Jim Belushi's Big Year

Doing his thing, his career on solid ground, Jim Belushi shares cigars in search of a gentlemen's ritual bond.
| By Joe Rhodes | From Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

Jim Belushi loves Dan Tana's restaurant in Los Angeles, mostly because it doesn't remind him of Los Angeles. It reminds him of places back in his hometown of Chicago. Dan Tana's has shutters on the windows, dark-paneled walls, red leather booths and Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling. There aren't any sleek Armani suits adorning patrons on Italian avant garde stools, but guys in rumpled suits on thick-padded stools eating red meat, drinking whiskey, calling the bartender by name, and, not infrequently, smoking cigars.

"Takes me back," Belushi says, surveying the dimly lighted dining room, an unlighted Hoyo de Monterrey in his hand. "It looks like Chicago in here. It reminds me of my Dad's place. It was a steakhouse. Yeah, just like this."

He rolls the Havana, a double corona, gently between his fingers. There is no need to hurry, no need to light it just yet. "I've been out here, off and on, since 1978," he says. "But it took me a long time to let go of my Chicago life. I missed walking the streets, dropping in on people without calling, having places like this to go where you could just hang out. Urban life."

He strikes a match, moves the tobacco toward the flame. "I used to feel like I didn't belong here, like I couldn't be myself." The glow encircles the tip of the cigar. He takes the first puff of the night. "But you know what? You can be whatever you want out here. You've just got to have the balls to do it."

It has taken Hollywood a while to figure out who Jim Belushi is; there were years when he wasn't so sure himself. Was he a comedian, a character actor, a leading man? Was he a talent in his own right or merely John Belushi's little brother looking for a coattail ride?

The last question, of course, was answered long ago. Ever since his twin-shot of reputation-making performances in 1986 (as a gonzo combat photographer in Oliver Stone's Salvador and as Rob Lowe's loutish sidekick in About Last Night) Jim Belushi's path to stardom has been very much his own, a stream of box-office hits that have seen him star with everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger (Red Heat) to Charles Grodin (Taking Care of Business) to a German shepherd (K-9).

The past 18 months have seen Belushi go from television (in Stone's cyber-weirdness miniseries "Wild Palms") to Broadway (in Conversations With My Father) to three movie projects that will be released later this year: a thriller called Separate Lives; an action/adventure picture called Royce (set to air on cable television's Showtime this summer) and an improvisational film called Parallel Lives.

"There was no script, only an outline," he says, still buzzing from the experience of Parallel Lives that included working with, among others, Jobeth Williams, Gena Rowlands and Liza Minnelli. "I'm telling you, it's the best movie I've ever done. I'm really jacked about this."

The cigar becomes a baton, then a punctuation mark for the excitement in Belushi's voice. "Do you know how fortunate I am? I'm one of the luckiest men around. I've got a beautiful son. I've got a great career. I've gotten to work with great directors--Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Walter Hill. I've acted with James Caan, Michael Caine. I'm really having a big time."

Then the cigar stops moving. Belushi's voice goes quiet as if he's suddenly remembered something. "But you know," he says, "I've scraped with the devil, too."

* * *

Belushi did get in trouble a lot. Little things mostly—shoplifting, fistfights and, once, a stolen car. "In Wheaton, Illinois," Belushi says, "I was the crime rate."

Growing up in the white-bread, far-west suburbs of Chicago, the middle son of an Albanian immigrant, Jim Belushi had trouble finding his place in the world. His brother, John, five years older and with a fair trouble-making streak of his own, had a flair for the dramatic, a gift for theater and debate, obvious talents that made him the center of family attention. As much as Jim adored his older brother, he sometimes felt lost in his wake.

"I remember my parents had all kinds of articles up on the wall about John," Belushi says, "and I was pissed because my Mom and Dad never put anything up there of mine, even a little piece of bad art. One time John said, 'Well, maybe we'll put one of your warrants up there.' You know what I did? I tore all the articles down. That's the first time he hit me. John really belted me for that.

"I used to tell him, 'Just you wait till I get bigger than you, I'll get you back.' And I did, many years later. I nailed him on Clark Street in Chicago. He was a movie star then, and he kept going, 'Not the face, not the face.' Even then, he charmed my ass, man. I'm like ready for the fight and he's going, 'Gee, it feels like East of Eden.' But I got him. A clean shot, too. And then we went out and had a great time together."

Belushi never intended to follow in his older brother's acting footsteps. He wanted to be a graphic artist or, failing that, take over his father's restaurant. But a high-school speech teacher, impressed by Jim's improvisational abilities ("I had to improvise, because I hadn't done my homework") cast him in a school play. "In high-school drama classes, it's always like six guys and 20 girls," he says, explaining why he first signed on. "Choir was even better: eight guys, 40 girls. I took home-ec, too. I was the only guy. It was great."

But acting quickly became more to Belushi than a way to get dates. "The first time I walked out onstage with an audience, I was dizzy from the adrenaline," he says. That same year, 1970, John was getting rave reviews for his performances with Chicago's Second City improvisational comedy troupe. When Jim Belushi, 16 years old, went to his brother's show, everything suddenly fell into place. "Right after that show," he remembers, "I said, 'I want to be a part of this.' "

When he set his sights on joining Second City (a goal that would take him six years to achieve) Belushi says he didn't think about being measured against his brother's already considerable reputation. "I was too stupid," he says, asked why he chose such a perilous course. "I just went for it."

In 1978, while "Saturday Night Live" was sending John Belushi's career into hyperspace, his little brother was making a name for himself back in Chicago, not only for his work with Second City but for his performance in a new David Mamet play called Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Soon there would be stints in Los Angeles--for a couple of short-lived sitcoms ("Who's Watching The Kids" in 1978 and "Working Stiffs" in 1979), a small role in the James Caan film Thief in 1980 and then, a breakthrough part in the national touring company of The Piratesof Penzance.

The Belushi family's oldest boys, misfits in their hometown, seemed to have conquered the world. John was already a movie star, Jim looked to be well on the way. And then, on March 5, 1982, it all came crashing down.

Jim was backstage, preparing for a Chicago performance of Pirates when he heard the news that his brother had died. He went on with the show, he would say later, because that's what John would have wanted him to do.

There was a time after that, Belushi admits, "when I kind of lost it," years spent struggling with his brother's legacy. The temptation to follow his brother down a self-destructive path was constantly there, and it was a temptation that Belushi could not always resist. In 1983, he took the biggest chance of his professional life, joining the cast of "Saturday Night Live."

"Everybody told me not to do it," he says, "and I wasn't sure what would happen. But all I thought at the time was, 'if they're gonna kill me, then kill me now. If I'm not going to have a career, then let's get it over with, and I'll go back to serving tables at my Dad's place.' "

Although still in an emotional tailspin, Jim lasted two seasons on "SNL." Long enough to get the parts in Salvador and About Last Night that would launch his movie career. The latter was the film version of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, with Belushi reprising the role he'd originated onstage eight years earlier. The film had almost been made once before with Jim's part offered, ironically enough, to John.

"I told him then, I said, 'Don't do this, man. This is my role. I created this.' He said, 'Don't you understand that if I pass on this they're just gonna offer it to Billy Murray. You can't get it.' I told him I didn't care if Billy did it, I just didn't want him to. I said, 'I can't be seen eating a cheeseburger or with a sword in my hand because of you. Stay away from this one.' He was angry. But he turned it down."

After About Last Night, the movie offers started coming in droves, and Belushi turned few of them down. He had his share of hits (The Principal, K-9) as well as misses ("Mr. Destiny," "Traces of Red"). There were attempts to turn Belushi into a leading man, to smooth out his rough edges and make him into another Cary Grant.

"I lost weight; I got healthy and I tried to be something I wasn't," he admits. "What I really like is playing low-status characters, like the guys in Salvador or About Last Night. I want to play darker stuff, street stuff. I want to be able to be who I am. I swear; I smoke. That's who I am, and those are the roles I like."

Still, Belushi, who turns 40 this year—seven years older than his brother ever got to be-—s not apologizing for taking those softer-edged parts. They made him a bankable box-office star, and for that he is grateful. "My father lost his business," he says, "and John, in a sense, lost his business, too. So there was a real fear in me of losing it. It was very important to get a financial base, and I accomplished that.

"Now I have the luxury of taking some chances. When I was younger I had a wife, a child and a brother who was dead. I had a family with no money, devastated. But we survived. Now Dad's on a ranch, paid for. My younger brother's working; my sister's a psychic. My son is set, education-wise, and he's living in Chicago with my ex-wife, so he's not a Hollywood kid.

The double corona is almost gone. Jim Belushi takes a long, last puff. "We're OK," he says. "Everybody's OK."

