book excerpt

When Carrie Fisher Hung With the SNL Crowd

Inside the hard-party days that fueled and finished her friendship with John Belushi.

“You’re like me. We’re not like them.” Photo: Universal Pictures
“You’re like me. We’re not like them.” Photo: Universal Pictures
“You’re like me. We’re not like them.” Photo: Universal Pictures

Toward the end of 1977, Griffin Dunne introduced Carrie Fisher, then just turning 21, to John Belushi, the biggest star of TV’s two-year-old Saturday Night Live. This would be an important but, ultimately, sadly significant friendship for her. John liked Carrie immediately because she made him laugh.

The show’s writers and cast were in their late twenties to early thirties, and they were like one big incestuous family. Interestingly, at the time, the show had as many female as male writers. One of the three women writers, Rosie Shuster, was separated from Lorne Michaels, the show’s conceiver/producer; her father, the noted comedian Frank Shuster, had been Lorne’s mentor, and she had been with Lorne since before she was a teenager. “It was the sex, drugs, rock and roll—and feminist—’70s and I wanted to be free” was her reason for breaking up with him. “Lorne was incredibly into the music and humor and culture of the times, but there was something in terms of a wife where he still was on the old software.” Rosie was now dating Dan Aykroyd, who, despite his genially ordinary looks, webbed toes, Asperger’s, and mismatch-colored eyes, was a lady-killer. He had dated Gilda Radner, and he would soon date the fashion model Susan Forristal, who eventually became Lorne’s second wife. Belushi—the brashest and most seemingly out of control—was the only one to have married and stayed with his teenage sweetheart: Judy Jacklin Belushi, who reined him in nicely. The SNLers were a smart, young in crowd, and Carrie fell right in with them.

After all, she was Hollywood royalty—her father was ‘50s pop crooner and heartthrob Eddie Fisher; her mother was that era’s wholesome, adorable actress-dancer, Debbie Reynolds—while the SNL people were on top of the world right now. That said, they were also somewhat provincial: From Canada. From Illinois. From the Midwest and the South. Even SNL people who had some connection to Hollywood couldn’t help but be awed by Carrie’s glamorous lineage and how she played it up so naturally. As one of the SNL staffers, who would become very close to Carrie, put it, “Carrie grew up in a Hollywood we could only imagine. She was the only person we ever met who had flashbulbs—from strangers, not relatives—in her face from childhood! Her family was like the Kardashians today: everyone knew everything about them. She knew every angle of dealing with that celebrity world, the Hollywood machine, past and present—it was ingrained in her. We might have been smart and arrogant, and we got successful so fast! But we had ordinary backgrounds. She had cameras trained on her since the day she was born.”

SNL’s venerated star writer, the sadistically dark-humored Michael O’Donoghue, was from Rochester, New York. He was older than most of the rest of them—thirty-seven now—and he deeply impressed the others because he had started a theater group based on the French absurdists and had published stories in the Evergreen Review. “Oh, what a mischievous dandy Michael was!” says Susan Forristal. “He was devilish and he could charm anyone.” Michael lived with Anne Beatts, who was, along with Rosie and Marilyn Suzanne Miller, one of the three female writers on the show and the co-editor of Titters, the first collection of feminist humor. Titters was smart and snarky. O’Donoghue and Beatts affected an intimidating boho-intellectual élan together, and when Carrie came on the scene, she and Michael sensed each other’s darkness, became instant friends. A part of Carrie badly wanted to be a literary writer, and O’Donoghue was one. He would become one of Carrie’s best friends.

Carrie started including the SNLers at parties in her apartment—dazzling parties. “Her parties kind of spanned the celebrity and literary worlds, all these witty New York types,” says Rosie Shuster. At these get-togethers, Shuster recalls being “really amazed at Carrie and Griffin Dunne.” Best friends from their preteen years, who shared an apartment for a while, Carrie and Griffin had “the polish, the witty repartee: they could have been a movie,” Rosie says. “The way they operated together—I don’t know how romantic it was, but it was really notable and striking. I had a really strong sense of the Nick and Nora Charles–ness of them. Carrie was so sophisticated—a little girl with such a big voice.”

