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Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

The Lost Roles of John Belushi

Casting is one of the most important processes in movie making. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire film rings true. Lost Roles is a weekly series that examines the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and explores how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed the film industry and the comedy world at large.

At the time of his tragic and untimely death in 1982, John Belushi was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and a versatile one at that. He was not only an accomplished comedic actor, but also a successful musician with the Blues Brothers and an Emmy Award-winning writer for his work on Saturday Night Live. It’s an oft-repeated fact that in 1978, Belushi had the #1 late night show (SNL), a #1 album (The Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues), and a #1 movie (Animal House). This was an amazing feat for the actor and something that hasn’t been pulled off by anyone since.

After John Belushi and comedy partner Dan Aykroyd left SNL in 1979, the two were part of the ensemble in Steven Spielberg’s World War II comedy flop 1941 and starred in the much-more successful Blues Brothers film. Although it wasn’t as big a deal as Belushi’s breakthrough film Animal House, The Blues Brothers was still, by all means, a massive hit and one of the year’s top grossing movies. Belushi’s two final big screen performances were in Continental Divide and Neighbors (with Aykroyd again), both in 1981. While these two films were critical and commercial disappointments, John Belushi had more than enough talent to bounce back, and he could have done so if he were given the chance. Before his death in 1982, Belushi’s film career was booming, and he was one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood. He was attached to several movies, some of which were made later with other actors and many that were never made at all. A few of the projects are, as strange as it seems, said to be cursed.

Belushi was cut down in his prime and we will never know what great heights his career could have reached. Taking a look at the parts he was planning on playing is the next best thing, as it allows us to see where his career might have taken him if disaster hadn’t intervened.

1. The Blue Lagoon (1980)
The role: Richard
Who got it: Christopher Atkins
John Belushi was considered for the lead role but was deemed “too funny” for the part. This would have been a nice chance for Belushi to show off his range as an actor, allowing him to explore another genre; however, The Blue Lagoon went into production around the same time as The Blues Brothers. It's possible that taking this part would have jeopardized the existence of The Blues Brothers, which was a major hit for Belushi late in his career.

2. Arthur (1981)
The role: Arthur Bach
Who got it: Dudley Moore
Belushi was offered the lead role in this classic comedy (the Russell Brand remake comes out next month). He would have played Arthur Bach, an alcoholic playboy who is the heir to his family's multi-million dollar fortune. Belushi was weary of being typecast as a fun-loving party animal, so he turned the part down.

It's odd that Belushi considered this part typecasting, as Arthur Bach is a far cry from outrageous debaucher Bluto Blutarsky. Arthur is much deeper and more sentimental. His alcoholism masks an inner sadness that Belushi's other characters just never had. This was a huge opportunity for Belushi, in that Arthur ended up a highly successful film and even earned Dudley Moore an Oscar nomination for his performance — a very rare achievement for an actor in a comedy.

It's surprising to think of the character of Arthur as not being British, especially considering that Hollywood has now remade the movie with Russell Brand, another British actor (Ricky Gervais reportedly turned the part down). If Belushi had taken the original role, producers would probably have been looking for someone more like Zach Galifianakis or Seth Rogen to play Arthur in the new version, rather than Brand or Gervais.

3. Night Shift (1982)
The role: Bill Blazejowski
Who got it: Michael Keaton
Night Shift, directed by Ron Howard, is a comedy starring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton as two morgue employees who run a bordello out of their workplace at night. It was Keaton’s first movie and his first leading role, and the film’s success turned him into a movie star. Keaton used Night Shift as a springboard for an impressive film career that included a number of high-profile movies, including Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, and Batman. In her book, A Star is Found, accomplished casting director Jane Jenkins reveals that John Belushi was the first choice for the part that made Keaton a household name. Jenkins writes:

"…the decision was John’s alone. Before casting Michael Keaton … we’d offered the wacky, manic role of Bill Blazejowski to John Belushi… But the movie was to be shot in Los Angeles, and John didn’t want to leave New York.

