Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest and Paul Shaffer. These established giants of the entertainment industry were once the outrageous and creative young actors and musicians of the mid-1970s. But John Belushi – a wild and wonderful comedic talent with an outlaw spirit and a teddy bear soul – led the pack. He broke boundaries and changed the rules. With inflamed imagination and drive, he fused the rock 'n' roll counter-culture with satire and parody, ultimately creating a whole new comedy industry from the ground up. His life was history in the making.

John Adam Belushi was born in 1949 in Humbolt Park, Chicago, Ill. His father, Adam, came to this country from Qyteze, Albania in 1934 at the age of 16. His mother, Agnes, was the daughter of Albanian immigrants.

Adam and Agnes had four children: Marian, John, James and William. Billy was born on John's 11th birthday. From the time John was 3 years old, he had the run of his Westside neighborhood; a close-knit community, with strong ties to St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church. When John was 6 years old, his family moved to Wheaton, Ill., a middle class western suburb in the staunchly Republican DuPage County.

ImageJohn struggled adjusting to the change, but blossomed in junior high where he enjoyed sports, learned to play the drums and was selected for leading roles in plays. In high school he excelled at everything he put his mind to. Senior year he was co-captain of the football team (voted an all-conference middle linebacker), Homecoming king, a state finalist in the Original Monologue competition, a leading actor in several productions and was voted "Most Humorous" in his class. It was at this time he became enamored with 15-year-old Judith Jacklin, who became his sweetheart, best friend and, later, his wife.

John graduated from Wheaton Central High School in 1967. His drama teacher and mentor, Dan Payne, gave John two remarkable gifts. One was an introduction for an audition for Shawnee Summer Theater (he was hired and became a professional actor, performing a new show every week). The other was an evening at the Second City Theater. The hip, urban improvisational theater was a Chicago institution known for fostering the homegrown talent in Chicago. It was the night of that first Second City experience when John told Judy, "This is what I want to do."

John was offered a football scholarship at Illinois Wesleyan, but, ironically, was denied admission to the college. And so, he took out a student loan and enrolled in theater at his "back-up" school, Wisconsin State University at Whitewater. Once immerged in the college atmosphere, John was attracted to the idealistic, the radical and the anarchist revolutionary ideas prevalent at the time. He became politically active, especially in the anti-war movement. John also submerged himself in his craft. When not in a production at school, he hitchhiked the 80-some miles between Whitewater and Chicago to collect tickets at the weekend Compass Theater shows. The Compass was a cabaret-style revue whose skits satirized American culture. Created by undergraduates from the University of Chicago in the bohemian 1950s, this was the inspiration for the Second City. John made the difficult commute for the opportunity to watch the players work. He learned the nuances to improvisational comedy and at the same time memorized scenes.

At the close of John's freshman year he departed for home, uncertain if he would return to Whitewater in the fall. At that time, his father owned and operated two restaurants. Adam's dream was for his oldest son to join in his business. He was so determined to entice John that he offered to hand over the control of the restaurants to him. It was then that it became clear to John that his commitment to theater was his driving passion. He didn't think college was necessarily the route to his goal, but with the Vietnam War raging – and student deferments still a means to an end – John transferred to the newly founded community college with a two year program, College of DuPage.

ImageAt COD John created his own outlet to further his objective – he formed a comedy troupe with friends Tino Insana and Steve Beshakes, with whom he shared a common love for music, good times and laughing. Laughs abounded whenever the three got together, and for fun, John taught Tino and Steve scenes he had learned at the Compass Theater. Soon they were performing in friends' living rooms, then at parties. When they began working up material of their own, they dubbed themselves the West Compass Players and booked jobs at local schools and events.

On Jan. 5, 1970, John received an Associate of Arts degree. The following semester he and his friends enrolled at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. There, they opened a weekend comedy club/coffee house in Little Italy, where they were famous for marathon performances. The humor was hippie, political, outrageous and wildly funny. It was during this time that John developed a number of his more memorable characters, including his impression of singer Joe Cocker. One year later, in early 1971, John auditioned for Chicago's Second City Theater and was hired as their youngest-ever main stage performer.

At Second City, John thrived on the intense six day schedule. He was devoted to the process and creatively fueled by his talented co-workers, especially director Del Close and cast members Brian Murray (Bill's older brother), Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis. On this stage he learned to hone his craft, refine his technique and share the stage. Developing throughout the Second City years, he was often singled out by reviewers and was a favorite with the audiences. It was during this time Judy, now an art student at the University of Illinois, moved in with John in an apartment directly behind the theater.

ImageIn October of 1972, Tony Hendra, an editor from National Lampoon Magazine, came to see John at Second City. Tony was looking to cast a final member for the first ever Lampoon stage show, which he would direct. The theatrical production, called "National Lampoon's Lemmings," was to be a 1960s political/social satirical semi-revue, with the second act devoted to a mock-concert musical comedy. Tony had heard about John's Cocker performance. The following week, Tony offered John a job. John accepted and before year's end he and Judy were off to New York City.

