The Lost Roles of Dan Aykroyd

A crucial part of the original Saturday Night Live cast, one of the most esteemed and influential ensembles in television history, Dan Aykroyd kicked his career off with a bang and continued creating great comedy for years to come, working as both a writer and actor in some of the most memorable and respected films of the 1980s. Sure, he now spends his time rambling about UFOs to anyone who will listen and selling his own brand of vodka that comes in miniature crystal skulls, but let’s just focus on the good stuff.

Dan Aykroyd has made many smart career decisions over the years (especially the early ones). Like any big-name actor, he’s had his fair share of parts he’s passed up. In examining the “what could have been” of Dan Aykroyd’s career, I was surprised by the sheer number of failed projects that would have paired him with John Belushi. These two were set up to be their generation’s big comedy team, but they only got a few films out before Belushi’s untimely passing. Read on to see which ‘80s pop star Aykroyd chose not to work with, how Dan Aykroyd accepting one particular role could have prevented According to Jim from existing, and the projects that could have seen him collaborating with Martin Scorsese, Will Ferrell, and Hunter S. Thompson.

1. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

The role: Daniel Simpson Day or “D-Day”

Who got it: Bruce McGill

The original plan for Animal House was to cast Chevy Chase and Bill Murray as Otter and Boon, with John Belushi still in his iconic role as Bluto and Dan Aykroyd playing motorcycling rebel D-Day. In fact, the character of D-Day was originally based on Aykroyd, who was rarely apart from his bike during this era. According to director John Landis in the Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller SNL book, Lorne Michaels forbade Aykroyd from taking part in the movie, threatening to fire him if he didn’t stay in New York to work on SNL.

With Animal House, John Belushi became the first SNL star to have a major hit film, the start of a pattern involving the show’s cast members transitioning to successful big screen careers that is still the norm today. Animal House with Aykroyd, Chase, and Murray joining Belushi could have made the classic comedy stronger, but perhaps the reason Belushi stood out so much in the film was that — no offense to Karen Allen or Tim Matheson — he was so much funnier than anyone else in it. Throwing half of SNL’s cast into the movie would have made for an amazing comedy but it would have made the film feel like just an extension of Saturday Night Live and could have given audiences the impression that these performers are only funny when they’re all together. Animal House proved an SNL star could step out on his own, scoring big laughs in a popular and enjoyable comedy. The film set up the path to big-screen fame for SNL stars that is still oft-traveled today (Kristen Wiig being the most recent castmember to successfully cross over into film) and evidenced that the SNL cast didn’t need to be together to be at their best. Booking the Animal House part would have been a boon to Dan Aykroyd’s career, but John Belushi being far and away the funniest one in the movie made it possible for Aykroyd and dozens of other SNL actors to find movie stardom in the years that followed.

2. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

The role: David Kessler

Who got it: David Naughton

Universal Studios execs were pressuring director John Landis to cast Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the two leads in the horror-comedy classic, but Landis stood his ground and went with actors who weren’t iconic comedians. At the time, Landis had just worked with Belushi and Aykroyd on The Blues Brothers and had directed Belushi prior to that in Animal House. Belushi, Aykroyd, and Landis work well together, but casting actors who were so well-known for their comedy would have offset the tone of the movie, making the horror less effective and giving it a campier vibe.

3. Three Amigos (1986)

The role: Dusty Bottoms

Who got it: Chevy Chase

Three Amigos was originally set up under the name The Three Caballeros with Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, and John Belushi signed on to star. Production never got underway in Belushi’s lifetime, and the lead roles were recast after his death, with Chevy Chase and Martin Short subbing in for Aykroyd and Belushi.

