John Adam Belushi (January 24, 1949 — March 5, 1982) was an American comedian, actor and musician of Albanian descent, and one of the seven original cast members of the NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL). Throughout his career, Belushi had a personal and artistic partnership with his fellow SNL star Dan Aykroyd, whom he met while they were both working at Chicago’s The Second City comedy club.
Born in Chicago to Albanian American parents, Belushi started his own comedy troupe with Tino Insana and Steve Beshekas, called “The West Compass Trio”. After being discovered by Bernard Sahlins, he performed with The Second City and met Aykroyd, Brian Doyle-Murray and Harold Ramis.
In 1975, Belushi was recommended to SNL creator and showrunner Lorne Michaels by Chevy Chase and Michael O’Donoghue, who accepted Belushi as a new cast member of the show after an audition. He developed a series of characters on the show that reached high success, including his performances as Henry Kissinger and Ludwig van Beethoven. Belushi’s Albanian ancestry lent itself to his “Olympia Restaurant” sketch (in which he sold nothing but “cheeseburgers, cheeps [potato chips] and Pepsi”). After his breakout film role as John Blutarsky in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), Belushi later appeared in films such as 1941, The Blues Brothers, and Neighbors. He also pursued interests in music, creating with Aykroyd, Lou Marini, Tom Malone, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Paul Shaffer, and The Blues Brothers, from which the film received its name.
In his personal life, Belushi struggled with heavy drug use that threatened his comedy career; he was dismissed and rehired at SNL on several occasions due to his behavior. In 1982, Belushi died from combined drug intoxication possibly caused by Cathy Smith, who injected him with a mixture of heroin and cocaine known as a speedball at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, California. He was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004.
John Adam Belushi was born to Agnes Demetri (née Samaras) Belushi and Adam Anastos Belushi in Humboldt Park, a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Agnes, a pharmacy worker, was born in Ohio to Albanian immigrants while Adam was an Albanian immigrant from Qytezë, who owned the Fair Oaks restaurant, on North Avenue in Chicago, later a restaurant in Wheaton.
Belushi was raised in Wheaton, a suburb west of Chicago, along with his three siblings: younger brothers Billy and Jim, and sister Marian. He was Eastern Orthodox Christian, attending the Albanian Orthodox Church and attended Wheaton Central High School, where he met his future wife, Judith Jacklin.
In 1965, Belushi formed a band, the Ravens, together with four fellow high school students (Dick Blasucci, Michael Blasucci, Tony Pavilonis, and Phil Special). They recorded one single, “Listen to Me Now/Jolly Green Giant.” Belushi played drums and sang vocals. The record was not successful, and the band broke up when he enrolled at the College of DuPage. He also attended the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater for a year, which inspired the famous Animal House scene of D-Day driving a motorcycle up the stairs. Belushi acquired the iconic “College” crewneck, worn by his character in Animal House, at a print shop when visiting his brother, Jim Belushi, who attended Southern Illinois University.
The Second City and National Lampoon
Belushi started his own comedy troupe in Chicago, the West Compass Trio (named after the improvisational cabaret revue Compass Players active from 1955–1958 in Chicago), with Tino Insana and Steve Beshekas. Their success piqued the interest of Bernard Sahlins, the founder of The Second City improvised comedy enterprise, who went to see them performing in 1971 and asked Belushi to join the cast. At Second City, he met and began working with Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and Brian Doyle-Murray.
In 1972, Belushi was offered a role, together with Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest, in National Lampoon Lemmings, a parody of Woodstock, which played Off-Broadway in 1972. Belushi and Jacklin moved to New York City. Belushi started working as a writer, director and actor for The National Lampoon Radio Hour, a comedy radio show which was created, produced and written by staff from National Lampoon magazine. Cast members on the shows produced by Belushi included Brian Doyle Murray, Bill Murray, Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest and Richard Belzer. During a trip to Toronto to check out the local Second City cast in 1974, he met Dan Aykroyd. Jacklin became an associate producer for the show, and she and Belushi were married on December 31, 1976. “The National Lampoon Show” toured the country in 1974; it was produced by Ivan Reitman. Lampoon owner Matty Simmons was offered a TV show on NBC at this time but passed.
Saturday Night Live
In 1975, Chase and writer Michael O’Donoghue recommended Belushi to Lorne Michaels as a potential member for a television show Michaels was about to produce called NBC’s Saturday Night, later Saturday Night Live (SNL). Michaels was initially undecided, as he was not sure if Belushi’s physical humor would fit with what he was envisioning, but he changed his mind after giving Belushi an audition.
