John Belushi was an unpredictable, outrageous comedy genius who could make you laugh by raising his eyebrow. His lovable character made him one of the most popular stars in the industry, but, unfortunately, the pressure of being “the funny guy” came at a price. The SNL star struggled to keep his health in check, and he tried to downplay it by doing what he did best – laugh it off.
He tried several times to clean up his act, even hiring a bodyguard for a while to keep him away from his lethal temptations. But, ultimately, his body collapsed. In the early hours of March 5th, 1982, Belushi took his last breath. After a night of heavy partying, he lay lifeless on the bed at the Chateau Marmont.
Here’s a walk-through of his final hours.
On March 4th, 1982, John Belushi was at a business meeting in L.A. with his manager, Bernie Brillstein, and president of Paramount Pictures, Michael Eisner. It was business as usual as the actor discussed his career plans with both guys. Eisner was trying to talk him into starring in a film called The Joy of Sex, but Belushi refused, feeling that agreeing to do it would be a career-damaging move.
After the meeting wrapped up, Belushi approached his manager and asked for $1,800.
Why? To buy a guitar. Or at least that’s what he told him. Even though Brillstein was a bit suspicious of the actor’s request, he decided to hand him the cash. It was his money, after all.
The comedian happily marched out of the meeting with just one thing on his mind – his next fix. And with $1,800 now in his pocket, Belushi’s bad habits would be taken to a whole other level.
Just three years earlier, he had been on top of the world. The actor was number one in every medium – film, TV, and rock, so how did he get from that to the point of lying to his manager for drug money?
It all began on the set of SNL, where the cast abused stimulants as if they were ordinary cups of coffee. In the late ‘70s, no one really thought anything much of it. It was just another way of staying awake and writing down enough funny sketches to make the crowd laugh. But Belushi’s appetite was larger than everyone else’s, and he never knew when to stop.
Saturday Night Live’s initial cast consisted of several rebellious, ill-behaved comedians who promoted a new generation of humor. On Monday, they’d come up with an idea. On Tuesday, they’d write it. On Wednesday, they’d read it, and by Saturday, it was on the air.
The cast would be up at 3 a.m., trying to come up with two more jokes while trying their best to stay awake. So, when someone in the room would offer a line, it was virtually impossible to say no. They wouldn’t do it for the high; they’d do it so they could stay up to finish their job.
Belushi’s wife, Judy, described life with the late actor as fun, scary, and innovative. He was a huge creative force who always seemed to have way more energy than the rest of the people around him. “He always on a fast track. Like a little tornado, he went through life bringing people along for the ride,” she explained.
Judy and John were high school sweethearts. The first time she laid eyes on him, he was on stage performing. “He was one of the best,” she told interviewers from the documentary Final 24. “I knew it immediately – this guy had talent.” Unfortunately, being the best usually comes at a price. And in Belushi’s case, it came at the expense of his mental health.
Belushi grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, where he was raised by two hardworking Albanian immigrants. His mom and dad weren’t very happy living together, and he felt it. So, John used humor as a coping mechanism, always cracking jokes to get his mom to laugh.
He felt that by making her laugh, he was fixing the problems around the house. But years later, when he was old enough to reflect on his childhood, he told his wife Judy that deep down, he knew he could never really make his mom happy, no matter how great his jokes were.
Belushi’s high school drama teacher, Dan Payne, described the comedy prodigy as having “a magnetic personality.” When he would audition for school plays, the whole room would light up with laughter. He wasn’t “handsome,” and he definitely wasn’t your typical blonde idol, yet he was incredibly charming.
By the time he finished school, he was elected captain of the football team, crowned homecoming king, and voted the most popular student by his fellow peers. He loved to be around people, and people loved to be around him. And while his popularity might sound like a blessing, it also proved to be a curse.
