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‘Wired’ Follows Tortuous Path to Screen

Times Staff Writer

B elushi bolts upright in bed, his heroin-wracked body convulsing. Finally, the coughing subsides. “Scared . . . you, didn’t I?,” he laughs caustically. . . .

“The drugs, John--why?” asks Woodward.

“Maybe they’re part of some CIA experiment. Ever think of that? . . . Maybe I gave my life for my country--huh? . . . You could write that, Woodward. People would believe it, coming from you--but noooooo! You gotta write all this negative (stuff)!”

Belushi starts to shiver. . . .

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“Cold!” screams the director. “Let me see cold!”

New York actor Michael Chiklis is reading a key scene from the script for “Wired.” He’s auditioning to play the role of John Belushi. Not Bluto. Not Jake. Not the Samurai. But the real John Belushi, the comedian we still don’t know--despite all the attempts to explain his March 5, 1982, death from a drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel.

The most ambitious effort to explain Belushi’s death--Bob Woodward’s best-selling book “Wired"--is finally moving to the screen after a three-year struggle. And in one of the many bizarre and mystical moments of the film, the deceased Belushi meets his biographer and gets a chance to tell Woodward what a “vulture” he thinks the reporter is.

But it’s Woodward who gets the last word: “You did it to yourself, John. And nobody stayed around to stop you.”

Producing “Wired,” is the biggest risk Edward S. Feldman has taken in his 38-year career. The $13.5-million film still has no distributor (though its New Zealand financial backer has agreed to cover $8.1 million of its distribution costs) and its cast is dominated by unknowns. Feldman’s company, F/M Entertainment, has poured $1 million into the film, he says.

The film--which Feldman hopes to release early next year--is likely to get the same cold shoulder in Hollywood circles as Woodward’s book received when it was published in 1984. “I think it’s terrible and disgraceful,” Bernie Brillstein, Belushi’s former manager, says of the screenplay. “It has nothing to do with Belushi’s life or death. None of these people, including Woodward, knew who Belushi was.”

Like many other Belushi friends and family members, Brillstein cooperated with Woodward and then attacked the book when it was released. But even beyond Belushi’s circles, Woodward’s harsh portrayal of Belushi--and of widespread drug abuse in the entertainment industry--was not a popular read in Hollywood.

“The word started going around town that Woodward was a ‘liar,’ that he made up most of the book,” says Feldman. “These charges were made by the very same people who idolized him for ‘All the President’s Men.’ Anytime someone does an incisive look at the entertainment industry, everyone bands together the wagon trains as if Hollywood has some special right of its own.”

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Woodward recalls that when allegations of inaccuracy about the book were checked out, his critics were proved wrong. “Hollywood is an institution that doesn’t like to have a mirror held up to it,” Woodward says. He calls the screenplay “an imaginative way to adapt the book” to the film.

Whether Hollywood was protecting its own interest in turning its back on the project, or whether--as some studio executives argue--the screenplay simply lacked commercial potential is still open to dispute. What is clear is that when Feldman bid for the rights to Woodward’s book, he didn’t have a lot of company. “No one wanted it,” he says.

But Feldman did. At age 58, he already has a mixed production career behind him, including Oscar nominee “Witness,” “The Other Side of the Mountain,” “The Golden Child,” “Save the Tiger,” “Two-Minute Warning,” “Hot Dog: the Movie!” and “The Hitcher.” “Wired” intrigued Feldman in part because of its anti-drug message.

“Belushi had become a cult figure,” he says. “People had begun to forget the fact that he died at the age of 33 in a hotel room sticking needles in his arm.” But the film had another attraction: Where else could a small production company like his F/M Entertainment--which he runs with partner Charles R. Meeker--obtain the rights to a high-profile project for such a relatively small price? Feldman paid Woodward a total of about $250,000 for the film rights to “Wired,” including a $25,000 option.

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Feldman often is asked another question these days: Why would a producer with a strong track record want to tackle such a controversial project, particularly when he has worked and socialized with Belushi associates like Brillstein? To that, Feldman answers simply that his best films always turned out to be the most difficult to make.

When director Robert Markowitz brought him the screenplay, Feldman grabbed it. “I had no doubts,” says Feldman. “The story of Belushi fascinated me.” Earl Mac Rauch, whose credits include the musical-drama “New York, New York,” and the quirky adventure film “Buckaroo Banzai,” wrote the “Wired” screenplay.

