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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.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

(continued from page 5)

Belushi, who was still finishing his degree at Southern Illinois University at the time, was ecstatic. And then he got a phone call from his brother John Belushi, a Second City alumnus who was already a star on "Saturday Night Live."

"John said, ‘What's going on?' and I told him I'd been accepted for Second City's touring company," Belushi, 56, says. "And he said, ‘Are you sure you want to do comedy? Aren't you more of a dramatic actor? Don't you think you'd be better at the Goodman (Theater)?' And I said, no, this was absolutely what I wanted to do.

"And now here I am doing a drama. This show fits me like a glove. And I'm thinking that, maybe, 30 years ago, he was right."

The show in question is "The Defenders," a new legal drama (with strong comic moments), in which Belushi and Jerry O'Connell play a pair of colorful Las Vegas defense attorneys. The CBS show, which debuted in September, is based on a pair of real-life attorneys who practice criminal-defense law in Las Vegas, a locale that provides a colorful setting for stories blending legal issues, courtroom tactics and the very untidy personal lives of two hard-charging lawyers.

"He's excellent in the courtroom and a moron with women," Belushi says of his character, Nick Morelli. "Hmm, sounds very male, doesn't he? I was looking at the script for the next episode; he's representing a father and son and that brings up a lot of stuff for Nick, about his father and mother. I haven't created that part of Nick's world yet; there's so much to discover. I love the challenge of that."

Says his costar, O'Connell, "People don't realize how dramatic Jim can be. They think of him as the ‘According to Jim' guy. But this is far from that sitcom role. He's a very dramatic, intense dude. He's got these dead Albanian eyes when he wants them, this Albanian intensity. I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised."

For Belushi, the show is a relatively quick return to the rigors of series television; "According to Jim," his hit sitcom on ABC, ended its eight-year run in 2009. According to the real Jim, it was his wife, Jennifer, who insisted he find a new role.

"I took a year and a half off and tried to discover all the different wines in Wine Spectator," Belushi jokes about the period after "According to Jim" ended. "And I went through quite a few. But I drove my wife crazy. I started smoking more cigars in the house—I mean, I've got a basement and I figured I could do it there. But she'd yell down, ‘It's drifting up!'

"Plus I started micromanaging her, standing over her at the stove. I was like a kid wanting to hang out with his mom. Finally, I think she called my agent and said, ‘Will you get his ass back to work?'

"I was driving with her the other day, now that we've been shooting this show for a while. And I said, ‘You know, I feel really good.' And she said, ‘Man needs to work.'"

In fact, during his hiatus, along with his taste for cigars and wine, Belushi was developing a couple of television series himself when "The Defenders" came along: "One of them was actually a lawyer show," says Belushi, whose eyes seem to shift from green to blue and back again, depending on the light he's in. "But this one came along quicker, before I could get mine into development."

But he couldn't say no to "The Defenders," because of its blend of comedy and drama, with an emphasis on the dramatic. Morelli and partner Pete Kaczmarek take on consistently oddball cases, many of which are based on cases of the real-life lawyers (Marc Saggese and Michael Cristalli) on which the characters are based. But the Morelli character, while inspired by Cristalli, has quickly evolved into someone Belushi is helping to develop.

"He is Nick Morelli," says Niels Mueller, executive producer and cocreator of the series (with Kevin Kennedy). "It's an absolute joy to write, being able to hear Jim's Nick in our heads. When he gets to the set, suddenly Jim disappears and there's Nick. You forget about the lights and you feel like you're an interloper in Nick's office. And Jim is always looking to peel back another layer-to find humor in the drama, to find drama in the humor."

The office set itself-an expansive set of well-appointed rooms decorated with classic gangster mugshots, sports memorabilia and vintage slot machines-has been built on CBS's Stage 9, which has a plaque next to its main door, denoting the fact that this soundstage was home to "Seinfeld" for most of the 1990s. Asked whether the plaque is intimidating, Belushi is quick with a reply.

"You know, we shot ‘According to Jim' on this stage," he says with mock indignation, observing that his show shot there for most of the first decade of the 21st century. "I even have the same dressing room."

On this particular day, Belushi, whose sturdy frame is definitely sleeker these days ("I quit drinking beer when I got this part—and lost 10 pounds"), is wearing a dazzling wine-and-navy-striped dress shirt by Ben Sherman, with a navy suit by Ermenegildo Zegna. He and O'Connell will also be dressed by Versace, Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana. Belushi, his hair neatly combed back, looks pleased to be playing someone who dresses with such flair, let alone someone with Morelli's cagey legal intelligence.

"Playing dumb is harder," Belushi says. "Because you've got to really commit to the character. I remember when I took over for John Malkovich off-Broadway in True West. Gary Sinise was directing me in it and here was the note he gave me: ‘Jim, these are dumb fucking people.'

"I had a problem on ‘According to Jim,' because, when we would have discussions about the character, I'd bring my intelligence to it, saying, ‘Well, wouldn't he do this or this?' And they'd tell me, ‘Jim, this guy isn't there yet. You've been there. This guy hasn't.' So you're dumbing it down, putting yourself back to when you didn't have those insights."

