The True Story Of How ’80s Icon John Belushi Spent His Final Days On Earth

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Larger-than-life talent John Belushi was surely one of the funniest men of his generation – but he was also one of the most self-destructive. Indeed, the star of American comedy institution Saturday Night Live ultimately became just as renowned for his gargantuan drug intake as he was for his madcap sense of humor.

Image: Facebook/John Belushi

Sadly, Belushi’s work hard, play hard approach to life ended in tragedy on one fateful night in March 1982. Shortly beforehand, the comedian had checked into Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont Hotel, where he had spent time with A-list friends Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. But just hours later, the Animal House star was dead.

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Unsurprisingly, various illegal substances played their part in the star’s premature passing. A coroner later ruled, you see, that the funnyman had died from a lethal blend of cocaine and heroin known as a speedball. Here’s a look at Belushi’s career and the harrowing way in which it all came to an end.

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Belushi came into the world in Chicago, Illinois, in January 1949. Then later, in the early 1970s, he began his comedy career when he formed his own troupe, The West Compass Trio. Spotted by Second City founder Bernard Sahlins, Belushi got invited to join the likes of Brian Doyle-Murray and Harold Ramis at the famous Chicago improv theater. And in 1972 he appeared alongside Christopher Guest and Chevy Chase in off-Broadway Woodstock spoof National Lampoon Lemmings.

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As reported in The Guardian, fellow Second City star Ramis later reflected, “The first night I saw him improvising on stage, I thought, ‘God, I will never take chances like that. I don’t have that kind of courage.’ But there was always something safer and more comfortable about being me than there was about being him.”

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National Lampoon Show director Ivan Reitman was also impressed by the emerging talent that he saw. As he told The Guardian in January 2019, “I tried to direct them, but they all laughed that off – they directed themselves. But while they didn’t listen to me, they all listened to John. He was the most remarkable performer in this remarkable group. He would just walk on stage with this Brando-like charisma.”

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Belushi soon became a pivotal member of the National Lampoon team who would help to define comedy in the United States in the 1970s. He took on several creative roles on The National Lampoon Radio Hour – a show co-produced by his long-term girlfriend and future wife, Judith Jacklin. But his career reached new heights when he attracted the attention of Lorne Michaels.

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Michaels was at first reluctant about Belushi’s mainstream appeal, mind you. But he nevertheless made an ultimately wise decision by giving the funnyman a chance on a brand-new show that was to become a U.S. comedy institution. And from the moment that Belushi graced the first episode of Saturday Night Live, it was clear that a star had been born.

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Yes, on a show that also featured the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase, it was Belushi whom viewers were most interested in seeing week in, week out. The star enjoyed a four-year run in which he originated several classic characters – such as the Olympia Café’s Greek owner and Samurai Futaba. He also offered impressions of Ludwig van Beethoven, Henry Kissinger and Captain James T. Kirk, among many others.

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But Belushi really struck gold after he teamed up with one Dan Aykroyd. The pair’s iconic comic creation, The Blues Brothers, was initially only supposed to serve as a warm-up act. However, the duo became so popular with audiences that producers upgraded them to musical guests on a regular basis. 

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SNL creator Michaels told The Guardian why he felt that Belushi became the show’s breakout star. He said, “John was wary of TV at first, but he knew the most essential thing: how to hold the audience in his hand. He never left the stage without connecting with the audience. So it wasn’t a surprise to me that he took off like he did.”

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Sadly, though, it seems that Belushi chose to cope with his newfound fame in a bad way: by taking copious amounts of drugs. And this inevitably started to affect his work. The star’s boss, Michaels, in fact gave him his marching orders on numerous occasions – only to offer him another chance each time. Yet despite the fact that Belushi was struggling to cope with the pressures of stardom, in 1978 he decided to move into the world of film.

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Belushi made his big-screen debut in Old Boyfriend before showing up in the Jack Nicholson-directed Goin’ South. His first major movie success then followed after he took the leading role in raucous campus comedy Animal House. Directed by John Landis, the landmark movie is credited with inspiring everything from Porky’s to American Pie.

