Showtime’s ‘Belushi’ recalls a once-in-a-generation talent gone too soon

'Belushi' – An unstoppable comedic force

The new documentary “Belushi” premieres Sunday on Showtime.

John Belushi was the type of unstoppable comedic force who did everything at full speed. Unfortunately, that’s also what killed him.

That’s the main takeaway from “Belushi,” a documentary from director R.J. Cutler (“A Perfect Candidate”) that premieres Sunday, Nov. 22, on Showtime. The two-hour film chronicles the life and career of the iconic “Saturday Night Live” and “Animal House” actor and comic through archival footage, handwritten notes and previously unheard audio commentary from family, friends and those who knew him, including “SNL” castmates Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels, actresses Carrie Fisher and Penny Marshall, filmmakers John Landis and Ivan Reitman and Belushi’s widow Judy.

It tells the story of the son of Albanian immigrants who discovered an early love of performing growing up in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Ill. That turned to a passion when he and high school sweetheart Judy took in a show at Second City and he decided that was going to be his career. Joining that improv troupe, he established himself as the go-to funnyman and made an immediate connection with the man who would become his best friend and performing partner, Dan Aykroyd, who in the film notes that “We saw the worth in each right away.”

Both moved on to “SNL” when it premiered in 1975, where Belushi was initially uncomfortable playing second banana to the series’ Season 1 breakout star, Chevy Chase. When Chase left to pursue a movie career, Belushi eagerly stepped into the role of alpha male, with his samurai character leading the way.

But while Belushi infused skits with great comedic energy during his five seasons on “SNL,” there was also a dark side. In the documentary, Curtin explains that she didn’t feel her castmate respected women, didn’t think they could be funny and didn’t want them writing for him.

It was also during this time that Belushi made his first foray into movies. As John “Bluto” Blutarsky in the 1978 comedy “Animal House,” Belushi broke out as a bonafide star playing a party animal frat brother character who in the words of director John Landis was “Harpo Marx as the Cookie Monster.” “You could see his thought process,” Landis observes in the film.

Belushi parlayed that smashing success into an array of films, including the box office hit “The Blues Brothers” (1980), the critically well-received “Continental Divide” (1981) and the flop “Neighbors” (1981).

Sadly, as big as his talents were, so were his appetites, and addiction would take hold. He died of an overdose at age 33 in Los Angeles on March 5, 1982, leaving many to wonder the kind of work a mature Belushi might have done in his forties, fifties and sixties.

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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