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The drug-fueled life and times of John Belushi and ‘The Blues Brothers’

A new book explores the brief stardom of the hit comic duo known as
A new book explores the brief stardom of the hit comic duo known as "The Blues Brothers" and the tragic demise of its star John Belushi.

While filming “The Blues Brothers” in 1979, John Belushi was partying so hard that he was often unable to function.

One night, after yet another Belushi delay, director John Landis knocked on the door of his trailer, fed up.

“Inside, John sat disheveled, eyes vacant. Atop a desk sat a mound of cocaine,” writes Daniel de Visé in his new book, “The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic,” (Atlantic Monthly Press, March 19).

A vintage photo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi from their ‘Blues Brother’ heyday before Belushi succumbed to drug addiction. Michael Ochs Archives
A vintage photo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi from their ‘Blues Brother’ heyday before Belushi succumbed to drug addiction. Michael Ochs Archives
“The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic” is written by Daniel de Visé.
“The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic” is written by Daniel de Visé.

“ ‘John, you’re killing yourself,’ Landis cried. ‘Do not do this to my movie. Don’t do this to me. Don’t do this to [Belushi’s wife] Judy. Don’t do it to yourself.’ ”

Landis then picked up “probably a hundred thousand dollars worth” of cocaine and flushed it down the toilet, leading Belushi to charge at him.

“They grappled like drunken wrestlers,” writes de Visé. “John burst into tears, and their grapple melted into an embrace. Landis burst into tears. ‘John, this is insane,’ he moaned.’ ”

Belushi, who shot to fame first on “Saturday Night Live” and then as the star of the hit 1978 film “Animal House,” both performed and lived like he had been shot out of a rocket.

By the show’s second season, Belushi was “binging day and night on cocaine.”

Director John Landis was one of many folks in Belushi’s life worried by the comic’s drug use. Getty Images
Director John Landis was one of many folks in Belushi’s life worried by the comic’s drug use. Getty Images

NBC executive Dick Ebersol briefly became Belushi’s minder, flying him to LA every week from Sunday through Wednesday to keep him out of trouble, and leaving messages with “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels that said, “I have the Albanian. Everything is under control.”

But it wasn’t, as Belushi kept falling asleep with cigarettes in hand, setting furniture on fire.

While Belushi’s addictions grew, so did his success, and he and best friend/creative partner Dan Aykroyd put a musical dream they had into action.

The pair first discussed forming the Blues Brothers the night they met, in 1974.

The “Blues Brothers” comic duo had an early win when they were signed to open for mega-comic Steve Martin. FilmMagic
The “Blues Brothers” comic duo had an early win when they were signed to open for mega-comic Steve Martin. FilmMagic

The Blues Brothers performed on “SNL” during the show’s first season dressed as bees, recurring characters on the show that Belushi despised.

But otherwise, the performance was filled with what would become the Blues Brothers’ trademarks. Aykroyd played harmonica, and Belushi sang and did cartwheels. Both wore sunglasses. The crowd loved it.

Belushi began visiting New York clubs dressed as his Blues Brothers character, “Joliet” Jake Blues, “leveraging his celebrity to jump on stage with various bands.”

After Michaels witnessed one of these appearances, he suggested that the Blues Brothers start warming up the “Saturday Night Live” audience before the weekly show.

Belushi in the 1978 comic hit “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which helped make him famous. ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Belushi in the 1978 comic hit “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which helped make him famous. ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Fueled by their comedy stardom, the Blues Brothers secured a deal with Atlantic Records and a booking to open for Steve Martin, then the country’s most popular comedian, for nine nights in LA.

Between their own star power and the quality of their band, which consisted of R&B heavyweights, the shows attracted A-list stars from Jack Nicholson to Mick Jagger, and sent Belushi and Aykroyd’s own stardom into the stratosphere.

The pair soon had a #1 album and a hit movie on top of their “Saturday Night Live” success.

After filming the comedy “Neighbors” in 1981, Belushi and Aykroyd spent the summer on Martha’s Vineyard. Driving around one day, Aykroyd played a raucous surf instrumental that Belushi fell in love with.

Canadian actor and screenwriter Dan Aykroyd and American actor John Belushi on the set of The Blues Brothers. Corbis via Getty Images
Canadian actor and screenwriter Dan Aykroyd and American actor John Belushi on the set of The Blues Brothers. Corbis via Getty Images

“Wow!” John cried. “What is that?”

Belushi laughed when Aykroyd told him that the song’s title was “The 2,000 Pound Bee.”

Aykroyd made Belushi promise that if Aykroyd died first, Belushi would play the song at his funeral. Belushi then asked Aykroyd to promise the same for him.

But while the duo enjoyed tremendous success, Belushi’s addictive drive was no match for the pressure it brought.

John Belushi (left) and Bruce McGill in the 1978 film “Animal House.” ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
John Belushi (left) and Bruce McGill in the 1978 film “Animal House.” ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

By March 1982, he was ingesting so many drugs that both an ex-Secret Service agent and a karate champion were hired at various times to keep a 24-hour watch on him.

But a 24-hour watch is a tall order, and hired hands still have lives.

On a day when Belushi was in LA, his minder was across the country signing divorce papers and Aykroyd and Judy were in New York, Aykroyd, who was working on a new screenplay, received a slurred phone message from Belushi.

“He was f–ked up, and he was hurting. I’d never heard him that bad before,” said Aykroyd.

Belushi and Aykroyd at the height of their popularity on the set of the 1980 hit “The Blues Brothers” where the were visited by Aretha Franklin. Corbis via Getty Images
Belushi and Aykroyd at the height of their popularity on the set of the 1980 hit “The Blues Brothers” where the were visited by Aretha Franklin. Corbis via Getty Images

He then spoke to Belushi on the phone.

“John, c’mon man, you gotta come home,” Aykroyd pleaded. “I’m writing something great for us here that’s gonna solve everything. But you’ve gotta come back.”

The project he was alluding to was “Ghostbusters.” Aykroyd wrote the part of Peter Venkman, later made legend by Bill Murray, for Belushi.

But it was not to be. Later that night, Belushi, after being injected with a heroin/cocaine combination called a speedball, passed away. He was 33.

At Belushi’s open-casket funeral, Aykroyd told the story of “The 2,000 Pound Bee” and, as promised, produced a small cassette recorder and played the song for the mourners.