The voice is unmistakable, the sound that launched a thousand laughs on the original “Saturday Night Live” and too many movies to count. It’s still playful and intriguing, even when it’s simply expounding on details that—from a different mouth—would seem boring, odd or forgettable, such as the fusel oils in vodka or the terpenes in cannabis.
No, when Dan Aykroyd speaks, it’s easy to listen. And it’s impossible not to smile.
Aykroyd’s distinctive voice and his mastery of its tone—running easily from sly to erudite to businesslike and beyond—triggers a ton of memories for anyone who saw him soar to stardom on “SNL” in the 1970s or who has been entertained by his movies, including The Blues Brothers in 1980 and continuing over the decades to the modern day. To all of these endeavors, Aykroyd brings a face made for mischief, an uninhibited physicality and the comic ability to shape-shift into a fool’s parade of memorable characters. Who can forget him as a nonchalant Julia Child, pretending blood isn’t squirting from her hand in a gusher, after cutting herself while cooking on her TV show? Or his take on then-president Jimmy Carter, calmly and knowledgably talking a radio talk-show caller down from a bad acid trip? Or his fast-talking “Super Bass-o-Matic 76” salesman, who literally pureed a whole fish in a blender (“No fish waste! Without scaling, cutting or gutting!”) in what had to be a television first.
Aykroyd was indispensably funny wherever he appeared, in several films and endless skits with John Belushi, working the “SNL” Weekend Update anchor desk with Jane Curtin (while uncorking the quite un-Cronkite line “Jane, you ignorant slut”) and playing a spoiled rich man turned destitute opposite Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. These days, acting and comedy tend to take a backseat to his numerous business ventures, including his Crystal Head Vodka brand, and the avocations, fascinations and miscellaneous fancies that occupy his intensely crowded, impeccably organized cranium. At the age of 68, he’s like a walking encyclopedia, flush with facts at his fingertips.
“Instead of saying, ‘Hey Google, when was the Gettysburg Address?’ you can just hang with Danny,” says longtime friend Jim Belushi. “He knows everything.”
From the blues to the supernatural and paranormal, from paleontology to Canadian history to the viscosity of vodka, Aykroyd comes across as a jolly compendium of most of the knowledge gathered by civilized man. “Mag-lev power,” he says, answering a question about what he would pursue if he were no longer in show business, and referring casually to technology that can propel trains at high speeds using two powerful sets of magnets.
“I’m the eternal researcher,” Aykroyd says happily. “I like to be conversant in a wide variety of subjects. I like to keep up with who’s running things in the industrial complex and the world of finance—who those minds and talents are. I always like to find out more, just for fun.”
In a normal world, Aykroyd divides his time between homes in Los Angeles and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. But he’s been sequestered for a while at a family property near Kingston, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, not quite 200 miles east of Toronto.
“I’m spending time on a frozen lake,” he says. “This is one of the sub-circles of the Arctic Circle.” Aykroyd’s father, Peter, a civil engineer and one-time adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, died in July at 98. “I’m just up here settling his estate,” Aykroyd says. And that’s where he’s remained, since the Canadian government stiffened its shelter-at-home mandate, while Donna Dixon, his wife of almost 40 years, is back in California. “The travel restrictions have been pretty dire.”
There’s good and bad to being in the great outdoors near a frozen body of water. On the negative side, there’s an absence of some modern amenities. “My home has weak Internet. The WiFi is iffy. There’s a power line with 5,000 volts on the next farm that interferes,” he says. But despite lacking the power to watch Netflix, the farm holds a dear spot in his heart. “The farm has been in the family for 200 years. I can’t sell it,” Aykroyd adds affectionately. “It’s quiet and isolated. I’m trying to be careful. This virus is a whimsical thing, in terms of who it affects and how it affects them. I drive my car to the gas station—that’s about it. I’m fortunate to have a place to walk around.”
The good here includes a humidor, one of two that he owns, as cigar smoking is one of the man’s passions. The humidor in this house is near what he refers to as “the old séance room,” and he’s not the first in the house to smoke them. “They would have a séance and smoke cigars to see if shapes would form in the smoke,” he says delightedly of ancestors who populated the house before him.
Aykroyd got his love for fine tobacco from his father. “My father always had a cigar. He worked for the government, so he couldn’t afford the luxury brands. So he would smoke those big White Owls. The fumes would drive away clouds of bugs.”
When he goes cigar shopping, Aykroyd opts for something considerably higher end than a White Owl. “I’m in Canada, where you can freely purchase Havana brands and blends,” he says. “I’m sitting here looking at a nice Cohiba, in a balsa-wood case, with Che Guevara on the wrapper. I hesitate to smoke it.”
The man has a wide range of cigar favorites, Cuban and non-Cuban, big and small. “I like a robusto that is nice and squishy and moist,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll smoke Fuente—I love the Dominicans.” He also has an affinity for Cohiba Clubs, miniature Cuban smokes that measure less than four inches long, with a slender 22 ring gauge. “I like the Cohiba Club for walking the dog,” he says.
