The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
53. Life in the Fast Lane

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Dan Ackroyd and James Belushi were among
the pallbearers at John Belushi's funeral, 9 March 1982

Early in the afternoon of 5 March 1982, physical trainer Bill Wallace went to client John Belushi's bungalow at West Hollywood's Hotel Chateau Marmont -- and found Belushi lying, near death, in his bed. A hotel security guard attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation -- to no avail. The 33-year-old comic genius passed away. LAPD Lieutenant Dan Cooke said Belushi's death "appeared to have been from natural causes." But the medical examiner found cocaine and heroin in the star's bloodstream. Investigators retraced Belushi's steps in the last hours of his life. After dining with Robert De  Niro on Sunset Strip, Belushi went to a show at West Hollywood's Improv, then dropped by a club called On the Rox, where he jammed with singer Johnny Rivers until 1:30 AM. Witnesses claimed he seemed to be on a cocaine high and could not wind down; friends and acquaintances confirmed that with Belushi this was often the case. The last person to see him alive was 34-year-old Cathy Smith, who admitted to administering a "speedball" -- a potent mixture of cocaine and heroin -- to the comic back at Chateau Marmont's Bungalow #3. The drugs caused Belushi to suffer respiratory failure. (Smith was indicted for murder, fled to Canada and fought extradition; in 1986 she was convicted of injecting Belushi with the speedball, and served a prison sentence.)
It was a tragic end for the immensely talented Belushi -- but it did not come as a surprise to those who knew him best. "He did every drug in the book," said one associate. Several years earlier, Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue had said, "The same violent urge that makes John great will ultimately destroy him." Belushi was excessive in all things -- he ate too much, drank too much, and took too many drugs. There was a dark, self-destructive streak in this son of an Albanian immigrant. As part of a fairly typical Midwestern youth, Belushi (b. 1.24.49) had played high school football, been a drummer in a local rock band, and briefly attended college. He joined Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, appeared in a Manhattan revue entitled National Lampoon's Lemmings, and in 1975 was hired as part of the comic ensemble for Saturday Night Live, a hit TV show that catapulted him to stardom, along with fellow cast members Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd and Chevy Chase. He teamed up with Ackroyd to form the Blues Brothers and produced "blue-eyed soul" that earned him a platinum record and led to a hit film. His role as the maniacal frat-boy buffoon Bluto in Animal House (1978) made him a cult hero. Belushi insisted that the drug-crazed anarchist act was just that -- an act. But friends said it was his persona, off-screen as well as on. At the time of his death he was hoping to expand his horizons; he'd agreed to shed 40 pounds for a serious role in De Niro's Once Upon a Time in America.  But John Belushi had a bad-boy image to maintain, and he killed himself trying to maintain it. In one SNL skit he referred to the "live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse" clique. As it turned out, he was a member of that clique.
Richard Pryor was another "kamikaze comic" who seemed, like Belushi, to be on a path to destruction as the 1980s began. On the night of 9 June 1980, one of Pryor's neighbors in Northridge, California called the emergency  operator after seeing the comic burst from his home and run screaming down the street, on fire from the waist up. Pryor was found a few blocks away, in shock, with third-degree burns over the entire upper half of his body. His attorney claimed that Pryor had accidentally ignited a glass of rum with a butane lighter. But a persistent rumor circulated that the comic had been "freebasing"  -- mixing cocaine with ether to produce a more potent "high"  -- when the ether exploded. At the Sherman Oaks Burn Center, doctors said that only one in four people in Pryor's age group survived such extensive burns, and three days after the accident Dr. Richard Grossman gave the comic no more than a 50-50 chance for survival. Pryor spent six excruciating weeks in intensive care. He was wrapped in gauze soaked with silver sulfadiazene, which fought infection. Several times a day he endured a whirlpool bath filled with hot water and antiseptics, and twice a day he was placed in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, since pure oxygen sped healing and retarded scarring. He suffered through  debridement -- the removal of burned skin, and had three skin grafts, in which undamaged skin from his thighs and calves were used to replace burned tissue. He survived pnuemonia and kidney problems, but drew strength from the thousands of cards pouring in from well-wishers and the frequent visits of a close friend, football star Jim Brown.
Halfway through production of the film Bustin' Loose at the time of the accident, Pryor was described by director Michael Schultz as being "on the downhill side. He was drinking heavily and using coke, and all the rest. Everything he was doing he was doing to total excess. Trying to really cash in his chips." Born 1 December 1940 into a family that ran a string of whorehouses in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor was a hyperactive child who was placed in a class for the mentally retarded by the public school system. He was permanently expelled in the seventh grade for striking a teacher. After a stint in the armed forces heparlayed a career as a stand-up comic into appearances on Ed Sullivan's TV show, his own short-lived series in 1977, and then movie stardom. He won an Oscar nomination for his performance in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), but the 1976 hit Silver Streak proved to be his breakthrough film. Outrageous and controversial, Pryor was Hollywood's biggest black star as the Eighties opened. He seemed to have everything. Yet he was angry, depressed, prone to violence. He had a well-deserved reputation as an incorrigible troublemaker. Convicted on an assault-and-battery charge brought by a girlfriend, he spent 35 days in a Pittsburgh jail. He broke the leg of one of his wives, and was sued for wife-beating. He paid a steep fine and was placed on probation after beating up a motel clerk, and stabbed an American serviceman in West Germany. Actor George Memmoli filed a $1 million lawsuit against Pryor for hitting him over the head with a chair, fracturing his skull, on the set of the film Blue Collar. On New Year's Day, 1978, Pryor was arrested for chasing wife Deborah McGuire and two of her friends across the lawn of their house in his car.
By all accounts, Pryor emerged from the hospital a changed man, a phoenix rising from the ashes of a life in the fast lane. When someone asked him where he'd been born, Pryor's somber reply was: "The Sherman Oaks Burn Center." He bought a five-acre estate on the Hawaiian island of Maui, living in a modest one-bedroom house and jealously guarding his privacy. He claimed to be drug-free -- and sued the National Enquirer to the tune of $10 million for a front-page story alleging that he had been using cocaine while in the burn center. Director John Badham found the "new" Pryor -- a man who had once admitted he did not know how to relax -- very "gentle and mellow." Producer Rob Cohen said, "His accident . . . was the turning point for him. Once he came to the brink of death, which he had been playing with in many ways for a long time, I think he . . . was conscious through the whole thing and he could really understand what it was like to destroy himself. Once that happened . . . it gave him a new perspective on life." Pryor's career reached new heights in 1981; the hit film Stir Crazy became the third biggest-grossing movie of the year, raking in $100 million in ticket sales. Bustin' Loose was also a success, making Pryor the only actor with two films in the year's Top 20 money-makers. In 1982, Richard Pryor on the Sunset Strip had an $8 million opening weekend, and Pryor was commanding $3 million a film plus one-third of the gross -- out-earning Burt Reynolds, Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and every other Hollywood superstar. Actor Stan Shaw said, "He is over the drugs. If people are lucky, they grow -- and Richard is lucky. He has a very special gift, and finally he realizes it. John Belushi didn't survive. But Richard did." *

Time's Jay Cocks on John Belushi
"By the time John Belushi finally bought it, in the winter of 1982 . . . [h]e had also bought, whole, every sorry second-rate dream of success that American pop culture has to offer: the performer as outlaw, the outlaw as shaman; self-immolation as the fulfillment of a creative spirit that burns too hot to contain or understand; drugs as recreation, revelation and social challenge, a turn-on for talent, a tip sheet for personal apocalypse. He died, really, of the cumulative effects not only of the cocaine and heroin that had swollen his brain and bloated his heart but of all those bad dreams."

* In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple schlerosis. Depression steered him back to liquor and pills, and in 1990 he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic to clean up. That same year he had a heart attack. At age 58 he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for humor.

Richard Pryor


People Weekly: 29 June 1981, 22 March 1982, 17 October 1988

Time: 15 March 1982, 29 March 1982, 11 June 1984

Us: 11 May 1982