People gravitated towards Belushi, and at the height of his career, many fans were willing to provide him with whatever he wanted so that he would sit with them for a few minutes. This meant free goods. One of the biggest problems with John’s addiction is that the substances were handed to him on a silver platter.
His wife Judy and his friend Dan Aykroyd felt that it was their responsibility to confiscate his goods because if it were up to Belushi, he would be intoxicated all day, every day. Unfortunately, no matter how hard they tried, Belushi’s appetite was insatiable, and his cravings got the better of him.
On the day of his death, John Belushi ran by his friend’s house in L.A. who had a valuable contact on speed dial named Cathy Smith. Smith supplied the goods, and the three spent the afternoon passed out on the couch fueling each other’s addictions.
“He was on a binge,” Judy said; “he had his mind set, and he just plowed right ahead. He made the choice.” She was in their home in NY at the time, and so was his friend Dan Aykroyd. Without them to keep watch over him, Belushi was more vulnerable than ever.
After hanging out with Smith, Belushi went back to his apartment and made several frantic phone calls. The first one was to Brillstein, his manager, informing him that he had changed his mind about the film The Joy of Sex and that he was willing to go through with it.
The second call was to Paramount’s president, Eisner, sharing the same news, and the third one was to Paramount’s Senior Vice President, Jeff Katzenberg, to arrange a meeting with on Friday. Lastly, Belushi called Cathy Smith to see if she had any more goods to give him. Sadly, she did.
At one point during his final day, Belushi left a message on Dan Aykroyd’s voicemail. It was a slurred, drunken, indecipherable message which worried Dan the second he heard it. Belushi’s friend rushed to Judy’s apartment, believing they had to take action fast.
Judy then phoned her husband’s ex-bodyguard, Smokey Wendell, to try and get Belushi out of L.A. and back to New York. He agreed to do it and said he would fly to L.A. first thing the following day. Sadly, he never managed to make the trip because, by the time the next day came, Belushi was no longer breathing.
Just two years before his death, Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were on tour as The Blues Brothers. They had created the characters on SNL and, shortly after, were scheduled to tour the country. But the comedian knew he had a serious problem, so he hired a bodyguard to take care of him on the road.
Smokey Wendell’s brief was to keep Belushi away from harmful substances. When Wendell asked him why he was using in the first place, Belushi responded that it was due to his insecurities. People always wanted him to be funny, so he felt like going to “candy land” was the only way he could keep up with people’s demands.
Smokey was put to the test on his first day of work when he spotted an outsider talking to Belushi on the Blues Brothers tour. After he saw the suspicious guy enter the bathroom, he followed him in and saw that he was stashing drugs for Belushi to take. After the unsuccessful try, the dealer then tried a different tactic by slipping some of the stuff into a cigarette pack.
When he saw Belushi pick it up, he instantly wrestled it out of his hand. After a violent tug-of-war, Smokey flat out told the comedian, “Listen, if you want to do this, you really don’t need me here for it.” Belushi appreciated Smokey’s stubbornness and decided to give sobriety a shot.
By the end of the Blues Brothers tour, Belushi was in the best shape of his life. Dan Aykroyd shared that John had “performed beautifully and perfectly” and that the two had a “great lucid, clear, creative time.” The comedian remained clean through all 20 shows, an achievement he was unbelievably proud of.
Smokey and the rest of the guys on tour had Belushi working out, eating healthy, and gradually losing weight. The comedian would joke that the highlight of his night was having two more pushups to do instead of having a smoke or chugging down a drink.
The summer before his death was one of Belushi’s happiest. It was spent at his favorite place in the world – Martha’s Vineyard. It was a summer of jeep rides, running on the beach, and relaxing with friends and family under the sun. John had a beer here and there, but other than that, he was as clean as a whistle.
His gauntness had disappeared, the color was back in his face, and everyone around him was happy to see he was back on the right track. “He was a real water baby. He could really be on a beach for hours,” his wife mentioned. Soon after the trip, Hollywood came knocking on the door again, offering Belushi a role in the comedy Neighbors.
After Belushi was clean for long enough, Smokey decided to take his leave. Belushi was terribly disappointed to hear that his bodyguard wanted to move on. He asked Smokey if there was anything he could do to make him stay, maybe pay him more money or buy him a new car.
But the bodyguard felt that there was no need to keep watch over the comedian anymore. He believed that Belushi had the strength within him and the tools in front of him to handle life’s ups and downs without drugs. Or at least that’s what Smokey wanted to believe…
The movie Neighbors was shot on Staten Island, and “snow” was, once again, everywhere. People were using it like coffee to stay up. For Belushi – this meant temptation. He tried his best to avoid it, but he could only hold back for so long.
By the time he finished shooting the film, his addiction had taken hold again, and it was stronger than ever. Every time Belushi was triggered by something, he would take a hit. If he messed up a scene, he would take some. If he perfected a scene, he would take some.
A few hours before his death, Belushi was at the Roxy nightclub getting wasted with Cathy Smith and others. His mind was restless, and he spent his last hours ranting to anyone willing to listen to his issues. He talked about the pressure he was under to do the film The Joy of Sex and the pressure of being John Belushi in general.
Belushi and Smith spent around five hours in the Roxy, making several trips to the bathroom where Smith prepared lethal cocktails for the two of them. Their drug binge was out of control, each hit feeling a little worse than the one before. Still, Belushi couldn’t stop.
While John was great at creating characters, he wasn’t too good at being himself. He never felt fully comfortable in his own skin, which resulted in a constant need for public approval. His wife Judy shared that, “He hadn’t gotten to the point where he let go of the child.”
“He couldn’t decide for himself that he was a good person, worthy of everything good that came to him,” she added. If you don’t have that basic belief about yourself as a person, you can easily crumble under society’s pressures. Sadly, that’s precisely what happened to John.
Things were very different when Belushi was just starting out. In his early 20s, the aspiring actor moved to Chicago with Judy, where he got his start at the famous Second City Theater. “He was incredible,” founder of Second City, Bernie Sahlins recalled.
Belushi remains the only actor to have performed on Second City’s main stage without having to train first with one of the touring companies. His enormous presence blew everyone away. Acting was the perfect field for John because it gave him permission to be creative and wild and, at times, insane.
Belushi’s break on SNL was exciting, but his role in the 1978 comedy Animal House was life changing. His part as John “Bluto” Blutarksy made him an international superstar whom everyone wanted to get close to, and the movie’s premiere night in NY city marked the beginning of his new life.
“It was a moment of innocence,” Judy Belushi said of the final moments of preparation before they headed out to the film’s premiere. “[Fame] wasn’t bad by any means and there was a lot of good that happened. But it changed everything.”
Belushi’s final moments alive were spent at his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont. He and Cathy Smith returned from the Roxy, lit up a smoke, and spread out on the couch. Shortly after, he complained of feeling cold, so Smith helped him to get to bed and put up the heat in the room.
Without any consideration for what might happen, Smith decided to inject Belushi with a final dose of the cocktail they’d been taking the whole night. She then turned off the light and let him rest. At 10:15 a.m. she checked on Belushi one last time, and upon hearing his snore, assumed he was fine and left the room.
Belushi was left alone in the bungalow as his body slowly shut down. According to the medical reports, the actor didn’t die from an overdose. He died from chronic toxic effects on his body that were finally overwhelming him to the point of no return.
At around noon, his body was discovered by Bill Wallace, Belushi’s personal trainer, who dropped by to drop off a typewriter the actor had requested. Upon realizing that the actor wasn’t breathing, Wallace called for help, and after the EMT assessed Belushi’s state, he was pronounced dead.
Both Judy Belushi and Dan Aykroyd feel somewhat “responsible” for John’s death. “Sure, I felt like I should have been with him the whole time. It would have been different,” Judy said, “But then you come back to a point where you realize it might not have been different if I were there. And… it’s just life. You have to let go of it.”