In the evening, after a satisfying meal, that’s when Aykroyd’s busy, fact-filled mind turns to cigars. Once again, Aykroyd is off, creating a verbal picture of a mouth-watering feast, complete with spirits, adding dish upon dish, building toward the post-prandial smoke. “There’s something about a beautiful stogie in the summer. After a good T-bone. With green peas—and gravy. And mashed potatoes. And a beautiful Margarita. And a piece of Black Forest cake. And a shot of Patrón XO. That’s when the stogies come out.”
Aykroyd was an unknown 23-year-old Canadian comic, roaming the stages of Second City in Chicago, when Lorne Michaels tapped him to be part of what would become one of the most influential shows in TV history. As an original Not Ready for Prime Time Player on “NBC’s Saturday Night” (as it was known when it debuted in October 1975), Aykroyd rode a rocket which, within a couple of years, carried him to Hollywood, where he became a movie star and a music star at the same time, as half of the Blues Brothers. He and John Belushi were a comic dream-team, seemingly unstoppable, until Belushi died unexpectedly of a drug overdose in 1982.
Aykroyd went on to fashion a respected career as an actor and writer in movies and television. As he did, his churning curiosity led him into a variety of business ventures. He was one of the importers of Patrón Tequila to Canada for a time (it’s now imported by a different company). He launched the House of Blues chain with partner Isaac Tigrett (of Hard Rock Café fame), he created his own signature brand of wine and, with the artist John Alexander, even invented Crystal Head Vodka, which is imported by Infinium Spirits in the United States. The BBC recently reported Aykroyd’s estimated net worth at $135 million, and other outlets imagine even higher numbers.
He took the financial side seriously from a young age because he had to: “It’s called show ‘business’ and it really is a business,” Aykroyd says, explaining how he formed a production company as an actor from his first days in show business. “I had to work with an agent and manager to set fees and compensation. I had to learn how to pay taxes . . . as an artist. I learned on productions about above- xwand below-the-line costs. With House of Blues, I learned about private financing, equity financing, how boards work. You have to have business acumen to survive.”
Aykroyd is similarly focused when it comes to his roles now. “It has to be a really intriguing and interesting role with a director I admire or someone I’ve worked with and admired,” Aykroyd says. “I read submissions, but I haven’t seen anything lately in which I felt I could really serve the enterprise. Occasionally I see good TV stuff that interests me. And the occasional feature film.”
Aykroyd’s résumé is diverse, and testifies to his restless curiosity. He’s worked with the biggest names in comedy, and is best known for making people laugh, but he’s also worked with Sir Richard Attenborough, Michael Bay and the Stevens (Spielberg and Soderbergh), and his Oscar-nominated work in Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t a one-off as a dramatic actor.
“He had chops,” says Morgan Freeman, his Driving Miss Daisy costar. “He’s a good actor. He’s a funny dude with no brakes. He just goes. He’s a life-affirming dude, a never-say-die guy.”
“Acting is hard work, but it’s not coal mining,” Aykroyd says. “It’s demanding but fun. The ultimate reward is if it comes out and people love it. The best part was working with all those people. I got to work with the best of the best and I’m proud of that. I was in some Triple-A movies that people have seen over and over again. I made films people wanted to see. I’m so happy to do a film that bears up under repeated screenings. These are perennials.”
It’s hard to believe that “Saturday Night Live” is now in its 46th season, which means its current lineup of comic talent conceivably could be the grandchildren of the original cast. Aykroyd gives all credit to the show’s long-term success to Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and executive producer for all but five of its seasons. “Lorne had an understanding of classic TV live performance and satire,” Aykroyd says. “He reapplied and refiltered that, drawing his cast from improv companies in Chicago and Boston and San Francisco. His models were those high-flying live shows of the 1950s, which had the top writers and performing talent. He masterfully married all of that and went on to stuff it with all the best creative minds. It was a privilege to be a witness.”
A show that has been pronounced dead by critics on several occasions in the past half-century, only to roar back to pop-culture relevance, “SNL” might “go on forever,” Aykroyd adds. “Lorne will do it until he’s 90.”
The show provided the launchpad for the Blues Brothers, the musical act featuring Aykroyd and John Belushi as Elwood and “Joliet” Jake Blues, two Chicago hard cases in fedoras and sunglasses with a soft spot for rhythm and blues. Originally a one-shot skit for an April 1978 episode, the Blues Brothers not only spawned repeat appearances on “SNL” but a recording contract, hit albums, a concert tour and a still-popular film that set a record for the number of vehicles destroyed in the course of its epic car chases.
It was a wild ride, one Belushi ultimately didn’t survive. Yet Aykroyd emerged on the other side, saddened but untouched by those side effects of fame. “I never had the appetite for powder and pills,” Aykroyd says. “I didn’t play football and sustain injuries that caused John to take pharmaceuticals for pain. He took a lot of hits in football and a lot of stage falls. He taxed his body physically. Things other than physical injury led to the cocaine use; the coke gave him relief from psychological pain. It numbed a lot of what was going on. And things came too fast. I crusaded with him, flushed a lot of vials. I did what I could, but we were a little too late.”