What Feldman didn’t bargain for was the tortuous path he would have to follow to get the cameras rolling. He was unable to secure financing from any Hollywood studio. F/M Entertainment could have provided some initial production funding, but a 1986 attempt to take the company public with a $12-million securities offering collapsed. Finally, Feldman and Meeker turned to Lion Corp. Ltd. of New Zealand, a conglomerate of breweries, grocery stores and hotels.

Even that route carried plenty of potholes. Lion Corp., which had financed other Feldman-Meeker films, was interested in “Wired” partly for tax reasons. A couple of months after the company agreed to do the deal in January, 1987, Lion’s lawyers called to say the transaction wasn’t financially viable because of a change in tax regulations. By then, pre-production was already well under way, and Feldman had announced plans to start shooting that spring.

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Meeker, a lawyer, spent the next three months trying to revive the deal. And at the end of last summer, the deal was set again. The producers signed 78 documents, a Lion Corp. lawyer packed them into his briefcase and boarded a flight to New Zealand. A couple of days later, Lion representatives called to say the deal was off. It wasn’t until early this year that Lion signed on the dotted line.

Markowitz was delayed by other projects and couldn’t meet the start-up date, but Feldman persuaded another veteran director and longtime associate, Larry Peerce (“Goodbye, Columbus,” “A Separate Peace,” “The Other Side of the Mountain”) to take on the controversial project. The cameras began rolling May 16.

Peerce’s challenge will be in translating the screenplay’s rat-a-tat-tat rhythm, reminiscent of a “Saturday Night Live” episode, onto the screen. “It has that kind of frenetic energy you felt about Belushi,” says Peerce. Reality scenes careen into fantasy, a style that Peerce describes as “surreal mosaic.” Moreover, it will be a delicate task to pull off the sometimes macabre humor.

And hovering over “Wired” is the hostility of Belushi’s family and friends. Shortly after Feldman took up the project, Belushi’s brother, actor James Belushi, came to his Paramount office and trashed his desk, Feldman says. The producer wasn’t there, but Belushi left word with his secretary, “Tell him I was here.” (Belushi could not be reached for comment.)

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Shades on, necktie askew, Michael Chiklis--a.k.a. Jake the Blues Brother, a.k.a. John Belushi--is flipping a standing microphone back and forth with his foot when he suddenly breaks into a Belushi-style imitation of singer Joe Cocker. Chiklis doesn’t slip out of character, even between endless shoots of his Blues Brothers act with co-star Gary Groomes, who plays a right-on-target Dan Aykroyd.

Chiklis and Groomes like to joke that during their next job in front of a mike they’ll be singing “two Whoppers, hold the cheese.” It’s a funny gag, but it also belies some uneasiness about starring in a film that much of Hollywood would rather not see made.

“I didn’t have a film career to ruin, so I’ll take my chances,” says Groomes. The 33-year-old actor, who made his debut on stage at Minneapolis’ Old Log Theater, does voice-overs on commercials to pay the rent. (Remember the five men from around the world, each speaking a different language in response to a pitch for Federal Express? All five were Groomes.)

But Hollywood’s reaction is not the only pressure weighing on Chiklis and Groomes. These actors aren’t portraying a Julius Caesar or a Harry Truman, or even a more recent historical figure like Elvis Presley (the subject of Peerce’s most recent miniseries, “Elvis and Me”). They are playing men who are still very much on people’s minds--Aykroyd as a continuing major screen presence, Belushi as a powerful memory.

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The natural audience for “Wired” are the fans of Belushi and Aykroyd, fresh from their VCRs where they’ve just seen “The Blues Brothers,” “Animal House” or reruns of “Saturday Night Live” for the umpteenth time.

But Chiklis and Groomes are so believable as the Blues Brothers that at times it’s eerie--especially to the handful of workers on the set who once worked with Belushi and Aykroyd.

Chiklis gained nearly 30 pounds to play the role, and wears brown contact lenses to hide his sharp blue eyes.

Even their backgrounds have some strange parallels. As a stand-up comic, Groomes does impersonations of Aykroyd, as well as Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, two favorites of Aykroyd during his “SNL” tenure. Chiklis has long been a Belushi fan, and at an early age was fond of imitating Joe Cocker, much like Belushi.

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Co-captain of the high school football team. A teen-age actor in summer stock. A singer in a band. All three describe the young Belushi--and the 24-year-old Chiklis. “There are a lot of correlations,” says Katie Chiklis, who reared her sons, Michael and Peter, in Andover, Mass.