Carrie was, indeed, now, the toast of young Manhattan. “I can’t say enough how utterly, utterly charming she was,” says Selina Cadell, Carrie’s friend from drama school in London, who now frequently visited New York at that time.  “Her ability to say things that other people did not say: she was so funny and so dangerous, and she took you to the very brink. She lit up a room when she came in. You could be at a party and you would be waiting for Carrie to come, and when she came in, everything changed because it was Carrie. She was very small and her little wrists and feet were tiny, but she was a ‘pint pot’—that’s an English term for magnetism. Her eyes lit everything up, and there was also her dangerous surprises. She was magnetic. You’d think you were on safe ground, but she could pull the rug out from under you with her wicked, wicked sense of humor.”

Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge is out now.

Carrie had met Paul Simon, who was Lorne Michaels’s best friend (and apartment next door neighbor), in early January 1978–their mutual friend Richard Dreyfuss had been the matchmaker, though the SNL folks thought Paul had been besotted with Carrie for a while. Carrie and Paul began an intense romance. She was also rehearsing for a musical called Sleeparound Town at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, portraying and singing the lead role. (Papp fell in love with Carrie’s voice the minute he heard her sing.) The show’s musical director, a handsome, wholesome young man from Iowa, Guy Strobel—another of the many men who were infatuated with Carrie—worked closely with her on the role, often coming to her apartment, where they listened to Keith Jarrett between rehearsals—and once carrying her, piggyback, to see the slightly vintage movie Lolita at a neighborhood art house.

Sarah Kernochan, a Sarah Lawrence graduate who had co-won an Academy Award for the documentary Marjoe, was the playwright-librettist, of Sleeparound Town.  

After proudly telling Sarah she was now dating Paul Simon, Carrie started missing rehearsals; she had bronchitis. But news of her evenings with Paul Simon at downtown restaurants hit the columns, and Sarah and Joe Papp and the cast members were a bit annoyed. Of far more concern, Guy Strobel would see John Belushi showing up at the stage door at the end of rehearsals and very impatiently asking, “Where’s Carrie? Is she done yet? Is she done?”

“John and Carrie had become very close right away,” says Judy Belushi of her husband’s platonic friend. “He didn’t suffer fools. Carrie was very feisty.” And they had something else in common: a predilection for cocaine. In Carrie’s case, her vulnerability to drugs was inherited from her father. Carrie and John Belushi started doing cocaine together. Others, of course, indulged as well. But many of those others seemed to be able to stop—and use the white powder as what was then called a recreational drug.

Carrie was in the two biggest movies of 1980: The Empire Strikes Back and The Blues Brothers. The latter starred her two SNL buddies, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. After his comic lead in the box office smash Animal House, John Belushi was one of the biggest male stars in the country.

Everybody wanted Carrie for a small but important cameo role, and she said yes. “Princess Leia as the Mystery Woman—how cool was that! We were so excited!” says the film’s producer Sean Daniel. Carrie remembered the casting decision this way: “Danny and John wanted to be monsters in The Empire Strikes Back, so I said, ‘Okay, then let me be in your movie, too.’” Carrie took the “deal” to George Lucas, who, unfortunately, nixed the casting of the two because “Belushi was such a focus puller,” Carrie said.

But Carrie was the Mystery Woman: Jake Blues’s hyper-vengeful ex-fiancée. She hasn’t forgiven Jake for standing her up at the altar with a full wedding party gaping at his betrayal. With machine guns, remote-control explosives, and more machine guns—and looking lovely and classy—she attempts to kill them, campy-dramatically, again and again, including after Jake re-charms her. The filming, expensive and messy, ranged from July to October 1979, mostly in Chicago and environs, and Carrie jumped into the action right after the Empire filming. “Carrie was totally committed, a total pro during the shooting,” Sean Daniel says. But she was also starting to do about as much cocaine as Belushi was, though this was not as well known and not anywhere near as worried over and monitored as the drug habits of  movie’s male star, Belushi.

“Danny and I decided to break up when he was starting The Blues Brothers,” Rosie Shuster says of Aykroyd. They figured the long shooting schedule would be a good time to separate from a relationship that was already cooling. Belushi, savvier about the optics of power couples than his blustering naive self would suggest, very much wanted his buddy Aykroyd to date Carrie; she was a “catch” and could hoist Aykroyd to a level of fame commensurate with his own—he wanted them to be a couple, Paul Simon be damned. Carrie has wryly quipped, in a private conversation, “John wanted me to date Danny, so,” before filming started, “he invited me to his house with Danny there and then he [John] passed out. That was his”—literal—“idea of a blind date.” Carrie was in the midst of one of her many fights with Paul at the time, and she saw the sweetness in Dan that Susan Forristal had seen. As for Dan, he had, people say, a desire to save Carrie.

Carrie had fun with Judy Belushi during the Blues Brothers shoot. One night in Chicago, Carrie, Judy, and Penny Marshall shot pool and goofed around in a billiards hall for hours on acid. The pool hall was connected to a bar that was being filmed in the movie. The giggling women took hilarious Polaroids (the selfies of the day) of each other. They thought the cops playing pool were movie extras, but they were actual police officers who, fortunately, whether because they were off duty or charmed, did not apprehend the frolicsome young women. When the women got back to their hotel, they ran into their friend Eric Idle in the elevator.  Everyone was too stoned to talk, only laugh.

Meanwhile, Carrie and Dan started up the bit of a romance that John had wanted them to have—“well, not really a romance, more an infatuation,” Carrie has said. “I don’t think they loved each other. They were both just ‘happening’ and attractive and”—again the word—“infatuated,” says Judy Belushi.

Then came a dramatic moment. One night in Chicago, Dan and Carrie were in the Winnebago that was used as the cast’s dining room. Dan was playing the Boy Scout to Carrie’s heedlessness. He insisted she eat well—including vegetables: Brussels sprouts. A bit high, she put a whole sprout in her mouth and started choking. Dan dashed over, wrapped his arms around her, and performed the Heimlich maneuver. “Danny saved Carrie’s life,” Sean Daniel says.

The Dan-and-Carrie infatuation/salvation scenario deepened into romance. They moved into a penthouse suite at the Astro Tower, whose tacky aluminum look “I knew to apologize for,” Aykroyd would later say, because “Carrie had the most refined eye for art and design.” He—“a simple Catholic kid from a government family in Hull, Quebec,” as he put it—was awed by her wit and her Hollywood pedigree, even though he was a comic star by now. He was knocked out by the fact that when the rambling shoot took them to L.A., “I was embraced in warmly human and Hollywood-glamorous emotional comfort, elegance, and excitement.” Debbie cooked for them! And the “tech wizard” Todd Fisher drove him around in his muscle cars with Miguel Ferrer. Dan and Carrie became engaged. “I bought her a sapphire ring. We went for blood tests.” As for Carrie, she recalled the interlude bemusedly and said, “I started saying ‘Eh?’ instead of ‘What?’” like a Canadian.

On acid, Carrie and Dan flew to Lake Tahoe and, through Debbie’s connections with Bill Harrah, borrowed a guesthouse on the estate of the casino mogul. In the guesthouse they spent three days’ “full-on weeping to Christmas classics” that played on TV, Dan said.

But the engagement ended as quickly as it began. “Carrie wanted to give Danny a wardrobe upgrade,” says Rosie Shuster. “She wanted him to wear expensive clothes instead of his black motorcycle pants and Harley boots, and Dan bristled at that. That was not him.” After a number of scenes of the filming was completed, in October 1979, Dan and Carrie repaired to the Martha’s Vineyard house that he was renovating, near the Belushis. “It was mid-century and really quite lovely,” Judy Belushi says. “But it was in some disrepair. Carrie hated it!”