Since Belushi’s death, Aykroyd has kept the band alive, performing with Jim Belushi (as brother “Zee” Blues) and John Goodman (as “Mighty” Mac McTeer). Before the pandemic, Aykroyd and the band would occasionally play the House of Blues and other venues, keeping the faith of the music that has seeped into his soul. Looking back at one of his most famous characters, he discloses that Elwood Blues has little in common with Dan Aykroyd. “I watched the film again recently and John’s performance is so wonderful. He was such a great actor. But Elwood—that performance was pretty buttoned-up. There’s not a glimpse of me in that.”
Still, Elwood lived on in Aykroyd’s syndicated radio show (known variously as “Elwood’s Bluesmobile” and “House of Blues Radio Hour”) during its 25-year weekly run. In character as Elwood, Aykroyd chatted about blues history, played the music of classic artists and newcomers alike, in his endless quest to hip the world at large to the healing power of the blues.
When Aykroyd begins to wax poetic about the blues—a longtime love—he might as well be sitting right there next to you. “The blues gets one moving,” Aykroyd says, as he warms to the subject. “Even a slow blues—you’re swaying with a partner and he or she starts to move their hips and whoa! You’ve got a whole night right there. The guitar is cutting through and the drums are working and—you’re gone! You can’t help but move.”
When Elwood Blues starts to preach, it’s best to back up and give him room. Aykroyd’s love for and knowledge of the blues makes him an edifying and entertaining fan of the form, and that rare actor who’s found enduring popular fame as a fictional character. It’s even rarer to do it twice, which Aykroyd did portraying Dr. Ray Stantz, part of the original team of paranormal peacekeepers chronicled in Ghostbusters. Aykroyd wrote the script with the late Harold Ramis, with the idea that the two of them would make the film with Belushi. When Belushi died, Bill Murray stepped into the role of Dr. Peter Venkman. The almost-40-year-old franchise has spawned a merchandising bonanza, a sequel, a cartoon spin-off and a 2016 female Ghostbusters reboot.
Now there’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, postponed from summer to the end of 2021. The new film begins 30 years after the sequel, and ignores what happened in the reboot. It follows the adventures of a new generation of Ghostbusters, led by Paul Rudd, but Aykroyd and Murray show up as their original characters, along with Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts from the original cast. (Harold Ramis died in 2014.)
For Aykroyd, there was a full-circle quality to working with Jason Reitman, an Oscar-nominated writer-director (Up in the Air, Juno) who was a spirited six-year-old when his father Ivan directed the original 1984 film. “Jason is the perfect inheritor of the legacy as a writer, storyteller and director,” Aykroyd says. “His vision derives seamlessly, respectfully and honestly from the original films. Can’t wait to see the lines around the multiplex.”
Murray is an occasional cigar-smoking companion of
Aykroyd’s, as is Jim Belushi. “You get Belushi and Murray talking and there’s nothing like it,” says Aykroyd. “You sit by the river, everybody silent as the smokes goes up, and then the evening starts. It pulls us together as humans.” Says Belushi: “When you’re with him, you don’t say much. You laugh, listen and learn. Dan is a great hang . . . He’s a fantastic storyteller.”
Until the pandemic, Aykroyd traveled North America, happily leading the charge for Crystal Head, showing “bar chefs” (as he refers to mixologists) the multiple uses for his vodka. “It came from wanting to sit down with friends and say, ‘Try mine,’ ” he says. “There was a desire for a better-tasting vodka. Our vodka has notes of sweet vanilla; it’s dry and crisp. Bar chefs love it.”
Having dipped his toe in adult beverages, Aykroyd is taking the next logical step: into adult-use cannabis, which is legal in Canada. Celebrity weed brands are all the rage, with strains marketed by everyone from Willie Nelson to Snoop Dogg to Martha Stewart. Jim Belushi runs his own cannabis farm in Oregon, and approached Aykroyd about a Blues Brothers brand. “Jim is about to launch Blues Brothers Workingman’s Blend, a good price and quality herb for the working man,” Aykroyd says. “I had to sign off on them using my likeness and I did. I believe in the medicinal and healing powers of cannabis. My dad was on CBD for anxiety and to sleep, before he passed. I can’t smoke [marijuana] because I’m allergic to terpenes. The packaging is fun. Jim has worked hard to make it happen. It’s like the liquor business. It all depends on quality and distribution.”
Like everyone else in the world, Aykroyd is eager to safely gather once again to enjoy live music, cocktails and fine tobacco. But he also recognizes the inherent dangers of the situation.
“This black swan has come in and affected life so adversely,” he says. “I’ve just got to stay home. Everybody has to get the vaccine. You have to convince people who want to avoid it. I have faith in science, and I know humankind is resilient. Everyone should join in the crusade against this alien invader.
“I miss concerts and hearing artists live. I miss being on the road with the vodka. Just to be able to go to my local bar—I get so much fun out of people. I’m just trying to make a living and survive. I’m so fortunate. I had fun doing 93 percent of it.”
But Aykroyd doesn’t sing the blues for long. In the end, he’s hopeful. “I miss everything about congregant society. We all miss that. We need to be with each other. That’s all being denied. So, on the other side, there will be a great celebration.”