If John Belushi was still with us, he would be celebrating a 70th birthday this week. Wouldn’t that be grand?
Born Jan. 24, 1949, Belushi lived hard and died March 5, 1982, at the age of 33.
Belushi made a colossal splash in a too-short life, but his filmography is a grand total of eight movies. Can you imagine the sprawling body of work he might have gifted the world if he had lived to a ripe old age?
Thanks for making us laugh while you were around, “Bluto” Blutarsky.
In memory of Belushi, here are some of his greatest hits and maybe a couple of misses, just for historical context.
• Belushi became a star as one of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players in the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.” He appeared in the show’s inaugural sketch Oct. 11, 1975, playing a foreign man with a thick accent who was being taught English by SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue.
Belushi’s samurai was one of the show’s first recurring characters. So was his Olympia Cafe character who reminded customers that, no matter what they tried to order, the only things available were cheeseburgers, Pepsi and chips. Among people Belushi impersonated on SNL were Henry Kissinger, Joe Cocker, Truman Capote and William Shatner (Belushi was Captain Kirk in a sketch about the last voyage of the starship Enterprise).
• Belushi’s most memorable movie (sorry, “Blues Brothers”) was “Animal House.” His mostly quiet character, John “Bluto” Blutarsky, was a lovable slob who was described by director John Landis as a cross between Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster. Belushi commuted back and forth from New York to the West Coast while juggling SNL obligations and shooting scenes for “Animal House.”
• Belushi and SNL cast mate Dan Aykroyd played brothers “Joliet” Jake and Elwood in the “Blues Brothers.” The film spun out of characters that they debuted on SNL. If anyone asks you why in the heck Aykroyd was part of the chorus along with all those music stars in “We Are the World,” you can remind them Aykroyd earned his musical stripes as one of the Blues Brothers. Their debut album went to No. 1 in 1979 and “Soul Man” was a top-15 single.
• In between “Animal House” and “Blues Brothers,” one of the films Belushi appeared in was “1941,” a World War II-era comedy directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who later collaborated on “Back to the Future.” Was “1941” better than we think? It suffers in comparison because it’s not as highly regarded as other projects that bear the name of Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale.
• Belushi’s next-to-last film was the 1981 romantic comedy “Continental Divide.” His journalist character was inspired by Mike Royko, a legendary columnist in Belushi’s hometown of Chicago. (The Olympia Cafe sketches on SNL also were based by Chicago source material).
• Belushi’s last film, also released in 1981, was an experiment in role reversal for its stars. In “Neighbors,” Belushi (whom moviegoers were used to seeing as boisterous Bluto-like characters) was the “normal” neighbor. Aykroyd played the wild man role. It was, in a word, different.
• Belushi’s other films were Jack Nicholson’s “Goin’ South,” “Old Boyfriends” and “Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle,” which I had never heard of until doing research, but the internet tells me it was the first foreign-animated film to receive an “X” rating. Changes were made to get an “R” rating. And the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, of course, filed suit because of the not-so-coincidental Tarzan/Tarzoon similarity. In addition to feature films, IMDb said Belushi was in a few TV movies, including a Beatles parody (“All You Need is Cash”) about a band called the Rutles.
• Parting thought: Tom Schiller made a short film (“Don’t Look Back in Anger”) that aired on SNL in 1977. It starred an elderly Belushi visiting the graves of his friends at the Not Ready for Prime Time Cemetery.
“They all thought I would be the first to go,” Belushi said in the film. “I guess they were wrong.”
Belushi visited tombstones, one by one, and told stories about the lives of his SNL pals.
“The Saturday Night show was the best experience of my life,” he said at the end of the film. “Now, they’re all gone. I miss every one of them. Why me? Why did I live so long. I’ll tell you why. Because I’m a dancer.”
Belushi began dancing. Ideally, he’s dancing still.