John Belushi’s kinetic energy and skill at physical comedy made him a larger than life performer during his short run as a superstar on “Saturday Night Live” and in movies such as 1978’s “Animal House” and 1980’s “The Blues Brothers.”
But Belushi’s work off-camera as a writer and director, from his earliest days in the Second City improv troupe, was considerable. As the life of the comedian — who died of a drug overdose at age 33 in 1982 — is re-examined in the R.J. Cutler documentary “Belushi,” which premieres Nov. 22 on Showtime, here are highlights of Belushi’s story as chronicled by Variety.
The first reference to John Belushi came in the Nov. 17, 1971, edition of weekly Variety. He was singled out for praise in a generally positive review of the “Cum Granis Salis” show staged by Chicago’s legendary Second City. That famed ensemble would later contribute major players to the original “Saturday Night Live” cast, including Belushi and his longtime partner Dan Aykroyd, as well as Gilda Radner.
“John Belushi, who made his bow in the previous show, comes off extremely well, especially when he is in a situation where he can go the deadpan or mugging route. He has a naturally comedic map and understands how to use it effectively,” Variety‘s critic observed.
Three years later, Belushi was at the helm as Second City expanded its reach to Long Island. Belushi directed and co-starred in a revue staged at Long Island nitery My Father’s Place. The cast is a who’s who of future boldface names: Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Joe O’Flaherty and Brian Doyle-Murray.
After “SNL” arrived in 1975, Lorne Michaels and the Not Ready for Primetime Players kept busy doing “SNL” as well as numerous primetime TV specials. They even had them doing a little vaudeville revue to celebrate NBC’s 50th anniversary. In 1976, weekly Variety reported that “SNL” aired its first-ever rerun on March 20 of that year because the whole cast and Lorne Michaels were too busy earlier in the week doing the NBC anniversary live presentation for an International Radio and TV Society event in New York. The show, written by Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and produced by Michaels, was described as an “occasionally mocking postprandial romp” through NBC’s history.
Later in America’s bicentennial year, the “SNL” team — including director Gary Weis, scribe Alan Zweibel, Belushi, Aykroyd and Michaels — produced an hourlong Beach Boys TV special that mixed musical sequences with such bits as having the California Highway Patrol order Brian Wilson to leave his bed (this being the era when the celebrated musician was famously reclusive and rotund).
In February 1977, team “SNL” delivered a live primetime special that seemingly should have become an annual franchise. Variety‘s review of “Live From the Mardi Gras, It’s Saturday Night on Sunday” makes the 90-minute special sound as good as you’d want it to be. The production credits alone (see below) are enough to make comedy aficionados swoon.
“When a live show clicks along with professional skill backed by some careful preparation, it takes on a dimension that slick, taped variety rarely has,” Variety‘s critic wrote. “With very few technical hitches, this one moved from concert hall to various N.O. locations, and the comedy when it got there was often very good. Especially John Belushi from a ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ location, Gilda Radner and guest Henry Winkler in a working over of the former’s w.k. (and possibly a little cruel) Baba Wawa routine, guest Eric Idle (‘Monty Python’) doing a remote turn on Mardi Gras revelry from a barren restaurant and Dan Ackroyd as NBC’s own Tom Snyder interviewing the personnel of a French Quarter topless-bottomless bar.”
Belushi made his big screen debut with Jack Nicholson in 1978’s “Goin’ South.” But he became a movie star the same year with the success of “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” His starring role in the “college comedy” merited only a brief mention in the Oct. 21, 1977, edition of Daily Variety.
As “Animal House” rocked the box office in the summer of 1978, Belushi and Aykroyd were busy on stage refining the characters for their next big screen outing. Fans of the Blues Brothers can only dream of traveling back in time to September 1978 to see Jake and Elwood open for Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheatre. The sold-out Sept. 9-17 run was saluted around that time in a two-page Daily Variety ad with a caricature of the trio.
In the years that followed, Belushi’s career continued to soar. By many accounts, the whirlwind of fame and fortune intensified the multi-hyphenate’s struggle with substance abuse in the months before his death on March 5, 1982. At the time, Variety would later report, Belushi and Aykroyd were talking with director Louis Malle and playwright John Guare about a political satire inspired by the Abscam political corruption scandal. That’s just one example of what might have been for Belushi.
As Variety noted in its obituary, Belushi was “outrageous, endlessly energetic, quick to take on a dare and gifted with outstanding mimetic abilities and surprising physical grace, Belushi scored in every area of show business he tried — theatre, radio, tv, music and films.”