Saturday, January 24, 2009

Old John

Little Dougie has asked to borrow my flog for this evening, to discuss an event that means something to him. Besides, since I am reviewing The Screen Actors Guild Awards tomorrow night over on The Huffington Post, by the personal request of President O'Bama, who has named petit moi Secretary of Libations for his administration (I await Senate confirmation. Oh dear. I've never declared taxes for employing the Headless Indian Brave as my longtime companion. What is the going tax rate for employing deceased aboriginal Americans anyway?), it's just as well that I spend this evening resting up and drinking. So here's Little Dougie on a subject that may be of interest to you. See you on the HuffPo early Monday. Cheers darlings.

Today, January 24, 2009, would have been John Belushi's 60th birthday. It would be customary to here state "if he hadn't lived too fast, and ridden the Self-Destruction Express," but I don't buy it. Even if John had survived that dark night at the Chateau Marmont back in that terrible March of 1982, I can't really believe John would have lived to see this day. His candle burned ferociously at both ends, and he kept trying to light it in the middle as well. Might he have learned to live sensibly and moderately? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Take the live-too-wildly madman out of John Belushi and what would you have?

Jim Belushi. Ew.

John Belushi was a genius. John Belushi was truely awesome, in the original meaning of the word. I worshipped him. John lived balls to the wall, full speed ahead.

I can't say the idea of a 60 year old John Belushi is unimaginable, because the photo of him made-up to look 70 that tops this column proves someone imagined it. But imagining it is one thing. Believing it could ever have happened is another.

The whole joke of the classic Saturday Night Live film that that make-up is from, Don't Look Back in Anger, in which John danced on the graves of the other original Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, was that John was sure to be the first to die. John got the joke.

John Belushi could only be young and full-force. He was the Janis Joplin of Comedy, and I mean that as a large compliment.

And he had a glorious youth. Look at the adorable punim on this high school youth of the mid-1960s. Wasn't young John Belushi adorable?

Here he is with his date for his homecoming dance, at the high school he attended in Illinois. Isn't that sweet?

John aged as much as he could in his 33 years with us. He lived more during those three and a third decades than most of us will live in thrice that time.

Chicago Second City audiences were the first to experience John's genius. New York audiences were first blown away by his amazing work dominating National Lampoon's legendary live stage show Lemmings, with Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest, two gentlemen who have also done well. The Lemmings original cast album was where I first encountered him.

The three of them, and Gilda Radnor and Bill Murray, were first nationally sent out in The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which John ran for its second season. How strange that this most physical of comedians had his first notable success in radio.

But everyone came to know him as a member of the original Not Ready For Prime-Time Players when NBC's Saturday Night (SNL's name when it premiered) first hit the airwaves in October, 1975.

Chevy was the early break-out star, and left too quickly. His appeal has not aged well.

But when John broke out shortly thereafter, he burned with a tremendous intensity. What a galaxy of memorable characters he created: the Samurai Jack-of-All-Trades, the "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger" guy, Captain Kirk, Liz Taylor (Hands down, the funniest Liz Taylor of all time), Brando, Joe Cocker, Jake Blues, the reluctant Bee actor, and his greatest creation, John Belushi, comic madman.

Much has been made of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as a comedy team, as well they should be, but to me, his funniest partner, with whom he had the greatest comic chemistry, was Gilda Radner. They were hilarious together, Look at them here. How sexy are these two? Mucho.

Gilda herself wrote a caption for this picture, "In loving memory of John Belushi [He was alive when this was written and published. It was a gag, then.], who can hit me without hurting me, and hurt me without hitting me."

And for a stocky man, I always found him enormously sexy. And I was not alone. There was no way around it. John was hot, something no one has ever said about Jim Belushi.

But John was not available. John married his high school sweetheart, Judith Jacklin, now Judith Jacklin Belushi Pisano. They were still married when he died. John remained deeply in love with her. The madman was a true romantic, and Judith was the love of his life.

John didn't have time to wait until he left SNL to begin his movie career. Animal House was shot between seasons. And John had already played a small role in a Jack Nicholson romantic comedy western, Goin' South. (Watchable solely to see John.) Though Bluto in Animal House was only a supporting role, when it opened and became the highest-grossing comedy ever to that time, there was no question but that John was a Major Movie Star.

That picture of Senator Blutarsky, as a one-sheet poster, adorned my living room wall in 1980, just below pictures of WC Fields, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, and Groucho, my idols. That's how important John was to me then.

