"That's the craziest son of a bitch I ever saw. How many more like him do you think there are up there?"
The dialogue above is taken from '1941,' spoken by General Stilwell (Robert Stack), in reference to Army Air Corp Capt. Wild Bill Kelso, played by the late John Belushi, who has just shot down a plane after a dogfight over Hollywood. (In the picture above, he's commandeered a motorcycle so he can get to the Pacific Ocean in time to sink a submarine.) Truly it can be said that Belushi earned a reputation as "the craziest son of a bitch" many people had ever seen. And there have been precious few others like him since his death on March 5, 1982.
Next Monday, January 24, marks his date of birth back in 1949; he would have turned 62. It's strange, sad, and dispiriting to realize that Belushi has been gone for nearly three decades. From a purely selfish perspective, that's three decades of potentially genius performances that we've been deprived of ever seeing. But we can imagine. And we can remember what he did accomplish during a career that was cut far too short. Born in Chicago, Belushi graduated from appearances in his high school variety show and summer stock productions to the Second City improv comedy group in 1971. A year later, he was appearing in the off-Broadway production of 'National Lampoon's Lemmings,' a Woodstock parody / musical revue that was captured in a video that can viewed via Netflix.
Belushi serves as master of ceremonies and ringmaster for a small cast of five that includes Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest. He demonstrates his musical versatility, playing drums on one song and bass guitar on a couple of others, performs in several skits, and, most memorably, does an extended impression of singer Joe Cocker, complete with flailing limbs and a face splashed with booze.
John Belushi as Joe Cocker (low-resolution source material):
That impression was resurrected after he joined the cast of 'Saturday Night Live' in 1975, just one of many characters he created during the five seasons he spent with the show. His SNL "best of" collection features the very first sketch anyone performed on the show ("Wolverines" with Michael O'Donoghue, in which Belushi falls dead in imitation of his English teacher), "Samurai Delicatessen" with Belushi as a samurai sandwich maker, and so many more (Belushi as Brando as Vito Corleone in group therapy, Belushi as William Shatner as Captain Kirk when 'Star Trek' is cancelled, Belushi as The Incredible Hulk). For young people of my generation, SNL was a formative experience. Belushi's characters were the ones we tried to imitate the most in school, making each other with our Samurai Student impression and punctuating sentences with his catchphrase: "But noooooooooooooo ..."
What everyone remembers, though, is 'Don't Look Back in Anger,' Tom Schiller's black and white short in which Belushi appears as an old man, the last survivor of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, walking sadly through a graveyard and missing his friends. "Everybody thought I'd be the first one to go," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
Belushi scored a small part as a giggling deputy sheriff in Jack Nicholson's rambunctious Western 'Goin' South,' but his true breakout came in 'National Lampoon's Animal House,' an unexpected smash that was released at the end of July 1978. Belushi had to shuttle between New York City and Eugene, Oregon, to fulfill his commitments to SNL and the film, but the effort proved worthwhile.
John "Bluto" Blutarsky was one of those signature roles, a great marriage of character and actor, in which Belushi's fearless physical instincts meshed with Bluto's inspirational, if intellectually challenged, nature. (Co-writer Harold Ramis says that the part was written specifically for Belushi.) Who can forget the food fight, or Bluto trying to cheer up Flounder by breaking a bottle over his head, or teaching everyone the dirty lyrics of "Louie Louie," or peeping into a girl's second-story bedroom while precariously balanced on a ladder? He was a sensation.
With the role, Belushi established a new comedy archetype: the slob as hero. The decade before, Walter Matthau made the sloppy Oscar Madison a sentimental favorite in 'The Odd Couple' despite his aversion to neatness. But Oscar was a successful sports writer with a nice apartment; Belushi as Bluto was nothing of the kind. He was a college student in his seventh year, with a grade point average of 0.0. Despite his taste for underachievement, he's the one that reinvigorates his fraternity brothers when they're at their lowest point. Belushi as Bluto made the case that what's most important in life is simply having fun with your friends. Physical appearance and personal accomplishments were unimportant. "Food fight!" "Toga!"
In this brief clip, his motivational speech is just getting started.
By the end of the year, Belushi's fame had grown to the point that he was the only one featured in a teaser trailer for Steven Spielberg's '1941.' Originally, the role of Capt. Wild Bill Kelso was a small one, tucked in near the end of the movie. Co-writer Robert Zemeckis says that when Belushi was cast, the role understandably expanded. Spielberg enjoyed working with Belushi so much that he kept adding material for him. The director fondly remembers his unpredictability -- he never knew if Belushi would stick to the script, ad-lib new lines, or come up with new bits of physical funny business -- as well as the personal kindnesses that Belushi showed to Spielberg's family during shooting.
Here's an example of a scene that was added to showcase Belushi:
At the time of its release, '1941' was poorly received by critics, with the film's huge budget serving as a stumbling block for some, while Belushi was singled out for derision by others (including reviewers for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Newsweek). It's true that Belushi gives a far more over-the-top performance than the other actors. In retrospect, however, he's the only loose cannon in the picture; it's as though he's the only one who understood the loony nature of the project. When negative jibes started flying at the film's premiere, producer John Milius quotes Belushi (along with co-star Dan Aykroyd) saying: "Forget them if they can't take a joke." Over the years, the critical reputation of '1941' has rebounded. (See, for example, the firm defense expounded by our own Scott Weinberg last year.)
