In a short film called Don’t Look Back in Anger, which aired on NBC’s Saturday Night Live in 1978, John Belushi plays an elderly version of himself, visiting the graves of his fellow cast members. ”They all thought I’d be the first to go,” he gloats. ”I was one of those live-fast, die-young, leave-a-good- looking-corpse types, you know. But I guess they were wrong.”
They weren’t, of course. The image of Belushi as a self-destructive hedonist, promoted on SNL and in films like National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), became shockingly real on March 5, 1982, when the 33-year-old comedian died of a drug overdose at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel.
Belushi’s death was ruled an accident. But after an interview with Cathy Evelyn Smith appeared in the National Enquirer under the headline ”I Killed John Belushi” (for which the 34-year-old former backup singer received $15,000), prosecutors reopened the case and filed murder charges against her. Claiming the interview had been distorted, Smith pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in 1986. She had earlier admitted to injecting Belushi 20 times during his last 24 hours with a mixture of heroin and cocaine. Sentenced to three years in prison, she was paroled in 1988 after serving 18 months; last month she was convicted of heroin possession in Vancouver, given a year’s probation, and fined $2,000.
The humor of the early SNL years revolved around (and was often fueled by) controlled substances. With Be-lushi’s death, a whole generation of comedians lost its chemical inspiration. Suddenly, getting wasted didn’t seem as much fun anymore, or as funny. Robin Williams, who snorted coke with Belushi during that final blowout, recalled in 1988, ”His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs.”
”John just got in over his head,” says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. ”Hollywood was toxic to him. People wanted him to be the Belushi they’d seen on screen.”
At the end of Don’t Look Back in Anger, Belushi explains the reason for his longevity. ”’Cause I’m a dancer,” he says, spinning a joyful pirouette atop a gravestone. His grace was unpredictable, and it failed him in the end: The man who lived on the edge took one step too far.
March 24, 1982
The J. Geils Band’s ”Centerfold” topped the pop chart, and Dallas ruled the TV ratings. Moviegoers went on a prehistoric Quest for Fire, while nonfiction readers spent A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney.