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Nelson Lyon dies at 73; director of sex comedy 'The Telephone Book'

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Decades after writer-director Nelson Lyon released the X-rated sex comedy "The Telephone Book" in 1971, the film was hailed as a neglected masterpiece. By then Lyons was a former "Saturday Night Live" writer long known for a darker connection: He went on a drug-fueled binge with John Belushi during the comedian's final days in 1982.

"He was blamed for Belushi's death, and it ruined his career," said Dennis Perrin, author of "Mr. Mike," a 1999 biography of former "Saturday Night Live" head writer Michael O'Donoghue, who had been Lyon's writing partner.

Lyon, 73, died Tuesday of liver cancer at his home in Los Angeles, said Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo and a close friend.

When the Los Angeles County Grand Jury investigated Belushi's drug-overdose death, Lyon testified in early 1983 under a grant of immunity from prosecutors. He presented a sordid portrait of the end of Belushi's life.

Three days before he died, Belushi began a "boys' night out" at Lyon's apartment when the comedian arrived with Cathy Evelyn Smith. A former backup singer, she would later admit giving Belushi the heroin-cocaine mixture that killed him and would then serve a 15-month prison sentence.

"I have a big surprise for you," Lyon said Belushi told him. "Roll up your sleeves."

Smith injected Belushi and Lyon several times that day and on March 4, 1982, the day before Belushi's body was found at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, according to Lyon's testimony.

At a private nightclub, Belushi and Lyon mingled with celebrities before Smith injected the two men with a "speedball," a mixture of heroin and cocaine. It "rendered me a walking zombie," Lyon testified.

Belushi became ill on his way back to his bungalow, where actor Robert De Niro and comedian Robin Williams stopped by, according to Lyon. He testified that he left an exhausted Belushi with Smith about 3:30 a.m. March 5. The 33-year-old Belushi was found dead later that morning.

In his testimony, Lyon said he had taken drugs to please Belushi.

Lyon's resume as a filmmaker was thin, but "The Telephone Book" experienced a renaissance nearly 40 years after it was made when it was screened internationally.

Initially dismissed by mainstream critics as pornographic and obscene, it is now regarded as a "lost gem," Mothersbaugh said.

In his 1971 Times review, critic Kevin Thomas praised the risque farce about a woman who falls in love with an obscene telephone caller. The satire of pornography was "so bleakly brilliant that those in search of the usual sexploitation entertainment attend at peril," he wrote.

The film "was made with an agreement of freedom to offend and assault and attack the audience, as well as try to amuse the audience," Lyon told the Wall Street Journal in January. "It was an era of sexual obsession, and the movie was focused on life's biggest problem: sex."

Through the movie, Lyon met O'Donoghue and was soon writing for "Saturday Night Live" in the early '80s. The burly and imposing Lyon became the basis of one of O'Donoghue's recurring characters on the show — the grim Mr. Mike.

"When you met Nelson, you saw the staccato rhythms of Mr. Mike," Perrin said, "and certainly the dark humor."

Born Feb. 28, 1939, in Troy Hills, N.J., Lyon attended Columbia University.

He was a writer-designer for a New York ad agency when he met Andy Warhol in 1966, and he later worked for the artist's studio, the Factory.

When Warhol was struggling with a concept for the cover of the 1971 Rolling Stones album "Sticky Fingers," Lyon told him to incorporate a working zipper into a close-up portrait of jeans, according to an unpublished memoir by Lyon. After Warhol went with the idea, he gave Lyon five Marilyn Monroe prints to pay him, the writer later recalled.

Lyon co-produced spoken-word records for writers William Burroughs and Terry Southern, and photographs Lyon took of Burroughs have been featured in galleries.

After Belushi's death, Lyon opened a company that made trailers for movies, essentially becoming "a filmmaker without a camera," Perrin said. Lyon tired of the work and closed the business some years ago.

"He was down to nothing in the last couple of years," Mothersbaugh said. "He had burnt all his bridges.... He didn't censor himself, and he was smarter than most of the people he worked for."

Mothersbaugh, who is also an artist, hired Lyon to work on a project called "Dick Vanderbeek," about a modern Dick Tracy in an off-kilter world. The work may debut as a graphic novel.

"The stuff he wrote in the last five years was some of his best," Mothersbaugh said. "He wasn't going to parties. He was clean and concentrating on his work."

Lyon is survived by his wife, Jill, whom he married weeks before he died; and two daughters from previous marriages, Stephanie and Natalie.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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