By Late 1981, 32 year old John Adam Belushi was already an acclaimed renaissance man. He had already conquered three whole facets of entertainment. He had formerly been a featured player on the number one rated television show, NBC’s sketch comedy series, “Saturday Night Live”, had been the breakout character “Bluto” Blutarski in the number one film, John Landis’ uproarious 1978 college fraternity satire, “National Lampoon’s Animal House”, as well as having the number one album, The Blues Brothers’ “Briefcase Full of Blues” that he shared with fellow SNL comedian and musician, Dan Aykroyd.
Yet, in the past couple of years, his career had been in utter turmoil.
Having left SNL to appear in films as his primary entertainment output, lightning did not seem to strike twice in this new frontier. His latest films in the new decade had either under-performed (The Blues Brothers) or completely flopped (Continental Divide ; Neighbors). The hot young comic was in danger of becoming a has-been as he was just getting started!
However, an unlikely script ignited a creative obsession within him that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Jay Sandrich, known as a director for the hit sitcoms, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, and “Soap” had penned a screenplay for a romantic comedy entitled “Sweet Deception” that he planned to direct as well.
It told the story of David Reed, a streetwise young man assigned with the task of representing a brand new wine at a competition in New York City. Along the way, he encounters the gorgeous, but mysterious Christine Walsh, a woman who turns out to be a contact for diamond smugglers, who manages to entangle David into her scheme. But David, using his charm and wits,manages to win over her heart, and her diamonds as well.
Sandrich had in mind another SNL comic turned movie star, Chevy Chase for the lead role, but Chase, whose previous collaboration with Sandrich had been the disastrous “Seems Like Old Times“, turned it down.
Sandrich was then beginning to consider Three’s Company’s lead, John Ritter for the part, When his agent, Mike Ovitz suggested Belushi for the role, Sandrich was completely resistant, stating he did not want Belushi’s brand of broad slapstick in such a project. But, then the associate suggested viewing his performance in “Continental Divide”. And sure enough, at a screening, although Sandrich disliked the film, he did see a potential in Belushi’s subtle performance as an unusual romantic lead, and agreed to send him the script.
In a meeting with Sandrich and manager Bernie Brillstein, Belushi, who loved the concept, made it known that Sandrich’s worries were unfounded, as he wanted to break out of his pigeonholed image and wanted to be heard as a performer.
Over at Paramount, however, Chief Michael Eisner was hearing a different story. According to one of his assistants, Michael Ovitz, Belushi’s new role was to be a return to his Bluto persona. Eisner, albeit skeptical about the project, was a fan of Belushi and organized a meeting.
Meanwhile, John was unsatisfied with the current draft, requested that the script be re-written by his friend, actor and SNL writer Don Novello, most known for his character of Father Guido Sarducci. Novello agreed that the script was troubled, and signed on.
At the meeting with Eisner and Sandrich, Belushi set the tone that the film needed to quickly be established as a comedy, namely with his character being returned to his Father’s vineyard in the back of a squad car, with a hangover, and to establish that he cannot drink alcohol without going out of his mind.
Most of the boardroom members were amused by Belushi’s animated presentation, but Sandrich was already getting worried. A dumb, broad comedy was EXACTLY what he had been trying to avoid, and he made such a thing known. Eisner reassured him that the film would be relatable on both levels, slapstick and high-brow comedy.
Later, at a conference at Belushi’s hotel room, Sandrich became even more unnerved when Belushi and Novello stated that they wanted to change the relationship between John’s character, and the romantic interest, Christine.
“I can’t end up with this beautiful woman.” John stated. “I would have nothing in common with her. I don’t want to do a sappy love story.”
Sandrich pressed that he may not have to end up with her, but still would need to have a positive relationship with her, so that the audience would be sympathetic towards him. Belushi and Novello simply brushed this off.
After Sandrich left, the two wondered if they should even bother to continue on with him at all. Sandrich likewise wondered if either men knew how to rewrite a feature length screenplay. He began to make it known to Brillstein that if he disliked any of the forthcoming revisions, he was out.
