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Why John Belushi died

John Belushi, 1949 - 1982.

Who is right about John Belushi?

Bob Woodward has written a book named Wired that portrays Belushi as a man out of control, whose life came to be ruled by cocaine and other drugs.

Judy Belushi, his widow, has attacked Woodward's book for a number of reasons, of which the most heartfelt is: That's not John in the book. Woodward's portrait doesn't show the life, the humor, the courage, the energy. He wasn't just a junkie.

Yet the cops who removed his body from a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont on March 5, 1982, were brutally frank. He looked, to them, like just another dead junkie.

Judy Belushi remembers the good times. She argues that "drugs can be fun," and that she and John had a lot of ups along with the downs. The difference was that John never knew when to stop. Woodward portrays a man who, at the time of his death, was throwing away a career and alienating key people in the movie industry by a pattern of uncontrolled drug abuse. Judy Belushi speaks of the pressures of show business, of John's need to find energy and inspiration in drugs so that he could deliver what was expected of him.

In all the important ways, Woodward's book is apparently reliable. Judy Belushi quarrels with some dates and interpretations, but basically the facts are there, and documented. Their real difference is over the interpretation of the facts. Beginning with the same man and the same life, Judy Belushi sees a lifestyle, and Bob Woodward sees the progression of a disease.

Was John Belushi an addict? Friends shy away from the word, and yet on the evidence in Woodward's book he was a classic addict, a textbook case of drug and alcohol abuse. You don't get much worse and live, as indeed he proved.

The protests over Woodward's unflinching portrait of Belushi's last days reminds me (not with a smile) of an old Irish joke. The mourners are gathered around the dead man's coffin.

"What did he die of?" one asks the widow.

"He died of the drink," she says.

"Did he go to AA?"

"He wasn't that bad."

John Belushi did try to stop, many times. It is just that he never tried to stop in a way that would have worked. He tried resolutions and willpower. Every addict knows that willpower hardly ever works in the long run, since when the will turns, the game is over. He tried changing his environment, with retreats to Martha's Vineyard. Recovering addicts talk cynically of "geographical cures," as if a habit you carry within yourself can be left behind. He tried placing himself under the discipline of others, and even submitted to "trainers" who were to guard him twenty-four hours a day. That made his drugs their problem, not his. He tried switching from one drug to another, or to "only beer" or "only pot." All mood-altering substances are interchangeable to the abuser, and the drug of substitute leads inevitably back to the drug of choice. He tried health kicks, with Judy mixing her husband "health shakes" in the mornings, all filled with yogurt and bananas and wheat germ. An abusers body is incapable of efficiently absorbing nutrition. He talked to doctors who issued their dire warnings while writing him prescriptions for tranquilizers. He talked to psychiatrists who wanted to get to the root of his problem, as if today's drug abuse can be treated by understanding the traumas of childhood.

All of these attempts were valiant. When Judy Belushi speaks of them, she speaks from the bottom of her heart. But they were all doomed. All but the very luckiest of drug abusers and alcoholics have tried and failed at most of those strategies. Those who have been successful at stopping are almost unanimous in describing what finally worked:

1. Complete abstinence from all mood-altering substances.

2. Admission of defeat, and willingness to accept help.

3. Use of a support group, such as AA.

The odds against successfully stopping by going cold turkey and using willpower are so high, according to the Harvard Medical School study "The Natural History of Alcoholism," that it's hardly worth trying -- except as a prelude to an admission of defeat.

From the evidence in Wired, John Belushi was rarely away from one drug or another for more than a few days. Using Valium or Quaaludes as a "substitute" was just his way of putting his drug of choice on hold. When he did occasionally get clean, it was almost always in response to a specific challenge (doing a movie, meeting a deadline), and it often involved some kind of external control, like a bodyguard who would act as a substitute for Belushi's own will. When he went back to drug use, it was also often in response to a challenge like a movie or a deadline; whether he was using or abstaining, he connected drugs with his ability to work.

I remember a day here at the Sun-Times building when Belushi was shooting scenes for "Continental Divide." I had known him for years on a casual basis; our paths crossed occasionally, from early days of Old Town bars and Second City parties to later interviews and show-biz occasions. I had rarely seen him looking better than he looked that day. He told me he was in great shape. He was off the booze and the drugs. He was exercising.

A man was standing next to him, and he introduced him as "my trainer." Well, what was he going to call him? "My drug guard?" Alcoholism and drug abuse are characterized by denial and an addict will substitute almost any conceivable illness or weakness for the one he must deny; John seemed to place the entire situation in the category of "losing weight" and "getting in shape." An alcoholic who has temporarily stopped drinking but does not yet admit his problem will frequently do what John did, which is to describe abstinence as a training program or a diet.

His career was coming apart. "Continental Divide" did not do well at the box office. There were arguments and major problems during the shooting of "Neighbors." Work was at a standstill on the screenplay for Belushi's next project, titled "Noble Rot." All the career setbacks are described by Woodward. They were accompanied by episodes of drug and alcohol abuse that grew increasingly alarming to his friends and family.

