Many people are aware that the late, great John Belushi’s career ended all too early, but few people know the true details of what really happened in those final days leading up to the tragedy. It was a tale of Hollywood decadence and self-destruction the likes of which few celebrities have ever succumbed to, and it stands to this day as one of the most tragic untimely deaths of a beloved iconic figure. While it may have surprised the public, though, those around him nervously saw the end approaching.
John Belushi’s life ended all too early on Mach 5, 1982, at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. His career had started only 7 years earlier, in 1975, with the birth of Saturday Night Live, or SNL. John Belushi was one of the founding cast members of the show, and he would go on to become one of the show’s biggest draws. Without Belushi, the show likely would’ve never caught on as fast as it did, although supporting cast members, such as Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Gildna Radner, put in their fair share of work, as well. Belushi created and starred as many timeless characters, including the Samurai Hitman, and quickly became a welcome part of many television-viewing households every Saturday night.
It wasn’t long before Belushi aimed to take his fame out of the small screen and onto the big screen, and he found equal success there almost immediately, although it didn’t do him much good. His first big screen starring role was in National Lampoon’s Animal House, a success that cast a shadow so large it loomed over Belushi until his dying days in more ways than one. While this film launched the Hollywood careers of several notable individuals, including writer Harold Ramis of Ghostbusters fame and director John Landis of American Werewolf In London fame, it made no household name quite as prominent as John Belushi himself.
National Lampoon’s Animal House saw Belushi playing the role of an aggressive and wild party animal in a college frat house… a role he was possibly a little bit too good at for his own well-being. In retrospect, it’s very likely that he was, at least partially, playing himself. Either way, the reactions that his outrageous buffoonery got from the audience was something that Belushi certainly took to heart- he was going to ride the excesses of his act, and his personality, straight to the top, on-screen and off.
After the breakout success of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Belushi found somewhat more middling success in several less notable roles, including a turn in Steven Spielberg’s notorious bomb 1941. However, only two years later, he would go on to star in what is arguably an even more iconic film than National Lampoon’s Animal House, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, along with his SNL-costar and friend Dan Aykroyd. It was on the set of this film where early signs of Belushi’s inevitable doom began to rear their ugly head. If you’re anxious to hear how this story comes to an end, and more stories like it, feel free to like this video and subscribe to our channel!
Notoriously, it’s been documented that The Blues Brothers had an amount of it’s budget allocated specifically for cocaine use. The main reason for this was likely that there wasn’t much of a chance of getting a good performance out of John Belushi at the time without a little bit of extra help. Belushi was a person who loved his excesses, be they food, comedy, or drugs. His favorite drugs were cocaine and alcohol, and his appetite needed to be satiated before he could even think about giving his all. While Belushi certainly wasn’t the only one doing cocaine, as costar Dan Aykroyd attests, he was certainly the one doing it the most, and the one most likely to keep doing it once the film wrapped. Belushi was a human being first and foremost, and one who had a uniquely hard time knowing his limits. On stage, he made a name for himself by being the biggest and loudest guy in the room, and this philosophy carried over to his off-stage self-abuse.
There were perhaps other things besides the need to perform that were weighing down upon Belushi in these final years. As we’ve already discussed, his film career in between and after National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers was never quite what he wanted it to be, although a lot of this could be chalked up to the unrealistic expectation of topping himself time and time again, always being the best man in the room. From the aforementioned bomb that was 1941 to films such as Neighbors and Continental Divide, Belushi’s schtick in and of itself seemed to be wearing thin as a main selling point for the audience, and the pressure was on him to outdo himself once again. Since he got to where he was by being excessive, he aimed to overcome this hurdle by turning that excess up to 11.