Like Belushi, Chiklis says, “being accepted” is important to him. But while Belushi was a black hole of consumption and energy, Chiklis strives for discipline and a steady pace in his life and work, something that doesn’t always come easily. “That’s been a learned process,” he says.

When Peerce discovered Chiklis earlier this year, he was working as a waiter in New York City between off-Broadway roles. He also played at comedy clubs and sang with an eight-member band that plays music best described as “hits with hot licks,” says Chiklis.

Chiklis had auditioned--and been passed over--for the Belushi part the first time around, when Markowitz settled on another newcomer, Michael Marx. But when Peerce took over as director, he decided to continue the search for an actor to play Belushi--and Chiklis quickly became his first choice.

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“The trick,” says Peerce, “is not to do an imitation of Belushi. Chiklis is a terrific actor; he has evolved a kind of range that is startling considering how young he is.” Peerce stuck with Groomes, who had been cast in the role of Aykroyd two years ago, shortly after Feldman and Meeker embarked on their project. Groomes has been perfecting his character ever since, drawing on Aykroyd’s film and TV appearances, as well as Woodward’s taped interviews with the star.

While he’s never met Aykroyd, says Groomes, “You can tell a lot about him by what he puts into his characters. I’ve tried to blend an impression of Aykroyd with the essence of Gary Groomes, hopefully arriving at something meaningful.”

“Wired” the movie leaves out much of the detail that no doubt fueled Hollywood’s hostility toward “Wired” the book. The screenplay doesn’t name names of other drug users or suppliers, and it doesn’t reveal any ugly secrets about personal feuds in the entertainment community.

But the film will be controversial for its own reasons--starting with its unsparing use of macabre, often gruesome, humor. In the film, Belushi revisits his life, guided by a guardian angel who moonlights as a cab driver (Ray Sharkey). It opens with Belushi, eyebrow raised, wondering what he’s doing wearing a toe tag, lying on an autopsy table.

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“Disgusting,” Brillstein says of the screenplay’s opening scenes. “I don’t think anyone would want a member of their family portrayed like this.” Brillstein was the one who accompanied Belushi’s body, alone, on a plane to Massachusetts.

Peerce defends the film’s black humor, arguing that it reflects Belushi’s own outrageous, unconforming sense of humor. “That’s how Belushi viewed life--giving the finger to the world,” Peerce says.

The makers and stars of “Wired” say the film brings a warm sense of humor to Belushi’s life that was not prominent in Woodward’s book. “The book was unrelenting in its depiction of the kid,” says Peerce. “We tried to bring some humanity to his story.”

Indeed, the film’s promoters are trying to stress the project’s lighthearted side. A handful of reporters were invited onto the set to watch a hilarious rendition of an “SNL” bumblebee routine.

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Later, reporters and TV crews were treated to a rousing Blues Brothers performance before 600 extras at the Palace nightclub in Hollywood. Both Chiklis and Groomes sing in those scenes, backed by a nine-piece band that includes such musical talent as keyboardist Michael Ruff, who has worked with Lionel Richie and Chaka Khan, and guitarist David Williams, who tours with Michael Jackson.

“Our only (publicity) strategy is to let it be known that the film goes well beyond the book,” says publicist Vic Heutschy, “to dispel all the preconceived notions.”

Critics of Woodward’s book contend that he recited facts without shedding new light on Belushi’s personality and his insistent flirtation with death. Brillstein complains that Woodward simplistically portrayed Belushi as a drug addict, when in fact he was “an excessive person who died of drugs.”

If Belushi fans are looking for answers from the film, they won’t find many. And they won’t find many apologies for that. “I firmly believe,” says Peerce, “there is a light side and a dark side to human beings, and sometimes the dark side overshadows the light. Who knows why?” Who knows, says Peerce, why his own twin children are as different as night and day, with one carrying a cup half-full, the other half-empty?

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That unabashed refusal to answer “why” becomes the center of Belushi’s mythical meeting with Woodward. The investigative reporter continues to prod Belushi, searching for insights:

Woodward: Why didn’t you ever want to go home? What was so painful that you didn’t want to see when you closed your eyes at night?

Belushi: I had an unhappy childhood.

Woodward: Who didn’t? My parents split up--my mother abandoned me.

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Belushi: Vietnam--Agent Orange?

Woodward: You didn’t go.

Belushi: Society (screwed) me over--like Lenny Bruce.

Woodward: Wise up. You were huge! The whole country loved you. You were a living folk hero.

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Belushi: Then I give up. Nixon resigned--that’s probably it.

Woodward: So, it’s gonna end without an answer.


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