Judy Belushi, in describing those episodes, often links them with their "causes." For example, she differs with Woodward on his interpretation of Belushi's drug use during the filming of "Goin' South," one of his early films, which starred Jack Nicholson. In the Woodward version, Belushi's drug use created problems with the shooting schedule. In Judy Belushi's version, John had flown to New York for a heavy "Saturday Night Live" taping schedule, had exhausted himself, was diagnosed as having "walking pneumonia," should have been hospitalized, was nevertheless advised by his lawyer to fly back to the movie location in Mexico -- and only then, after being kept on hold for several days in Mexico, began to use drugs. Well, she seems to be asking, can you blame him?

The disagreement over the facts of this episode are unimportant, now that Belushi is in his grave. Judy's interpretation is revealing. Her rationale, if I follow it, is that John used drugs in response to an intolerable situation, and that drugs were his means of coping with it. He was not just irresponsibly going on a blast.

That is true, but it is half of the truth.

It is true, that for someone with a dependency on drugs or alcohol, there will be situations that literally cannot be gotten through without drugs or alcohol. But the other half of the truth is: The situations that cannot be gotten through without drugs or alcohol are invariably situations caused by drugs or alcohol. Booze fixes a hangover. Then booze causes a hangover. If a non-drinker woke up with a normal hangover, he would go to an emergency room. A surprising number of drug and alcohol abusers walk around every day for years with symptoms that a healthy person would equate with "walking pneumonia," or worse.

Some reviews of Wired say it describes John as a tragic figure. But disease is not tragic, it is just very sad. And what is sad in John's case is that he was not lucky enough to find, or be able to accept, help. In the book, Dan Aykroyd cries out that John must be hospitalized, that he needs professional help. John Landis says, "We've got to get him formally committed if necessary." Judy was in agreement, but wondered how they'd ever get John to go along with it. They were right. At the time of John's death, his friends were apparently mobilizing to "enforce" such help -- to intervene.

They were on the right track, but too late. John Belushi himself, on some pages of this book, pounds his fists, cries out against his demons and vows to straighten himself out forever. If he had gone the route of detox, drug counseling, therapy and AA, there is a possibility that he could have stayed drug-free long enough to come down to normal speed, to look soberly at his life, and to accept help. But in the years covered by this book, Belushi was never clean long enough to see very clearly.

To me, the tragic figure in the book is Judy Belushi. Tragedy is when you know not only what was, but what could have been. No matter what she thinks of the Woodward book, for me she comes across in it as a courageous, loving, generous and incredibly patient woman who stood by John as well as she could, who put up with a lot of hell, who did what seemed to be right, and who is not content to have his epitaph read "junkie."

Yet her behavior toward her husband, as described here, is often an example of "enabling." Almost all active alcoholics and addicts have "enablers" in their lives -- people who make excuses, hold things together, assume the roles of bodyguard, parent, nurse, accountant and alibier. Enabling is obviously done out of love -- usually out of a deep and stubborn love that refuses to admit defeat. But groups such as Al-Anon, the organization for friends and associates of alcoholics, argue that the best thing an enabler can do is stop enabling.

Judy tried that on occasion, threatening John with divorce as a last resort. Unfortunately, her battle was not only against her own enabling, but also against the army of enablers that flocked around Belushi in the years of his fame. This was possibly the most enabled man of his generation. The angriest pages in Woodward's generally dispassionate book are devoted to the friends, fans, agents, producers, employers, groupies and general scum who competed with each other to supply Belushi with drugs.

I remember John from the early 1970s, in Old Town, where, to put it cruelly, you'd put drinks into him like quarters into a jukebox, and he'd entertain everyone in the room. He was eventually "eighty-sixed" (barred) from most of those bars, though, and at the end was frequenting his own private saloons in New York and Chicago.

In Chicago during those early days, we were buying him drinks, In Los Angeles and New York in the later days, Woodward reports, money for cocaine was built into some of his business deals, and his associates were giving him hundreds of dollars in cash, on demand, day or night, to buy drugs. For that matter, what difference would it have made if they hadn't? Friends and sycophants were sneaking him drugs because it boosted their own images: There are long, painful passages in the book in which Judy is asking people not to give John drugs "because I know you don't want to hurt him." The same people are hiding drugs for him in stovepipes, toilet bowls and his pockets.

John Belushi was an actor and a comedian, but the book could have been written about a pilot, a plumber, a taxi driver or a journalist -- if their diseases commanded $600,000 advances from Simon and Schuster. Judy Belushi is wrong, I believe, in confusing the progression of John's disease with the "demands" and "pressures" of show business.

Life involves a lot of pressure. It is easier to handle without the incalculable pressure of drug abuse. The comedian who cannot be funny, the pilot who cannot fly, the journalist who cannot meet a deadline, the mother who cannot be patient with her child, feels demands and pressures that are exactly the equal of Belushi's -- since there is no measuring the intensity of the intolerable. Wired is essentially not a show-business biography, but just the sad natural history of a disease.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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