Jim Belushi’s network television career has been bookended by series set in Las Vegas. The part-time musician feels a spiritual connection to the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. And this weekend’s shows at the Tropicana’s Laugh Factory with his improv group, The Board of Comedy, could be the start of his becoming a fixture on the Strip.
“I would love that,” he says of the idea of a limited residency. “That would be so fun.”
Belushi earned his first paycheck as an entertainer on June 6, 1976, performing scenes written by his brother John, Bill Murray and “SCTV’s” Joe Flaherty as a member of Chicago’s Second City improv troupe.
Two years later, Garry Marshall came calling and cast Belushi as Bert Gunkel, a clumsy TV cameraman and neighbor to two Las Vegas showgirls, on the NBC sitcom “Who’s Watching the Kids?” Three of the four top series of the 1978-79 season — “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy” — were created by Marshall. “Who’s Watching the Kids?” debuted in 1978 but never made it to 1979.
“Oh, my God!” Belushi exclaims, laughing deeply, when asked about the series.
“I’d never been to Hollywood. I’d never been anywhere.” Recalling the Bob Seger song “Hollywood Nights,” he says, “That was me. I mean, I came from the Midwest, and all of a sudden I’m in California. And these Hollywood nights. … I mean, it was wild.”
During the show’s brief run, Belushi lived on the Sunset Strip at the Sunset Marquis, a hotel as legendary for its rock ’n’ roll clientele as the debauchery and damage left in their wake. “I mean, Hunter Thompson was coming through there. Roger Ebert. Jaco Pastorius was there.” The actor spent many a night with the jazz bassist listening to tapes of his recent recordings. “From eating cheeseburgers in Chicago to sitting with Jaco. It was a head trip, man.”
In 2010, Belushi was back in a TV version of Las Vegas, co-starring with Jerry O’Connell in “The Defenders,” a CBS drama based on the lives of local attorneys Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese.
“Oh, God, that was a good show,” he says, despite the fact that it, too, lasted only one season. Asked what went wrong, Belushi reveals CBS Chairman Les Moonves told his manager that canceling the series was a mistake.
Going off script
In between, Belushi spent two years on “Saturday Night Live” and never strayed far from his improv roots, which will be on full display Friday through Sunday.
“You gotta understand, the Board of Comedy, there’s not a ton of money in it,” Belushi admits. “It’s really about the joyfulness that I experience with these guys. I mean, I have the same feeling when I do the Blues Brothers with Danny (Aykroyd) and the Sacred Hearts, my band. Jamming is everything.”
The troupe includes Belushi’s “According to Jim” co-star Larry Joe Campbell, whom he calls “the funniest man I know,” as well as Second City Chicago alums Megan Grano, Joshua Funk and Trey Stone.
“I am jamming in front of people with people I love. We’re going to another level of consciousness and giggling the whole way. So the money is the secondary thing,” he says. “My agent doesn’t think that way, but you know.”
As excited as Belushi gets when talking about improv, not everyone appreciates it when the actor goes off script.
While filming his well-received work on the Showtime revival of writer-director David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Belushi says he “ad-libbed a line or two” during a party scene. “At the end, Lynch, with his megaphone, he goes, ‘Mr. Belushi?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He goes, ‘Do I need to bring you to the principal’s office?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ ‘All right.’ He was darling. I loved working with him.”
Working with Woody Allen
Then there was the intimate scene with his onscreen wife, Kate Winslet, in Woody Allen’s upcoming “Wonder Wheel.”
Belushi says the auteur told the duo, “Whatever you feel, you guys just go ahead. I’ll just film it.”
“So we do this scene, and Kate and I are acting our asses off,” he says. “I mean, it was so beautiful to act with her. And we’re acting, and we’re acting, and we’re acting. And then (Allen) comes, and he goes, ‘Wow, that was a beautiful example of the most apathetic acting I’ve ever seen. If I put this in the film, the audience will be in the lobby three minutes into the movie.’ ”
The jovial Belushi laughs hysterically while telling the story, just another wonderful memory in a career full of them.
So what’s his favorite memory of Las Vegas?
“God, there’s so many. I think when Danny and I opened the House of Blues” in 1999, he decides. “Danny and I, I wouldn’t say we were the owners, but we were part of the House of Blues. So I’ve always been rooted in Vegas with the House of Blues.
“That opening was great, because we had, like, 900 bikes riding down (Interstate) 15. And the coppers on the motorcycles pulled traffic out. We had the whole highway. I had a pretty girl on the back holding me. Driving up and playing for all the bikers, that might have been one of the best for sure.”