Then while we were shooting the movie, John died of an overdose — in Los Angeles. I’ve often wondered whether he might somehow have muddled through if he’d had Night Shift to absorb him during those troubled times. Or maybe he knew better than we did that he was already too far gone"

Jenkins brings up a good point in hypothesizing as to whether or not the success of Night Shift could have saved Belushi’s life. Taking the part in this hit would have certainly kept his career afloat, but it’s hard to surmise how it would have impacted his personal life. If Belushi had taken the role, it’s possible that he would have still overdosed around the same time, in the middle of the movie’s production, which would have sent this well-regarded comedy into a state of turmoil.

Michael Keaton gives an electric performance as Bill, and he takes advantage of his first big part to show he’s worthy of movie star status. This was Keaton’s first shot as a lead actor, and it’s unlikely that he would be offered another part so perfectly suited for him if this film hadn’t been successful first. While Keaton’s talents would have still brought him some level of success as an actor if he had missed out on this part, it’s hard to imagine he would have had another opportunity like this one to prove his chops. If Michael Keaton hadn’t become a movie star, it would have thrown the film industry in the 1980s majorly off course, causing several now-classics to use different actors or to be called off completely.

4. Guest spot on Police Squad! (1982)
The role: Drowned Man
Who got it: N/A. Filmed with Belushi, but cut from the final broadcast
A running joke during the opening credits of the short-lived series Police Squad! involved the announcer introducing a celebrity guest, only for them to turn up murdered before the opening sequence ends. William Shatner, Florence Henderson, and others filmed these segments, as did John Belushi. Belushi’s scene involved his legs being tied to blocks of concrete while he was floating underwater, dead. It’s extremely eerie considering that he passed away a few months after filming the sequence. The producers cut the scene after Belushi died since the episode had not yet aired. They replaced it with one featuring actor William Conrad. The original footage has never turned up and is now thought to be lost or destroyed.

5. Once Upon a Time in America (1983)
The role: Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz
Who got it: James Woods
Belushi was offered a supporting role in the Sergio Leone crime epic, and he committed to losing 40 pounds so that he could play the part. Star Robert DeNiro was a friend of Belushi's. Along with Robin Williams, DeNiro was one of the last to see Belushi alive, as both DeNiro and Williams came by Belushi's hotel room on his final night.

This is the role on the list that sticks out the most, as it could have been the start of John Belushi’s career as a dramatic actor. Although many of his peers were able to make that same transition years later (Murray and Aykroyd earned one Oscar nomination each), Belushi never had enough time to try out dramatic acting. It's really a shame, especially considering how close he was to filming this part.

6. Ghostbusters (1984)
The role: Peter Venkman
Who got it: Bill Murray
In the original draft Dan Aykroyd wrote for Ghostbusters, the Ghostbusters dressed like SWAT officers, traveled through time, and used wands to capture ghosts, instead of their now-famous proton packs. When Aykroyd brought the project to co-writer Harold Ramis and director Ivan Reitman, they were worried about the high budget the story would require. They retooled it, throwing out the time traveling aspect and making the Ghostbusters more like slacker exterminators than tough SWAT guys. John Belushi was attached to play the lead role throughout the development process until his death in 1982. The producers toyed with the idea of putting Richard Pryor in the role before deciding on Bill Murray.

Aykroyd's original idea for the movie sounds just as compelling as seeing Belushi star in the project. While I would have loved to see what the original version looked like, I think it was for the best that the more grounded and comedic Bill Murray-led incarnation ended up being produced instead.

Ghostbusters was a monstrous hit, taking the title of highest grossing comedy of all time away from Belushi's Animal House. Ghostbusters is still Murray’s biggest hit ever (not to mention that’s true of pretty much everyone else involved), and it would have thrown his career off course if Belushi landed this role instead of him. On the set of the movie, Dan Aykroyd jokingly referred to the green party animal ghost Slimer as “the ghost of John Belushi.”

7. National Lampoon’s The Joy of Sex (1984)
The role: unknown
John Belushi was offered a role in this forgettable National Lampoon outing before his death. Unhappy with the project, which would have involved him wearing a diaper in one scene, Belushi turned it down several times. He eventually accepted the part, but the depression over compromising his integrity set in and sent him into the days-long bender that ended with his overdose.

While some films on this list would have greatly helped John Belushi's career, this one could only have done him harm. His heart wasn't in it, and this was by all accounts a poorly-received comedy. Belushi's presence would have made the film slightly better, but it wasn't worth the damage it would have done to his career.

8. Spies Like Us (1985)
The role: Emmett Fitz-Hume
Who got it: Chevy Chase
Spies Like Us was originally conceived as a vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. After Belushi's death, Joe Piscopo was briefly considered for the role before Chevy Chase took it. Check out this 1981 interview, in which Gene Shalit talks to Aykroyd and Belushi about the project just a few months ahead of Belushi's death. It gets especially eerie when Shalit asks the two where they see themselves in ten years:

While the movie hasn't held up as well as Ghostbusters or Three Amigos, Spies Like Us was still highly successful in its own right.

9. About Last Night… (1986)
The role: Bernie Litgo
Who got it: Jim Belushi
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were offered roles in this film adaptation of the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago years before it went into production. Dan Aykroyd would have played the part that went to Rob Lowe, while John Belushi would have played the part that went to his brother Jim. John Belushi turned the role down at Jim's urging because Jim had played the role onstage and he didn't want to be compared to his brother.

It's odd that Jim Belushi was so afraid of being compared to his brother, as it seems like he's patterned so much of his career after John's. Perhaps John Belushi's death caused Jim to change his feelings on the subject, as he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live the following year. Jim Belushi now performs in venues all over the country with his own version of the Blues Brothers Band. Doesn't want to be compared to his brother, my ass.

10. Three Amigos (1986)
The role: Ned Nederlander
Who got it: Martin Short
Early in its production, Three Amigos was called The Three Caballeros, and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were going to play the roles that eventually went to Chevy Chase and Martin Short, respectively. Development was underway as early as 1980, when Steve Martin mentioned the casting plans in an interview with Playboy. Belushi's death a couple of years later prevented this incarnation of the film from coming into fruition.

Three Amigos is a well-respected satire that pretty much invented the formula for movies about genre actors living through the plots of their movies. Galaxy Quest and, more recently, Tropic Thunder took a few pages from the Three Amigos playbook. It would have been neat to see Belushi in another film with that wide of an influence. He's a solid choice for the wild and crazy Ned Nederlander character. Martin Short did a superb job here, but Short and Belushi have very different comedic styles and I'm curious as to what Belushi could have done with the part.

On a sidenote related to another comedian who died too soon, Sam Kinison filmed a bit part in Three Amigos that was left on the cutting room floor allegedly because Chevy Chase was worried Kinison upstaged him. If the original cast of Three Amigos had been used, Chase wouldn't have been in the cast, and maybe Kinison's role would have been left in. If the scene's really as funny as Chase feared, who knows what it could have done to Sam Kinison's film career?

It's also interesting to note how many projects Belushi and Aykroyd were considering making together. SNL, 1941, The Blues Brothers, and Neighbors stand as their only screen collaborations, but it would have been fun seeing their partnership progress in subsequent years.

11. Animal House 2 (unfilmed)
The role: John “Bluto” Blutarsky
When Animal House became the highest grossing comedy of all time in 1978, you can bet Universal executives started pushing hard for a sequel. A script was written that would take place during the Summer of Love and involve the gang getting back together for Otter's wedding. When the similarly-themed sequel to American Graffiti bombed, the studio began to rethink things. The project was shelved for good when Belushi died.

Sequels are generally not a good idea, especially in comedy. There are a few exceptions, but considering Hollywood's track record with comedy sequels, this probably would have just been a hollow retread of its predecessor. However, Animal House had a large enough audience that it could have spilled over, making the second installment a success. A hit here could have helped Belushi get other projects made, but it would have kept him typecast in the role from which he was trying so hard to distance himself.

12. A Confederacy of Dunces (unfilmed)
The role: Ignatius J. Reilly
The cult classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces has spent several decades in development hell. John Belushi was attached to play the lead role of Ignatius J. Reilly shortly before his death. He had scheduled a meeting to finalize his deal that was set for a day or so after the day of his overdose. Richard Pryor was also attached, to play Burma Jones, while Harold Ramis was planning on directing. The whole project fell apart when Belushi died, and there is said to be a curse surrounding any film adaptations of the book. Several attempts since then have failed, with John Candy and Chris Farley attached at different points before their premature deaths. The most recent attempt to adapt the book, by director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Eastbound & Down) and starring Will Ferrell, was called off in 2005 after several months of preparation.

