40 Years Ago: John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd Say Goodbye to ‘Saturday Night Live’
Saturday Night Live was dealt a blow two seasons into its run when breakout star Chevy Chase departed for a career in the movies. A couple of years later, the program lost its two remaining biggest names as John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd followed Chase out to Hollywood. Their last episode on the now-venerable program was the finale of the fourth season, which aired on May 26, 1979.
Belushi had made the jump to the big screen the previous year with his brief but memorable performance as future U.S. Sen. John "Bluto" Blutarski in National Lampoon's Animal House. He took a larger role in 1941, a Steven Spielberg-directed comedy set during World War II that also starred his close friend Aykroyd. Belushi was attempting to pull double-duty, flying back-and-forth between New York and Los Angeles, but it became too difficult.
On top of that, Belushi's drug use was escalating. "He'd take the host out and party really hard on Friday," writer Tom Davis said in Belushi. "Then the next day the host would show up not looking so good – and John, of course, would breeze in and be ready to go and just blow everybody away. He was miserable at dress [rehearsal] and hard to work with during blocking and late to the studio, but he'd always get the huge laughs. ... And as long as he could pull that off, nobody was going to try to change him."
Things seemed to be coming to a head. Belushi went out with the Rolling Stones on the night before a Feb. 24, 1979 episode, and then struggled to recover in time for the broadcast with Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels as host. Producer Lorne Michaels said a doctor advised Belushi not to go on because his lungs were filling up with fluid. Belushi somehow pulled it together, although he gave a subpar performance.
"During that last year, he really didn't want to be on Saturday Night Live anymore," fellow comedian Richard Belzer said. "He kind of resented being in New York. He was getting huge, and he'd rather have stayed out in L.A. being a Hollywood star."
Belushi also developed an ear infection while filming in California, widow Judith Belushi Pisano said in Belushi, and had to miss an episode. "He knew that trying to do movies and SNL was too much," she added. "One time he looked at me and said, 'I don't know if I'm coming or going. Sometimes I can't even remember what day of the week it is.'"
Michaels understood when Belushi finally made the decision to quit. "No performer likes leaving Saturday Night Live, because nothing is as satisfying," Michaels said. "But being a movie star is irresistible. Nobody turns it down."
The prospect of a movie built around the Blues Brothers characters Aykroyd had developed with Belushi convinced his friend to leave, as well. "We knew John was leaving," SNL writer Jim Downey said, "but the real shock was Danny. We didn't find out until the last minute that he was going, and people were a little angry with Belushi for luring him away. Billy [Murray] especially, because he felt like he was really left out there to fend for himself.
Belushi said goodbye on the last episode with two of his best-loved recurring bits: Samurai Futaba (the character that helped him pass his SNL audition) and Pete Dionasopoulos of the Olympia Cafe ("Cheeburger cheeburger!"). Aykroyd's only major sketch saw him break out his Richard Nixon impression for the final time.
Actor/writer Buck Henry became the first person in the show's history to host five episodes. The musical guest that night was Bette Midler, who sang her rendition of Tom Waits' "Martha" and “Married Men.”
Spielberg's 1941 didn't perform as well as Animal House, either with the critics or at the box office, but The Blues Brothers was a runaway smash. Aykroyd and Belushi made one more movie together, 1981's Neighbors, before Belushi died of an overdose after mixing a combination of cocaine and heroin on March 5, 1982 at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.