Over his four-year tenure at SNL, Belushi developed a series of successful characters, including the belligerent Samurai Futaba, Henry Kissinger, Ludwig van Beethoven, the Greek owner (Pete Dionisopoulos) of the Olympia Café, Captain James T. Kirk, and a contributor of furious opinion pieces on Weekend Update, during which he coined his catchphrase, “But N-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O!” With Aykroyd, Belushi created Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers. Originally intended to warm up the crowd before the show, the Blues Brothers were eventually featured as musical guests. Belushi also reprised his Lemmings imitation of Joe Cocker. Cocker himself joined Belushi in 1976 to sing “Feelin’ Alright?” together.
Like many of his fellow SNL cast members, Belushi began experimenting heavily with drugs and attended concerts with many of the popular artists of the era including Fleetwood Mac, Meat Loaf, KISS, The Dead Boys, Warren Zevon, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers. In 1990, Lorne Michaels would remember him as loyal to the writers and a team player but he was fired (and immediately re-hired) by Michaels a number of times.
In Rolling Stone’s February 2015 appraisal of all 141 SNL cast members to that time, Belushi received the top ranking. “Belushi was the ‘live’ in Saturday Night Live”, they wrote, “the one who made the show happen on the edge … Nobody embodied the highs and lows of SNL like Belushi.”
In 1978, Belushi performed in the films Old Boyfriends (directed by Joan Tewkesbury), Goin’ South (directed by Jack Nicholson), and National Lampoon’s Animal House (directed by John Landis). Upon its initial release, National Lampoon’s Animal House received generally mixed reviews from critics, but Time magazine and Roger Ebert proclaimed it one of the year’s best. Filmed for $2.8 million, it is one of the most profitable movies of all time, garnering an estimated gross of more than $141 million in the form of theatrical rentals and home video, not including merchandising. National Lampoon’s Animal House written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller followed in the tradition of the Marx Brothers films that featured subversive and satirical plots that took on traditional institutions. Hollywood studios would try and copy the success without the satire creating a string of “Nerd vs Jocks” films in the 1980s with cheap sight gags involving nudity and gross out humor. Stripes and Meatballs starring Bill Murray followed the formula as well and even included a motivational speech in the last act, a la Bluto. Ivan Reitman produced both as well as “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”
Following the success of the Blues Brothers on SNL, Belushi and Aykroyd, with the help of pianist-arranger Paul Shaffer, started assembling studio talents to form a proper band. These included SNL saxophonist “Blue” Lou Marini and trombonist-saxophonist Tom Malone, who had previously played in Blood, Sweat & Tears. At Shaffer’s suggestion, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, the powerhouse combo from Booker T and the M.G.’s, who played on dozens of hits from Memphis’s Stax Records during the 1960s were signed as well. In 1978, the Blues Brothers released their debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues, with Atlantic Records. The album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum. Two singles were released, “Rubber Biscuit”, which reached No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 and “Soul Man”, which reached No. 14.
In 1979, Belushi left SNL with Aykroyd to film The Blues Brothers which conflicted with the shooting schedule of SNL. Lorne Michaels decided to leave at the end of his contract and the network’s pressure to use recurring characters were also factors in their decision. They made two movies together after leaving, Neighbors (directed by John Avildsen), and most notably The Blues Brothers (directed by John Landis). Released in the U.S. on June 20, 1980, The Blues Brothers received generally positive reviews. It earned just under $5 million in its opening weekend and went on to gross $115.2 million in theaters worldwide before its release on home video. The Blues Brothers band toured to promote the film, which led to a third album (and second live album), Made in America, recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1980. The track “Who’s Making Love” peaked at No 39.
The only film Belushi made without Aykroyd following his departure from SNL was the romantic comedy Continental Divide (directed by Michael Apted) and written by Lawrence Kasdan. Released in September 1981, it starred Belushi as Chicago hometown hero writer Ernie Souchack (loosely based on newspaper columnist and long-time family friend Mike Royko), who gets an assignment researching a scientist (played by Blair Brown) who studies birds of prey in the remote Rocky Mountains.