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Landis later told The Guardian that Belushi was such a force of nature during the filming of Animal House that he’d had to change its script. The director said, “I ended up taking dialog away from him because John could do so much with his face and body. John played him like Cookie Monster crossed with Harpo Marx, and even at Bluto’s most aggressive, you still like him.”

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Belushi and Aykroyd then blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality when they turned their comedy duo, The Blues Brothers, into a proper recording act. And remarkably, their 1978 debut studio effort, Briefcase Full of Blues, reached pole position on the Billboard 200 and spawned two U.S. Top 40 singles. Two years later The Blues Brothers then made the leap to the big screen with an eponymous movie that grossed $115.2 million across the globe.

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However, The Blues Brothers’ director told The Guardian that Belushi’s drug habit had by that point spiraled out of control. As Landis put it, “[Belushi] had this awful addiction to cocaine. We hired a guy to watch him, and there were some really scary moments during the making of that movie.”

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The director then added, “People say now [that] John was difficult to work with, but he wasn’t. The only fight I had with him in all the time we worked together was about drugs, so it wasn’t a temperament thing – it was a health thing. John was so great, but he wasn’t able to give 100 percent in this movie.”

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Landis – who also later directed Aykroyd in Trading Places – admitted that Belushi’s conduct had frustrated him. As he told The Guardian, “With addiction, you can’t help someone unless they want it. It’s like offering a drowning man your hand, and they refuse it. It was terrible. He went from being this really sweet guy to someone hyper and maniacal.”

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Belushi’s wife, Judith, also reflected on her late husband’s drug habit in an interview with the same newspaper. She said, “John always had an uneasiness in himself, and he was trying to fill it with something. I was an element, but I wasn’t enough. And the drugs were a part of that – a big part of that. I don’t know – I’m sure one’s childhood has something to do with it.”

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Judith in addition commented on how Belushi had found everyday life stressful thanks to his rising profile and the constant attention that came from the public. She said, “A lot of people who reach celebrity status shut down and don’t engage, but John always wanted to engage with everyone. But you have to be very grounded to cope with all those demands.”

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Now by this point, Belushi was no longer on SNL. You see, like his regular partner in crime, Aykroyd, the star had decided to leave the late-night comedy show to concentrate on his movie career. The duo in fact went on to work with Steven Spielberg on action-comedy movie 1941 and with John Avildsen on the darker-toned Neighbors.

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Belushi then took a brief break from his partnership with Aykroyd after he landed the leading role in Michael Apted’s 1981 rom-com Continental Divide. He was also poised to star in a trio of movies – National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex, Moon Over Miami and Noble Rot – before reuniting with Aykroyd in Ghostbusters. Yet sadly, of course, Belushi would never see those projects to fruition.

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Come early 1982 Belushi’s drug abuse had started to visibly take its toll. That February he once again checked into his favorite hotel: the Chateau Marmont on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. And according to Shawn Levy – writer of a book about the star’s final days, named The Castle on Sunset – Belushi looked like a “mess” and was “sweaty, flabby, edgy [and] pale.”

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Belushi had previously spent a month living in an upper-floor suite at the same hotel. And during that period, the star was reportedly abusing alcohol and drugs on a daily basis. Alongside consuming pot and cocaine, Belushi had started taking heroin, too – albeit this was apparently in part research for a punk-rock movie that he was hoping to make.

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Belushi had moved into one of the Chateau Marmont’s bungalows to get the aforementioned Noble Rot off the ground. But it soon became apparent that the star was in no fit state to do any work. According to The Hollywood Reporter, filmmaker and fellow guest Al Reinert once remarked, “He would pace around the valet area, muttering incomprehensible curses, his pupils as black and dilated as wide-open camera lenses.”

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What’s more, Belushi often failed to turn up for scheduled meetings and struggled to maintain any sort of meaningful attention span. He was constantly distracted by phone calls, too. And his personal hygiene had deteriorated. Yes, as well as wearing unclean clothes, the comedian also appeared to have stopped regularly shaving and showering.

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Then on March 4, 1982, Belushi turned up at the house of his manager of many years, Bernie Brillstein, to request some money. Believing that his client wanted the cash to buy drugs, Brillstein refused to hand any over. But when Belushi visited again later in the day, the manager relented to avoid causing a scene.