“I was going to go out there that night,” Dan Aykroyd added. “It was really close. Like, a hair close. I will always feel for the rest of my life that maybe I didn’t do enough.” Dan admitted that the fact he didn’t get there on time is probably going to haunt him for as long as he lives.
The last person who saw Belushi alive, and the person partly responsible for his death, is Cathy Smith. She was questioned by the police and eventually released. But later on, she was charged with murder and drug-related offenses after an interview she did with the National Enquirer.
She dished about injecting him with the deadly mixture, and her talk with them was published in the paper with the caption, “I Killed John Belushi.” The unfavorable title led to an 18-month imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter. In 1982, Smith told Rolling Stone magazine that what the two did during his final hours was “just the Hollywood scene, really, nothing out of the ordinary.”
In 2015, Rolling Stone magazine voted John Belushi the greatest of all the SNL players, beating huge names like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and Tina Fey. Belushi might have left us four decades ago, yet his legacy has only grown over time.
He left behind only a handful of starring roles, but each performance of his is so memorable that it’s virtually impossible to forget him. Every year, thousands of fans still make the pilgrimage to Martha’s Vineyard just to stand beside Belushi’s grave.
In honor of this incredible performer, here are a few facts about his beautiful life.
Among John’s stranger habits was borrowing money from new acquaintances to see how they would react. When director John Landis was casting for National Lampoon’s Animal House, he had his eyes set on Belushi and was willing to go to great lengths to get him. Belushi then decided he wanted to put Landis to the test.
Upon meeting with the director to discuss the script, the actor asked to borrow $20, which Landis handed over without hesitation. Belushi enthusiastically agreed to star in the film, and over the next couple of days, he repaid Landis by surprising him with room service feasts.
Belushi’s good friend and rock n’ roll star Joe Walsh was famous for trashing hotel rooms all through the ‘70s. But the worst damage he ever caused was with Belushi – when the troublemaking duo landed a $23,000 bill.
They wandered into the penthouse suite where they found a beautiful art collection – but they didn’t really like how the wallpaper underneath looked. So, they removed the paper, strip by strip, and then carefully rehung all the drawings. While the hotel owner wasn’t impressed, Walsh and Belushi felt that the new decoration made the place look so much better.
Belushi once wandered off the Blues Brothers set and into a stranger’s house. He helped himself to some of the stranger’s food and then passed out on their couch. Dan Aykroyd said he found Belushi in a random house with the living room light on.
Luckily, the homeowners weren’t upset by Belushi’s disturbing behavior. They were delighted to find this comic legend passed out on their sofa. Aykroyd noted that John’s lovable character definitely helped to excuse many of his wild antics.
After John finished working on Neighbors in 1981, he approached his friends in the punk band Fear to create a soundtrack. It was highly unusual for punk music to appear in films at that time, and the studio eventually turned down Belushi’s choice.
To express his appreciation for Fear’s hard work, the comedian booked the punk band a performance on Saturday Night Live’s Halloween Special. He filled out the set’s audience with about 50 fans eager to hear some punk. When they began to play, some fans rushed onto the stage and threw a pumpkin at one of the crew members while shouting, “F**k New York!”
The film Blue Lagoon was different from anything Belushi had done before, and that’s exactly why he wanted to audition for it. Belushi tried out for the part of Richard, a young guy stranded with his cousin on a deserted island.
But Belushi was deemed too funny by the filmmakers, and he ended up losing the role to Christopher Atkins. Sadly, no matter how talented an actor he was, it was tremendously difficult for him to try and branch out.
Before he passed away in 1982, John was working on a script for his own movie, a screwball comedy called Noble Rot. He wanted to star as the disobedient child of a Californian winemaker who gets caught up in a diamond fraud scheme.
