One of the first-ever cast members on Saturday Night Live, John Belushi was best known for his raucous characters and his rare talent for physical comedy.
Star of The Blues Brothers, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Neighbours, Belushi had an enduring impact on the US comedy scene, long past his untimely death from a drug overdose in 1982. Here are 20 things you may not know about the comedy legend.
20. Belushi was cast as Venkman in Ghostbusters before he died
When Dan Aykroyd dreamt up Ghostbusters, he penned the part of Dr Peter Venkman with his close friend Belushi in mind.
As SNL co-stars, Belushi and Aykroyd previously created the Blues Brothers sketch, later developing it into the 1980 cult classic film of the same name.
Dr Peter Venkman, leader of the Ghostbusters, is a parapsychologist. Belushi was signed on to take the role before his death – at which point Bill Murray, another SNL co-star, stepped in to play the part.
Murray will reprise the role for a third film in Ghostbusters: Afterlife in 2021, along with fellow original Ghostbusters cast members Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver.
Belushi and Aykroyd became friends and began drafting ideas for the Blues Brothers the very first time they met.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2003, Aykroyd said: ‘I think about him every damn time I walk into a House of Blues. I think, ‘Why aren’t you here, man, to enjoy all this?'”
19. He ended up as the model for Slimer
Despite his death, Belushi still had a bizarre impact on the franchise: producers modelled the ghost Slimer on Belushi’s image.
A guzzling paranormal menace, Slimer is green, potato-shaped and voiced by Ivan Reitman.
On the Ghostbusters set, Aykroyd used to call the looming Slimer prop “the ghost of John Belushi.”
The FX figure, first named “Onion Head Ghost”, evolved into a Belushi-inspired Slimer at Dan Aykroyd’s request.
The artist Steve Johnson described the model, reworked as Belushi in a mere 24 hours, as “a goddamn bleeding nightmare.”
The team were full of specific requests. “Put ears on him, take his ears off, less pathos, more pathos, make his nose bigger, now his nose is too big, make his nose smaller…”
18. He used to borrow money from new people to gauge their personalities
Among Belushi’s stranger habits was his trick of borrowing money to size up new acquaintances.
When director John Landis was casting for the wild fraternity comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House, no one but Belushi would do for the part of Bluto.
Universal Studios told Landis that without Belushi, for whom the part was written, the film would be cancelled. But Belushi was yet to be persuaded.
Upon meeting with Landis to discuss the script, the comedian promptly asked to borrow $20, which Landis handed over immediately.
Belushi would often ask for small sums of money from new acquaintances in this way, just to see how they reacted.
Over the next few days, Belushi amply repaid Landis with an unannounced room service feast and a tuna sandwich in a paper bag. He enthusiastically agreed to star in Landis’ movie.
17. His dream was to play Beethoven in a movie
Belushi’s big ambition was to star as Ludwig van Beethoven in a movie, according to his fellow comedian and friend Harold Ramis.
In an episode of At the Movies in 1986, Ramis reminisced about how Belushi wanted to take his Beethoven skits to the big screen.
Belushi’s SNL Beethoven is mournful and listless – until his servants leave the room, when he dons sunglasses, takes drugs and breaks out his Ray Charles-inspired jazz performance.
Belushi’s other famous impressions included Henry Kissinger, singer Joe Cocker and his Star Trek favourite Captain Kirk.
One of his best-known original characters was the katana-wielding Samurai Futaba, who was obsessed with honour.
Belushi’s samurai even made it into a Marvel Team-Up comic in 1978, fighting alongside Spider-Man against the villain Super Samurai.
16. He once landed a $23,000 bill for trashing a hotel room
Belushi’s close friend and rockstar Joe Walsh was notorious for trashing hotel rooms in the 70s.
But he said the worst damage he ever caused was in kahoots with Belushi – when the pair landed a $23,000 bill.
“When Belushi came over, you pretty much just cancelled all your plans for the next 24 hours,” he said. “He came over to my hotel, and we stayed up for a couple weeks that night!”
Wandering into the penthouse suite, they found a stunning art collection – but they disliked the wallpaper underneath.
So Belushi and Walsh removed the paper strip by strip, and then carefully re-hung the paintings on the walls.
The owner was not impressed – though Walsh maintains that they made the place look “much better.”
15. He once wandered off the Blues Brothers set and into a stranger’s house, raided the fridge and fell asleep
Dan Aykroyd gave his friend Belushi the title of ‘America’s Guest’ after a strange night-time incident while they were filming The Blues Brothers.
Belushi apparently disappeared off in the small hours and was later found in a stranger’s living room.
He had wandered into an unfamiliar house, helped himself to food from the fridge and drifted off on the couch.
Aykroyd said he traced Belushi down a nearby path, found a house with the living room light on and knocked on the door. Fortunately the homeowners were delighted to recognise the star on their sofa.
In a 2015 interview with Sirius XM, Aykroyd suggested Belushi’s lovable persona helped to excuse him for such antics.
“I woke up John and said, ‘Time to go back to work!’, and I let him out,” Aykroyd said. “He could go anywhere… everyone loved John.”
14. William Shatner preferred Belushi’s SNL version of Captain Kirk to his own
While Belushi was a rising star at SNL, he and head writer Michael O’Donoghue bonded over their shared love of Star Trek.
They devised The Last Voyage of the Star Ship Enterprise, a sketch where Belushi as Kirk meets NBC executives who are planning to cancel the TV show.
It was a huge hit. Even William Shatner, who first played the intergalactic hero, was a big fan of the impression, commenting, “I like Belushi’s work as Kirk better than my own.”
Unusually, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wrote to the show to praise the sketch, saying, “It was delicious!”
“That is the proper word for it – imaginatively conceived and carried out with the kind of loose good humour that an entertaining parody demands.”
According to Star Trek biographer Mark Altman, Belushi remained a Trekkie for the rest of his life and spent his final day as a guest on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
13. The SNL audience once started a riot over a punk band Belushi had booked to play
As Belushi wrapped work on Neighbours in 1981, he turned to his friends in the punk band Fear to write a soundtrack.
It was highly unusual for punk music to feature in films at that time, and the studio ultimately rejected Belushi’s choice.
To show his appreciation for the band’s hard work, Belushi booked Fear to perform on Saturday Night Live’s Halloween Special. He filled out the studio audience with about 45 punk fans in readiness.
Matters took a rowdy turn as the band called out “It’s great to be in New Jersey!” and began to play New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones.
Some of the fans stormed onto the stage to mosh and threw a pumpkin at the stage manager while yelling “F*** New York!”
NBC cut the telecast mid-performance and removed the episode from rebroadcasts for many years to follow.
12. He auditioned for the lead role in The Blue Lagoon, but was “too funny” for the part
The Blue Lagoon was no standard fare for Belushi – yet he apparently auditioned for the lead role in this romantic survival drama.
Belushi was hoping to play Richard, a teenager stranded on a desert island with his cousin.
Deemed “too funny” for the role by the directors, he lost the role of Richard to Christopher Atkins.
Around that time, The Blues Brothers went into production, based on Belushi’s and Aykroyd’s SNL skit of the same name. This movie grossed over $115 million worldwide.
By the time of his death aged 33, Belushi had no end of roles lined up thanks to his massive star appeal.
He was cast in Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, Once Upon a Time in America and a proposed adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces before he died.
11. He was the only person ever to get an immediate place in Second City – after almost getting sued by them
John Belushi went down in comedy history as the first ever person to be recruited straight into Chicago comedy group The Second City in 1971.
Ordinarily, new recruits – who have previously included Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert and Amy Poehler – had to train with the touring company before they could join the main group.