Belushi infuses Nick Morelli with both the courtroom savvy of a veteran attorney and the not-always-unflappable demeanor of an everyday guy, says Greg Walker, another of the series' executive producers.

"This character lives in the world of the real," Walker says. "He's a real guy, an everyman not pretending to be what he's not. Jim is the perfect actor for a show like this. Very few people have the ability to merge the two acting styles-to be serious and to be funny, and to make it feel seamless. Jim doesn't struggle with that. He has the ability to be a very believable character in a multiplicity of tones. That's a very rare, if not unique, trait."

Oh, and like Belushi, Nick Morelli, is a cigar smoker (though, because of network standards, he can only hold a cigar in his mouth, but not light it). Indeed, O'Connell figured out how to woo Belushi before O'Connell had even been chosen to play his partner.

Recalls Belushi, "Jerry came over to the house with a couple of Cubans and we sat for three hours by the pool, smoking and drinking beer. This was before he had the part. The next day, we did his test and he got it. He made that relationship work."

"Before our first meeting, someone told me, ‘Bring him a couple of nice cigars,'" O'Connell notes with a smile. "Jim really is a cigar aficionado. He's got a real wealth of knowledge. Whenever you go to his house, you can't leave without having an amazing cigar and an amazing glass of wine."

Belushi's relationship with cigars began with the governor of California. When Belushi was cast opposite then-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1988's action-comedy, Red Heat, he couldn't help be exposed to Schwarzenegger's love of fine tobacco.

"The fucker smoked a Montecristo No. 2 in a cop car with the windows closed," Belushi recalls with a laugh. "The car filled with smoke and I got sick to my stomach. Arnold says, ‘What's the matter, Jim? Does a little cigar smoke bother you? Here—try one.'

"That is not a cigar you want to start with. I was green after I smoked that. But I started smoking cigars on the set and I was off and running." Cigars, he says, give him a feeling of leisure: "There's something that allows you to sit and be in the moment. It makes me feel like, hey, you know what? I'm doing alright. As opposed to the struggling in your mind to do better or with what you've done in the past. You can forget that; it's a respite where you feel, ‘I'm doing alright.'"

Belushi, who once was partners with Chuck Norris in a cigar company called Lone Wolf ("I didn't make a dime but I got a great education"), keeps three humidors, including one in his dressing room. (Nick Morelli's office also features a humidor, as well as several classic cigar boxes.) His taste runs from medium to strong cigars: "An OpusX, say, is a little too rich for me—that's a big smoke." He prefers a larger ring gauge because he feels it provides a better draw.

"The draw is very important to me," Belushi notes. "I like a Fuente or a Fuente Hemingway Classic—that's a perfect daytime smoke for me. The other day I had a Partagas Serie P No. 2, a torpedo. Goddam, did that smoke good. Those Dominican cigars always have a good draw; I find Cubans to be about 50/50.

"I'll get pissed if someone gives me, say, a Cohiba Esplendido. It's got a nice ring gauge, it's a great company, a great cigar, an expensive cigar—and then I have to light it four or five times. That's frustrating. I'll tell you: Not every cigar in a box of Cubans is a good cigar. But every cigar in a box of Fuentes is a good cigar."

Which reminds him of a story about smoking cigars with a friend in his backyard, as they sat with their wives after dinner: "I bring out the cigars and my friend is holding it, thinking. Then he turns to his wife and says, ‘I'm thinking about having a cigar tonight.' And she says, ‘Well, don't expect any kissing.' And he thinks about it for a moment and says, ‘We've been married long enough that we don't have to kiss while we're making love.'"

Belushi has an education degree from Southern Illinois University with a speech major; he even taught a little after college. But it took flunking his delivery of a speech in high school to land him his first acting role.

"I remember that the Moratorium to end the Vietnam War was on a Sunday—and I had to give a speech in class on Monday and I wasn't prepared," Belushi says. "So when I was called on, I went up there and pretended to be a Yippie and screamed at the class for not being at the Moratorium. The teacher flunked me on the speech—and then cast me in a one-act he was directing.

"That first time going out and getting a laugh—it was like magic, the adrenaline. And I've been chasing that magic ever since." Belushi pauses, then says with a mischievous smile, "The real truth is that, once I got to theater, I stayed with it because that's where you could meet girls. I was a tackle in football—and the girls were not screwing the tackles. And nobody came to wrestling meets. But in drama, there were 18 girls and five guys. During rehearsal, the girls would get a chance to know you and they'd start to think, ‘He's not so bad.' It was the same thing with choir; that was 40 girls and 8 guys. I know I'm not the most handsome guy. I was just playing the numbers.

"But once I got onstage, my status changed. So I guess you could say women led me to where I was supposed to be—including my wife. She's the one who said, ‘This is a good script.' She said it about ‘Defenders' and she said it about ‘According to Jim.'"

Belushi also had a role model: his brother John, older by five years, who had become something of a local legend as a performer at Second City, Chicago's legendary mecca of improvisational comedy. John Belushi was part of a Second City generation—in Chicago and Toronto—that included Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy and several others who would become the original casts of two of the 1970s most influential comedy shows: "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV."

"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."


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