From the Archives: Actor John Belushi Found Dead in Hollywood Hotel

Share via

Comic actor John Belushi, the hugely talented star of television’s “Saturday Night Live” and such films as “Animal House,” was found dead Friday in a $200-a-day Hollywood suite, apparently of natural causes. He was 33.

Belushi was discovered shortly after noon in bed in his bungalow suite at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, a quiet, exclusive residential inn on Sunset Boulevard favored by show business people.

Police said they found “nothing out of the ordinary” but they later led off in handcuffs a woman who drove up to the hotel in Belushi’s rented Mercedes.


The woman was questioned for several hours at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division station. A police spokesman, Lt. Dan Cooke, said after her release that “detectives are now satisfied there was no criminal involvement on her part.” He declined to identify her.

A coroner’s office spokesman said Friday night that an autopsy has been scheduled for this morning.

Bruce Beckler, the hotel’s security guard and gardener said the actor was lying in bed, his clothes nearly folded and put away “as though he had gone to bed for the night.”

“It looked like a heart attack,” Beckler said.

An acquaintance, William Wallace, a physical therapist, came to the hotel at 12:15 p.m. after telephoning Belushi several times Friday morning without response, Cooke said.

Wallace discovered the body and summoned Beckler. The two men pulled Belushi off the bed and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation for 20 minutes without success, Beckler added.

Paramedics placed the time of death at about 10 a.m.

“It looked like he choked on his tongue, and the phlegm in his mouth,” Beckler said later.

Tom Rafter, assistant manager of the hotel, said room service had been sent to Belushi’s two-bedroom suite at 8 a.m., but someone other than the actor signed for it.


Cooke said the woman who was questioned told detectives she signed for the breakfast at about the same time she “woke Mr. Belushi up …. He was breathing heavily and she asked if he was all right. He said ‘yes,’ she gave him a glass of water, and he went back to sleep.”

Cooke said the woman told detectives she “just assumed everything was all right” and left the bungalow, returning later in the day after the actor was found dead.

Hotel officials said Belushi, whose home is in New York City, checked into the Chateau Marmont last Sunday for pre-production work on a new movie, Paramount’s “Noble Rot,” a comedy about the wine industry that Belushi was co-writing.

Belushi’s death brought to an end a wildly careening, fast-paced career that spanned six years of stardom for an actor who, critics said, combined the qualities of several of the masters of his craft.

He had, they said, Groucho Marx’s gift of outrageous insult, Buster Keaton’s ability to turn physical awkwardness into grace, and Zero Mostel’s feel for the absurd—and he had it all with a contemporary feel that particularly charmed teen-agers and young adults.

The grunting comic became widely known in 1975 when producer Lorne Michaels picked him as one of a crew of young humorists to man the late night, wildly unorthodox “Saturday Night Live” on NBC.


The show featured celebrity guest hosts, but it was Belushi and the other soon-to-be-famous comedians who made it popular.

They were billed as the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”—Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner.

The physically unimpressive Belushi—chubby, almost rubbery—stood out. He was manic—growling his way through a gallery of characters.

There was Belushi’s samurai warrior who communicated through lunatic “pseudo Japanese” howls and the slashing of his sword.

And Belushi’s Greek, who owned a family-staffed luncheonette and whose English was so abysmal that every order placed came out “cheeseburger, chips, Pepsi” in barely understandable English.

There was Belushi, the leader of seven killer bees. And Belushi’s incredibly accurate, emotionally moving portrait of the strung-out rock singer Joe Cocker. And Belushi’s Marlon Brando—as Vito Corleone and as the younger “Wild One”—Truman Capote and Henry Kissinger.


In one recent interview he described his “slob” characters in this way:

“My characters say it’s OK to screw up. People don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be real smart. They don’t have to follow rules. They can have fun.

“Most movies today make people feel inadequate. I don’t do that.”

There were so many “slobs,” so fast, that the temptation was to think Belushi had sprung, fully developed, out of some darkened, fertile corner of NBC’s New York studios into immediate stardom.

He hadn’t, of course.

He was the son of an Albanian-born Chicago restaurateur. He grew up in what he remembered as the “heavily Republican and totally dry” suburb of Wheaton.

