Saturday Night’s Children: Dan Aykroyd (1975-1979)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Easily the most introverted and peculiarity-driven cast member of SNL’s starting lineup, Dan Aykroyd brought America to the floor laughing with his dead-on impressions of dying TV personalities – the fast-talking, terse white spokesman, the greasy-haired CEO of a dangerous toy company, the snippy telepsychic fraud, not to mention one half of the “Wild and Crazy Guys” with Steve Martin, a role the now 60-year-old Aykroyd reprised this past Saturday. Perhaps the biggest competition for his eclectic SNL characters is the real-life character of Aykroyd himself – a syndactylic, heterochromic musician/writer/performer/Spiritualist/UFOlogist/winery owner/House of Blues and Crystal Head Vodka owner who will make sure we get a Ghostbusters III with or without Bill Murray.

An Ottawa native, young Aykroyd first wanted to become a Catholic priest until he was kicked out of seminary school at 17 for a prank involving a pig dressed up as the Pope. After transferring to two different high schools where he took an interest in drama, Aykroyd studied criminology and sociology at Carleton University before dropping out to pursue a comedy career.

After honing both his musical and sketch comedy skills in Ottawa blues bars and comedy clubs, Aykroyd moved to Toronto, where he ran a speakeasy called the 505 Club (leading to his friendship with John Belushi and the birth of the Blues Brothers) and wrote and appeared in a series of 15-minute local cable comedy shorts called Change for a Quarter. Before joining Toronto’s Second City improv troupe in 1973 alongside John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, Aykroyd had already worked with Lorne Michaels as a featured performer on his Saturday night CBC special The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour in 1970 and 1971. Aykroyd’s audition process and resulting confusion with Lorne is retold best in Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live:

At one point during a lull on the second day, a strange man burst through the swinging doors leading into the room. He was carrying an umbrella and an attaché case and wearing a derby, and he stood in front of the assembled group and yelled: “I’ve been waiting out there for three hours and I’m not going to wait anymore and I’m going to miss my plane! That’s it, gentlemen, you’ve had your chance.” Then he charged out. Stunned, Dave Wilson turned to Lorne and said, “What the hell was that?” “Oh, that was just Danny Aykroyd,” Lorne said. “He’s probably going to do the show.”

At 23, Aykroyd was SNL’s youngest writer and cast member, but his tall, lanky frame and sturdy pitchman-style delivery proved to be the perfect mock-sophisto backbone for the wild physicality of Belushi or the deadpan slapstick of Chevy, and whether playing Laraine’s father in “The Coneheads” or calling Jane an “ignorant slut” on Update, his humor meshed with the SNL ladies noticeably better than his fellow males, making him the glue of the show from its inception – a tendency that continued offscreen as well, since Aykroyd cofounded SNL’s inner-circle after-hours hangout spot on Hudson, The Blues Bar, just by the Holland Tunnel in Manhattan.

From the cigarette-sucking burger-flipper in the “Olympia Café” sketches to the skeevy public access TV show host E. Buzz Miller to the robotic alien Beldar Conehead, Aykroyd made countless chameleon-like flips and turns with his many recurring characters and, unlike Chase and Belushi, disappeared into them with a sensitive brilliance that made him the show’s first steady utility player and uncanny impersonator; his over 20 impressions included Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, Tom Snyder, Jimmy Carter (memorably advising an LSD-freaked “Ask President Carter” caller to relax, put on some Allman Brothers, and get some vitamin B complex), Rod Serling, and Julia Child. Other memorable recurring characters included “Fred Garvin: Male Prostitute,” “Bad Ballet” host Leonard Pinth-Garnell, and the long-haired hippy Jason with Newman playing his lover Sunshine.

After the end of SNL’s fourth season in 1979, Aykroyd left the show with John Belushi to continue working on their comedy/musical duo The Blues Brothers, which grew from sporadic SNL appearances to a Grammy-nominated album in 1978 to a feature film two years later. While Aykroyd and Belushi were poised to become the next comedy film duo (1941, The Blues Brothers, Neighbors), the dream was cut short by Belushi’s tragic death in 1982; at the time of his passing, the two had starring roles together set for a total of seven films, two of which Aykroyd went on to appear in, with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase subbing in for Belushi.

Since the abrupt end to his partnership with Belushi, Aykroyd’s film roles have been mostly hit-or-miss, from blockbuster comedies (Trading Places, Ghostbusters I & II, My Girl) to critical flops (Doctor Detroit, Exit to Eden, Blues Brothers 2000, Getting Away with Murder) to unexpected and Oscar-nominated performances (Grosse Point Blank, Driving Miss Daisy) and even a turn at directing with 1991’s Nothing But Trouble starring Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, and Aykroyd’s Second City brother John Candy. In TV he’s appeared on Garry Shandling’s Show, The Nanny, Home Improvement, Family Guy, ABC’s short-lived sitcom Soul Man, and 12 Saturday Night Live cameos spanning from 1988 to just last week. While he did host an episode in May 2003, in Live from New York (published five months later) he says:

I’m a superstitious guy, like I have these little things in life – I won’t fly on the thirteenth, I don’t go under ladders, and if a black cat crosses my path, I’ll chase it with a white spray gun or something. And I just really actually would prefer to be remembered as a cast member, formerly, a Not Ready for Prime Time Player.

Given the context of Aykroyd’s journey from Canadian priest-in-training to Toronto improv performer to SNL and comedy film star to multi-faceted entrepreneur and outspoken believer of the unknown, his cameos on this past Saturday’s episode – as both the Crystal Head Vodka-toting bartender and aged Festrunk – are certainly worth a second viewing, if not to see an original cast member still feel at home on the 8H stage, but to witness a famous SNL character appear almost 40 years after his sketch debut with just as much exuberance and oddball delivery even if it means plunging headlong into creepiness as the originally tall, lean, and (in spite of themselves) Chicago-sexy Czech boys become old men. And with occasional Blues Brothers revivals (with Jim Belushi now singing in place of John), a possible Blues Brothers TV show, and reported film script collaboration with Chevy Chase now in the works, it looks like Aykroyd plans to stay connected with his SNL brethren forever.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Dan Aykroyd (1975-1979)