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.
While he’s recognizable for his raspy voice and portly Chicagoan frame, Jim Belushi will forever be stuck in the shadow of his legendary older brother. Jim’s arrival at SNL was less than two years after John’s death and at one of the worst times to join the cast, yet whether in spite of or because of his name, he came to SNL already armed with multiple film and television credits under his belt. And though it may seem unfair that he’s remained the butt of many jokes since then, the younger Belushi’s shamelessness has allowed him to do everything from take John’s place in The Blues Brothers to write two books that also embrace one of his older brother’s less positive qualities — blazing and unabashed misogyny.
The third of four children born to Albanian immigrant parents, Jim grew up with his siblings Billy, John, and Marian in Wheaton, a Chicago suburb. He joined the choir and drama club in high school then later graduated with a degree in speech and theater arts from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Trailing after his older brother John, Jim became a mainstage performer at Second City Chicago in 1978, performing alongside John Candy and future SNL cast mate Tim Kazurinsky. Small roles in television series like NBC’s Who’s Watching the Kids (1978) and CBS’s Working Stiffs (1979) followed as well as film parts both small (as a beach bum in Brian De Palma’s 1978 film The Fury and a drunk man in a gorilla suit in 1983’s Trading Places) and large (Michael Mann’s 1981 film Thief). In theater he scored roles in both Chicago (David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity; Baal in the Twenty-First Century) and New York (as the pirate king in Pirates of Penzance; Sam Shepard’s True West) productions.
Dick Ebersol hired Belushi as the lone new addition for SNL’s ninth season – one of its most tumultuous eras, but despite Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo’s and later, Billy Crystal and Martin Short’s airtime domination, Jim held his own, showing he possessed the same on and offscreen intensity of his brother; he’s since been accused of fits of rage that include throwing a chair through a wall and throwing a fire extinguisher at Ebersol.
Belushi had three recurring characters – the “Hello Trudy” talk show host Hank Rippy (where the only viewer is a woman named Trudy), Man on the Street Jesse Donnelly, and white rapper Jimmy B. He made a few memorable appearances in Saturday Night News as well as several pre-taped segments: he was the hot-tempered high school chess coach in “Profiles in Sports” and the extremely successful general store thief in “Shoplifting.” He impersonated Captain Kangaroo, Hulk Hogan, Willie Nelson, German SS physician Josef Mengele, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, Pope John Paul II, Babe Ruth, “Coroner to the stars” Thomas Noguchi, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joan Collins, Rosemary Clooney, and – in the footsteps of John – Joe Cocker.
Belushi remained a repertory player for two seasons, but his experience on the show was still a difficult one. Recalling his SNL years in Live from New York, he said:
Let me put it this way. Those two years of Saturday Night Live … were the toughest years I’ve ever spent in show business. Everything has been easy since. If you were a young physician and they threw you into Cook County Hospital or Bellevue for two years, that’s what I equate it to. I’m really glad I did it. The only regret is I didn’t have two more years to really kind of hit that full fruition of it.
After an abbreviated tenth season and shift from Ebersol back to Lorne Michaels, Belushi was fired from the show along with the rest of the cast and writing staff. He found steady supporting parts, however, in a variety of films throughout the late eighties, including Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador, the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), and most notably About Last Night (1986), the film adaptation of the Mamet play he had appeared in years prior. His performance in the film opposite Demi Moore and Rob Lowe proved an instant hit, and it led to more film roles in The Principal, Real Men, Red Heat (all 1987), K-9 (1989), and Homer and Eddie (1989), which gave Belushi costarring roles opposite actors like John Ritter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg, and a German Shepherd named Rando.
Since the early nineties, Belushi’s resume has grown to include more films (Taking Care of Business, Mr. Destiny, Curly Sue, Traces of Red, Canadian Bacon, Jingle All the Way), television shows (Wild Palms, The Larry Sanders Show, Total Security, ER), and voiceover work in animated shows including Duckman, Pinky and the Brain, Gargoyles, Mighty Ducks, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Hey Arnold, and The Blues Brothers Animated Series in 1997. From 2001-2009 he starred in his own ABC sitcom According to Jim, then followed it up with another leading role in the CBS legal drama series The Defenders in 2010, which was canceled after eighteen episodes.
In 1994, Belushi formed a blues band called The Sacred Hearts, which became The Blues Brothers’ backup band as well as the house band for Chicago’s House of Blues, a chain Belushi co-founded with Dan Aykroyd. The two have since continued the tradition of The Blues Brothers (with Jim performing as “Brother” Zee Blues), and released two albums together – one as the updated Blues Brothers (1997’s Blues Brothers and Friends: Live from the House of Blues) and one under their own moniker “Belushi/Aykroyd” (2003’s Have Love Will Travel). Belushi also authored his first book in 2006, a guide for male living called Real Men Don’t Apologize, and followed it up with Real Men: According to Jim the following year. Showing that he hasn’t strayed from the theme of his books (and for a taste, be sure to listen to Paul Scheer’s dramatic reading), in January he wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times called “Jim Belushi is the master of his machine” in which he rails against his third wife’s backseat driving and, like straight out of a “Californians” sketch, imagines creating his very own “Belushi Navigation”:
Hey man … what’s up? Oh, there’s always a lot of traffic on the Kennedy going downtown at this time. God, all I see are red brake lights. I don’t know, hey, you could get off at Harlem, go down Higging, pick up the 94 closer to downtown. Or … you could stay here … because you know what you’re doing, man. You’re the master of your car. You are in charge of this machinery. You’ll get us there.
Oh, Jim. If only it wasn’t somewhere we’ve already been.