By 1981, Belushi had become a fan and advocate of the punk rock band Fear after seeing them perform in several after-hours New York City bars, and brought them to Cherokee Studios to record songs for the soundtrack of Neighbors. Blues Brother band member Tom Scott, along with producing partner and Cherokee owner Bruce Robb, initially helped with the session but later pulled out due to conflicts with Belushi. The session was eventually produced by Cropper. The producers of “Neighbors” refused to use the song in the movie. Belushi along with SNL head writer Michael O’Donoghue and SNL writer Nelson Lyon booked Fear to play the Halloween 1981 episode of SNL; the telecast of the performance featured then-novel moshing and stage diving, and was cut short by NBC due to the band’s profanity. The New York Post published an account of these and other sensationalistic details of the event the following day.
At the time of his death, Belushi was pursuing several movie projects, including an ABSCAM-related caper called Moon Over Miami, to be directed by Louis Malle, and a diamond smuggling caper called Noble Rot with Jay Sandrich, based on a script he adapted and rewrote with former SNL writer Don Novello. However, Paramount Studios offered to produce “Noble Rot” only if he starred in The Joy of Sex, which would have featured him in a diaper. Dan Aykroyd advised him to turn it down and return to the East Coast where he was writing Ghostbusters. Belushi also talked about producing a drug trafficking film in a High Times tribute article from 1982, “Belushi wanted to give these daring captains courageous of consciousness the credit they deserved, he told me. He wanted to star in a major marijuana movie to be called Kingpin. He wanted to play the title role.”
Belushi also filmed a “Guest Star Appearance” on an episode of the television series Police Squad! (1982) by the creators of Airplane!. The opening of the show featured a running joke which featured a sight gag with the guest star dying right away. He died shortly before the episode was to air, so the scene was cut and replaced by a segment with William Conrad.
Belushi had managed to refrain from drug use for a brief period in 1981, but severely relapsed during the production of Neighbors. Less than four months after the shoot, the day before he died, he visited his long-time manager Bernie Brillstein and asked for money. Brillstein declined, strongly suspecting that Belushi wanted money for drugs. Later in the day, when Brillstein had another visitor, Belushi returned and again asked for money. Brillstein complied, reluctant to rebuke Belushi in front of another person. In the early morning hours on the day of his death, Belushi was visited separately by friends Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, as well as Catherine Evelyn Smith.
At approximately 12:00pm PDT on Friday, March 5, 1982, Belushi’s fitness trainer and occasional bodyguard Bill Wallace arrived at Belushi’s bungalow at the Chateau Marmont to deliver a typewriter and audiocassette recorder because Belushi had requested them the previous day. Wallace found Belushi dead, with no one else present in the bungalow. The cause of death was combined drug intoxication involving cocaine and heroin, a drug combination known as a speedball. Belushi’s death was investigated by forensic pathologist Michael Baden, among others, and while the findings were disputed, it was officially ruled a drug-related accident.
In an interview with the National Enquirer two months after Belushi’s death, Smith admitted that she had been with him at the Chateau Marmont on the night of his death and had given him the fatal speedball shot. After the appearance of the Enquirer article, the case was reopened. Smith was arrested, extradited from Ontario, Canada, and charged with first-degree murder. A plea bargain reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter, and she served fifteen months in prison.
Smith, 39, pleaded no contest June 11, 1986 to involuntary manslaughter and three counts of furnishing and administering controlled substances to Belushi, 33, in the hours before he was found dead on March 5, 1982, in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood.
John Belushi would not have died when he died except for the heroin that was furnished and administered by the defendant.
—LA county prosecutor’s office
Smith was arrested at the scene, but was released by police after questioning. According to the transcript of Smith’s police questioning, they didn’t ask where she got the drugs, leading to speculation she was an informant and they gave them to her. She was let go because it was a sting gone bad.
“Weitzman said that Smith was freed when “someone she does not know,” who believes she is being wrongly prosecuted, volunteered to post a bond for her. She was ordered to report to Los Angeles Superior Court on Feb. 11 to enter a plea.”
Belushi’s wife arranged for a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral that was conducted by an Albanian Orthodox priest. He was interred at Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Chilmark, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard. Belushi’s tombstone has a skull and crossbones with the inscription, “I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on.” His body was removed and reburied in an unmarked grave nearby due to fans littering on his original grave. His mother’s tombstone at Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois, has Belushi’s name inscribed on it and thus serves as a cenotaph.
