"I guess I want everything," John Belushi once said. But lives lived to excess, lives virtually devoted to it, sometimes end early. John Belushi's did, yesterday. He was 33 and by all accounts, his appetites were still defiantly enormous. He was not easily appeased. Those who came in contact with him, through television or in person or both, will never have vague memories. The memories will always be roaring. He could not be casually encountered; he will not be casually forgotten.
On NBC's "Saturday Night Live," where Belushi was a founding member of the original company of comedy players, he tore into roles that often depended on unashamedly brandished physical and emotional extremes: the easily aroused, oddly plump samurai swordsman who might be found behind the desk of a hotel or a deli or doing strenuous flips at a disco, the boisterous proprietor of a greasy Greek diner (where Belushi introduced, among other catch phrases, the cry of "Chee-burger, chee-burger" and the wilting "No Coke, Pepsi"), and the ultimate angry young man delivering commentaries that invariably degenerated into frenzy. He would twirl himself into fury, his arms would flail in the air, and he'd fall off his chair and disappear behind the desk.
When film critic Gary Arnold reviewed "Animal House," Belushi's spectacularly successful film debut and now the highest grossing movie comedy in history, he described Belushi's portrayal of Bluto, the unregenerate campus slob, as "an amalgam of unchecked appetites in a vaguely human form."
Off screen, Belushi was known as a strenuous and tireless partyer, particularly during his five years on "Saturday Night Live," when, following the completion of the broadcast and the more-or-less official cast party at one New York bar or another, Belushi and costar--and fellow parodistic Blues Brother--Dan Aykroyd would retire with invited guests to their own scuzzy excuse for an after-hours dive, where liquor would flow until the sun came up and where Belushi usually proved more than half the life of the party.
And yet the same rambunctious hedonist could turn suddenly meek and even sheepish when presented with a compliment. If you told him you admired him in this or that sketch, or this or that scene, he would lower his eyes and smile his plump Italianate smile and ask with incredulity, "Really? Did you really like it?" as if he'd been handed a Christmas present in the middle of August.
In 1975, high on the first gush of national success from "Saturday Night Live"--in the early days, when people couldn't believe anything this funny and irreverent would be underwritten by network television--Belushi came to Washington with Aykroyd, costar Chevy Chase, and Lorne Michaels, who produced the show and assembled the illustrious original cast. It was a day of touring monuments and cutting up. Belushi posed playfully for pictures with a shocked park ranger at the Lincoln Memorial, bought a bottle of Lancer's and drank it from a paper bag while on the streets of Georgetown, and threw himself into one sporadic improvisation after another with Aykroyd.
At one point, Belushi grabbed a stick, made it a cane, and began running and limping along the edge of the Reflecting Pool while Aykroyd, brandishing a pencil and a notebook, chased him shouting, "Senator! Senator!" He'd catch up with Belushi, and then Belushi would race off again. Chevy Chase's girlfriend watched this and said, "Such children!" They were the children of television, probably the first generation of television children to invade it, subdue it, and claim at least a small corner of it for themselves.
Belushi always mocked false sentiment, especially false show-biz sentiment. While appearing with a touring company of the "National Lampoon Show," he would close the evening's entertainment by singing to the audience, "We only want your money; we don't care about you at all." In a piece he wrote for The Washington Post in 1977, Belushi joked, "I won't do prime time until the Pryors and the Wilders start calling the shots. You know that, but still you turn to me and scream, 'John Belushi, my God, why don't you do something? You're the hope of the future of television. Please help us.'
"No, get off my back. I've done enough. I've got better things to do, like walk down a country road, stop and smell the roses, then pull them out by their roots."
During one "Saturday Night Live" sketch, Belushi played himself as a spry old man, visiting a cemetery where fellow cast members were buried. One had died of an overdose, he said; and he recounted how the others had gone. And then he danced merrily on their graves. "I hired him," Lorne Michaels told an interviewer once, "because he walked into my office and started to abuse me. He said, 'I can't stand television,' and that was just the kind of abuse I wanted to hear.'"
Maybe the trick is to give one's fair share of abuse as well as to get it. In his black Blues Brothers suit, Belushi would open performances by turning incongruous and clunky cartwheels across the stage; even that seemed an act of insouciance and defiance. He came and went like a comet, but no one will ever have to wonder if he was here. He was here, all right. He was here.