Saturday Night’s Children: Peter Aykroyd (1979-1980)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
It’s surprising that Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s little brother) never benefitted from namesake recognition on SNL considering the modest sibling success of Brian Doyle-Murray and Jim Belushi. Barely appearing on the show at all, the younger Aykroyd was credited as a cast member for only six of the sixteen episodes he spent as both a writer and sparingly used featured extra. Dan Aykroyd-level fame on SNL may have been impossible in any case, but as one of nine eager featured players in the wake of the original cast, the pressure and competition was at an all-time high.
By the time the Ottawa-born Aykroyd graduated high school and joined Second City Toronto in 1976, his big brother had already spent a year as an original Not Ready for Prime Time Player. After training at Second City, Peter went on to score bit parts in the British series The New Avengers in 1977 and Second City’s own SCTV the following year.
After Dan left SNL alongside John Belushi at the end of the fourth season, Lorne Michaels decided to promote writers to cast members in a new form of billing: “Featured Player.” Alongside band member Paul Shaffer, writers Al Franken, Tom Davis, Jim Downey, Brian Doyle-Murray, Alan Zweibel, recurring writer/character actor Don Novello, and newcomer Harry Shearer, Peter Aykroyd was part of Michaels’s attempt at keeping SNL alive after the departure of its key players. The resulting season was unsurprisingly overcrowded and disjointed, but its more writer-centric tone did lend to some of the show’s most weirdly entertaining sketches as well as an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program.
One such sketch took the form of writer and sometimes-bit player Tom Schiller’s shorts, one of which — 1979’s “Java Junkie” — remains Peter Aykroyd’s only opportunity to play the lead. In the black-and-white noir parody costarring host Teri Garr and Patty Oja (who appeared in Michael O’Donoghue’s Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video), Aykroyd plays a chronic coffee addict who goes to rehab (at “Maxwell House”) to kick the habit, punctuating Schiller’s dry humor with his Shelley Berman-like delivery of the script: “Yeah, it was strange. I had no appetite. I just wanted coffee. Cuban, black coffee. I kept thinking about Betty, and the look on her face when she said goodbye…” It’s a bit tacky and forced, but Aykroyd gives it a very recently retro gravitas.
Aside from the Schiller short, Aykroyd remained mostly a featured extra, appearing now and then in sketches like “The Letter,” where host Bob Newhart plays a Civil War Major who procrastinates writing a dying soldier’s goodbye letter to his mother. Aykroyd served mostly in a writer capacity during his stint, having penned one of his older brother’s favorite sketches, the commercial parody for the “temporarily separated body fragments” receptacle “Speci-Pak” starring Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and host Buck Henry in 1979.
The end of the season brought Lorne Michaels’s departure from SNL, and in turn Aykroyd and the rest of the cast were out as well. While he did find several small parts in films Gas (1981) and The Funny Farm (1983) and the Canadian TV series Hot Shots in 1986, it was under Dan’s wing where Peter found the most bit part consistency, having appeared in Doctor Detroit (1983), Dragnet (1987), Coneheads (1993), and the 1991 horror comedy Nothing But Trouble, which the brothers wrote together (it earned them a Razzie Award for Worst Screenplay the following year). When not involved onscreen, Peter also worked as a songwriter and contributed to the soundtracks of his brother’s films Spies Like Us (1985), My Stepmother Is an Alien (1988), and Loose Cannons (1990). He also voiced Elwood Blues with Jim Belushi (as Jake Blues) for The Blues Brothers Animated Series in 1997.
Much like Dan, Peter has always been a believer of the paranormal and helped Dan research 1984’s Ghostbusters for authenticity (believe it or not). He later worked with the Office of Scientific Investigation and Research and created, executive produced, and wrote the Canadian sci-fi drama series PSI Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal from 1996-2000. While he may not have excelled onscreen during his time on SNL, according to his brother’s quote in People Magazine in 1993, Peter was the mind behind one of SNL‘s most memorable early catchphrases:
“Peter has a great sense of humor,” says Dan, 41, noting that as a teenager the younger Aykroyd would walk around the house like a robot, repeating the phrase, “Consume mass quantities,” which Dan later appropriated for his Conehead routines.
Not a bad little-brother contribution.