13. Atuk (unfilmed)
The role: Atuk
Atuk, based on the book The Incomporable Atuk by Mordecai Richler, is one of the most famous "cursed" projects in Hollywood. It told the story of “an Eskimo warrior trying to adapt to life in the big city.” There's a short list of comedic actors, most of them overweight, who considered taking the lead role before meeting early deaths. John Belushi signed on, only to die a few months later. Sam Kinison, John Candy, and Chris Farley followed suit in the '90s, each one allegedly passing away after reading the script. It's also rumored that Phil Hartman was considering a supporting role in the project before his passing and that original SNL head writer Michael O'Donoghue was brought on to polish up the script before he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1994.

14. Fatty Arbuckle biopic (unfilmed)
The role: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Another project that John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley were each interested in at different points was a biopic based on the life of silent era film comedian Fatty Arbuckle. These three actors were circling a lot of the same projects before their deaths, but it makes sense seeing as they have similar body types. Do I actually believe there's a curse associated with these three projects? No, of course not. The O'Donoghue and Hartman links to Atuk aren't well-documented and it's kind of a stretch to drag them into the matter. Belushi, Candy, and Farley were all overweight, while Belushi and Farley were both heavy drug users. The more likely explanation than a "magic curse" is that these projects were designed specifically for overweight actors, and overweight people don’t tend to live as long, especially when they are into hard drugs.

15. Noble Rot (unfilmed)
The role: Johnny Glorioso
Noble Rot was John Belushi's passion project, something he was writing and prepping to star in before his death. The script was based on a previous unproduced screenplay, "Sweet Deception" by Mary Tyler Moore director Jay Sandrich. Belushi was in the process of co-writing Noble Rot with his SNL cohort Don Novello (best known for playing Father Guido Sarducci). The story follows the youngest son in a winemaking family who is sent to a big tasting to show off his family’s newest bottle. It was to be something of a departure for Belushi, as it would have involved him playing a much more subdued character in a story that was more similar to an old-fashioned screwball comedy. You can read more about Noble Rot in this excellent Hitfix piece about the project.

John Belushi's writing career lapsed after Saturday Night Live, so it's surprising to see him returning to it here. Belushi was an accomplished writer, having written bits during his stints at Second City and the National Lampoon Radio Hour. When he came to Hollywood following SNL, for whatever reason, Belushi never wrote any of his own movies. Maybe that was the ingredient missing from Neighbors and Continental Divide. Belushi's voice wasn't guiding those projects. Looking at his peers, Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin frequently wrote their own films, while Bill Murray ad-libbed his way through his movies and did uncredited rewrites on scraps of paper while he was on set. Writing his own material might have been what was keeping Belushi from success late in his career, and returning to writing could have helped him to get his career back on track.

Bradford Evans is an Eskimo warrior trying to adapt to life in the big city.

  • DennyCrane

    Spies Like Us is one of the most underrated comedies of the 1980s.

  • HerooftheBeach

    These "what if" articles are great features, but this has to be one of the most depressing topics in comedy.

    Now, if John had been in Night Shift, would it have followed that he would become Batman? That's almost too amazing to think about.

  • Bradford Evans

    I think Belushi's take on Beetlejuice would be pretty spectacular, too.

  • Michael Roth
  • Michael Roth
  • kenjimeadu

    In an almost similar fashion, Tim Allen had the #1 movie, #1 TV show, and #1 book in America at one point. (The Santa Clause, Home Improvement, Don't Stand Too Close To A Naked Man)

  • Bradford Evans

    I guess heavy cocaine use is the key to pulling off something like that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathan.forester.1 Nathan Forester

    I've heard about Atuk, it's quite a coinicidence that the other three that were later offered a part in it: Sam Kinision, John Candy, Chris Farley…also died after they had been given the drafts of the script.

  • Abe

    There's no way Belushi was ever considered for the role of Richard in Blue Lagoon. That character is never older than mid-teens in the movie. Belushi was 30 years old (and looked it) when it was filmed. He may have been considered for one of the adult roles, possibly the character Paddy Button.

  • Zacheriah Pearce

    bill murry is way better than John Belushi, i Know he is dead, but he is way over hyped.

  • Nathan Forester

    If Belushi had gotten the role of Arthur Bach does that mean the Russell Brand version probably won't have existed?