Also performing in "Lemming's" was future luminaries Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest. The second act, donned the "Woodchuck Festival of Peace, Love and Death," combined the "peace, love and music" ideal with "mass suicide." The strong cast created not only an exciting musical experience but also an incisive satire of Woodstock and all it embraced. Tearing down sacred cows was a risky endeavor, skillfully crossed. John's spot-on announcer was the cohesive glue of the act and his Cocker performance brought the house down. For months, "Lemmings" continued to draw sell out crowds and John turned into the main attraction.

In November 1973, National Lampoon launched the Radio Hour, which brought the magazine's irreverent humor to the airwaves in the form of sketches, fake commercial and public service announcements, and pop-music parodies. Under the direction of editor Michael O'Donoghue and producer Bob Tischler, the show (syndicated to approximately 600 stations) was meticulously produced with an understated style that belied the often shocking content. At this point. John was unemployed and taking classes at the Actors Studio. He was cast in a few roles in radio sketches, which led to improvised scenes with Chris Guest and Chevy Chase. He decided to try his hand at writing for the show and O'Donoghue responded by requesting more. Soon he was an important arm of the production. John then convinced fellow Second City actor/friend, Brian Murray to move to NYC with the promise of work with the radio show. He and Brian became writing partners, and during this period, wrote a theme show for the Radio Hour entitled, "Welcome Back: The Death Penalty." When O'Donoghue quit Lampoon, CEO Matty Simmons immediately turned to John to fill the Creative Director slot; and John immediately turned to his old friends from the Second City.

Under John's leadership, a "troupe" was hired to write and perform the Radio Hour. Along with Brian, John hired Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty. The troupe brought a cohesiveness and structure to the show which was previously missing. This group also created another stage show for Lampoon, simply titled, "The National Lampoon Show," which opened in the fall of 1974. Later casts included Bill Murray and Meatloaf. The Lampoon years also produced several comedy albums for which John wrote and performed.

ImageIn 1975, "Saturday Night Live" – a new NBC TV comedy review – hit the airwaves. Belushi and other Second City and Lampoon colleagues were featured as writers and actors. Initially the focus was on Chevy Chase, but, in the second season, Chase left and Belushi's popularity grew. The show itself quickly skyrocketed into a television phenomenon. Recurring characters and catch-phrases entered the popular vernacular, and the cast was often described as "The Beatles of comedy." It was also one of America's only mainstream national TV shows that consistently featured topical political satire. John's characters and sketches included the Samurai warrior, an irascible bee, a gruff Greek restaurant owner and together with Dan Aykroyd, the altar ego characters of Jake and Elwood Blues, two down-and-out blues musicians/recidivists.

Producer Lorne Michaels set them up with the SNL band as a warm up act for the show, but seeing the audience response, hired them to be the musical act. With Paul Shaffer introducing them (he later became the bandleader) the Blues Brothers debuted on national television on April 22, 1978. The public response was overwhelming, and comedian Steve Martin – one of the countries hottest comics, in part thanks to his SNL exposure – asked the Blues Brother's to open for an upcoming show at the Universal Amphitheatre in LA. A deal was struck for the Blues Brothers to record a live album. Released in December of 1978, it quickly rose to No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

John's big screen debut paralleled his SNL life. After a bit part as a Mexican deputy in Jack Nicholson's "Going South" (1977), Belushi went to Eugene Oregon where he portrayed the frat house mad man, Bluto, in "National Lampoon's Animal House." His performance became a cult college favorite, and increased his notoriety. Released in 1978, "Animal House" became the number one comedy of all time.

On the heels of "Animal House," John accepted a small role in the Talia Shire film (Shire starred as the daughter in "The Godfather") "Old Boyfriends." John brought a breath of humor to this serious film in the role of a local, small-time musician caught up in an old girlfriend's revenge trip.

By the end of the fourth SNL season, Belushi decided that the combination of a movie career with the fast pace of late night TV was too much. In the spring of 1979 – with the Blues Brothers movie in development – he opted out of the hit show to concentrate on film work. Along with Dan Aykroyd (who also left the show) he steeled himself to film the hilarious epic homage to black music. They recorded "The Blues Brothers" soundtrack during the summer of 1979, and filmed the movie late summer into winter. The film included guest appearances by such R&B legends as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles.

ImageTowards the end of John's life, he became a fan of the underground punk movement and befriended and helped many bands. He played drums at a benefit show for Dead Boys drummer Bobby Blitz at New York's CBGB's, he mentored The GoGo's during their first studio recording in New York and he went so far as to finagle a performance spot on "Saturday Night Live" for Los Angeles punkers Fear. One of Belushi's movie projects in development was even a punk rock-based film.

On March 5, 1982, at the age of 33, Belushi was found dead from an accidental drug overdose. Although the epic rise and fall of Belushi's career is a powerful cautionary tale, it has not overshadowed his very real achievements and gifts. A creative genius, comedic virtuoso and powerful actor, Belushi's style has remained very influential.

While the sheer force of his personal drive was instrumental in creating the multibillion-dollar comedy industry we know today, John's sense of passion and dedication to his craft have inspired people throughout the world. His humor and music continue to touch hearts and entertain. From his amazingly diverse body of work, his influence on his contemporaries, to the economic impact of his most popular work, John Belushi's legacy is remarkable.

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