Three Amigos is a funny comedy with some great moments, but with so many prolific comedic minds involved (Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short starring, John Landis directing, and Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels producing and writing), it hardly feels like the sum of its parts. It’s not clear if making the film with Aykroyd and Belushi would have changed that or not, but it certainly would have been a different movie. Dan Aykroyd was quite the writer at this time, sharing credit on the scripts to Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, two of his biggest and most enduring hits. Perhaps he would have given old pals Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels a little help with their script, injecting Three Amigos with that extra bit of something that it needed. Three Amigos ended up a very enjoyable comedy without Aykroyd or Belushi, but it could have been a classic with them. At the very least, it’s a shame that Aykroyd and Martin never got to make a movie together in the 1980s, a decade that was the prime of each of their film careers. Throwing a talented comedian like Steve Martin in with the Aykroyd-Belushi double team is an interesting idea and it could have given Three Amigos a leg-up over unsatisfying Aykroyd-Belushi collabs like Neighbors.

4. About Last Night… (1986)

The role: Danny Martin

Who got it: Rob Lowe

Another film that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were considering doing together was About Last Night…, an adaptation of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. John’s brother Jim had appeared in the play onstage and he begged his sibling not to do the movie because he didn’t want the two of them to be compared to each other as actors. John Belushi obliged and he and Aykroyd passed on the project. Jim Belushi ended up cast in the part a few years later when the film finally went into production.

With a script by an award-winning playwright that was tonally pretty different from the bulk of Dan Aykroyd’s projects at the time, this could have been a challenging and rewarding role for him. It would have been lovely to see him branch out and appear onscreen with Belushi one last time, but it’s nice that John Belushi respected his brother’s wishes. Actually, I take that back: forget Jim Belushi’s wishes. This was a breakthrough role for the schlubby sitcom actor and brother John taking this away from him could have kept Jim Belushi’s star from rising and kept dreck like According to Jim off our TV screens. Why did you pass on this one, Aykroyd and Belushi? You could have prevented According to Jim!!! If only someone could have warned them. Traveling back in time to inform Dan Aykroyd of the grim consequences of his decision is like the comedy world equivalent of using time travel to stop Hitler from being born.

5. Vibes (1988)

The role: Nick Deezy

Who got it: Jeff Goldblum

Dan Aykroyd signed on for what ended up being a forgettable comedy involving two psychics trying to find a lost temple. He left the project when Columbia Pictures head David Puttnam insisted on casting pop singer Cyndi Lauper in the lead role. Puttnam was a much-maligned studio boss who presided over several boneheaded movies and was fired rather quickly. Needless to say, Vibes bombed and Cyndi Lauper’s career as a leading lady didn’t go anywhere. Aykroyd made a wise move by distancing himself from this project.

6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1988)

The role: Raoul Duke

Who got it: Johnny Depp

It took several decades for filmmakers to bring Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen. Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson were the first attached to the project, but when they vacated the lead roles, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were considered. The film never got off the ground before Belushi’s death, and their SNL peer Bill Murray ended up playing Hunter S. Thompson in the underrated Where the Buffalo Roam in 1980.

Whether the Aykroyd-Belushi incarnation of Fear and Loathing sank or swam would have depended on who was brought in to direct. The 1998 version was largely shaped by Terry Gilliam’s excellent direction, and if someone of his caliber had signed on, it could have made for a quality film. Aykroyd proved on SNL that he’s a talented mimic and can disappear into a wide range of characters and the drug humor would have been right up Belushi’s alley, giving him plenty of experiences to draw upon. Aykroyd and Belushi were usually an engaging screen pair, and Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo seem like characters they’re well-suited to play.

7. Gangs of New York (2002)

The role: Amsterdam Vallon

Who got it: Leonardo DiCaprio

Gangs of New York was another project that had a lengthy gestation period. Martin Scorsese began working on it in 1978 and had, you guessed it, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, then-stars of SNL, in mind for the roles of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon, respectively. The project was called off when Belushi died. Belushi and Aykroyd were just two of the stars to have dropped out of this one in the two-plus decades it spent in development. Other actors lined up for the leads at various points include Robert DeNiro, Mel Gibson, and Willem Dafoe.

