Chasing the Magic
With a new TV show, "The Defenders," Now on prime time, Jim Belushi says he's no shooting star but a working actor who can make you smile.
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"When I saw John at Second City, it changed my life," he says. "To this day, it's the best show I've ever seen. Talk about magic. I was 16 and, until I was 23, all I wanted to do was be in Second City."
He went to a junior college, then transferred to Southern Illinois, where he met a mentor who steered him toward speech education: "His name was Richard Holgate and he took me under his wing and trained me. Not just as an actor, but as a young man. I'd be in jail if it weren't for him. I needed attention and I needed boundaries. I'd get in trouble—stupid stuff, knucklehead stuff. He pointed me in the right direction."
Toward the end of his senior year, Belushi auditioned for and was accepted in Second City's touring company. He became one of the Chicago company's stars, until Second City head Del Close told him it was time to spread his wings: "I had no grand plan," Belushi says. "All I ever dreamed of was Second City. Everything I do today is still based on what I learned there in three years."
He went to Hollywood, where he found that his name was famous, thanks to his brother. But that was an advantage that could cut both ways.
"Having the Belushi name got me in the room for auditions," he says. "But then I was dealing with people who had preconceived notions or preconceptions about who I was, based on my brother. They wanted me to be like him or they let me know I was just there because of my famous brother. It was not the same as coming in unknown and creating a persona. First, I had to knock away the perceptions and then convince them that the persona I'm creating is right for their project."
Belushi recently had a conversation about careers with his son Robert, 29, from his first marriage (Belushi and wife of 12 years, Jennifer, have a girl, 11, and a boy, 8), who Belushi refers to as "the smartest and the handsomest Belushi yet." Robert is a writer and actor who has also found that owning a familiar name can be hard.
"My son said, ‘It's a lot of weight to carry, Dad,' and I said, ‘Well, the thing about a weight is that, when you carry it for a while, it makes you strong. When you lift weights, your muscles get bigger. This weight will make you a stronger actor because of it.' Some people see me as living in John's shadow. I call it shade."
Belushi got an education in the reality of being a comic actor named Belushi on his very first job in Hollywood, a sitcom called "Who's Watching the Kids," where Belushi resisted a script that had him dressing up in a bear costume.
"At Second City, our motto was that anybody can be funny, but can you be funny and say something about the world around you?" Belushi says. "For one episode, they wanted me to wear a bear outfit and I didn't want to. I fought it—so I got called to the principal's office, the producer, Garry Marshall.
"Garry says, ‘I understand you have trouble putting on the bear costume,' and so I told him all my reasons for not wanting to. And he pauses a minute and then he says, ‘Didn't your brother put on a bee outfit? Didn't I see that? And didn't he pour mustard on his own stomach in a movie?' And I said, ‘OK, I'll put on the bear outfit.' I had a lot to learn."
Belushi ran into something similar when he was chosen for "Saturday Night Live," where he was a cast member from 1983-85. His brother, after all, had helped create the mold for the show, with characters such as the Samurai and the Blues Brothers, as well as his legendary impression of rock singer Joe Cocker.
"All my advisers told me not to do ‘Saturday Night Live', that the press would clobber me," Belushi recalls. "But I'm a Second City actor. And ‘SNL' was the next extension of that. Everybody wanted to be on it. And the press actually was very gentle with me. Being on that show was like being in a MASH unit. It was the toughest thing I've ever done. Everything, including divorce, has been easy in comparison."
Since then, Belushi has moved regularly between TV, film and stage. Besides replacing John Malkovich in True West, he stepped into the role of the Pirate King in the hit Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance, then took over the lead role from Judd Hirsch in Herb Gardner's Conversations with My Father, which he describes as having "more lines than King Lear. I remember arguing with Herb, saying, ‘It's a beautiful play but some of my speeches are anti-Semitic. Only a Jew can say those lines and I'm not Jewish.' And Herb said, ‘In four weeks of rehearsal, I'll give you 2,000 years of persecution.'
"All the Broadway I did was as a replacement. Now I'm waiting for a play where I can originate a role."
He's had his share of starring roles in movies, from Red Heat and Salvador to About Last Night and Curly Sue. And he's got an eight-year run under his belt with "According to Jim," a popular hit that seldom won awards or critical favor.
"It was an audience show, not a critics' show," Belushi says. "I didn't read one review. I was making a family show for my kids. I loved it and the people of America loved it."
Notes his "Defenders" costar O'Connell, "Eight years on TV with one show—how often does that happen?"
And now Belushi is back to the TV series routine, which lets him live at home and gives him his weekends with his family: "These are TV times—everyone is coming to TV," he says. "I'd do a film in a heartbeat but there aren't many out there."
He still plays regularly with his music group, the Sacred Hearts Band, for which he serves as bluesy lead singer—a role he also takes for the dozen or so gigs a year he and Dan Aykroyd do as the Blues Brothers. When Aykroyd first suggested that Belushi fill in for his brother John, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 1982, it was the mid-1990s—and Belushi resisted.
"Now I see this as a gift I've gotten from John," he says. "Danny and I conjure his spirit at every show; we're keeping his spirit alive. I remember the first time I sang the song, ‘Sweet Home Chicago,' and I thought, ‘Oh, I get it. Thanks, John.'"
When he talks about his late brother, Belushi takes pains to point out that he felt the loss as a brother, but as something else as well: "I loved him and I was a fan. He made me laugh as hard as you. And laughter strikes right into the heart of intimacy; you feel an intimacy with someone who makes you laugh that hard. I feel that intimacy with Jackie Gleason, with Dick van Dyke and Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. And I had it with John; so did a lot of people.
"I was never in competition with John. Look, he was brilliant and I'm just another actor. I always looked at it this way: There's nothing more beautiful in the sky, nothing that takes your breath away for a fleeting moment, like a shooting star. And John was definitely that. You can't take your eyes off that. You make a wish on a shooting star because it's magical. A shooting star is a dying star but it gives you a moment of magic before it goes.
"Now I'm not a shooting star, but I'm one of the stars in the galaxy. On a clear night, you can see me pulse a little. You can count on me and, on a beautiful evening, I can make you smile."
Belushi doesn't soft-sell his own accomplishments. Still, he's enough of a Midwestern native that he gets excited when he meets actors whose work he admires. To illustrate, he pulls out his phone and pulls up a photograph: It's a shot of him, a silly grin of pleasure on his face, standing next to Michael C. Hall, star of Showtime's "Dexter," taken at a gathering of Viacom affiliates (which include both CBS and Showtime).
"Look at me in this picture—I look like a dumb fan," Belushi says. "I had to calm down when I talked to him. I'm a real goof that way. I was the same way when I met Kate (actress Evangeline Lilly) after the first season of ‘Lost' when I was at ABC. I kind of get lost in TV."
In spite of the length of his career and the breadth of his body of work, Belushi is also still able to be starstruck at an invitation to act for a director whose work he admires. It happened when Roman Polanski cast him in a small role in his film The Ghost Writer, released earlier this year.
As Belushi recalls, "My agent called me and said, ‘Mr. Polanski is interested in you for a role in a movie he's doing'—and I said, ‘Me? Are you sure? I mean, he's been out of the country for 33 years—maybe he thinks John is still alive. Are you sure he wants me?' And he said, ‘It's not a big part,' and I said, ‘Take it! Are you kidding—a Polanski film? I don't even need to read it. And don't bust their balls about the money.'"
The character was an American book publisher, a powerful guy who happened to be completely bald. But when Belushi spoke to Polanski before going to Germany to shoot, Polanski told him, "I've seen your hair. It's not a problem. Although Yul Brynner did very well with the ladies."
While shooting his single lengthy scene, Belushi told the hair story to the other actors on the set, including Ewan McGregor and Timothy Hutton. Even as he was regaling them, Polanski walked in, put a hand on Belushi's forehead to mask his hair and make it easier to envision him without it, then said, "Let's cut it."
"Everybody laughs," Belushi recalls, "and he starts walking me to the makeup room. But like it's a big joke. I'm waiting for them to stop and say, ‘Just kidding,' but he doesn't. He walks me out of the studio and into the makeup room and I'm thinking, ‘God, he's carrying this joke a long time.' And the next thing I knew, my hair was gone."
Afterward, Belushi says, Polanski took him aside and said, "That made the scene."
"I thought I looked like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now," Belushi adds. "It was the single coolest day of my career, working with him. Then I came back and a friend looked at me and said, ‘Oh, are you going to do Annie with your daughter?'"
The Polanski story illustrates the Belushi dichotomy: the actor who is cast without audition by the Oscar-winning director, but who can't quite believe that it's him they want. It's a perspective that still informs Belushi's outlook on life.
"I did Michael Mann's first film, I did Oliver Stone's second, I got to work with Polanski-now I just need to work with (Martin) Scorsese and I'm done," he says. When someone mentions the Coen brothers, he says, "Oh, the Coen brothers—they're great but I'm not on their radar. Scorsese, either. I mean, Polanski reached way out of the box for me. Someone has to believe in you and be willing to take a risk."
But then he pauses, considers for a moment and observes that, in fact, that has happened to him on several occasions.
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