But Belushi had an unconventional entry to the group – he was almost sued by them.
Fresh out of high school, Belushi created the West Point Trio troupe, which began performing some “borrowed” Second City material in local pubs.
When Second City members came to one such gig to investigate, they were so impressed by Belushi’s performance that they hired him instead of taking him to court.
His younger brother Jim Belushi and nephew Robert Belushi also joined the famous improv troupe.
10. He was halfway through writing his own film when he died
Before his death in 1982, Belushi was working on a script for his own film, a screwball comedy entitled Noble Rot.
Belushi wanted to star as the mischievous son of a Californian winemaker who becomes embroiled in a diamond fraud scheme.
The title Noble Rot refers to a fungal growth on grapes which actually improves the taste of the wine.
Belushi had already written widely for Second City, National Lampoon and the Emmy award-winning team at SNL.
But Noble Rot would have been the star’s very first film writing credit, as he worked in partnership with SNL writer Don Novello during his final months.
The script would have broadened Belushi’s range, allowing him to perform romance scenes and action sequences along with his classic bursts of raucous comedy.
9. His Albanian grandmother helped him to discover his comedic streak
Belushi was raised in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, and both his parents were Albanian immigrants.
In the biography Beyond Bluto by John Belushi’s widow Judith Belushi Pisano, Belushi’s brother Jim recalled how the young John would have the family in fits of laughter.
John used to act out words and ideas to their Albanian grandmother, who didn’t speak English.
His exaggerated gestures were so comical, John began to dream of a career in stage comedy.
As a child he attended the Albanian Orthodox Church and met his future wife Judith Jacklin at Wheaton Warrenville South High School.
At high school, Belushi also started a short-lived band named The Ravens, recording the single Listen to Me Now / Jolly Green Giant.
8. Robert De Niro was one of the last people to see him alive
Belushi was loved in celebrity circles for his warmth and generosity. His friends included SNL creator Lorne Michaels, Meat Loaf, Jack Nicholson and journalist Barbara Walters.
He was also close friends with the actors Robert De Niro and Harry Dean Stanton, who were reportedly among the last people to visit Belushi before his death.
Only the night before, De Niro and Stanton paid a trip to Belushi’s bungalow, inviting him out for a dinner party which he turned down.
In the book Dusty: Reflections of Wrestling’s American Dream, Dusty Rhodes recalls Belushi’s outgoing personality, remembering how the pair sang onstage with Belushi at Lone Star Cafe in NYC.
In The Blues Brothers, Belushi performs a Hully Gully, an unusual type of line dance.
But the name “Hully Gully” is also given to a particular wrestling conundrum where the wrestler is caught between ring ropes – and the term was made famous by Rhodes himself.
7. His comedy idol was Lucille Ball
Belushi’s greatest comedy hero was Lucille Ball, star of the sitcoms I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show.
He reportedly memorised every detail of her career and personal life, from chorus girl to studio owner.
Despite this passion for one woman’s comedy, Belushi was later accused of misogyny by some of his SNL co-stars.
Reportedly Belushi often refused to perform sketches by the SNL writers Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster. Both suspected he rejected their work because they were women.
According to co-star Jane Curtin, Belushi would openly proclaim in the writing workshops that women “aren’t funny.”
On the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, Curtin said of Belushi: “He felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces that were written by women.”
6. He refused the title role in Arthur (1981) to avoid the “party animal” typecast
Belushi turned down a wide range of roles in the 1970s, often to avoid typecasting or scripts he just didn’t like.
He rejected the leading role in Arthur, the 1981 comedy, because he didn’t want to play another wealthy party animal like Bluto – and the role instead went to Dudley Moore, earning him an Oscar nomination.
Another comedy Belushi turned down was Night Shift, a film about two morgue workers. Belushi was apparently unwilling to leave New York for filming in Los Angeles.
Michael Keaton snapped up the part in Night Shift, playing Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski in his first ever film performance.
About Last Night… was a 1986 film based on the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Belushi was asked to star in the film, but his brother Jim Belushi had already played the same part in the stage production.
Persuaded by Jim to leave the project, Belushi gave up the spot to his brother. Jim later followed in John’s footsteps by joining the cast of SNL.
5. He and Dan Aykroyd once tried to steal a boat while drunk
SNL buddies Aykroyd and Belushi performed a few light-fingered antics over the years.
While they were working on The Blue Brothers, they headed to the costume department to steal two Nazi officer uniforms and sped off down the highway in costume.
Another time, under the influence, Belushi and Aykroyd were musing about how to make home improvements to Aykroyd’s boat.
They settled on stealing another boat for its motor – and crept to the harbour at 2 AM, while a police car was circling the area.
Belushi used bolt cutters to snip open the marina fence, and they pulled out a boat – only to find that they couldn’t attach and tow it behind Aykroyd’s car.
Recalling their abandoned plan, Aykroyd said: “[John] did it for friendship. It was a matter of ‘You may be crazy, but you’re my friend.'”
4. A critic said Spielberg’s film with Belushi was “as much fun as a 40-pound wristwatch”
When Belushi delved into serious roles for Old Boyfriends and Goin’ South in 1978, audiences were disappointed.
He found it difficult to shake his comic persona, and so returned to comedy films with the Steven Spielberg-directed movie 1941 in 1979.
Belushi stars in the film as a National Guard pilot who defends a Californian town against a Japanese siege, in a fictional reimagining of the Pearl Harbor attacks.
The film received poor reviews. In the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby wrote: “The slapsticks gags, obviously choreographed with extreme care, do not build to boffs; they simply go on too long.”
“I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the director or of the editor, but I’ve seldom seen a comedy more ineptly timed,” Canby commented.
“1941 is less comic than cumbersome, as much fun as a 40-pound wristwatch.”
3. A Polish rock band and a thrash metal group wrote songs about him
Before his passion project The Blues Brothers diverted the star towards blues music, Belushi’s favourite genre was in fact thrash metal.
After his death, three bands wrote songs in his memory. Anthrax, a thrash metal group, composed Efilnikufesin NFL about Belushi for their 1987 album Among the Living.
Polish rock band Lady Pank also wrote a song in his memory, named simply John Belushi.
Lady Pank’s opening lyrics pay homage to Belushi’s heritage and translate to English as: “Albania was a paradise for which I had no strength.”
The band Grateful Dead wrote the song West LA Fadeaway in the year that Belushi died and alludes to the star’s death in the Chateau Marmont.
A fan of the band, Belushi had previously sung with Grateful Dead onstage in New Jersey in 1980.
2. He was a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs
Belushi loved the Chicago Cubs so much he even snuck a reference to his favourite team into The Blues Brothers
In the movie, the heroes Jake and Elwood name their address as 1060 West Addison Street.
This address is in fact Wrigley Field – the Chicago baseball park and home to the Cubs.
The site also has a brief cameo in the film, along with other Illinois landmarks like Joliet Correctional Centre and Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Aside from baseball, Belushi was also keen on football, and was co-captain of his high school team.
At one point he even began to consider training as a football coach, although his drama teacher soon persuaded him otherwise.
1. He didn’t ‘love’ his characters
“Some comedians love their characters,” Belushi once commented. “I don’t fall in love with mine.”
“In fact, I get tired of them very fast. You have to be willing to throw it all away.”
Despite his famously vibrant social life, Belushi’s line of work often required great discipline – especially while he worked on SNL.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Belushi admitted that the pressures of fame often took an emotional and professional toll on him.
Looking back on his first two years at SNL, he reflected, “Those were very hard times… very tough, dealing with fame and success, while trying to fulfil your responsibility to the audience.”
“The trick is knowing what you want to do and then resolving to do everything you have to do to get there.”