The project would have surely broadened Belushi’s range, allowing him to act out romantic scenes and action sequences in addition to his classic bursts of dark comedy.
The movie’s title, Noble Rot, refers to the fungal growth on grapes which actually makes the wine taste better.
In Judy Belushi’s biography “Beyond Bluto,” the late actor’s brother Jim recalled how his brother used to make the whole family laugh. Belushi used to act out words to their Albanian grandma, who didn’t speak a word of English.
He would purposely exaggerate the gestures, and after seeing his family’s reaction to his pantomimes, he began dreaming of a career in stage comedy. Apart from his acting dreams, Belushi also had musical aspirations. He even formed his own band in high school called The Ravens.
John was deeply loved in celeb circles for his warmth and generosity. His inner circle included Lorne Michaels (SNL creator), Jack Nicholson, and journalist Barbara Walters. His other close friends were actors Robert De Niro and Harry Dean Stanton.
Both stars were reportedly among the last people to see Belushi before he died. The night before his passing, Stanton and De Niro visited Belushi in his bungalow and invited him out for a dinner party which he politely turned down.
One of Belushi’s comedy heroes was Lucille Ball, star of the classic sitcoms I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show. He allegedly memorized every character she played in her colorful career, from chorus girl to studio owner. But despite his love for Ball, Belushi apparently wasn’t very fond of “funny women.”
He was accused of misogyny by a few of his SNL co-stars, who claimed he refused to perform sketches written by women, like the ones created by Anne Beats and Rosie Shuster. According to Jane Curtin, John would often state in the writing workshops that women just “aren’t funny.”
Belushi turned down several roles in the 1970s, often to avoid being typecast into a particular category, but sometimes he refused because he simply hated the script. He turned down the leading role in the 1981 comedy Arthur because he didn’t want to star as another party animal like Bluto.
The role ended up going to Dudley Moore and earning him an Oscar nomination. An additional comedy Belushi refused to do was Night Shift, a movie about two morgue workers. The actor was apparently unwilling to leave his home in New York at the time to shoot in L.A.
The two buddies performed a few wild antics over the years, including the time they tried to steal another boat for its motor. They were looking for ways to improve Aykroyd’s boat, so they decided that stealing someone else’s engine would be a fantastic idea.
They snuck in the harbor at two in the morning while a police officer was circling the area. Belushi then used cutters to snip open the fence, pulled out a random boat, only to discover that they couldn’t attach it to Aykroyd’s car. When recalling their mischievous plan, Aykroyd explained, “John did it for friendship. It was a matter of ‘You may be crazy, but you’re my friend.’”
When Belushi tried his hand at a serious role for the film Old Boyfriends and Goin’ South in 1978, his fans were disappointed. Following such criticism, the actor gave up trying something new and returned to comedies like Steven Spielberg’s movie 1941.
Unfortunately, reviews were, once again, pretty harsh. One critic said that the film was “as much fun as a 40-pound wristwatch”; “The slapsticks gags, obviously choreographed with extreme care, do not build to boffs. They simply go on too long.”
Growing up, Belushi’s favorite music genre was, surprisingly, thrash metal. And after his death, three rock bands wrote songs in his memory. Thrash metal group, Anthrax, wrote Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.) for John, and the Polish band Lady Pank has a song titled John Belushi.
Lady Pank’s song begins with the lyrics: “Albania was a paradise for which I had no strength.” Another band, The Grateful Dead, also wrote a song called West L.A. Fadeaway, alluding to the star’s final moments in the Chateau Marmont.
“Some comedians love their characters,” John once noted, “But I don’t fall in love with mine.” The actor admitted that he actually got tired of his personas very fast. He found it really easy to throw them aside once he was done with them.
Reflecting on his SNL years, Belushi once told Rolling Stone magazine that, “Those were very hard times. Very tough, dealing with fame and success, while trying to fulfill your responsibility to the audience.” According to him, the trick was knowing what you want to do and doing everything you can to get there.