John Belushi would have turned 70

Saturday Night Live was the platform from which John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd launched the Blues Brothers.

John Belushi.Rolling StoneSince John Belushi (January 24, 1949 – March 5, 1982) was only 33 when he died, he’s been gone longer than he was alive.

I watched Saturday Night Live religiously for the first quarter century. While that original cast was quite gifted, I’ve always balked at the notion that that all the subsequent groups were inadequate by comparison.

It’s unsurprising that Jane Curtin recently talked about sexism at SNL. “‘There were a few people that just out-and-out believe that women should not have been there and they believe that women were not innately funny,’ said the first female anchor of SNL’s ‘Weekend Update’ segment.” And one of those was Belushi.

Nevertheless, in lists of the greatest cast members of all time, Ranker has John Belushi at #3 and Rolling Stone dubbed him #1. “‘Samurai Hitman,’ where Belushi proves he doesn’t need words — just a robe and a sword — to turn a one-joke premise into a savage comic ballet.” He did a great Henry Kissinger, and the Greek owner of the Olympia Café always fascinated me.

SNL was also the platform from which Belushi and Dan Aykroyd launched the Blues Brothers. I suppose I was nervous about their sincerity – I didn’t know at the time that Aykroyd had played with a blues band in Canada – but having such luminaries as guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn from Booker T and the M.G.’s well as Matt “Guitar” Murphy, gave me comfort.

I was pleased when I bought the four-CD set Atlantic Blues in the 1990s and found Hey Bartender by Floyd Dixon and I Don’t Know by Willie Mabon. The Blues Brothers’ covers were surprisingly credible, I discovered.. Now the Blues Brothers MOVIE (1980) was loud and messy and pretty much critic-proof. And it had Aretha, Ray Charles sand Cab Calloway.

Belushi’s previous film, National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) practically invented the raunchy college comedy. What it lacked in script – “food fight!” – it more than made up with energy and panache and a great Elmer Bernstein score. It was wildly successful, and generated spinoffs on all three TV networks, none of which lasted more than a few months.

Animal House was endlessly quotable – “double secret probation.” But never more when Bluto Blutarsky (Belushi) gave the Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? speech.

The other John Belushi movie I saw was Continental Divide (1981), with him playing a tough Chicago reporter who “gets a little too close to the Mob.” For his protection, his editor sends him to Colorado to investigate an eagle researcher (Blair Brown).

I remember enjoying the movie, with Belushi playing against type. Though I recall that the reviews were mixed and the box office tepid, Roger Ebert liked it.

There’s often a desire to play “what if” when performers die tragically young. But it’s a futile task.