Belushi was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Agnes Belushi (née Samaras), a cashier and first-generation Albanian American, and Adam Belushi, an Albanian immigrant and restaurant operator who left his native village, Qytezë, in 1934 at the age of fifteen. Belushi was raised in the Albanian Orthodox church and grew up outside Chicago in Wheaton, where he was a middle linebacker for the Wheaton Central High School football team, and attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and the College of DuPage near Chicago. Belushi's younger brother James Belushi is also an actor and comedian. John met his future wife, Judy, while a sophomore in high school, and they stayed together until his death.
Belushi's first big break as a comedian occurred in 1971, when he joined The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, Illinois. Thanks to his uncanny caricature of singer Joe Cocker's intense and jerky stage presence, he was cast in National Lampoon's Lemmings, a parody of Woodstock, which played Off-Broadway in 1972 (and which also showcased future Saturday Night Live performers Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest).
From 1973 to 1975, National Lampoon Inc. aired The National Lampoon Radio Hour, a half-hour comedy program syndicated across the country on approximately 600 stations. When original director Michael O'Donoghue quit in 1974, Belushi took over the reins until the show was canceled. Other players on the show included future SNL regulars Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray and Chevy Chase. Belushi married Judy Jacklin (Judy Pisano), an associate producer of The Radio Hour. A number of comic segments first performed on The Radio Hour would be translated into SNL sketches in the show's early seasons.
Belushi achieved national fame for his work on Saturday Night Live, which he joined as an original cast member in 1975. Between seasons of the show, he made one of his best-known movies, Animal House. As several Belushi biographies have noted, on John's 30th birthday (in 1979), he had the number one film in the U.S. (Animal House), the number one album in the U.S. (The Blues Brothers: Briefcase Full of Blues) and Saturday Night Live was the highest-rated late night television program. In the toga party scene in the basement of the frat house in Animal House, the uncredited coed dancing with Bluto (Belushi) is his wife. While filming Animal House, Belushi made an appearance at Ithaca College in 1976. When introduced, he came onstage with a chainsaw and cut up the podium. When asked who his favorite host on Saturday Night Live was up to that point, he named comic Robert Klein.
When interviewed for retrospectives on John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd told stories of John often finishing SNL rehearsals, shows or film shoots and, exhausted, simply walking unannounced into nearby homes of friends or strangers, scrounging around for food and often falling asleep, unable to be located for the following day's work. This was the impetus for the SNL horror-spoof sketch "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave", in which Belushi torments a couple (played by Jane Curtin and Bill Murray) in their home looking for snacks, newspapers and magazines to read, and taking control of their television. Aykroyd called him "America's guest".
During his run on SNL, Belushi starred in a short film by SNL writer Tom Schiller called "Don't Look Back In Anger", where he plays himself as an old man visiting the graves of his former castmembers (including Chevy Chase, who had been off the show at the time the film was shown) and reveals that the reason he's still alive is because he's a dancer. He then proceeds to dance on the other cast members' graves. (Ironically, Belushi was the first SNL cast member to die.) He left Saturday Night Live in 1979 to pursue a film career. Belushi would make four more movies in his career, and three of them, 1941, Neighbors, and most notably The Blues Brothers were made with fellow SNL alumnus Dan Aykroyd.
At the time of his death, Belushi was pursuing several movie projects, including Noble Rot, an adaptation of a script by former The Mary Tyler Moore Show writer/producer Jay Sandrich entitled Sweet Deception (noble rot is a benevolent fungus that can infect wine grapes on the vine, helping to produce high quality sweet wines). Belushi was rewriting the script with former Saturday Night Live colleague Don Novello (known for his character Father Guido Sarducci).
Belushi was also considering the lead roles in The Joy Of Sex, a comic adaptation of the Dr. Alex Comfort sex manual, and a part in a Louis Malle movie, Moon Over Miami. These projects were abandoned in the wake of his death.
