insiders, ‘Animal House’ aside, the man from the Windy City was impossible to deal with on set. He loved to improvise, had no time for rigid scripts, and then (in his dressing room) drank like a sponge. As well as throwing hissy fits. On the night of 4th March, for example, he couldn’t even drive he had knocked back so much drink in On The Rox, the restaurant of the stars upstairs from the Roxy in Los Angeles. He was driven home by his sidekick Cathy Evelyn Smith (aka “Cathy Silverbag” because of the amount of drugs and narcotics she always carried around in her bag). “Home” for Belushi was the ill-fated bungalow number 3 of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood.
John was no sooner in the door than he threw up in the bathroom and – without turning a hair – starting knocking the drink back again as if his life depended on it. Around 3 a.m. he was expecting some important visitors (his pals Robin Williams and Robert De Niro) and at 6:30 a.m. he had a shower and started to complain about feeling cold, threw himself on the bed but couldn’t sleep properly because of his sinusitis. He kept on whining about it for a while until at 9.30 a.m., Cathy decided to sort him out with a speedball, a lethal cocktail of cocaine and heroin. And then she headed out for some breakfast. Belushi would never wake up. At midday, they found him dead as a doornail, naked in the bed.
William Wallace (aka Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, his martial arts instructor) was the one to find him and call an ambulance. The paramedics declared the actor dead at 12.45 on 5th March as a result of an accidental overdose. The funeral was held at Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and many celebrities from SNL (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Eric Idle) came to pay their respects along with his parents Adam and Agnes, brothers Jim and Billy and sister Marian.
At the front of the funeral cortege, astride a roaring motorcycle, was his best friend Dan Aykroyd blaring out a surf song that was one of Bluto’s all time favourites: ‘The 2000 Pound Bee’ by The Ventures. Aykroyd was so shaken that he even stopped acting for a while. Then slowly, he started to recover and dedicated a film to his “brother” who was no more. «While I was working on the script I realised that I had written it for him», Dan said. «John would have been perfect for the part.».
The movie in question came out in 1984 and would be one of the greatest Hollywood blockbusters of all time: ‘Ghostbusters’. Belushi’s part was played by Bill Murray and, ironically enough, the film dealt with people hunting down malevolent ghosts. Just like John had been doing for most of his 33 stormy years.