“It looks like it was abandoned by Fred and Wilma Flintstone,” Carrie said of the house.

“A few days later, she asked me to drive her to the airport, and she flew back to New York and Paul,” Judy says. But before she flew back, she caused deep worry that was somehow hidden by the movie crews’ obsession with John’s addiction rather than her own. Carrie—younger than the others—was intensely fragile. She was generous, brilliant, witty, charismatic, caring—and deeply vulnerable: friends could see that. When they all got to the Belushis’ Vineyard house, “my brother was most concerned about her. He had to carry her limp body from room to room. I guess she was conscious enough that he didn’t call an ambulance, but he had a strong sense that she was really out of it.”

It was during that spate of days on the Vineyard, that John, in a moment alone with Carrie, stared at her and said, “You’re like me. We’re not like them.” Meaning he and Carrie had an addiction propensity—a disease, though it unfortunately wasn’t acknowledged that way at the time—deeper than their friends’ ability to enjoy “recreational” drugs without paying a price. He wanted her to know that he knew this and she should know it, too. In 2009, she remembered John’s words as if they’d been uttered yesterday, she told Vanity Fair’s Ned Zeman.

On the night of March 4, 1982, Carrie was back in New York with Paul. Michael O’Donoghue and his girlfriend, Carol Caldwell, were living in L.A. now, while Michael worked on the script of Easy Rider Two (which was never produced) with Bert Schneider. Carol, a writer for the edgy monthly New Times, as well as for Rolling Stone and Esquire, was writing screenplays. Carol was friends with Judy Belushi. Judy, who was now back on Martha’s Vineyard, was worried about her husband, who was staying at the Chateau Marmont, working on a script with Don Novello, best known as the SNL character Father Guido Sarducci.

Judy Belushi knew that Carol and Michael were “very close” to John, and she put Carol in charge of checking in with John every day. Penelope Spheeris, a documentary filmmaker close to Carol who knew Judy had put Carol in charge of John, called Carol at 6:00 a.m. “Did you talk to John last night?” she asked. When Carol said no, Penelope said, “I think you’d better call over to the Chateau and see if you can speak to him.” There was a short list of people whom the hotel operator was authorized to put through to his room, and Carol’s name was on it. When she was turned down, “I called Judy,” Carol recalls. It was 9:00 a.m. East Coast time, “and said, ‘I can’t get through to him.’” The Belushis’ assistant called Carol and said, “‘Carol, you’ve got to go over there. They’ve found him, with a needle in his arm.’ We knew John was terrified of needles.”

“And then the nightmare began,” Carol says. Belushi, who’d been partying the night before with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, had overdosed by way of a “speedball”—a cocaine-heroin injection, provided by a dealer named Cathy Evelyn Smith.

It was nearing noon in New York when the phone rang in Paul Simon’s apartment. Another SNL staffer was there with Paul and Carrie. They were about to hop in the sauna. The friend on the phone said, “Turn on TV—now!” There was the news: John Belushi was dead. At thirty-three.

“We were so shocked. Stunned,” the staffer says of her and Paul’s and Carrie’s reactions. “It was, ‘Oh God, how could this happen?’ We were young! John was young!” They were incredulous. “And then it switched to ‘Oh my God, this was bound to happen!’” Later would come the funerals—the ornate one at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the private Albanian Orthodox one on Martha’s Vineyard. But for the moment, sitting in Paul and Carrie’s living room, the staffer says, “I looked at Carrie’s face and we saw it—the expression. It was  ‘There but for the grace of God go I. It could have been me.’”

Excerpted from CARRIE FISHER: A Life on the Edge by Sheila Weller. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 12th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Sheila Weller. All rights reserved.

When Carrie Fisher Hung With the SNL Crowd