Jim Belushi Has Always Been an Outsider

Jim Belushi. Photo: Tyler Maddox

Jim Belushi is perched on a shoeshine stand near his hotel in downtown Philadelphia. Starbucks kicked him out for trying to hold this interview in its seating area; though pandemic restrictions here, as elsewhere, are beginning to ease, all is not yet back to normal. For example: It’s been over 15 months since the 67-year-old Belushi was last able to perform improv with his troupe, Board of Comedy. Their first show is in four hours. He’s nervous. Improv isn’t something you turn on and off like a spigot.

“I feel like a dummy right now,” he says.

Despite this time away from the stage, Belushi has stayed busy. Last August, Growing Belushi premiered on Discovery, chronicling his efforts with a burgeoning legal cannabis operation on his 93-acre farm along the Rogue River in southern Oregon. It is the latest chapter in a bending, twisty career that’s taken the self-described outsider from his initiation in Garry Marshall and John Hughes’s creative troupes to a string of auteur collaborations and inside the famed halls of 30 Rockefeller Center.

In a conversation with Vulture, Belushi reflected on his experience being fired — then rehired — for Saturday Night Live, working with the likes of John Candy and Tupac Shakur, and more.

One of 2020’s few bright spots was seeing your request for anime recommendations go viral. How is the binge-watch going?
I watch them with my son. We have a ball. I did one many, many years ago, My Neighbors the Yamadas.

People may not realize it, but you cut your teeth on TV when Garry Marshall shows were dominating in the late ’70s.
I am a part of the team. Garry Marshall was the one that started it. He saw me in Second City and brought me for a show called Who’s Watching the Kids? And the answer is nobody; they canceled it. Then they brought me back the next year for Working Stiffs with Michael Keaton.

Penny Marshall directed Working Stiffs. Later Jumping Jack Flash. Penny was a good friend of mine, until she passed. She welcomed me into Hollywood. John called her, because I was on the Paramount lot. [Impersonating John:] “Take care of my brother, keep an eye on him.” So my first taping, she walks in with Rob Reiner: “Hello, I’m Penny. Your brother wants me to make sure you’re all right.”

You did Thief, which came out a year after Blues Brothers. Did you ever talk to John about making these two definitive Chicago movies? How do you get cast in the first place?
1980. It was just an audition. I happened to be doing Bal at the Goodman Theatre, a pretty high-status regional theater. Maybe that had something to do with it.

[John and I] would watch the Bears game together on the phone. “You see Thief yet?” He kept saying, “Nah nah, not yet. I’m going to go see it. I hear it’s good.” He was too busy, man. [Laughs.]

You shot Trading Places a few months after your brother died with a few of his main collaborators, Dan Aykroyd and John Landis.
Landis called me. I was sitting on top of a mountain in Julian, California. My dad’s little ranch. Steeped in grief, depression. He called and flew me to New York. I remember it was winter, because we kept getting shut down every weekend, so I got a month’s work out of it. Every weekend had a snowstorm in New York. We were supposed to do the outdoor train scene on a Friday night in Jersey. So I got per diem and salary every week. Free food. Got to hang out in a snowstorm in New York. It was fun.

Plus the more they did that, the more residuals you get. So I’ve been getting residuals from Trading Places till today.

How do you get recommended for SNL?
I went to L.A. and did a “Best of Second City” show at the Huntington Hartford Theatre. It was a benefit to raise money for the John Belushi Scholarship Fund. Everybody in the business came, and [NBC exec] Brandon Tartikoff saw me in the show, called [former SNL executive producer] Dick Ebersol, and told him to put me in [SNL]. He said: “I think Jim’s ready.” Dick listened to him because they were partners. Everybody told me not to do it.

Why join the show?
I’d talked to John about it. He said, “Why would you want to be on Saturday Night Live? We captured the hearts of America. No one will ever do that.” I said, “John, c’mon. I went to Second City. You went to Second City. Danny was at Second City. Gilda was at Second City. You guys made the transition from that improvisational style and feel on the stage, which is always difficult to transfer to camera, but you guys found a way to do it. I want to do it because it’s a natural progression for a Second City actor.” He said, “Eh, you’re crazy.” I was a fan of the show. It was close to our heart because guys that we knew were the ones that created it. So I wanted to be there too.

Your first episode on SNL was with John Candy, and you were practically a co-host. Sketches like the phone-booth confessional, and the men behind bars piece, are those things you brought with you from Second City?
That was all John! What happened was he shows up with a big hug and says, [John Candy voice] “Jimmy Belushi, this is your first show on the big Saturday Night Live! What do you wanna do? It’s your show, I’m here to help you.” Well, I’d like you to do Johnny LaRue. We sat in a room with [Joe] Flaherty and a couple of the Second City guys and wrote all those sketches. They all got in, first show. All Johnny, Johnny loving me.

What was your crew at SNL? It’s so notoriously cliquish.
I was on the outside. Believe it or not, in the last two days, I’ve realized something: I’ve always been on the outside.