Around this time, Belushi stayed mostly shut up in his Chateau Marmont bungalow, partaking in increasingly unlimited libations and brainstorming how he’d get himself back on top. Little did he know that his ticket to the top was going to become his ticket to the bottom. Eyewitness accounts are keen to point out the disarray that began to emanate from Belushi during these waning times, both in the disheveled appearance of himself and his living quarters, as well as his inability to hold a coherent conversation. His autopsy would note that he had been suffering from brain-swelling. Trouble was brewing, and no one was quite sure what to do. Sadly, they didn’t figure it out before it was too late.
The very final week of Belushi’s life was essentially one giant party, but it’s doubtful that he was having very much fun. He would slur and stumble around the Sunset Strip from one happening location to another, and then end the day by crashing at his increasingly messy bungalow. His own wife, Judy, whom he had been married to since 1976, didn’t talk to him much in this final week, but recalls an ironic feeling of optimism that things would get better soon. His manager, Bernie Brillstein recalls a final fateful meeting where the manic Belushi asked to borrow $1,500 to buy a guitar. The confused Bernie refused, aware that the money would most likely be spent on drugs. After some pestering, though, he relented.
Some of the last people to ever see Belushi alive include Robert De Niro, famed character actor Harry Dean Stanton, and the equally tragic comedian Robin Williams. Stanton and De Niro came by the bungalow to try and get Belushi to come out to dinner with them and were shocked by what they saw. Belushi had incidentally created a den of squalor, and he was quickly rotting away in it. Belushi turned down their offer, so De Niro and Stanton promised to come back after hours once the nightclubs had closed.
De Niro and Stanton ran into Robin Williams, and invited him to the after party they were planning on having at Belushi’s bungalow. Williams ended up getting their early, and something about the atmosphere of the place made him leave before anyone else showed up. De Niro came by later, and did the same. Belushi had been complaining about not feeling well, which only prompted him to increase his cocaine and heroin intake.
Belushi was not completely alone in his squalor, as he had a mate in his drug dealer, the Canadian back-up singer Cathy Smith. She signed for breakfast the next morning, at which point she attests that she checked on the sleeping Belushi and he was still alive. By noon, she was gone, and Belushi’s bodyguard and physical trainer Bill Wallace stopped by to drop off a few things that Belushi had requested, including a typewriter to start jotting down some ideas. Wallace had a key to the bungalow, so he was able to let himself in. When he checked on Belushi, he found that he was not breathing. He attempted to resuscitate him, but failed. Once it became clear that there was nothing he could do, the weeping Wallace called Bernie Brillstein, whose secretary called the paramedics. The paramedics came, and the declaration of death was made.
Unsurprisingly, the cause of death was determined by the Los Angeles Country Coroner’s office to be an overdose of cocaine and heroin. Feeling increasingly unwell both mentally and physically, the distraught Belushi likely self-medicated beyond his limits, and succumbed to his vices. The autopsy revealed that Belushi had been in failing health up until that point, which likely exacerbated the effects of the drugs. However, they were adamant that the amount of cocaine and heroin in his system would’ve been enough to kill even the healthiest human being, famous or not.
Cathy Smith eventually returned to the bungalow, unaware of what had transpired, where she was questioned by police. Although she was initially released, she ended up being charged with involuntary manslaughter for supplying Belushi with the drugs that killed him, as well as aiding in their consumption, and spent 15 months in prison after a guilty plea. According to her, what occurred in those tragic final days were simply “nothing out of the ordinary” for the “Hollywood scene” that Belushi was a part of.
Belushi’s end did very little to taint his legacy, and he is still gaining new fans to this day. He is continually praised as a comedic genius and one of the most important and integral parts of SNL’s early years. As well, his biggest film roles are arguably more ubiquitous now than ever, and even Spielberg’s 1941 has gained cult status over time.
John Belushi meant much more than tragedy to those who knew him personally, as well as those who came to know him through the screen. Head down to the comment section to let his know what your favorite John Belushi role was, especially if it’s one we failed to mention! As well, there are no shortage of anecdotes, so if we left out a Belushi story you think we need to hear, feel free to share! As always, feel free to like the video if you found it worth your time, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to know when it’s time for another.