Compulsive Achiever

Belushi was the basic classroom clown. His antics, he said in one recent interview, caused a homeroom teacher to threaten to bust him down from the sixth grade to the second.

A year or two later, Belushi discovered sports—wrestling, football, baseball, track. And more importantly, he discovered the theater. He became an almost compulsive achiever and was even named Homecoming King of Wheaton Central High.


He said he drifted from one college to the next—to avoid the draft and the war in Vietnam, and to perform. There as a small summer stock role in which he portrayed a cardinal in Maxwell Anderson’s “Anne of the Thousand Days,” and a lead role in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

Belushi dabbled in politics, taking part in the street demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But he said later, the violence of the Weathermen “turned me off from radical politics.”

By 1969, Belushi had had enough of the stage and his attention went to improvisation comedy. With a couple of friends, he revitalized a coffeehouse in the basement of a Universal Life Church in Chicago.

Belushi’s first big break was an audition for Second City, the Chicago troupe that served in the 1960s and 1970s as a school for some of the nation’s finest young comedians.

“You did eight performances a week,” he explained, “so you didn’t have to get desperate. They expected you to fail a third of the time and you learned to write on your feet.”

Belushi was an immediate hit.

Comedian Harold Ramis remembered seeing Belushi for the first time at Second City. “He was like a contemporary baggy-pants comedian. He got laughs just walking on the stage. I always noticed you could never get upstage of John. People acting downstage would hear the audience laugh, look upstage and there was John, doing nothing.”


A National Lampoon editor caught Belushi’s act in 1972, and he was cast in “Lemmings,” a rock musical review, produced by the humor magazine, that toured college campuses across the country.

“Lemmings” begat “The National Lampoon Show,” a satirical revue that played Off Broadway, where Michaels spotted him for “Saturday Night Live.”

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers
(Al Levine / AP Phote)

‘Can’t Stand Television’

“I hired him,” Michaels said later, “because he walked into my office and started to abuse me. He said, ‘I can’t stand television,’ and that was just the kind of abuse I wanted to hear.”

The startling success of the inventive late-night show lasted for four TV seasons before Belushi and Aykroyd—together they were a pair of hipsters who called themselves the Blues Brothers—announced that movie and record commitments forced them to leave the show.


Belushi made the transition from television sketch artist to movie star as Bluto Blutarsky, the gross undergraduate of National Lampoon’s “Animal House.” The film was released late in 1978 and its cheerfully tasteless, sophomoric humor made it one of the biggest hits of the year. By the end of 1978, the low-budget movie had earned a staggering $87 million.

There were several other films in rapid succession, but none nearly as successful: “Goin’ South” with Jack Nicholson, “Old Boyfriends” with Talia Shire, Peter Bogdanovich’s “1941,” “Continental Divide” and, most recently, “Neighbors.”

None of them did particularly well, either with the critics or at the box office.

Even the film “Blues Brothers,” which Belushi did with Aykroyd, was far from a hit. The two played the soul-singing duo of Jake and Elwood Blues, who wore cheap black suits, black hats and black sunglasses.

It had worked on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a record album, “Briefcase Full of Blues,” which sold well. But it did not translate well at the box office.

Through it all—the television glory, the success of “Animal House,” the rapid fire series of major Hollywood films, Belushi lived hard.

He partied all night, almost every night—particularly during “The Saturday Night” year. And he could be boorish in public.


“It got to the point where I didn’t like myself, so I didn’t like anybody who liked me,” Belushi said later. “Part of it was the pressure. People were always telling me, ‘Watch what you say, watch what you do.’ “

It worried his friends and coworkers who marveled at the man’s energy and talent.

“He abuses his body in ways that would kill bulls,” said “Animal House” director John Landis several years ago. “If he doesn’t burn himself out, his potential is unlimited.”

Belushi leaves his wife, Judy. They had no children.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Lee Grant, Jack Jones, Eric Malnic, Joel Sappell and Boris Yaro.


From the Archives: ‘Saturday Night Live’ Star Gilda Radner Dies at 42


From the Archives: Jazz Great Thelonious Monk Dies

From the Archives: Groucho Marx Dies; Kept Them Laughing 65 Years

From the Archives: Films’ Buster Keaton Dies of Cancer at 70

From the Archives: Marlon Brando, A Hollywood Iconoclast Who Transformed the Art of Acting