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Film

The life and tragedy of John Belushi

“I killed John Belushi,” said Cathy Smith. “I didn’t mean to, but I am responsible.” 

John Belushi had met Cathy Smith on the sets of Saturday Night Live. Being regular with drugs, on the fateful night of March 4th, 1982, inside Bungalow 3 of the gothic hotel, Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, Belushi got a deadly cocktail of cocaine and heroin (known as ‘speedball’) injected into him by Smith. 

By the next morning, he was restless and erratic when Smith left him to run a few errands. When Belushi’s personal trainer arrived, he found him dead. At 33, Belushi left a gaping hole in the heart of comedy by succumbing to the deadly side of fame and losing himself within the vicious clutches of addiction. 

The epitome of the golden age of SNL, the evergreen comic John Belushi was celebrated for his wild sense of humour and knack for comedy. One of the original cast members of the NBC show, the entertainer’s talents helped him establish his legacy as a prolific comic, actor and musician. However, Belushi’s climb to the zenith of success had always been a bumpy ride. 

Belushi was born to first-generation Albanian immigrants in Chicago who, according to The Guardian article dedicated his 70th birthday, “never assimilated”, which made it difficult for Belushi to adjust. He almost lived a double life and often found himself “self-conscious of his ethnicity” due to the various ridicules hurled towards him. He had a pretty tumultuous relationship with his ethnicity that marked the very first onset of various insecurities that would haunt Belushi for the rest of his life. 

With a knack for improv comedy, Belushi was assimilated into the famous Second City where he became one of the most talented and sought-after performers. Following various other stints, he was recommended to Lorne Michaels who was about to produce SNL. Michaels, initially reluctant and apprehensive of Belushi’s unusually loud and physical comedic style, was blown away by his audition. 

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During his time at SNL, Belushi became a household name. While people were in awe of the other comics, they simply loved him. With non-conforming ingenuity, his ideas brought great joy to the audience who loved the recurring characters that he created. Some of his best moments on SNL saw him doing impressions of Marlon Brando, Beethoven and Joe Cocker, playing a samurai or his beloved original character, Pete ‘Cheeburger’ Dionisopoulos. However, he was a misunderstood genius whose larger than life personality was often mistaken as rude and ignorant behaviour. He was also called out on multiple occasions for being sexist. 

Belushi had a lot of competition, mainly from Chevy Chase whose jovial yet cruel nature of comedy was a point of banter between the two. Meanwhile, Belushi had already embraced the dark side of stardom by indulging in substance abuse. Much like his character in Animal House, a careless frat boy, Belushi’s addiction to cocaine and other drugs slowly began crossing the threshold. This alienated him from his friends and even his wife and childhood sweetheart, Judith, who admitted that the “damn drugs” were the source of many problems. Producer Lorne Michaels, too, was caught “between rage and very little sympathy” for a man whose raw comic genius was slowly disintegrating due to his addiction issues. 

After the success of Animal House, Belushi could feel the harrowing pressure of fame and the idea of living up to the high standards he set for himself. A string of failures added to his frustrations. Even while shooting for Blues Brothers with his closest buddy Dan Aykroyd, overtaken by the effects of the drugs, Belushi was frustrated and failed to deliver the best of himself. 

While his wife and family have often vehemently protested against identifying John Belushi synonymous with his drug problem, it was his early demise that immortalised him. According to close sources, while Belushi and his peers indulged in hedonistic practises unabashedly, ignoring the health hazards it might lead to, his tragic demise knocked sense into their heads and they realised the potential disaster drug problems could lead to. 

At the young age of 33, a speedball overdose extinguished the comedic torch that cracked up the audience and lit up shows. Belushi’s manic approach to comedy and the ability to deliver lines with a straight face will always prevail as the best time on SNL.

No matter how hard the show has tried, they have failed to recreate Belushi’s distinctive and sardonic comedy style. Judy has often spoken about how books and articles have always emphasised the drug story without focusing on “his beautiful life” – the courage that he had to venture into the world of comedy, leaving the sheltered career of a restaurateur, his devotion to his work, the wonderful relationships he made and the lovely man that he was. 

The legacy that Belushi left behind has been illuminated by his brilliant contribution to the world of comedy. However, he was not here for long and the tragedy lies embedded in how the prolific comic, who would have been 73 today, lost the battle to drugs, spiralling uncontrollably and leaving an ache in the hearts of those who adored him dearly.

“I give so much pleasure to so many people. Why can I not get some pleasure for myself?”