The troubling things I learned when I re-reported Bob Woodward’s book on John Belushi.
Now here it is as Woodward presents it:
Landis quickly discovered that John could be lazy and undisciplined. They were rehearsing a cafeteria scene, a perfect vehicle to set up Bluto’s insatiable cravings. Landis wanted John to walk down the cafeteria line and load his tray until it was a physical burden. As the camera started, Landis stood to one side shouting: “Take that! Put that in your pocket! Pile that on the tray! Eat that now, right there!”
John followed each order, loading his pockets and tray, stuffing his mouth with a plate of Jello in one motion.
First off, Woodward wrongly calls the cafeteria scene a rehearsal, when half the point of the story is that Belushi pulled it off without ever rehearsing it once. Also, there’s actually nothing in the anecdote to indicate laziness or lack of discipline on Belushi’s part, yet Woodward chooses to establish the scene using those words. The implication is that Belushi was so unfocused and unprepared that he couldn’t make it through the scene without the director beside him telling him what to do, which is not what took place. When I interviewed him, Landis disputed that he ever referred to Belushi as lazy or undisciplined. “The greatest crime of that book,” Landis says of Wired, “is that if you read it and you’d just assume that John was a pig and an asshole, and he was anything but. He could be abrupt and unpleasant, but most of the time he was totally charming and people adored him.”
The wrongness in Woodward’s reporting is always ever so subtle. SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue—who died before I started the book but who videotaped an interview with Judy years before—told this story about how Belushi loved to mess with him:
I am very anal-retentive, and John used to come over and just move things around, just move things a couple of inches, drop a paper on the floor, miss an ashtray a little bit until finally he could see me just tensing up. That was his idea of a fine joke. Another joke he used to do was to sit on me.
When put through the Woodward filter, this becomes:
A compulsively neat person, O’Donoghue was always picking up and straightening his office. Frequently, John came in and destroyed the order in a minute, shifting papers, furniture or pencils or dropping cigarette ashes.
Again, Woodward’s account is not wrong. It’s just … wrong. In his version, Belushi is not a prankster but a jerk.
Then there’s an anecdote related to me by Blair Brown, Belushi’s co-star in Continental Divide. In that movie, Belushi was cast as Ernie Souchack, a straight-man role in a romantic comedy. On the day they were to film the movie’s love scene, Belushi, not known for his matinee good looks, was terribly nervous. Here’s what happened, in Brown’s words:
If you’ve ever been a part of one of these movie love scenes, they’re just deeply peculiar. … You’re wearing this robe, and all you’ve got under that is this little bitty underwear that you’re going to still be wearing when you do the scene.
Tanner Colby is the author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. Visit him at his website or follow him on Twitter.