You met Eddie Murphy on the set of Trading Places. Was it the same relationship when you’re on SNL?
Let me tell you something about Eddie Murphy: He is one of the nicest men I’ve ever worked with. He was a huge star at that time, and he always took time with me — always sat with me, and joked with me, and considered every idea I gave him. He handled his fame so well. I said to him, “Are you all right with all this? Because it killed my brother.” He said, “I’m good, Jim. Thank you.” I’m so happy for him and his whole career. He was always a gentleman to me. And he did the best James Brown impression I’ve ever seen!

You were the first cast member to be fired, then rehired. I understand the firing part, but how do you get rehired?
Very simple: I was out of control. It was the best thing to ever happen to me. I was out of my mind. I was throwing a fire extinguisher at Dick Ebersol, a hissy fit. SNL is the hardest thing I ever did, and that’s including divorce. I survived it, barely. I went back to him with my tail between my legs. I drop the ego, I got humble. I stopped drinking the rest of that season.

John did four years and he quit. I said, “What the fuck, man? What are you quitting for?” He said, “Jim, it’s like high school: Senior year, you’ve got to move on.” And I felt like I was in my sophomore year, and the second semester that year I finally got it. Then I didn’t come back because Lorne [Michaels] came. But that was because Dick put me in my place, rightfully, and had the courage to do it. I came back; I begged [him] for forgiveness, and he put me on probation. My wife at the time said, “You thrive on probation. You were on probation from freshman to senior year of high school. You operate better with boundaries.”

Your movie run in 1986 is incredible.
1986 is a great year. About Last Night opens on July 2; I got divorced on June 13. Which meant my career took off and she didn’t get half. And then, Salvador comes out. Oliver and Jimmy get nominated for Academy Awards. I ran into Tom Hanks and Jane Fonda, and they both voted for me for Supporting Actor. But Hanks voted for About Last Night, and Jane Fonda voted for Salvador. So I split votes that whole year, and never got nominated. I was like, Damn! I almost got in!

I know you’ve called yourself an outsider, yet you did something like five movies with John Candy. There must be something to that.
Well, Danny and John [Candy] are my brothers. When John died, at the funeral, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd separately came up to me, put their arms around me, and said, “Sorry for your loss. If there’s anything you need, we will be watching you.” And, you know, you say those kinds of things, but these two men? They meant it. They took really good care of me.

Your Taking Care of Business co-star Charles Grodin recently died. What was it like working with him?
Charles Grodin was the comic actor’s actor. He worked with Elaine May, who started the Second City with Mike Nichols. He captured everything we learned onstage and about improvisation. I was a little bit childlike to work with him, like shooting baskets with Michael Jordan. The great thing about working with him was he was relentless with details. The vision in my mind is me sitting in the makeup chair and him next to me with pieces of paper with stuff that we’d written. The ideas, going back and forth, honing each beat.

It’s a little ironic that Tupac started his film career with Dan Aykroyd in Nothing But Trouble, then it ended with you in Gang Related. Were you aware of his fame when he was cast?
I cracked that fucking guy up, man. I said, “I rapped before you were rapping! I rapped on Saturday Night Live in 1983, man, I was doing Grandmaster Flash. So don’t give me any rap shit.” I did White Guy Rap for him, and he laughed his ass off. We had a really good time. Super pro. He was just blooming as an actor.

I am curious about your new role cultivating cannabis. Is this your first experience owning a business?
No, I’ve been in a couple of failed businesses. [Laughs.]

You have 93 acres on the Banana Belt in Oregon. I’m reminded of last year’s documentary on your brother for Showtime, and the stories about growing up working for your dad in his diner. Is this experience worlds away from this, or did it inform your approach today?
By the way, the one thing they missed in that documentary: That’s how my father started. He ended up owning three high-end steak houses. He was a tough guy, and he started that way, but built up. When John and I worked for him, we were putting white tablecloths down.

But I learned everything I do from the restaurant business. I got my work ethic there, my detail work, my endurance working 14 hours a day on movies.

What made you want to get into the cannabis industry?
I did some ayahuasca in Peru and had a trajectory change after that. This just fell into my life, plant medicine. I did it as something to grow on the farm. I got sucked up into it. Following this plant has brought me where I’m supposed to be.

There was a period where shows like Family Guy or The Simpsons made the “Jim Belushi joke.” The easy joke. But it feels like there’s been a shift in recent years where you’re now perceived as this chill, cool guy. What do you make of that?
I love it. I thought all that was funny. Well, there was a shift in me. I’ve had five lives, and three wives. [Laughs.] Three children. I’ve done comedies and dramas and Broadway and improv shows and Blues Brothers. This plant and this farm has shifted me. That was the guy I was, but is that the guy I am today? And why not? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Your career spans five decades. So many of the people we have mentioned — John Candy, John Hughes, your brother — did not get to be nearly as prolific. How have you been able to stay afloat?
There’s a lot of ignorance involved. I’ve always been the guy that says, “Let’s try it!” I never turn gigs down. One gig led to another, led to another. The real thing is — and it’s very good for acting — I’m very present. It’s not very good for relationships, but it’s been good for [the] career.

What’s the future hold for the Blues Brothers?
We are talking about it right now! We are presently talking with House of Blues about setting up a tour for next spring. Danny doesn’t like to do more than two shows in a row, so I’m not sure what kind of tour that would look like: Record new material, have a lot of guest stars. We would film it and make a little documentary on it.

Jim Belushi Has Always Been an Outsider