Aykroyd wrote the roles of Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters and Emmett Fitz-Hume in Spies Like Us with Belushi in mind, and the roles were actually played by Belushi's former SNL castmates Bill Murray and Chevy Chase respectively. Aykroyd used to joke that the green ghost Slimer in Ghostbusters was "the ghost of John Belushi", given that he had a similar party animal personality.
Released in September 1981, the romantic comedy "Continental Divide" starred Belushi as Chicago home town hero writer Ernie Souchack who gets put on assignment researching a scientist studying birds of prey in the remote rocky mountains. John Belushi's character "Ernie Souchak" is loosely based on popular, now deceased Chicago columnist Mike Royko, whose writings on political corruption in the Windy City, first for the Chicago Daily News, briefly for the Chicago Sun-Times and then to the end of his life for the Chicago Tribune, were legendary.
In an interview, the drummer for the punk band Fear, Spit Stix, explained that Belushi hadn't been on SNL for years, but "for the show that we were on (with Donald Pleasance as host), he did make an appearance. In the beginning, he's at the urinal and he turns around to the camera, 'Live! From New York!' That was a favor he did for us because during rehearsal some of our crowd — bused-in slamdancers — tripped over a cable or something, and the union people didn't want any dancers. So as a trade-off, he went up to Grant Tinker's office for us and said, 'I'll make an appearance on the show if the dancers stay.' John was such a generous guy".
Cherokee Studios was a regular haunt for the original Blues Brothers back in the early days of the band. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd became fixtures at the recording studio, while fellow Blues Brother and legendary guitar player Steve Cropper called Cherokee his producing home. Whenever they needed a bass player, they were joined by another Blues Brother, Donald "Duck" Dunn. During this time, Cropper along with producing partner and Cherokee owner Bruce Robb (producer) worked on a number of music projects with the two comedian/musicians, including Belushi's favorite band Fear and later Aykroyd's movie "Dragnet." Surely the real entertainment is what happened in between projects, about which nobody seems willing to comment. "What can I say? John was excessively talented, and I guess you could say he sort of lived life 'excessively.' I think what happened to John had a sobering effect on a lot of people, me included," said music producer Bruce Robb (producer).
Since the early-mid 1990s, The Blues Brothers band has re-united, and played on. They are sometimes joined by Dan Aykroyd on vocals, other times by various sound alike singers. The members had many recording sessions at the famous Cherokee Studios with Bruce Robb (producer) and Steve Cropper. John's brother James Belushi toured with the band for a short time, and even recorded the album Blues Brothers & Friends: LIVE! From Chicago's H.O.B with Dan Aykroyd but he did not appear in Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). It's rumored he was approached to play not the role of Mighty Mack (played by John Goodman) but the role of the local Sheriff Chamberlain (the part played by Joe Morton). Jim would later reunite with Aykroyd to record yet another album, not as the Blues Brothers but as themselves: 'BELUSHI/AYKROYD -"Have Love Will Travel (Big Men-Big Music)"'.
Belushi often played comically intense, volatile, obnoxious and sloppy characters, and was known for his expressive eyes and the solitary raised eyebrow. His most memorable and well-known trademark is that he would raise one eyebrow for comic effect.
On Saturday Night Live, he often did a running act during Weekend Update in which he played a news anchor who would give an editorial commentary that starts calmly, but increases in emotional intensity until he is finally screaming and flailing around like a maniac. During these emotional rants, fellow news anchor Jane Curtin would ask him to calm down and stay on topic, but this would only make him angrier. He would snap back at her attempts by saying things like "Just shut up, anchorperson, okay?" or make a fist and say "Don't push me, Curtin! I MEAN IT!!" He would give speeches about the way things could have been, should have been, and then turns it on its ear by saying, "Buuuut NOOOOOOOOOO!!!" continuing on how horrid things had turned out instead.