Martin Scorsese was on a hot streak in the ‘70s and working with him could have turned Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi into well-respected, award-winning dramatic actors. It didn’t really work out when Aykroyd and Belushi appeared in a film by another acclaimed filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg directed Aykroyd and Belushi in the WWII bomb 1941 during this same era, but that was supposed to be a comedy and they were just part of an ensemble. Gangs of New York is a straight-ahead drama and these two would have been cast in the lead roles, making this project very diferrent than that one. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi may not have been able to pull off a project of this tone and scope, but it could have been a turning point for the two of them, for better or worse.

8. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

The role: Garth Holliday

Who got it: Chris Parnell

The original screenplay for Anchorman contained a wishlist of actors for specific parts. John C. Reilly, William H. Macy and Dan Aykroyd were included in the list, with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay wanting Aykroyd to play the station manager’s assistant, Garth Holliday. This would have been a nice opportunity for Aykroyd to pass the torch to Will Ferrell, an SNL star from the next generation. Adam Sandler has used Aykroyd in this capacity, paying respect to his SNL elder by giving him supporting roles in 50 First Dates and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. While Anchorman is a far more respected and well-remembered comedy than those two, it didn’t make nearly as much as either one at the box office. These supporting roles in Sandler vehicles failed to reignite Aykroyd’s career as a leading man (save for voicing Yogi Bear) and it’s doubtful that playing a minor role in this Will Ferrell project would have either.

9. A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

The role: Ford Prefect

Who got it: Mos Def

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is yet another project Dan Aykroyd passed up that took over 20 years to come to fruition. Ivan Reitman and his producing partners were looking to adapt the popular novel in 1982. When they talked to Dan Aykroyd about taking the part of Ford Prefect, he showed them his script for Ghostbusters instead. Reitman decided to direct Ghostbusters in lieu of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and that project sat in development hell for another two decades. Ghostbusters became the biggest hit of Dan Aykroyd’s career (and for most everyone involved) and him taking this part instead could have kept that project from coming about in exactly the way it did. Skipping Hitchhiker’s Guide proved to be an excellent decision for Aykroyd, Reitman and company, as its hard to imagine the project would have replicated Ghostbusters’s level of success.

10. Ghostbusters III: Hellbent (never filmed)

The role: Dr. Raymond Stantz

With the overwhelming popularity of the franchise’s first two installments, it’s no wonder Columbia Pictures wants a third Ghostbusters so badly. Rounding out the trilogy was originally proposed in the mid-90s, with Dan Aykroyd’s idea being that the Ghostbusters would be transporting to a version of Hell that resembles Manhattan. Like the incarnation of Ghostbusters III that is currently in development, Ghostbusters III: Hellbent would have involved Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and friends passing the torch to a new generation of paranormal exterminators that was rumored to include Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and Chris Farley. The Hell idea was scrapped and many of the plot elements were included in the recent Ghostbusters video game. In 2007, Aykroyd announced plans to make the movie entirely with CGI but Sony apparently wasn’t on board with this and has since started developing a live-action second sequel to Ghostbusters that may or may not ever happen.

Other Lost Aykroyd-Belushi Films:

It’s pretty jarring how many Dan Aykroyd-John Belushi collaborations were in development prior to Belushi’s death. The two were clearly looking to become the era’s definitive cinematic pair, the Martin and Lewis of the ‘80s. In total, there were eight films that were meant to star these two and never did — two that were produced with casting changes before Belushi’s death and six that went into production after. Dan Aykroyd stayed onboard for two of the movies he and Belushi were attached to — subbing their SNL co-stars for his fallen friend. Ghostbusters and Spies Like Us were both originally meant to star John Belushi, with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, respectively, taking his place. One of the many tragedies of John Belushi’s death is that he and Aykroyd weren’t able to continue collaborating as a comedy team, a partnership that both of them had clearly intended to continue for years to come.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Dan Aykroyd