Saturday, March 5, 2011

March 5, 1982 – John Belushi Skips Speedballing

At a late-night party, one of many in comedian John Belushi's "live fast, die young, leave a good lookin' corpse" lifestyle, singer and drug-guru Cathy Smith prepared to inject Belushi with eleven doses of speedball (combined cocaine and heroin) for the ride of his life. However, fellow comedian Robin Williams finally announced he could not stand how "creeped out" he felt about Smith, whom he described in an interview as a "lowlife." Rather than leaving as actor Robert De Niro had done, Williams began to voice his disapproval in the same loud and energetic voice used in his standup routines. Smith countered in a shrill argument, and Belushi, half-doped, called out that he was through. The shouting was bringing him down more than the drugs could have thrilled him, so he marched out and into the night.

Eventually, he would come across fellow Saturday Night Live star Dan Ackroyd's house, break in, and crash on the floor. It was a common habit of Belushi, who would often stumble from rehearsals so exhausted that he would arrive at the homes of friends (or even strangers), root in the refrigerator, dominate the television, and sleep on couches. The inside joke served as the topic of an SNL comedy sketch in which Jane Curtain and Bill Murray are haunted by "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave," one of many moments that made him famous. While some considered him a man out of control, Belushi was clearly a genius as a comedian. On his thirtieth birthday in 1979, he was a star in Animal House (the top film in the country), SNL (the highest-rated late night TV show), and on The Blues Brothers: Briefcase Full of Blues (the number one album in the U.S). His future seemed bright, despite the shadow of overwork and drugs.

After his ordeal on March 5, Belushi decided to tone down his crazy lifestyle. Shortly thereafter, he appeared on SCTV with Dave Thomas and John Candy, the latter of whom shared struggles and became confidants to keep one another in physical health. Belushi informally joined Narcotics Anonymous, an organization he would hop into and out of over the next decade before making a decision to stay. Cocaine would be a constant distraction over the course of his life, and he would often use it to give him the stamina for long sessions of filming and writing. His career would shift away from TV and firmly into movies over the 1980s, starring in films such as Ghostbusters and Spies Like Us with Dan Ackroyd. As his movie career began to fade in the early '90s, Belushi thought of returning to TV with a madcap sitcom with his musician brother, Jim, but a casual discussion over the film Animal House gave him a new path into politics. During the ending of the film, John's character "Bluto" Blutarsky is described as becoming a US Senator, and Belushi famously said, "I could do that."

His first few years in politics were full of fumbles, balancing his popularity with his lack of seriousness, but Belushi would be triumphant when he narrowly defeated Sonny Bono for US Representative in California's 44th District in 1995. From there, Belushi would do well under the Clinton administration, working to promote anti-drug campaigns and funding for arts. He decided to retire from politics after his term, claiming there wasn't “enough limelight and too many comedians" and returned to television in the highly acclaimed West Wing as the somewhat maniacal Senator Blutarsky. His triumphant return to movies in the universally applauded Blues Brothers 2000 made way for numerous appearances in films by Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers.

On his 60th birthday in 2009, Belushi was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in comedy. He and his wife of thirty-six years, Judy Jacklin, continue to write and produce while John has slowed down his acting schedule. In an interview, he said that he was hoping to outlive all of his SNL castmates (to which Chevy Chase quipped, “Only if it kills me”) as was joked about in the famous “Don't Look Back In Anger” short film by Tom Schiller.


In reality, Belushi died from an overdose of speedball administered by Cathy Smith. Smith would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and serve 15 months after a National Inquirer interview headlined, "I killed John Belushi. I didn't mean to, but I am responsible." Belushi's spot on SCTV was tearfully canceled, and Dan Ackroyd presented the the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects at the 54th Academy Awards alone rather than fill his place with another presenter. His tombstone at Abel's Hill Cemetery on Martha's Vineyard reads, "I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on," while a marker on his mother's grave in Illinois remembers him with, "He Gave Us Laughter."


  1. This inspires me in a strange way, he was one of the greatest, a huge idol of mine, never a dull moment in his work, he almost made it(gotten clean then fell back into drugs), if he had a chance to level out and get a clear head, he might have realized that "neighbors" is/was his best movie yet(in my opinion) and my most favorite ever. With his big heart, natural gifts and perseverance he possessed, the world would have been a better place with him in it. Any more speculation of what could have been could be answered by looking at his living counterpart Bill Murray, film director, philanthropist, sports owner etc. Not to mention they sound a lot alike and possess a lot of the same mannerisms in action(i.e. Continental Divide=Groundhog Day). Imagine them together in Space Jam or Terry Gilliam Movies or voice acting in a Ralph Bakshi film for example.

  2. We revisit this idea from a very different angle on the Today in Alternate History web site in 20th March, 1941: The Fuhrer's Last Speedball.


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