Another supporting role was already in the can, in the forgotten picture Old Boyfriends. But then John and Dan went to play with the big boys, in the giant budget Steven Spielberg spectacle farce 1941.

John was a huge star. The Blues Brothers were selling out large venues in the blink of an eye, and he was on every magazine cover but Filthy Butts Monthly.

1941 was not a huge hit, and is disdained by critics, fans, and Spielberg himself, although I have always kind of liked it. It's a giant comedy, with an unbelievable all-star cast, including Christopher Lee, Robert Stack, Toshiro Mifune, Slim Pickens, John Candy, Treat Williams, and about a billion others.

For me, it will always be special, because I had a friend in the cast, Walter Olkewicz, and Wally kindly invited me down to the set, on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, to attend two nights of shooting. I got to meet Dan Aykroyd and John Candy, to watch Spielberg direct, to have my picture taken sandwiched between John Landis and John Milius, and best of all, the reason I came, to meet and be introduced to John Belushi.

Those who knew John say he had two basic personality settings: coked-up manic asshole, and the Greatest, Sweetest Guy in the World. It was the latter John I met that night. John was tremendously kind and sweet with me, with no need to be. I was no one (A condition that persists to this day), just an ardent admirer. But John spent time with me, and could not have been friendlier.

He signed my Saturday Night Live book, and thumbed through it, pointing out sketches and pictures, and telling me tales about them.

He also scribbled this on the second page.

I told you he was in love with her.

This photo of John and Dan is one I have always cherished, because I was standing beside the photographer when he shot it, watching them work. This is where I stood with John, and passed the time.

John made only three more movies: the mega-hit musical comedy spectacle The Blues Brothers, the surprisingly charming romantic comedy Continental Divide, in which John scored in a role one easily imagines Spencer Tracy playing, and the over-the-top, peculiar suburban comedy Neighbors.

And then suddenly, one day in March, 1982, it was over. John was dead. I was working in a bank in Hollywood that day, and a customer, it was Dorothy Beatty, wife of John's 1941 co-star Ned Beatty, who told me that it was all over the news that John had been found dead. I was so devastated I had to close down and go home early. I went to see friends, and we got stoned and watched an old SNL repeat, with Don't Look Back in Anger, of all things, on it, and I wept.

A few years later Bob Woodward wrote a terrible, sensationalistic, nasty book about John's life, titled Wired. In it, appreciating John's comic genius, and his beautiful, warm giving side, was subjucated to reduce John's life to a cautionary tale on the evils of drug abuse. Don't read this book. Don't see the movie made from it.

Fortunately more recently, Judith Belushi Pisano has put out a much better biography of her late husband. Simply titled Belushi. It is lavishly illustrated, and John's life is told solely in the words of people who knew him. It is Judith's second book on John. Her earlier work, Samurai Widow, was about her relationship with John, and her recovery after his loss. Both are worth reading, but Belushi is a must-have.

It's been 27 years since John left us, but he lives on in my heart, and in the hearts of millions of other people. He was unforgettable. I spent today remembering him, by watching the Best of John Belushi DVD of his most memorable SNL pieces, and by watching a double feature of Animal House and 1941. Still a lot of laughs, but I was wet-eyed through them all.

I can't believe he would ever have made it to 60, but I wish he'd proven me wrong. He'd make one holy hell of a senior citizen, and I bet he'd still be funniest guy in the room, no matter what room.

So many from those days are gone now, John Candy, Douglas Kenney (Another major idol of mine, whom I met but once also), Michael O'Donahue, Wendie Jo Sperber, Bernie Brillstein, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, and worst of all, dear, lovely, divine Gilda Radner; but John was the leader of the pack.

Rest in Chaos, John; peace was never your style.


Overtake said...

Wonderful text (and photos)!

Kudos from a brazilian Belushi fan (:


Tallulah Morehead said...

Glad you enjoyed it from so far away. Is it harder to read upside down?

Cheers darling.

Anonymous said...

Great read! :)
I currently have a comedy nostalgia phase fed by complete SNL seasons and Belush's movies.

The JuRK said...

What a loving tribute--and you got to meet him! This month was the 30th year of John's passing and I've been watching the first four seasons of SNL on DVD as well as ANIMAL HOUSE.

I'm not so hard on the book, WIRED. Yes, it's cold and factual, but it answered what happened to John the last week of his life--and I wanted to know. The movie was evil though.

I still miss him. And watch his stuff.

Great post!

Tallulah Morehead said...

Those who knew John violently dispute that the Woodward book is "factual."

Monster Master13 said...

Wonderfully spoken, my friend.