The son of a Chicago restauranteur, American comic actor John Belushi played drums in a high school band and excelled in football. But acting was his first love, a love requited by college productions and summer stock. He and several old pals auditioned for Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, but only Belushi was selected, and he became the youngest-ever performer to appear in Second City's "main stage" productions. His improvisational style sometimes had a nasty, dangerous, "politically incorrect" edge, but such traits were prized rather than discouraged during the early '70s. Belushi's guerrilla comic techniques were reportedly inspired by the 1968 Democratic Convention riots in Chicago, and he was among the few performers who could successfully exploit violence and social upheaval as a source of humor. Belushi was hired in 1973 for the off-Broadway National Lampoon's Lemmings, and subsequently participated in future National Lampoon projects, including its syndicated "Radio Hour." In 1975, he was one of several Second City alumni cast in NBC's new satirical revue program Saturday Night Live. And though frustrated by the media's concentration on co-star Chevy Chase during the show's maiden season, Belushi fully came into his own once Chase left in 1976. Among Belushi's celebrated comic creations were the fish-out-of-water Samurai warrior; the "cheeseburger cheeseburger" short-order cook; and -- with close friend Dan Aykroyd -- the ultra-hip Blues Brothers.
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Belushi's first film appearance was a disappointingly small role in the Jack Nicholson Western Goin' South (1978), but he truly hit his stride with his next movie later that year. As Bluto, the beer-besotted fraternity goof in National Lampoon's Animal House, Belushi was grossly uproarious, almost single-handedly launching a nationwide collegiate craze for toga parties. The actor suddenly found himself a full-fledged movie star, but audiences were generally permitted to see only the Bluto side of him. Belushi fought for better and more varied film roles, sometimes succeeding (1982's The Blues Brothers), but often failing (1981's Continental Divide). Never an advocate of "moderation in everything," Belushi tended to emulate the Bluto character in real life with his excessive eating and drinking. His drug intake, already formidable in his Lemmings days, increased as his star ascended, terrifying even those friends who were, themselves, cocaine users. On March 5, 1982, comedian Robin Williams and writer Nelson Ryan came to visit Belushi in his temporary living quarters at West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont Hotel; they were the last of his friends to see him alive. Belushi was dead before the day was over, the victim of a cocaine and heroin overdose. With him at the time was erstwhile singer Cathy Smith, who would later be charged with involuntary manslaughter for her alleged role in administering the fatal drug jolt.
The meteoric rise and fall of Belushi was the stuff of which legends are made, overshadowing his brilliant comic gifts in favor of the sordid details. Two books have been written about him: Bob Woodward's Wired, and his widow Jackie's "answer" to Woodward, Samurai Widow. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi