Had he lived, John Belushi would have been 62 today. The star of films like Animal House and The Blues Brothers as well as one of the original Saturday Night Live cast members, Belushi died in 1982 at age 33 from a drug overdose, but he still remains one of the most influential comedians ever. He may have also been the first person to encourage my creativity.
I’m not the type of person who usually meticulously follows rituals or traditions, but there is one that I’ve observed for many years. On my birthday, I check into the bungalow at the Chateau Marmont where Belushi died. It’s usually just for the day and I go there alone to write, reflect and soak in the vibes. There’s nothing morbid about it. It’s just a way for me to honor a man who had a profound affect on my artistic life and to be re-inspired. And Belushi was definitely inspirational. There’s no doubt that my sense of humor was shaped by Belushi’s style of comedy. When I try to be funny in my blogs here, it’s really just my poor attempt to emulate his comedic voice.
I met Belushi when I must’ve been around six-years-old in a classroom setting. I don’t remember much about it and I certainly didn’t know who he was at the time—I was too young and he wasn’t a big star yet. But I remember him being very funny and very encouraging of my creativity (he must have seen some story or drawing I had done in class). He pulled me aside and said that if I had an interest in the arts, I should pursue it. He told me his parents were immigrants like mine (from Albania in his case) and that when he was a kid, he wished someone had encouraged his interest in performing because for the longest time, he thought it was an impossible dream for an immigrant kid like himself. But he wanted me to know that nothing was impossible if you worked hard.
Now, it’s possible that he might have said the same thing to the other kids and that I hadn’t been singled out. But regardless, the fact that he would make an effort to encourage me like that made me feel special. And that means everything to a six-year-old.
The impact of that experience didn’t hit me until years later when I entered my teens and started discovering Belushi’s films and his work on Saturday Night Live. He was already long dead by then, but what he did felt so fresh and immediate. Most people may think of his humor as being crass and lowbrow and there is certainly truth to that, but what made him so popular was that there was an innocence and heart beneath all the bravado. Even when he did something outrageous, he was still likeable. Check out how he embodies those contrasting qualities in this clip from Animal House:
In junior high, I’d watch my VHS video of The Best of John Belushi (featuring his best SNL sketches) over and over and did my best to imitate Belushi’s style which was cool, but still accessible. I also dug guys like Montgomery Clift and James Dean, but they certainly weren’t accessible. I never felt I could be them; no matter how hard I tried and believe me I tried (I bought a trench coat and practiced taking it off in front of the mirror so I could do it in the suave way Clift did it, but I always looked stupid). But Belushi—he was an average-looking, working-class, immigrant kid like myself. That was something I could relate to.
The truth is since Belushi died so young, his filmography isn’t the most impressive, yet he was so talented he still became an icon (sort of like what happened with Bruce Lee). Although movies like The Blues Brothers and 1941 have their moments, Belushi only really made one bona-fide classic: Animal House. But even looking at some of his “failures,” you see glimpses of the artist he could’ve become had he lived. In his last two features Continental Divide and Neighbors, there’s a dramatic depth that’s present in his best moments. You can see an artist who was trying to push himself to be more than the slob from Animal House that everyone thought he was.
At the time of his death, Belushi was scheduled to star in Ghostbusters (in the Bill Murray role) and Spies Like Us with his friend Dan Aykroyd (in the Chevy Chase role). It’s easy to imagine how Belushi would have excelled in those comedic parts, but famed Italian director Sergio Leone also wanted to cast Belushi in his gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America opposite Robert DeNiro (the role ultimately went to James Woods). It would’ve been fascinating to see what Belushi would have done with that character and where his career could have led.
It’s actually been a few years since I’ve spent a birthday at that bungalow in the Chateau Marmont. But my birthday will be coming around again next month and I’m thinking it might be a good time to revisit an old tradition, to pay tribute to a great artist and to be re-inspired.
Happy birthday, Mr. Belushi! I’m still trying my best to live up to your words of encouragement.