At another meeting, John gave Sandrich a laundry list of actors and friends he wanted in the film.
Danny Devito, a featured actor on the sitcom “Taxi”, as his older brother.
The Green Grocer, an L.A. news produce reporter.
Richard Belzer, his friend and fellow comic. Possibly as one of the villains.
An obligatory cameo by Aykroyd.
Gary Watkins, an up and coming actor and friend.
However, Watkins’ casting had a hidden agenda. He was one of John’s regular drug contacts.
Belushi, who had been hounded into sobriety by bodyguard “Smokey” Wendell, had recently relapsed into his cocaine addiction on the set of “Neighbors” due to the stress of working with the difficult director John G. Avildsen, and the fact that the substance’s use on movie shoots was a common occurrence. But it was delving deeper than that. In addition to marijuana and coke, Belushi was now experimenting with the opiate, heroin.
In addition, just as he had on Neighbors, John was attempting to incorporate the sounds of his new musical interest, punk rock, onto the soundtrack. Namely the band, FEAR, whose members he regularly palled around with, and vehemently insisting upon their disastrous appearance in the 1981 Halloween episode of SNL,in which Belushi himself had made a brief cameo in the show’s cold open. Like Avildsen, and most of Belushi’s own friends, Sandrich was completely opposed to the raucous sound.
In the meantime, however, John wanted to prove to his Hollywood pals that he was all in on the project. At dinner at restaurants, he would demonstrate his research by asking the waiter about the different types of wines on the menu, then promptly getting drunk by “sampling” them.
John even scouted a trip to the Valley’s wine country. They traveled to a Sonoma county vineyard owned by comedian and television host, Tommy Smothers.
Upon inquiring what was the secret to some of the best tasting wine, Smothers told Belushi that, for the most part, it was a freak accident! A natural fungus called “botrytis”, one that could either ruin an entire crop, or make it into some of the sweetest wine ever tasted. It was referred to as a “noble rot”.
Inspiration hit Belushi at that moment! He immediately told Novello that the script just got a brand new title, “Noble Rot”!
Finally, after weeks of turmoil, the new draft had been completed, and the copies were now ready to distribute to those involved with the project. Belushi obsessively kept the master print close to him like secret documents.
In this revised version, David Reed was now Johnny Glorioso, the rugged, unsophisticated son of a northern California vineyard owner. He’s just been brought back home by the police after being found unconscious in the men’s room of a gas station.
As Johnny is trying to get his head on straight, he encounters his older brother, Sal (To have been played by DeVito), whose face has swollen up due an allergic reaction to shellfish, just as he was set to go off to New York City, to take the new family brand wine to a competition.
After assessing the situation, and although it’s a risky move, the brothers’ immigrant father decides that Johnny should go in Sal’s place, as Johnny is HIS “Noble Rot”, his blessing in disguise.
Johnny, although unsure of himself, agrees to go, taking four bottles of his vinyard’s Chardonnay in a reinforced briefcase.
On the plane ride, Johnny encounters a beautiful, but somewhat standoffish woman named Christine Walsh, sitting next to him. After casually attempting to make small talk about his business, an annoyed Christine takes advantage of Johnny going to the men’s room, to have his seat moved. This annoys him, and puts an immediate barrier between them.
Once in New York, Johnny gets into a cab, only to have Christine suddenly jump in as well! She apologizes, and asks Johnny to allow her transport to upstate first, to which he angrily objects.
It turns out that Christine realized she had been followed by a mysterious van. Inside, some mercenary agents are indeed stalking Christine, who is a carrier for some diamond theives! Worse, due to one of them witnessing Johnny talking to her aboard the plane, they believe that he is her contact!
Arriving at his hotel, Christine puts the moves on Johnny, asking to make it up to him. Johnny, flattered, relents, and allows her to come up to his room. Once there, Christine finds out about his case of wine and convinces him to enter the bathroom and run the shower while she makes an important phone call. When he does, she then grabs the wine case, and slips out via the fire escape.