* * *

Not too long ago, Jim Belushi found himself at a celebrity roast for Billy Crystal, seated between Harvey Keitel and Roger Ebert and thrilled to discover that, for every guest, a Davidoff had been placed on the table. "You don't smoke cigars, do you?" he said to Ebert. "Would you mind?"

As Belushi took Ebert's cigar and began to smoke, Keitel leaned over. "Do you smoke cigars?" Keitel asked. This struck Belushi as an odd question since he was, at that moment, smoking a cigar. "Yeah," he said, slightly puzzled. "I do."

"No," Keitel continued. "Do you smoke cigars?"

"Yes. I smoke cigars."

"And you enjoy cigars?"

"Well, sure, I enjoy them."

Keitel reached into his pocket. "Then you owe me one," he said, handing Belushi a Cohiba Robusto.

"That's what I like about cigars and cigar smokers," Belushi says, finishing the story. "It's a bonding, a wonderful bonding among gentlemen. When you light a good cigar, men notice it."

In fact, when Belushi had pulled out the Hoyo de Monterrey, an elderly man at the next table walked over to admire it, feeling the wrapper, slowly passing it under his nose. "That's a beautiful cigar," the man said before returning to his table.

"I realized early on that this isn't just a nicotine thing," Belushi says. "This is a ritual, a tradition."

Although he's smoked cigars sporadically since his Second City days, Belushi has only smoked cigars for the past five years, acquiring a taste for Montecristos when he was making a film in Europe. His everyday cigars--sometimes six or seven a day--are Por Larrañaga Nacionales. After dinner he is partial to a Cohiba Esplendido or a Montecristo No. 2.

"What I like most about cigars is simply sitting and talking with other men," Belushi says. "Like Duncan, my neurosurgeon buddy. When he was a resident, he assisted in the delivery of my son, and we've been friends ever since. He came over today—and I was supposed to be somewhere at one o'clock—and he said, 'Tell 'em you're gonna be late. Let's smoke a cigar together.'

"So we went in to my office, where I have a sterling-silver humidor, and Duncan is rummaging through there, going, "What have you got? Did you bring anything back from the trip?" So I gave him a Cohiba Robusto. It's like marbles, really, kind of a guy thing. 'Come on over, Duncan, and let's play some marbles.' So we clipped 'em, talking about my trip, about which cigar stores I went to. We sat in my kitchen, lit our cigars and talked about sex and politics and surgery and acting. Some of the best conversations I've ever had with men have been over a cigar."

Listening to Belushi describe these conversations and cigars—the Montecristo No. 5 he had while watching the sun rise on a beach in Sicily, the Bolivar he smoked with his younger brother, Bill, at a sidewalk cafe in London—is like listening to someone describe mystical experiences. And, according to Belushi, it's an experience that women can't—and shouldn't try to—understand.

"I think it's very male, and women should stay away from it. It's none of their business," he says. "Women are fashion-oriented, which means they'll do something for a while and then in three years, after they're done with it, they'll start to knock it. Well, this is not a fashion; it's a tradition among gentlemen. Women should leave it alone."

Some of the best cigar conversations Belushi has had lately have been on national television, sitting across a desk from David Letterman, trying to tempt the host into sharing a cigar on camera. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not.

"The first time I went on with a cigar (on Letterman's NBC "Late-Night" show in November 1992), I wasn't going to smoke it onstage, because I'd heard that he'd just quit smoking. But the girl backstage said to go ahead and take it out with me. So I did, and we had a blast.

"Then last May, I heard that he was smoking again, so I brought him a (Cohiba) Robusto, and he lit it. And it was probably the best interview I've ever been involved in. He was hysterical. He was going, 'Don't adjust your set; I am green.' Then he called me the next day to ask where I got 'em.

"The next time I go on [the CBS show last fall], I see he had two Cohibas by the ashtray. And I brought him another one, but he wouldn't smoke it with me. He wouldn't take it. He said something about how it makes him dizzy, and I said, 'That's why I smoke 'em,' which got a little chuckle and got us out of it.

"But it hurt me that he wouldn't take it. I felt as if our bond had been broken."

By the time Belushi leaves the table at Dan Tana's, nearly three hours have passed. The crowd at the bar has thinned. The remains of the Hoyo de Monterrey—which, by the way, had been given to Belushi by a stranger who'd seen his Letterman appearances—are long gone. But there are more cigars in Jim Belushi's pocket, ready in case a conversation presents itself, ready for the ritual bond to be renewed.

Joe Rhodes is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles.

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