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The Last Days Of John Belushi: The SNL Star's Tragic End

Icons | June 22, 2019

John Belushi in January 1981. Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Despite his infectious comic persona John Belushi, veteran of Saturday Night Live and star of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, lived a drug filled, depraved life in the spotlight. By all accounts he was great guy, but in the grips of drugs and alcohol he spiraled out of control and went into a darkness from which he never returned. His final week plays out like a Fellini film, with strange characters keeping the star up at all hours of the night as he navigates the streets of Hollywood in a drugged out haze.

Belushi was at the height of his career in 1982, which is a dangerous place. Everyone wants to be your friend, and nobody wants to tell you no. Belushi needed someone to tell him to take a break, step away from the party, or at least show down. Much of his final week was spent on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and in the Chateau Marmont, the decrepit, dank castle where celebrities once went to hide out and get up to no good. 

Belushi Was Trying To Take Control Of His Career

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The sole reason that Belushi was in Los Angeles and not in New York, or on his home turf of Chicago, is that he was trying to hammer out a deal with Paramount. At the time they wanted him to star in an adaptation of The Joy of Sex. A couple of his recent, more personal films had failed at the box office and the studio was looking for a hit. Belushi wanted them to fund a production called Noble Rot that he was working on with his writing partner, Don Novello (better known as the character Father Guido Sarducci).

Belushi agent, Bernie Brillstein, told Rolling Stone in the aftermath of the comic’s death: 

He was unhappy that Paramount didn’t jump up and down over the script. John was a very definite guy. He wanted immediate approval.

At some point, Paramount and Belushi reached a deal over Noble Rot. They paid him more than $10 million to appear in four films in two years, and one of them was set to be his passion project. In spite of getting what he wanted, Belushi was unhappy with the strings attached to his deal and was rethinking the entire concept of stardom. 

He Cut Ties With His Friends And Family

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In 1982, someone could just disappear. Cell phones didn't exist -- not as we know them today -- and there was no email or social media, so even a star like Belushi could go off the grid. When he traveled to Los Angeles he stopped speaking to friends, and even to Judy,  his wife of six years. Gone were his close friends like Dan Aykroyd, and in his place was a slew of celebrities like Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Judy says that Belushi cut her out of his life during his final week, but that he called her on March 4, one day before his death. She said that he sounded frustrated, but that he didn’t sound like he would do something. 

Belushi Had People Shoot Him Up

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After Belushi’s death, his friends were shocked for many reasons, but one of the biggest was the knowledge that the star was injecting heroin. Everyone knew that Belushi hated needles, so how could he bring himself to shoot up? In his final days, Belushi kept drug dealer Cathy Smith around him whenever he was in his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont. Cathy was both selling Belushi drugs and injecting him whenever he needed, and after his death she became a Hollywood persona non grata for helping Belushi end his life.

On March 5, Belushi is said to have asked his manager for $1,500 to buy a new guitar. Here's the guy who just signed a $10 million contract with Paramount, in need of cash immediately. Brillstein initially told him no, realizing that he’d just buy drugs. Eventually he relented and handed over the cash. 

He Spent His Nights On The Sunset Strip

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When Belushi wasn’t holed up in his bungalow shooting dope he was on the Sunset Strip bouncing between clubs like the Rainbow and On the Rox, and eating at Dan Tana’s on Santa Monica Boulevard. he entire time he was snorting cocaine laced with heroin. Everyone knew that Belushi was high but no one stopped him. Perhaps they thought he could control himself, or maybe they didn’t want Belushi to be their problem.

On the night of March 4, Belushi reportedly went from table to table in On the Rox (the Roxy’s private club frequented by celebrities and those in the know) and serenaded people with a guitar before disappearing through the kitchen on the way to his room. 

Robert De Niro And Robin Williams Were Spooked By Belushi's Behavior

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Everyone wanted to party with John Belushi. The physical comedian was known for his good taste in music, and his ability to stay on his feet when everyone else was ready to go home. But in his final days, he became a drug-addled ghoul, someone whom even other drug addicts avoided. When Robert De Niro and Harry Dean Stanton popped into Belushi’s bungalow to invite him to dinner, they found him living in squalor, surrounded by empty wine bottles and pizza boxes.

They returned later that night with Robin Williams in tow. De Niro hiked it back to his room at the Chateau but Williams reportedly stuck around to do blow for a bit before leaving when the needles appeared. They were the last people, aside from his drug dealer, whom Belushi spoke to. 

Belushi's Dealer Could Have Saved His Life

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No one knows exactly what happened on the morning of March 5, 1982, but there’s a brief timeline for the sad events that played out. Belushi and his dealer, Cathy Smith, shot speedballs through the night, until about 6 AM, when the star complained of hot and cold flashes. After taking a cold shower, Belushi got into bed, where he convulsed until he fell asleep around 8 am. Smith claims that about an hour and a half later she heard the star wheezing in the next room and brought him a glass of water.

Smith says that Belushi asked her to not leave him alone -- but that’s exactly what she did at 10 AM when she took his red Mercedes and drove away from the Chateau Marmont. 

Belushi’s Body Was Discovered By His Trainer

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Shortly after Smith left Belushi alone to die in his bed, the star’s trainer went up to the room carrying a typewriter. His routine was to rouse the star from bed and have him write new pages for Noble Rot every day. When he discovered Belushi’s body he called Bernie Brillstein rather than the hotel doctor or 911. Brillstein sent an assistant over, and then paramedics were called once the assistant assessed the situation.

When paramedics arrived they made no attempt to revive the star, as he was long gone. It didn’t take long for word to get out that Belushi had passed. Brillstein called Dan Aykroyd back in New York and had him race to Belushi’s wife to deliver the bad news before she heard about it in the press. The Chateau was swarmed by police and reporters. The entire hotel was turned upside down by the news. 

Belushi’s Dealer Received 15 Months In Jail For Administering Speedballs

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When Belushi’s body was brought in, the coroner discovered that he was a wreck – his liver was shot, he had distended lungs, and a swollen brain. Even though the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office ruled Belushi’s death to be caused by “acute cocaine and heroin intoxication” the police were looking for someone responsible for the mess. Belushi’s dealer, Cathy Smith, was arrested after she returned to the Chateau Marmont driving Belushi’s car.

Because she injected Belushi with the lethal dose of heroin and speed she was charged with involuntary manslaughter and spent 15 months in prison. Smith plead guilty, but she told Rolling Stone that she didn’t think she was up to anything worse than the rest of Hollywood: 

I know I’m the last person who saw him alive. I know what he did for the last 24 hours. It was just the Hollywood scene, really, nothing out of the ordinary.

Tags: Drugs | John Belushi | RIP (Famous Deaths) | Robert De Niro | Saturday Night Live | Sunset Strip | Robin Williams

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.