Tributes, legacy, and popular culture
Belushi’s life was detailed in two books: the 1984 biography Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi by Bob Woodward, whose accuracy has been questioned by journalists and by people close to Belushi, and 1990s Samurai Widow by his widow Judith. Woodward’s book was adapted into a 1989 film of the same name, which was denounced by Aykroyd and Judith Belushi and was given poor reviews by critics.
Eddie Money wrote “Passing By the Graveyard (Song for John B.)”, from his 1982 album No Control, in tribute to Belushi. The two became friends after Money was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live during the show’s third season.”
The thrash metal group Anthrax penned a song about Belushi on their 1987 album Among the Living, titled “Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.).” Polish rock band Lady Pank recorded a song “John Belushi” for their 1988 album Tacy sami, with references to his Albanian ancestry.
Belushi has been portrayed by actors Eric Siegel in Gilda Radner: It’s Always Something, Tyler Labine in Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (which also features his friendship with Robin Williams), Michael Chiklis in Wired and John Gemberling in A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Chris Farley, whose life was heavily influenced by Belushi, died in 1997 at age 33 due to a drug overdose, similar to combined drug intoxication, which contribute to the comparisons between Belushi and Farley.
Belushi’s widow later remarried and is now Judith Jacklin Belushi Pisano. She and co-biographer Tanner Colby produced Belushi: A Biography, a collection of first-person interviews and photographs of John Belushi’s life that was published in 2005.
Mike Royko, a close friend of the family, and called “Uncle Mike” by Belushi, wrote a eulogy for the Chicago Sun-Times on March 7, 1982.
Belushi’s career and death were prominently featured in the 1999 memoir of his manager Bernie Brillstein, who wrote that he was haunted by the comedian’s overdose and learned how to better deal with clients who abuse drugs or alcohol from handling Belushi.
In 2004, Belushi was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a motion pictures star located at 6355 Hollywood Boulevard. In 2006, Biography Channel aired an episode of Final 24, a documentary following Belushi during the last twenty-four hours leading to his death. Four years later, Biography aired a full biography documentation of Belushi’s life.
According to his SNL castmate Jane Curtin, who appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, Belushi was a misogynist who would deliberately sabotage the work of female writers and comics while working on SNL. “So you’d go to a table read, and if a woman writer had written a piece for John, he would not read it in his full voice. He felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces written by women.” The events were taken out of context in the wake of the “Me Too” movement as SNL writer Anne Beatts was writing a book with Judy Belushi at the time and said John was frustrated with them spending more time on the book than with him. He complained to Lorne about Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster. Judy Belushi claims John was a “Women’s Libber” and didn’t hate women.
During the pre-production of Ghostbusters, Ivan Reitman remarked Slimer was sort of like Bluto in the film Animal House, like the ghost of John Belushi. Since then, Slimer has been described as “The Ghost of John Belushi” by Dan Aykroyd in many interviews.
At the conclusion of the first live SNL episode after Belushi’s death (Robert Urich/Mink DeVille on March 20, 1982), Brian Doyle-Murray gave a tribute to him.
Belushi was scheduled to present the first Best Visual Effects Oscar at the 1982 Academy Awards with Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd presented the award alone, and stated from the lectern: “My partner would have loved to have been here tonight to present this award, since he was a bit of a Visual Effect himself.”
In 2015, John Belushi was ranked by Rolling Stone as the greatest SNL cast member of all time.
Belushi attended the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. The school continues to honor his legacy; an 800 seat theater on the campus was named after him. The school offers scholarships in his name, including; the John Belushi/Second City Scholarship, the John Belushi Choral Scholarship, the John Belushi Jazz/Band Scholarship, the John Belushi Orchestra Scholarship, and the John Belushi Stage Management Scholarship.
|1975||Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle||Craig Baker||English version, Voice|
|1978||Animal House||John Blutarsky|
|Goin’ South||Deputy Hector|
|1979||Old Boyfriends||Eric Katz|
|1941||Capt. Wild Bill Kelso|
|1980||The Blues Brothers||“Joliet” Jake Blues|
|1981||Continental Divide||Ernie Souchak|
|Neighbors||Earl Keese||(final film role)|
|1975–1979, 1980||Saturday Night Live||Various roles||79 episodes; also writer|
|1976||The Beach Boys: It’s OK||Cop #2||TV movie; also writer|
|1978||The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash||Ron Decline||TV movie|
|1973||National Lampoon Lemmings||Stage|
|1973–1974||The National Lampoon Radio Hour||Radio, also Creative Director|
|1975||The National Lampoon Show||Stage|