Saturday Night’s Children: John Belushi (1975-1979)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 39 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.
SNL‘s first party monster legend was a Chicago boy born to Albanian immigrants — a short, squat, blue-collar popular kid whose fierce presence dominated everything from the high school football field to the improv theater stage and, during his final years, the silver screen. Many of the late John Belushi’s friends and former collaborators have attempted to describe the man behind the SNL icon — longtime friend Dan Aykroyd called him “all-American” while former cast mate Jane Curtin claimed he was an unrepetant misogynist and saboteur of sketches from women writers — but no matter what the opinion, most would agree with Lorne Michaels’s assessment that Belushi was an “absolutely indestructible” comedy genius whose influence on SNL and today’s comedy creators can never be overstated.
Belushi was born the oldest of four children. His father worked endless hours at his own restaurants in Chicago, and the family moved from the city to Wheaton when Belushi was six years old. In Belushi’s 2005 biography, his younger brother Jim describes their parents as not “like parents; they were like siblings, very immature and competitive.” Quickly rising to popularity during his Wheaton school years, Belushi became a favorite in school plays, speech competitions, high school rock bands, and the football team (his teammates dubbed him “Killer”) but it was his obsession with comedy albums by Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart that began to take hold. Despite his all-star school status, Belushi ultimately turned down two college scholarships to pursue an acting career, which got a kick-start thanks to a monologue he performed during senior year as a Nazi camp counselor. The performance won him several local awards and led to over a year of summer stock productions, on which the high school grad was the youngest performer. It wasn’t until Belushi caught his first real improv show at Chicago’s Second City Theatre, however, that he felt he’d found his calling.
By then a fully fledged hippie, John gave college a shot at both the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and later the College of DuPage. His focus had already shifted to learning the kind of improvisation he’d seen at Second City, so he studied their shows closely and founded a small improv troupe of his own with a group of DuPage friends called the West Compass Players, performing together mostly on campus and local venues in town. In 1971, Belushi landed an audition with The Second City and earned a spot on the mainstage cast, followed by a starring role alongside then-unknowns Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest in National Lampoon’s off-Broadway Woodstock parody (and touring stage show) Lemmings in 1973. It was a stage, radio, and album hit, and The New York Times blessed it with a glowing review: “The real message of the ’60s wasn’t love and peace, it was death — from needles or bullets, take your pick. Death is what Lemmings is about. It is also implicitly about laughter as a vital life sign.”
From Lemmings Belushi landed a regular role on The National Lampoon Radio Hour — a job that moved him and his girlfriend Judith (who also worked on the show as a producer) to New York City. He was soon promoted to creative director of the radio and stage shows and scouted his own talent at Second City Chicago and Toronto, where he first met and struck up a lifetime friendship (and recurring character duo) with Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd already had several performing gigs lined up in Toronto at the time, but Belushi brought Gilda Radner, Brian Doyle Murray, Harold Ramis, and Joe Flaherty to New York as part of his own National Lampoon team.
As for Belushi’s almost reluctant SNL hiring, Chevy Chase describes it as “an afterthought” in Live from New York; Belushi had already told Lorne Michaels he was “against” appearing on television, but between his hit audition — which you can watch above — and how many of his Second City and Lampoon collaborators were involved, Belushi was one of the final cast members added to the show. He starred in the first-ever cold open “The Wolverines” opposite head writer Michael O’Donoghue, created one of the show’s first hit recurring characters in the “Samurai” sketches written with Alan Zweibel, stunned audiences with his uncanny and visceral (and even moving) Joe Cocker impersonation, and brought his father’s long hours as a restaurant owner to life in the “Olympia Cafe” sketches, which featured a real working grill on the 8H stage.
Belushi had other recurring characters like Frank Leary of the “St. Mickey’s Knights of Columbus” sketches or Lowel Brock from H&R alternative “H&L Brock” and racked up over 30 impersonations including politicians (Henry Kissinger, Tip O’Neill), actors (Robert Blake, Elizabeth Taylor, William Shatner), writers and musicians (Truman Capote, John Lennon), and even NBC brass Fred Silverman, but it was his 1976 debut as Jake alongside Aykroyd as Elwood of The Blues Brothers that his future as a ’70s comedy king/rock star gained mainstream traction. He also starred in the 1977 commercial parody “Little Chocolate Donuts,” showed off his Brando impersonation in “Godfather Therapy,” and appeared as the only surviving SNL cast member in Tom Schiller’s 1978 short “Don’t Look Back in Anger” — an eerie watch in hindsight considering Belushi’s fate just a few years later.
Before Belushi left SNL with Aykroyd in 1979 to make the Blues Brothers film, he had already skyrocketed to fame with his big-screen starring debut in the John Landis-directed Animal House alongside many of his Second City collaborators the year before. Thanks to the film, Belushi was anointed an iconic and literal poster boy for the wild, toga-partying, whiskey-guzzling, worm-dancing college frat culture across America, and though critical reviews were mixed, Animal House pulled in enormous profits for Universal and ranks on countless published lists of the best and funniest films ever made. It also gave Belushi the honorable distinction of simultaneously starring in the #1 box office film, #1 TV show, and #1 album on the Billboard charts with the Blues Brothers’ debut album Briefcase Full of Blues.
Beginning in 1979 Belushi starred in four films — Steven Spielberg’s WWII flop 1941, 1981 rom-com (and equal flop) Continental Divide, and two Aykroyd collaboratons (The Blues Brothers, Neighbors) — and had several projects lined up for the near-future, including another film with Aykroyd called Moon Over Miami and a passion project called Noble Rot, which Belushi developed with SNL writer and short-lived cast member Don Novello. (For more of Belushi’s roles that never came to fruition, check out his Lost Roles breakdown here.)
Sadly, Belushi’s career came to a tragic end on March 5, 1982 at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, where he died of a cocaine and heroin overdose at just 33 years old. His reputation for drugs and hard partying were well known by his friends and coworkers, but Belushi’s death still came as a shock to those who had witnessed his steady rise as a comedic genius, blues rock star persona, and Hollywood powerhouse. “The sadness is that John could have done anything,” said Robin Williams, who was one of the last people to speak with Belushi before he died. “He loved music, but the fact is he could have acted and done some really great drama. Kind of like almost Elvis on that level. He was like a comic Brando. He had ‘the thing.'”
Since Belushi’s death, his life has been chronicled in two biographies: Bob Woodward’s Wired from 1984 — which was staunchly panned as sensationalist tripe by those who knew him — and 2005’s Belushi: A Biography, an oral history compiled by Tanner Colby and Judith Belushi Pisano with contributions from his Second City, SNL, and Hollywood cohorts as well as friends and family members (including his brother Jim, who was an SNL cast member in the ’80s). In recent years it’s been in development as a feature film as well with Emile Hirsch cast as Belushi, Miles Teller cast as Aykroyd, and Ellen Page in talks to play Belushi’s wife, who is also involved with the project alongside Aykroyd as an executive producer. Hopefully between the biopic and this year’s nostalgic 40th anniversary year on SNL, Belushi’s undeniable brilliance will stand as a challenge to an entirely new generation of performers. His wild man persona and fierce intensity hasn’t been seen on SNL since the death of Chris Farley — though there’s been hints of hope thanks to writer Leslie Jones’s recent appearances — but in any case, no SNL player will ever reach the legendary pinnacle Belushi dared, sang, and danced his way toward during the show’s early years.