Belushi and Aykroyd expanded their Blues Brothers musical act, viewed by many as a novelty, into a full-fledged movie under the direction of kindred spirit John Landis. Released just six months after '1941,' with which it shared an appetite for large-scale destruction as an expression of extreme physical comedy, 'The Blues Brothers' was a bonafide hit, earning $57 million domestically, good enough for #10 on the annual chart, and more than $100 million worldwide. Whereas in '1941' Belushi's outlandish personality stood out, as Jake Blues he fit right in with the madness around him. He had great chemistry with Aykroyd, and even in their most chaotic outbursts, they provided a focused core, around which everything and everyone else could revolve.
The financial success of 'The Blues Brothers' made it possible to conceive of what Belushi might be able to do in other types of pictures. His comic abilities were proven. Could he, though, be funny in a button-down type role and -- gasp! -- romance a fine-looking lady?
'Continental Divide' was a "fish out of water" / "opposites attract" romance, released in September 1981. Written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Michael Apted, the film features Belushi as street smart Chicago Sun-Times columnist Ernie Souchak, reportedly inspired by the legendary Mike Royko. Souchak, as everyone calls him, is a well-known man about town and a crusader against corruption. As the film begins, he's become a burr in the saddle of a city alderman, to the point that he gets beat up by a couple of goons. Worried for his safety, his best friends, managing editor Howard (Allen Goorwitz) and his wife Sylvia (Carlin Glynn), convince Souchak to accept an out-of-town assignment.
Cut to the heavy-smoking, overweight Souchak huffing and puffing his way in the Rocky Mountains, on his way to interview ornithologist Nell Porter (Blair Brown). As with any Hollywood romance, even one scripted by Kasdan early in his career (his other romantic scripts include 'Body Heat' and 'The Bodyguard'), we know that Souchak and Nell will end up together, at least for a while. Is the romance funny and believable?
In this clip, the two negotiate the terms of their time together, and Souchak records his first impressions of Nell.
Not quite. Brown is terrific as an expert on American bald eagles who's been living happily in isolation for years; she's fearless, strong, kind, warm, gentle, and nurturing. Belushi, unfortunately, is not quite up to her level of acting. He flounders when he's playing the hard-nosed reporter in soft and fuzzy mode, smitten with a rugged, earthy wilderness woman.
Here's the thing: He's terrific as the hard-nosed reporter. In the relatively few scenes in the city that bookend the picture, you completely believe him as a newspaperman, the type of journalist with the instinct to pry a few nuggets of information out of two criminals as they're mugging him. He's in his element; in fact, making the movie about him as an investigative reporter, a drama with comic relief, would have been a much better idea at that point of his career.
As a romantic leading man, his relative inexperience as an actor showed. As a street-smart reporter, you wanted to see more of him, find out what made him tick.
In his final film, 'Neighbors,' Belushi teamed once again with Dan Aykroyd. The two switched roles before production began, so Belushi ended up as the straight man and Aykroyd the raving lunatic.
Based on a novel by Thomas Berger, adapted for the screen by Larry Gelbart, and directed by John G. Avildsen, 'Neighbors' is an extremely uneven dark comedy. Belushi plays Earl Keese, a conservative, uptight, put-upon middle-aged man, upon whose grey-sideburned head all kinds of trouble is heaped upon.
Earl lives with his joyless wife Enid (Kathryn Walker) in a suburban home, nestled in an isolated cul-de-sac. Coming home one evening, he sees that someone is moving into the only neighboring house, and that's when a long, eventful, sleepless night begins. His new neighbors are the overbearing Vic (Aykroyd) and the overheated Ramona (Cathy Moriarty). Before he knows it, Earl is giving Vic money and loaning him his car, while fending off advances from Ramona. Meanwhile, Enid is charmed and Earl feels like he's losing his mind.
Reportedly, the production was deeply troubled, both with creative conflicts and personal problems, as Belushi's drug problem intensified. Whatever the behind-the-scenes troubles, what's on screen is not a complete disaster, even if we can wish that it all came out better. Avildsen, already a veteran director with 'Save the Tiger' and 'Rocky' under his belt, appears to have no aptitude for dark comedy. The movie's tone changes from scene to scene, playing out most often as a straight drama would. The too on-the-nose "Looney Tunes"-style musical score by Bill Conti, a desperate stab at emphasizing the funny, is simply strident, and especially distracting in the opening scenes.
Playing against type, Belushi struggles to figure out how to play the material. (Some reports say that Gelbart's script was getting constant re-writes during filming.) Certain scenes succeed, almost in spite of themselves, especially when the character's exasperation bubbles out, as in a strained dinner conversation, or when Earl starts to buy into the baloney that Vic and Ramona are selling, as in a seductive bedroom encounter.
Here's another good scene, as Vic and Earl share coffee, with Earl still not sure if Vic is completely insane.
Mostly what the movie does is show that Belushi had potential that wasn't being fully tapped. The final sequence, where Ramona and Vic invite Earl along on their trip into the unknown, prompting him to glide gracefully into his house and begin wreaking havoc, is especially good.
Released on December 18, 1981, 'Neighbors' did moderate, if profitable business, despite middling reviews. Less than three months later, Belushi was found dead in his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. He was 33.
Belushi was addicted to drugs, but the sky might have been the limit if he'd been able to conquer that addiction. IMDB.com lists a variety of roles that he didn't live to play: Dr. Peter Venkman in 'Ghost Busters' (played by Bill Murray) is the most notable, a co-starring part with Aykroyd in 'Spies Like Us' (played by Chevy Chase) the most predictable, and a supporting role in Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America' (James Woods) the most surprising.
Would Belushi have continued to evolve as an actor, perhaps following a similar path to the one traveled by Bill Murray? Or would he has stick with the tried-and-true, trotting out similar gags and playing similar characters until audiences lost interest, like Dan Aykroyd? Based on his last two films, the former course is more likely. With good roles and good directors, Belushi had the potential to do most anything, and the willingness to change and adapt.
He just needed more time.