Finally, The Belushi Story

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From the moment his body was found in a Hollywood hotel room in March 1982, the victim of a drug overdose at age 33, John Belushi became the subject of an inevitable barrage of media scavenging. First came the newspaper stories, detailing the cocaine and heroin abuse that led to the Rabelaisian comic's early death. Then a book, Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, written by Watergate chronicler Bob Woodward. The tell-all tome implicated several of Belushi's Hollywood friends and associates for condoning, or at least ignoring, his self-destructive behavior.

The next step in the media onslaught, of course, is the movie. But that is where this Hollywood story hit a snag. Plans for a film version of Wired were set in motion more than four years ago. But problems in getting financing delayed the shooting until last summer. And not until last week, after months of turndowns, did the producers find a company willing to distribute the film. The stumbling block, say Wired's backers, was a Hollywood community that closed ranks against a picture it wanted to squelch. Says Woodward, an adviser on the film: "A large portion of Hollywood didn't want this movie made because there's too much truth in it."

At the heart of this conspiracy drama is the specter of the powerful Creative Artists Agency, headed by superagent Michael Ovitz. Ovitz was Belushi's agent, and his company's star-packed client list includes several of the comedian's friends who were angered by Woodward's book, among them fellow Saturday Night Live star Dan Aykroyd, SNL producer Lorne Michaels and brother Jim Belushi. Reluctance to alienate Ovitz and his clients, claim the film's producers, is what frightened most of Hollywood away. "In this town," says co-producer Edward Feldman (Save the Tiger, Witness), "the word was put out that this was a project not to be touched."

While admitting that he had reservations about the film "to the extent that it would be exploitative," Ovitz denies that he led a campaign to suppress it. "This movie will rise or fall on its own merits," he says. "There is nothing anyone can do to stop it." Bolstering his argument is the fact that the film, for all its troubles, has found a distributor: Atlantic Entertainment Group, an independent company that has handled such films as Teen Wolf and Wish You Were Here. Some contend that Wired's producers are simply trying to generate controversy over a bad film with poor box-office prospects. "The only thing that the producers have to hang on to is the image of Wired as 'the movie that Hollywood tried to stop,' " says Bernie Brillstein, Belushi's former manager. "I think this is a very good plan to get some excitement for the movie."

As a commercial project, Wired has its problems. Belushi, the brilliant, volatile star of Saturday Night Live and films like National Lampoon's Animal House, has become a posthumous icon, a symbol of the raucous counterculture comedy that Saturday Night Live spearheaded in the '70s. But cinematic tales of drug abuse (Less Than Zero, Clean and Sober) have fizzled at the box office, and Wired is an especially downbeat example. What's more, with Belushi's work so vividly remembered (and still widely available in TV reruns), a movie re-creation might seem morbidly gratuitous, even by Hollywood standards.

Nor does the film offer the easy pleasures of a conventional movie bio. Earl Mac Rauch's script mixes fantasy and fact in an ambitious, if muddled, attempt at surrealistic psychodrama. In the opening scene, the dead Belushi (played by newcomer Michael Chiklis) wakes up in a morgue, escapes in a gown resembling the toga he wore in Animal House and meets a guardian angel in the guise of a taxi driver (Ray Sharkey). Their conversations are intermingled with time- jumbled flashbacks of Belushi's life, snippets of his comedy material and scenes of Woodward pursuing the story.

The film tiptoes around much of Woodward's most sensational material. Missing, for example, is a portrayal of such Hollywood stars as Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, reported in the book to have used cocaine with Belushi. Except for Aykroyd (Gary Groomes), Belushi's wife Judy (Lucinda Jenney) and Cathy Smith (Patti D'Arbanville), the woman who allegedly gave Belushi his fatal drug injection, most real-life characters are given pseudonyms, and none are shown indulging in drug use with Belushi. Only a couple of scenes offer hints that Hollywood might share any blame in Belushi's death. In one, Woodward asks a studio executive about the $2,500 a week reportedly paid to Belushi for drugs. In another, a Belushi assistant admits that he gave the star uppers before a recording session.

The book was so widely disliked in Hollywood that Woodward found little interest when he sought to peddle the movie rights in 1984. Feldman and his partner, Charles Meeker, eventually bought the rights for a relatively modest $300,000. They started feeling pressure almost immediately. Attorneys representing several Creative Artists clients and other Belushi colleagues, like director John Landis (The Blues Brothers), wrote letters warning that portraying them in the film would be an invasion of privacy. Ovitz himself phoned, says Feldman, and "told me it wasn't a good idea to make this picture." (Ovitz says he was simply giving Feldman "friendly advice" that "a lot of people we deal with -- clients and nonclients -- really didn't want to see John's memory exploited.") In the summer of 1986, Jim Belushi stormed into Feldman's editing room at Paramount, trashed his desk and told the secretary, "Tell him I was here." (Her reply: "Who are you?")

When no Hollywood studio came through, Feldman and Meeker got backing from a New Zealand company, Lion Screen Entertainment Ltd. The producers put up $1 million of the film's $13 million budget themselves. They hired Larry Peerce (Goodbye Columbus) to direct and chose Chiklis, a little-known New York actor, for the lead role after auditioning more than 200 aspirants. Following several delays, shooting began last May.

When the producers started showing their finished film to studio executives, the response was another collective cold shoulder. "It becomes a matter of power," contends Feldman. " 'We didn't want you to make this movie, and you did. Now you're going to suffer.' " Studio executives scoff at Feldman's conspiracy charges. "We passed on the movie because it was totally uncommercial and pretentiously arty," says one. Yet several prospective deals seemed to dissolve suspiciously, including one with New Visions Pictures, an independent company headed by director Taylor Hackford.

Now, however, Atlantic Entertainment has come to the rescue and is making plans for a July or August release. Then Wired can finally be judged by the people it was intended for: the audience. But repercussions from the unpopular project may not be over. Actor J.T. Walsh, who plays Woodward in the film, was set to appear next in Loose Cannons, a comedy co-starring Dan Aykroyd. According to insiders, Walsh was let go after just one day on the set, to avoid upsetting Aykroyd. All of which may simply set the stage for another round of the Belushi media blitz. Anyone for The Making of Wired?