Film News

"Hangover" director tackles John Belushi biopic

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - John Belushi may be getting a (second) second life on the big screen, 21 years after an unauthorized biopic about the ill-fated comic died at the box office.

Director/producer Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) and screenwriter Steven Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) are developing a film at Warner Bros., which recently acquired the rights from Belushi’s estate. Conrad will write the script and Phillips will serve as a producer, though he has not yet committed to directing it.

In a typically difficult process that saw the rights deal come together, then fall apart, then come back together again, the project would be the latest attempt at a full-scale biopic about the “Saturday Night Live” cast member and film star who died of a drug overdose in 1982 at age 33.

Belushi’s life was detailed in Bob Woodward’s 1985 biography, “Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi.” That book is not part of the rights deal, unsurprisingly, since it was widely criticized by Belushi’s family and comedy peers at the time. When “Wired” was subsequently turned into a 1989 feature starring Michael Chiklis, Belushi’s friends and family boycotted the film, which then OD’d at the box office.

Belushi’s widow, Judith, published her own oral history, “Belushi: A Biography,” in 2005. She will be an executive producer on the project, as Judith Belushi Pisano (she’s since remarried).

The Chicago-born Belushi was a member of the Second City comedy troupe before becoming one of the original performers on “SNL” from 1975 until 1979, when he left to pursue a film career full-time. His feature resume includes “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), “1941” (1979), “The Blues Brothers” (1980), “Continental Divide” (1981) and “Neighbors” (1981). Belushi was also slotted for roles opposite frequent collaborator Dan Aykroyd in “Ghostbusters” (1984) and “Spies Like Us” (1985) -- both co-written by Aykroyd -- before he died.

It’s unclear whether adjacent rights to prominent figures in Belushi’s life, such as late manager Bernie Brillstein and “SNL” colleagues Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels and Chevy Chase, have also been acquired by the studio.

The role is sure to be intensely pursued by high-profile comic talents, as Belushi was the progenitor of a certain kind of manic, aggressively goofy comedy that played in both sketch format and features, paving the way for everyone from John Candy to Chris Farley and Will Ferrell.

One actor mentioned as a potential strong fit for the iconic role is newly ubiquitous Zach Galifianakis, who starred for Phillips in both “The Hangover” and the upcoming November release “Due Date.” But Galifianakis is already 40 years old, as is Jack Black, another funnyman who embodies much of Belushi’s zany spirit (In 2008, Black was quoted as saying he would turn down any offer to star in a Belushi biopic, saying, “His life is not as funny as his work, and watching me do an imitation of him doing his ‘Saturday Night Live’ bits won’t be as funny as watching him do his ‘SNL’ bits.”)

The next generation has fielded a roster of 21st century versions that could potentially pull off the role -- Jonah Hill (26), Seth Rogen (28), Ethan Suplee (34) and Tyler Labine (32), who actually appeared as Belushi in the 2005 NBC movie, “Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of ‘Mork & Mindy.’” Belushi was also once portrayed by Eric Siegel in the 2002 ABC telemovie “Gilda Radner: It’s Always Something.”