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Later that night Robert De Niro and Harry Dean Stanton visited Belushi at his hotel room, where they encountered a sorry sight. According to Levy, the place looked as though it had been trashed – and Belushi himself was in a similar state. The SNL star then asked his two actor friends to return to the bungalow once they had enjoyed their evening at the exclusive Sunset Strip club On the Rox.

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Stanton and De Niro weren’t the only Hollywood names who were left appalled by the state of Belushi and his surroundings that night, either. After performing at The Comedy Store, Robin Williams, too, called in on his friend. However, what Williams saw shocked him, and he apparently only said a few words before leaving.

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At around 3:00 a.m., De Niro then returned to Belushi’s temporary pad. But once again, the visit was brief. And according to The Hollywood Reporter, after allegedly helping himself to some of the cocaine that lay on the lounge table, De Niro returned to his own suite. Then, five hours later, groupie Cathy Smith signed for a breakfast delivery that came to Belushi’s room.

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Another few hours then passed, at which point Belushi’s personal trainer, Bill Wallace, headed for the same hotel room for a workout that the pair had previously arranged. But when Wallace got there, a shocking scene awaited – as he discovered the comedian’s motionless body. And after the trainer’s CPR attempts failed to rouse Belushi, a panicked Wallace called manager Brillstein. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the former then told the latter, “I’m having trouble waking John up.”

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Brillstein’s secretary then called for the help of paramedics, and a team quickly arrived on the scene. However, by this point there was nothing that could be done to save Belushi. And after briefly examining his body, the emergency unit immediately knew that one of America’s greatest comedic talents was now dead.

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Belushi had passed away at the age of just 33 after injecting a lethal speedball – a cocktail of heroin and cocaine. And yet it turns out that he wasn’t alone at the time he took the combination of drugs. You see, two months after his death, Cathy Smith told The National Enquirer that she had in fact given Belushi the speedball.

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Previously, officials had ruled Belushi’s death as a drug-related accident. But following Smith’s admission, a decision was made to reopen the case. So, after being arrested and extradited from the Canadian state of Ontario, Smith faced a first-degree murder charge. However, following a plea bargain, she ultimately received an involuntary manslaughter conviction. Smith subsequently spent 15 months in jail.

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Back around the time of the tragedy – the day after Belushi’s body was found, to be precise – Brillstein went to pick up the comedian’s belongings from the hotel room. And there, the sheer amount of garbage, dirty laundry and plates stacked with cold food that the star’s manager found shocked him. As Brillstein told The Hollywood Reporter, “The scene was not only depressing; it was depraved. I couldn’t believe John had lived there.”

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Belushi was given an Orthodox Christian funeral by an Albanian Orthodox priest, as requested by his wife, Judith. His body was then buried at Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. “I may be gone, but Rock and Roll lives on” is how his tombstone was inscribed, with the words appearing alongside the image of a skull and crossbones.

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Later, in 1989, a film based on Belushi’s passing briefly hit cinemas. However, it was far from well received. The late comedian’s brother, Jim – a famous actor in his own right – joined a number of people who objected to the movie’s release. Wired received a chorus of boos at its Cannes premiere. And it later bombed with U.S. audiences, bringing in a measly $1 million at the box office.

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John Landis, meanwhile, believes that had Belushi overcome his drug addiction, he would have remained Saturday Night Live’s most popular graduate for years to come. As Landis told The Guardian, “I think John would have been a much, much bigger star than Bill Murray. Bill is always Bill Murray, whereas John was a real actor. There’s very little in common between Bluto and Jake Blues.”

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Landis concluded, “There’s all this mythology around John, but the bottom line is [that] he was a charming guy and a brilliant performer. He was strong like a tractor and smart like a bull, and he really could have gone on to do anything.” Meanwhile, another of Belushi’s former colleagues, Ivan Reitman, echoed those sentiments.

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Reitman told The Guardian, “What you need to understand about John Belushi is [that] he really was this extraordinary talent. I’ve known a lot of famous people, but he was at the center of the zeitgeist in a way that’s hard to describe now. But his fame took over to a degree [that] I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since.”

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