John Belushi (AP Photo)
John Belushi died of an accidental drug overdose at age 33. A short life, but one packed with a lifetime’s worth of memorable performances. Belushi isn’t remembered for just one iconic role. Instead, we remember the way he added his trademark humor to dozens of characters, from standalone Saturday Night Live sketches to all-time favorite movies. On what would have been Belushi’s 62nd birthday, we look at 10 of his greatest roles.
1. Joe Cocker. John Belushi’s impression of Joe Cocker was an early career catalyst, with Belushi performing it circa 1971 with Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe. A National Lampoon magazine staffer caught wind of Belushi’s energetic, slightly deranged impression and visited Chicago to see it. He was so impressed that he offered Belushi a job with the Lampoon’s Lemmings show in New York. Anyone who hasn’t seen Joe Cocker’s live performances would be excused if they thought Belushi’s performance a little (or a lot) strange. But those in the know can’t stop laughing at Belushi’s bizarre but dead-on take.
2. Samurai Futuba. If Belushi’s Joe Cocker impression got him to New York, setting the stage for him to audition for SNL, it was Samurai Futuba who actually got him the gig. Lorne Michaels knew about Belushi but was reluctant to hire him – he thought Belushi was too loud and abrasive for his brand-new variety show. Belushi got an audition anyway and trotted out a new character he’d been working on. Dressed in an old bathrobe, hair in a ponytail and a makeshift sword in hand, Belushi grunted and shouted Japanese-sounding gibberish at the audience. He was a scream – even Michaels had to admit he loved it – and Belushi got the job.
3. Pete from the Olympia Café. Once on SNL, Belushi began bringing an array of characters to life. Pete was the counter guy at the Olympia Café, where you could order whatever you wanted, but you’d always end up with a cheeseburger, chips and a Pepsi. “Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger” and “no Coke, Pepsi” became pop culture catchphrases, and Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern – the inspiration for the sketch – gained nationwide notoriety. That is, the Billy Goat gained more notoriety – owner Billy Sianis was already well-known to Cubs fans in Chicago and beyond for his 1945 curse on the team (a curse that still seems to be in effect today).
4. Ludwig van Beethoven. One of dozens of celebrity impersonations Belushi performed on SNL, it’s among the most memorable. Belushi’s Beethoven starts out staid, decorous and completely deaf. He plinks gently at the piano keys until his visitors leave him… at which point he snorts a bit of “cocaine,” puts on dark sunglasses, and confidently offers up a blues riff. As he begins to sing, he morphs into a Beethoven/Ray Charles pastiche, gleefully mimicking Charles’ mannerisms while he sings (and gains backup singers, too). Like so much of Belushi’s SNL work, it’s random, goofy and unforgettable.
5. John “Bluto” Blutarsky. Belushi’s first big screen movie was a massive hit. Widely considered one of the best movies of 1978, Animal House grossed over a million dollars per week (an impressive feat 33 years ago) and inspired a nationwide college toga party fad. Much of the success was due to Belushi’s masterful portrayal of Bluto, the seventh-year senior with a 0.0 GPA and a deep and abiding love for beer. Indeed, Universal Studios demanded that Belushi be signed for the role or there would be no movie. Director John Landis wanted Belushi to make the most of his fantastic facial expressions, so he cut a number of Bluto’s lines, requiring Belushi to use those famous eyebrows to great effect.
6. Ron Decline. Belushi’s next movie was The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, one of the earliest mockumentaries and an inspiration for the cult classic This is Spinal Tap. All You Need is Cash has its share of cult status as well, beloved for its eerily right-on send-up of The Beatles. Belushi played Ron Decline, “the most feared promoter in the world,” based on the real-life Allen Klein (fearsome in his own right, he’s often blamed for the Beatles’ breakup). Ron Decline strides through his office in dark sunglasses and a white turtleneck, striking desperate fear into the hearts of his subordinates before breaking a chair over the heads of two lackeys. In one of Belushi’s funniest lines in the film, he earnestly asserts, “I want to protect you from people like me.”
7. Ernie Souchak. Continental Divide was a departure for John Belushi. Though it was a comedy, it was a romantic comedy – and Belushi was the leading man. A classic fish out of water, Belushi’s Ernie Souchak is a chain-smoking Chicago reporter sent to Colorado to interview an eagle researcher. Anyone who’s ever watched a romantic comedy will guess that the eagle researcher is a beautiful woman, and that the two clash at first but eventually fall in love. Anyone who’s ever watched Belushi might think he’d play this reporter way over the top with lots of physical comedy… but they’d be wrong. It’s a subtle performance, both funny and sincere, and is considered by many fans to be one of his best.
8. Earl Keese. His final film, Neighbors, was arguably an even greater departure than Continental Divide. The dark comedy starred Dan Aykroyd as a loud, wacky guy, and John Belushi as his low-key, serious neighbor. That’s right, Belushi played the straight man. Many viewers – both critics and fans – didn’t know quite what to do with the movie, and it wasn’t a hit. But mega-reviewer Roger Ebert loved it, particularly the casting choices: “brilliant casting, especially since they divided the roles somewhat against our expectations.” Whatever we expected or wanted from John Belushi, it can’t be denied that he played the straight role well, giving us a glimpse of the range he could have achieved if he hadn’t died just four months after the movie’s release.
9. Peter Venkmann. Don’t worry, you’re not remembering Ghostbusters wrong. Bill Murray really did play Peter Venkmann. But the movie was conceived by Dan Aykroyd, Belushi’s close friend and frequent costar, as another vehicle for the two buddies. Aykroyd envisioned the Venkmann role specifically for Belushi – and then Belushi died, just a few months before the screenplay was finalized. Murray stepped into the role with success, creating one of his own greatest roles. But Belushi’s spirit stuck with the movie, perhaps in more ways than one. There’s something very familiar about ghost Slimer’s over-the-top comic persona.
10. “Joliet” Jake Blues. We had to save the best for last. John Belushi’s career soared to its dizziest heights with the 1980 release of The Blues Brothers. The first movie based on a recurring SNL skit, The Blues Brothers was a wacky homage to the blues, Chicago, and ridiculously destructive car chase scenes. It gave Belushi a chance to act with one of the stars he once parodied, Ray Charles, along with other musical legends like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway. In addition to bringing the music of these performers to a new generation, Belushi as Joliet Jake taught us that sunglasses are acceptable nightwear, Chicago’s Daley Plaza is where they got that Picasso, and you can get away with almost anything if you claim you’re on a mission from God.