Inside The Tragic Death Of Comedy Icon John Belushi

Published December 30, 2019
Published December 30, 2019

On the night of March 4, 1982, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams snorted cocaine in John Belushi's hotel room. The next day, Belushi was dead.

John Belushi Death

Alan Singer/NBC/Getty ImagesJohn Belushi — a 33-year-old comedy extraordinaire — died far too soon after a years-long spiral into drug addiction.

On March 5, 1982, John Belushi was found dead after injecting heroin and cocaine at Chateau Marmont, a shadowy gothic hotel that looms over West Hollywood’s famous Sunset Strip.

Although John Belushi’s death marked the abrupt end of his career as an actor, comedian, and musician, it came as no surprise to those who knew him best.

Filmmaker and close friend Penny Marshall knew about Belushi’s drug use all too well, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I swear, you’d walk down the street with him, and people would hand him drugs. And then he’d do all of them — be the kind of character he played in sketches or Animal House.”

By the 1982, 33-year-old Belushi — an original cast member of Saturday Night Live — had already become a comedy superstar. Which makes his untimely death even more tragic.

John Belushi’s Rise As An Entertainer

John Belushi was born in Chicago on Jan. 24, 1949 and raised in nearby Wheaton, Illinois, the eldest son of an Albanian immigrant.

He expressed an interest in comedy at an early age, starting his own comedy troupe and eventually being invited to join Second City in Chicago, one of the country’s best comedy theaters. It’s where he met Dan Aykroyd, a Canadian comedian who would soon join Belushi on SNL.

In 1972, Belushi moved to New York City, where he worked the next three years on a variety of projects for National Lampoon. That’s where he met Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.

In 1975 Belushi earned a spot as one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” on Lorne Michaels’ new late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live. It’s SNL that suddenly made Belushi — a 20-something funny guy from Chicago — a household name nationwide.

The next few years included a whirlwind of film projects, including National Lampoon’s Animal House, which quickly became one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time and remains a cult classic.

Belushi went on to star in half a dozen more feature films, include the 1980 blockbuster The Blues Brothers, based on a recurring SNL sketch with him and Aykroyd.

Belushi’s Drug Use

Stardom did come with a price, and Belushi began abusing cocaine and other drugs to cope with his insecurities and the long hours that came with working in film and television.

John Belushi In 1978

Ron Galella/Getty ImagesMary Louise Weller, John Belushi, and wife Judy Jacklin
John Belushi at a party in 1978 with his Animal House costar, Mary Louise Weller (left), and his wife, Judy (right).

His heavy reliance on drugs worsened during the filming of The Blues Brothers. “We had a budget in the movie for cocaine for night shoots,” Aykroyd told Vanity Fair in 2012. “John, he just loved what it did. It sort of brought him alive at night—that superpower feeling where you start to talk and converse and figure you can solve all the world’s problems.”

Belushi’s drug abuse continued to spiral out of control as he became frustrated with the response to his next couple of films, Continental Divide and Neighbors.

The Days Leading Up To John Belushi’s Death

The last few months of Belushi’s life were spent prowling the streets of Los Angeles in a haze of drugs. People reported that Belushi spent about $2,500 a week on his drug habit the last few months of his life. “The more money he made, the more coke he blew.”

Judy, Belushi’s high school sweetheart and wife of six years, did not accompany him on his final West Coast trip, opting to stay in Manhattan instead. “He was abusing cocaine again, and that interfered with everything in our life,” she wrote. “We had everything going for us, and yet because of those damn drugs, everything just got out of control.”

Harold Ramis, Belushi’s frequent comedy collaborator, visited his friend during this period and described him as “exhausted” and in a state of “total despair.” He went on to attribute Belushi’s sad emotional state to cocaine.

John Belushis Body Being Wheeled Out

Bettmann/Getty ImagesJohn Belushi’s body is taken the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood to the coroner’s office after his death.

How Did John Belushi Die?

On Feb. 28, 1982, Belushi checked into Bungalow 3 at the Chateau Marmont, a luxury hotel overlooking the Sunset Strip. Little is known about his movements for the next couple of days.

However, grand jury testimony by SNL writer Nelson Lyon shed light on Belushi’s last few hours. Lyon testified that on March 2, Belushi showed up at his home with Cathy Smith, a Canadian drug dealer he met on the set of SNL.

According to Lyon, Smith injected both men with cocaine, a total of five times that day. He next saw Smith and Belushi on March 4 when they arrived at his home.

Smith then injected Belushi with drugs at Lyon’s home three or four times. Later that evening, according to Lyon, the three of them met actor Robert De Niro at On the Rox, a an exclusive club for celebrities on the Sunset Strip. (According to historian Shawn Levy’s The Castle on Sunset, Belushi never made it to the club, apparently staying in his hotel room the whole night while De Niro tried to coax him out over the phone.)

Lyon testified that neither man took any drugs. However, Smith injected both him and Belushi with a cocktail of cocaine and heroin, otherwise known as a speedball in the club’s office. “[It] rendered me a walking zombie and made him vomit,” Lyon testified.

Cathy Smith Lawyer Smoking

Lenore Davis/New York Post Archives/Getty ImagesCathy Smith (left) injected John Belushi with a fatal dose of cocaine and heroin. She was the last person to see him alive.

Smith drove the three of them back to the bungalow the morning of March 5, and De Niro and comedian Robin Williams dropped by for a brief visit, each helping themselves to some cocaine. Everyone left except for Belushi and Smith.

Smith later reported that, alarmed by the sound of his breathing, she woke Belushi up at about 9:30 a.m. and asked if he was okay. “Just don’t leave me alone,” he replied. Instead, she left a little past 10 a.m. to run some errands.

At around noon, Belushi’s personal trainer, Bill Wallace, arrived at the bungalow and let himself in with his key. Finding Belushi unresponsive, Wallace attempted to perform CPR but was unsuccessful.

A few minutes later, EMTs arrived, and Belushi was pronounced dead at the scene.

Smith returned to the Chateau Marmont a couple of hours later and was briefly taken into custody, questioned, and released.

Dr. Ronald Kornblum, the L.A. County coroner, attributed Belushi’s death to acute cocaine and heroin poisoning. Dr. Michael Baden, New York City’s former chief medical examiner, later testified that had Belushi not taken drugs, he wouldn’t have died.

If he was still alive, he’d be 70 years old.

John Belushi’s death shocked and saddened his family, his friends in Hollywood and at SNL, and his fans the world over.

The Aftermath

A few months after Belushi’s death, Smith admitted to being with Belushi the night of his death and administering the fatal speedball injection during a National Enquirer interview. “I killed John Belushi,” she said. “I didn’t mean to, but I am responsible.”

Smith was indicted on second-degree murder charges and 13 counts of administering cocaine and heroin by a Los Angeles grand jury in March 1983, serving 15 months in prison after a plea of no contest.


After learning about John Belushi’s tragic death, learn about James Dean’s strange and brutal demise. Then, take a look at 11 of history’s most famous suicides.

Samuel Warde
In addition to being a writer, Samuel is a social activist, photographer and cat lover.