According to writer/actor Tim Kazurinsky in the book Live From New York, mentor and close friend Belushi was instrumental in getting fellow Second City alumni Kazurinsky onto Saturday Night Live in 1981. But during his run on the show, Kazurinsky became very stressed out by its demands (Dick Ebersol was now the executive producer and the show was very unlike the hedonistic manner in which Lorne Michaels produced it when Belushi was a cast member). He later called Belushi and said that he needed a ride to the airport because he was quitting and moving back to Chicago. Belushi and his wife picked him up but refused to bring him to the airport, at which Belushi told Kazurinsky that the show's atmosphere can get bad, but that he still had access to major broadcasting airwaves. Instead, Belushi took the performer to a psychiatrist whom he saw for a year, while staying with the show during his run.
Belushi was friends with fellow SNL player Dan Aykroyd, whom Belushi recruited for SNL. They met in a Toronto speakeasy called The 505 that Aykroyd frequented, and immediately hit it off. It was John Belushi, who discovered the band Fear and brought them to Cherokee Studios to record songs for the soundtrack of a major motion picture he and Dan Aykroyd were starring in called, "Neighbors." Music producing partners Steve Cropper and Bruce Robb (producer) remember recording the memorable band's music, but nobody knows exactly what happened with the final soundtrack which was ultimately replaced in the film by very traditional movie score.
On March 5, 1982, Belushi was found dead in his room at Bungalow #3 of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. The cause of death was a speedball, an injection of cocaine and heroin. On the night of his death, he was visited separately by friends Robin Williams (at the height of his own drug exploits) and Robert De Niro, each of whom left the premises, leaving Belushi in the company of assorted others, including Cathy Smith. His death was investigated by forensic pathologist Dr. Ryan Norris among others, and while the findings were disputed, it was officially ruled a drug-related accident.
The case was reopened two months later, when Smith, a former groupie for The Band, and a former friend of hers admitted in an interview with the National Enquirer that she had been with Belushi the night of his death and had given him the fatal speedball shot. After the appearance of the article "I Killed Belushi" in the Enquirer edition of June 29, 1982, the case was reopened. Smith was extradited from Toronto, arrested and charged with first-degree murder. A plea bargain arrangement reduced the charges to involuntary manslaughter, and she served 18 months in prison.
One of his last TV appearances, for the comedy series Police Squad!, as a favor to friend Tino Insana, a writer on the program, Belushi was filmed, face down in a swimming pool, dead. The footage was part of a running gag where the episodes' guest-star wouldn't make it past the opening credit sequence without meeting some gruesome end. Also, as noted in one of the commentary tracks on the DVD, John nearly drowned during the filming of the scene.
John Belushi's life is detailed in the 1985 biography Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi by Bob Woodward. Many friends and relatives of Belushi, including his wife Judy, Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, agreed to be interviewed at length for the book, but later felt the final product was exploitative and not representative of the John Belushi they knew. The book was later adapted into a feature film in which Belushi was played by Michael Chiklis. Belushi's friends and family boycotted the film, which proved to be critical and caused the movie to be a box-office flop.
Belushi is interred in Abel's Hill Cemetery on Martha's Vineyard Chilmark, Massachusetts. His tombstone reads "I may be gone, but Rock and Roll lives on." His gravestone is not above his body. It was moved after operators of the cemetery had found many signs of vandalism and rowdiness where his body lies. Belushi was portrayed by actors Eric Siegel in Gilda Radner: It's Always Something, Tyler Labine in Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (which also features his friendship with Robin Williams), and Michael Chiklis in Wired.
His widow later remarried and is now Judith Belushi Pisano. Her biography (with co-biographer Tanner Colby) of John, Belushi: A Biography is a collection of first-person interviews and photographs, and was published in 2005.
On April Fools' Day 2004, 22 years after his death, Belushi was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, after a ten-year lobby by James Belushi and Judith Belushi Pisano. Among those present at the ceremony were Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, and Tom Arnold.
In the 1995 film Hackers, the character Cereal Killer is seen selling a mixtape compilation which includes John Belushi's music in addition to Mama Cass and Jimi Hendrix.