Christine then travels to Long Island and encounters her employer, the rich and slimey middle aged Steven Gates. It turns out that Christine is to convene with some Portugese middle men, and give them money in exchange for the diamonds. She then decides to use Johnny as her fall guy in order to make a clean getaway, and continues to use him with her charm, while repeatedly stealing his wine samples and leading him on many wild goose chases. He in turn believes that she is an agent from the Grape Growers Association, after him for selling unlicensed wine.
After tracking her down to a beach house in Maine, the two share a romantic evening together with a bottle of his wine, before she tells him the next morning that she did not have any genuine feelings for him.
After once again making off with his wine, Johnny then follows Christine to a shipyard, where the deal is to go down. Here, the agents attempt to corner him, only to have Johnny knock them over and flee.
Johnny then stomps off to the wine competition at the World Trade Center, with only two bottles left. At the tasting, Johnny and a French critic get off on the wrong foot, and leads to the critic insulting Johnny’s wine. Since the vote must be unanimous, Johnny’s plans for winning are crushed. He then takes a drink from some sympathetic Rabbis in the Mogen David booth, and now intoxicated, retaliates by pouring wine over the Frenchman’s head, and then causing a comical wine fight among the other contestants that turns into a riot, which leads to the all involved being thrown into a jail cell!
Meanwhile, Gates attempts to make his getaway, while leaving Christine to take the fall for him. However, Christine shows up, aware of his plans, and pointing a gun at him!
Johnny is bailed out of jail by a French wine merchant, interested in officially purchasing the rights to his family label.
The merchant then allows Johnny to be driven in his limo. He tracks Christine down to Gates’ mansion, where she had just been torturing and interrogating him. Johnny finds the diamonds in her purse and becomes suspicious, only to have her give him another false sob story.
The two then head to a cruise ship where she has planned to rendevouz with her partner, Alex and ditch Johnny, but this time, it is HE who pulls a double cross on THEM, as the two rush off the ship, they are nearly run over by Johnny, in THEIR limo with THEIR diamonds, who waves playfully out the window, before driving off into the night. Having lost the competition and the girl, but his naivety as well.
Upon reading this “rewrite”, all involved including Sandrich, Eisner and Brillstein’s reaction were unanimous.. They hated it.
The jokes weren’t funny, the characters weren’t likable and they weren’t invested in the story.
Sandrich had made it official. He was now OFF the project.
Ovitz made it clear to Belushi that the script needed work. John adamantly replied that he could do it with no problem, as the character was close to his heart.
Belushi, frustrated and angry, felt that he now had to use his improv skills to verbally and visually act the script out for executives.
Even Aykroyd was surprised that upon hearing of John’s furious reaction to Ovitz’s comments, and that Belushi had fired him. It was his belief that John’s drug habit was now driving him to such behavior,and he may need serious help. In the meantime, he had another role in mind for his friend. Namely, Peter Venkman in the supernatural comedy, Ghost Smashers.. Well, the title would need some work. As well as government employee turned secret agent Emmett Fitz-Hume in the cold war satire, “Spies Like Us”.
Eisner, in fact, felt betrayed by the script’s content, and immediately began looking for another project for John. He discovered that National Lampoon magazine writer John Hughes had written a comedic screenplay adaptation of the lovemaking manual “The Joy of Sex: A Dirty Little Love Story”, which followed one character through infancy, adolescence, dating, losing his virginity, marriage, and finally, falling back in love with his wife who he was divorcing.
When Belushi was confronted with such a project, he was immediately resistant. He instead attempted to keep pushing the Noble Rot project by having Novello revise the script alone, while he went out and partied with friends..
All of which would eventually culminate in that tragic final night in early March at the Chateau Marmont, chronicled here..
With John now dead, ANY sort of plans for the project had died along with him. Even though Ghostbusters and Spies were eventually produced without him It’s anybodies guess that, had he lived, if the project would ever be produced. For the curious, the January 1982 draft is available at my buddy Don’s blog, here: