Near sunrise on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 1982, John Belushi drove his rented Mercedes through the private gate to Jack Nicholson's house, deep in the Hollywood Hills. He wanted advice about a contract he had signed with Paramount to rewrite an old script called "Noble Rot" and act in the movie.
Belushi's deal for $1.85 million plus a percentage of the gross was okay, Nicholson said, but John could have done better. Without you, Johnny boy, there wouldn't be a movie, Nicholson said, so you're entitled to a bigger piece of the pie. John should talk to him next time, before he made a deal.
Nicholson's house was always open for friends to swim, sit in the Jacuzzi, watch basketball games. If they wanted to do drugs while they were there, they could. Nicholson smoked pot regularly and had, at one time, kept two kinds of cocaine--the "downstairs cocaine" for visitors and acquaintances, and the "upstairs cocaine" for special friends and women. John insisted he was cutting back, but as the day wore on Nicholson could see that wasn't true.
By midafternoon a few friends had gathered to pass the rainy day, including Ed Begley Jr., who had acted with Belushi and Nicholson in "Goin' South" five years earlier. Begley and Belushi had shared a lot of drugs during the shooting of that movie, down in Mexico, but Begley had since given them up entirely. As he entered Nicholson's TV room, with its U-shaped couch and big viewing screen, Begley saw John and was shocked by the immensity of his stomach and the deadness in his eyes.
"I can't believe it," Nicholson told Begley in a quiet aside. "Johnny came by at 5 a.m., and he's on a terror, trashing the place."
Begley asked John about his wife, Judy.
"The last time I saw her, she told me to do my own thing," John replied. He paused. "I can't keep this up, Begs." Begley suggested that they talk later, and John gave him his phone number. Then Belushi left Nicholson's to run some errands. When he got back to his temporary headquarters at the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, he collected his belongings and moved from Room 54 to bungalow No. 3, a two-bedroom hideaway in the back with a private entrance.
That night Belushi drove to the Playboy Mansion with actor Gary Watkins, one of his regular cocaine suppliers. Hugh Hefner always welcomed John and his friends, though he didn't know that Watkins dealt drugs. Since 1974, when Hefner's longtime assistant, Bobbie Arnstein, had committed suicide after being convicted on narcotics charges, Hefner had insisted that no one bring drugs to the mansion or anywhere near him.
After spending some time in the Jacuzzi, Belushi sent out a call for Kym Malin, a 19-year-old from Texas who had just posed for Playboy's upcoming May Playmate of the Month pictorial. Watkins took out a small spoon and a vial of cocaine and gave them four hits each--two in each nostril.
Shortly before midnight, Belushi took his companions down to On the Rox, his favorite private club on the Sunset Strip, a living-room style place run by movie producer Lou Adler. There that evening was a young, attractive couple: April Milstead, a thin, striking young woman, and Charles W. Pearson, a well-dressed rock 'n' roll singer who affected a Mick Jagger look. Milstead, whose ambition was not to work, was happy in Los Angeles. An Englishman who had fallen in love with her was paying the rent on the apartment she shared with Pearson, along with giving her a car and money for food, expensive clothes and her growing drug habit. She used a lot of cocaine and some heroin.
Belushi became infatuated with Milstead. He hovered over her all night, teasing her, following her around, sharing cocaine. They parted after 5 a.m., and the next morning he called her on the phone from his bungalow. "Why don't you come over?" he asked. "If you can find some coke, bring it."
Then Belushi called his assistant manager, Joel Briskin, who was in charge of him that week, and told him to come over. When Briskin arrived, the place was a mess. There were scripts, scraps of paper, food and bottles all over the living room and back bedroom. Milstead and Pearson got there sometime after 10 a.m. and went into the bedroom with John. Milstead sold him two grams of cocaine for $300. Belushi told Briskin to go buy a Deering grinder to break down the lumps. Briskin followed his instructions. He had played manservant before, and no doubt would again.
When Briskin returned with the grinder, John ran the cocaine through it, took a picture off the wall in the living room, laid out the fine white powder in long narrow lines on the glass and took several snorts. "You know, Joel," he said, "I just love cocaine."
Briskin knew. It might be okay this time, he reasoned, because John and Don Novello, the actor who played Father Guido Sarducci on "Saturday Night Live" and who was now helping Belushi write the script for "Noble Rot," were planning to do some night work that week. The script was already overdue, and Novello was flying in from San Francisco with a new draft. When they were done, Briskin thought, there would be less reason for cocaine.
Briskin was alarmed by Milstead's arms. He could see little dark bruises on the inside of her forearms--needle marks. Briskin lived in the Hollywood fast lane, where drugs were a part of everyday life, but needle marks were not fashionable.
That afternoon Judy Belushi reached John by telephone. They talked for five minutes, and she could tell from his voice and his hurried manner that he was doing coke. He told her that he was almost finished with the script and that he would be back with her soon in New York.
Novello showed up at Belushi's bungalow that night, worried about their deadline. They needed some crash typing done, so John called Penny Selwyn, his secretary at Paramount, and persuaded her to come over to the Chateau Marmont. He sent a limousine for her, and she arrived at 3 a.m. Novello was writing. John was asleep on the couch. His snoring was incredibly loud.
After a few minutes John got up, went to the refrigerator and got something to eat. Then he took out some cocaine, chopped a few lines with a razor and snorted some. "Help yourself whenever you want," he said to Selwyn. The cocaine woke him up. He asked Novello, "So where are we? How far did you get?"
It was hard to tell, the papers were so confused. There were photocopied pages from the old and new drafts mixed with yellow legal pad inserts. The planned rewrite had turned into much more. They were changing the whole thing--plot, jokes, characters. With several trips to the pile of coke, John managed to stay up, and by 6 a.m. they had finished 31 pages, which Selwyn took by limousine to a 24-hour typing service. They kept at it all the next day and night, with John occasionally sending out for more cocaine, which he had code-named "watermelon." Selwyn had to make the pickup herself once, driving John's rented Mercedes to Gary Watkins' house. After she handed over the money, she broke into a cold sweat and vowed, Never again.
When she returned to the bungalow, the phone rang. It was actor Robert De Niro. John loved De Niro, called him "Bobby D." Several years earlier, the two had taken some cocaine together.
"Yeah," John answered into the phone, "I got some." Pause. "No one," he said. He hung up and turned anxiously toward Selwyn. "He's coming over to get blow. He's totally paranoid, and you'll have to hide. I promised no one would be here."
On Feb. 23, copies of the "Noble Rot" script were delivered to several key people for a first reading.
Jay Sandrich, who had directed the popular "Mary Tyler Moore Show" on television and who was now planning to direct Belushi's movie, had been anxiously awaiting the rewrite. He took his copy into his office on the Paramount lot and closed the door. The script was full of fast cars, limos, Mercedes, talk of death, references to Belushi's friends--Keith Richard, Hugh Hefner, Robert De Niro. There were a number of references to drugs. It was as though John had taken the chaotic frenzy of his life and thrown it into the script. Sandrich was bewildered and upset. "I'm at Page 40," he told an associate, "and I haven't laughed yet."
Bernie Brillstein, Belushi's manager, read the script on a transatlantic flight and had the same reaction. Boy, are we in trouble, he thought. It seemed as if Novello, a good writer, had been intimidated by John. The absurd part was that nothing was funny.
Michael Ovitz, Hollywood's hottest young agent and the man who had worked out Belushi's deal with Paramount, read it and found it awful--a reflection of the drug-crazed atmosphere in which it had been written. "It's terrible," Ovitz told Sandrich. "No one will ever make this picture."
Belushi flew back to New York and paid a visit to the office of his accountant, Mark Lipsky, who gave him $500. Shortly afterward, Judy called Lipsky and urged him not to give John cash. Lipsky put out the word. He realized that it was ridiculous for John to carry cash. Paramount's allowance of $2,500 a week was absurd. Brillstein's office in Los Angeles got the allowance and doled it out to John whenever he wanted it. But Lipsky's office paid all the bills--for hotels, rental cars, restaurants, clubs, American Express, phone calls, limousines and taxi service. John could live on zero cash--the support system was total. The only thing he had to pay for with cash was drugs. That was how he used the studio's allowance.
One night in New York, Belushi met up with Richard T. Bear, a 29-year-old musician whom John had known for several years. They took a limousine to Bear's apartment. There was a lot of cocaine there--at least a half an ounce, piled in a big mound in the kitchen. Bear caught John secretly scooping some of it into a small plastic bag. Though the pile was so big that it made no apparent difference in the size, Bear was surprised, and asked John what was going on. Belushi said he'd pay him back in Los Angeles. He left a few minutes later.
Bear was livid. It was one thing to come and use cocaine, and another thing to buy it--but it was outrageous to come and steal it. He felt that John had changed recently. The theft showed his dark side. There was nothing recreational or social about John's cocaine use anymore.
The next day, Belushi surprised Bear by returning to his apartment with money for the cocaine. He told Bear he needed more. It was 9 o'clock in the morning, and Bear had none left, but John was insistent. Bear made some calls and found a connection. John snorted several lines, then went back to his house on Morton Street and climbed into bed. Judy was home. That afternoon he woke up coughing, and asked Judy what was wrong with him.
You're doing this to yourself, she said. He sounded like a drowning man, and he was spitting up blood.
"I'm out of control," he said. It was half question, half statement.
Yes, she said.
"I'm out of control!" John bellowed. Then he went back to sleep.
Copyright(c) 1984 by Bob Woodward. Excerpted from "Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi," published by Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. CAPTION: Picture 1, John Belushi in "Animal House"; Pictures 2 through 7, John Belushi Photos by Marcia Resnick; Picture 8, John Belushi and Jak Nicholson after a Blues Brothers concert; Picture 9, Robert De Niro accepting his Academy Award for best actor in 1981. AP; Picture 10, "Laverne & Shirley" star Penny Marshall backstage with Belushi after one of Belushi's Blues Brothers concerts in 1980; Picture 11, Judy Jacklin Belushi. By Lynn Goldsmith Inc., Copyright (c) 1980