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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

Jim Belushi is relaxing in his dressing room at CBS Studios in Studio City, California, indulging himself in his daily post-lunch cigar ("It's a Fuente Gran Reserva—and it's delicious"), remembering the day he auditioned for—and was accepted into—the company of the legendary comedy improv group Second City, in Chicago.

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."

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.

"I used to think I wasn't lucky. But when I think about it—Second City, ‘Saturday Night Live,' ‘According to Jim,' my wife and my great kids—I've been really lucky."

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment on his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com.

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