Before the debut of 'Growing Belushi,' the former sitcom star reveals why he moved to Oregon to harvest the "plant that heals" and sheds new light on the "trauma of his life."
The tale of how Jim Belushi went from one of Hollywood’s top-earning actors — at his peak, he was making $500,000 an episode on According to Jim, which ran for eight seasons on ABC — to Southern Oregon pot farmer begins with a baptism. Shortly before the sitcom about a suburban Chicago dad wrapped in 2009, Belushi visited a family friend who lived on the Rogue River, a spectacularly scenic waterway famed for its salmon runs. "I went skinny-dipping in that river," recalls Belushi, 66. Submerging himself naked in the Rogue’s pristine waters had a profoundly transformative effect on him. "I came out going, 'You know what? I think we should look for a place around here.' "
Three years later, Belushi got his wish and purchased 15 acres of prime riverfront property in Eagle Point — what previously was an Elks Club picnic grounds that had fallen into disrepair — for the bargain price of $725,000. There, he built himself a rustic cottage out of reclaimed wood and developed the property around it. He refurbished a stage on the grounds, where he and close friend "Danny" Aykroyd have performed for local charities as The Blues Brothers, the legendary music act co-founded by Belushi’s late brother John, who, just 33 at the time, succumbed to a fatal overdose in 1982. (Jim has stepped in for John in the years since his brother’s death.)
In 2014, Belushi’s Oregon neighbor died, and suddenly 80 lush acres of prime farmland opened up, which he also bought. Thus arose the matter of what to grow. "There’s a line between Napa and about 20 miles above me that’s a [latitudinal] parallel," Belushi says of the fertile region. "They say that God on the seventh day dragged his hand along that parallel, all the way from Napa and Southern Oregon, through the groves and cornfields of Illinois, all the way to Bordeaux and Burgundy. That parallel just has the perfect sun, soil, temperatures and water."
Belushi considered a variety of crops, everything from hay to soybeans. But on July 1, 2015, Measure 91 was signed into law, legalizing the nonmedical cultivation and use of marijuana in Oregon. The result was a green gold rush. These days, every billboard at the local airport near Medford is covered in something pot-related, and the aroma of weed permeates the roads. Belushi decided that year to grow his own cannabis crops and documented the entire, quixotic enterprise on film — the results of which will air as Growing Belushi, a three-part Discovery documentary premiering Aug. 19. Not being a pot smoker himself — he hadn’t touched it since high school — it caught his friends and family off guard.
"I couldn’t wrap my head around it at first," says Rob Lowe, 56, a confidant since the two met on the set of the 1986 romantic comedy About Last Night, which Belushi credits with launching his film career. "Jimmy is always looking for a new adventure."
Five years later, Belushi has pivoted away from Hollywood to focus the majority of his time and energy on growing marijuana on Belushi’s Farm. "I’ve done it," he says of the L.A. lifestyle. "I raised my kids there, went to all the premieres. I went to award shows. I’ve been to Toscana 1,600 times. I have a grateful feeling for the life I had there — I’m just moving on to kind of a new reinvention."
In August 2019, he put the larger of his two Brentwood homes, a 14,300-square-foot Tuscan villa, on the market for $28 million. (It hasn’t sold yet.) As for acting, since According to Jim, Belushi has made it a habit of popping up only sporadically and in some unlikely places. Part of that may be a result of his reputation: The sitcom was not a happy set, according to several well-placed sources, who say Belushi indulged in control-freak behavior that increased as the show grew more valuable to ABC. "I have high standards and a high work ethic. You could probably say I should have delivered the message differently," Belushi responds, adding that he personally called every writer and co-star Courtney Thorne-Smith after production to "make amends. I apologized for my brashness in delivering the message."
Synonymous throughout the ’80s and ’90s with mainstream schlock like Red Heat (in which he played cop partner to Arnold Schwarzenegger) and K-9 (in which he played cop partner to Rando the German shepherd), Belushi’s résumé has taken a turn in recent years. In 2017, he played an alcoholic carousel operator in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel and a vengeful casino owner in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. "I saw him in a little offbeat movie years ago and I thought, 'Who is this guy? He’s really good and if I ever have the right part he’d be terrific,' " Allen writes in an email. "And decades later I had the right part and remembered him — and he was terrific." Before that, Roman Polanski cast him as a publishing executive in 2011’s The Ghost Writer. Belushi waves off any controversies surrounding his collaborations with Allen and Polanski ("I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible artists," is all he’ll say on the topic) and credits his career strategy to longtime ICM agent Eddy Yablans, who puts a premium on auteurs. "Eddy wants me to do the David Lynch-type things."
The life of a gentleman farmer — particularly one growing a crop as temperamental as pot, where slight vagaries in sunlight and precipitation can reap devastating results — can be hard. Early in his efforts, nine months of work were destroyed when Belushi sprayed rare Afghanese seedlings with a pesticide then left the lights on overnight in an indoor growhouse, burning the plants to death and costing him $400,000 in lost profits. So why, I ask. Why deal with all that hard work and frustration when Belushi, who enjoyed one of Hollywood’s most lucrative careers playing blue-collar Joes and extra-manly everymen, could just as easily kick up his feet and enjoy the Oregon sunsets while sipping on a mai tai? "What you just described takes about an hour and a half," Belushi explains. "How long does it take to make a mai tai? How long is the sunset? How long can you put your feet up? Come on, man. There are a lot of other hours in a day, and at this point in your life, you want purpose."
But the question of why persists and has puzzled virtually everyone around him. "You know what I think?" Lowe theorizes, not quite ready to accept that Belushi is done with show business. "I think any time someone finds substance and fulfillment outside of showing up on a movie and TV set, people say, 'They’re done with Hollywood.' But I think you can have both."
More than just a grower of cannabis, Belushi has evolved into a passionate apostle of the plant, in particular its ability to help users cope with psychological trauma. He tells me the story of a homeless woman he saw screaming on the streets of Portland. "I thought to myself, 'If I could just give her an edible, it may at least stop the screaming for her,' " he says. "We’re all screaming from something — whether it’s the loss of a big job, a divorce, some trauma, a severe illness in one’s family. Whether it’s my brother John, who died of a drug overdose."
Thirty-eight years later, John’s death — and the media feeding frenzy that ensued — is no less vivid, no less horrific. It remains the defining trauma of Jim Belushi’s life.
They had grown up very close in the Chicago suburbs, two of four children born to Albanian immigrants. Their father had worked his way up from valet parker to busboy to bartender and eventually opened a restaurant with his brother. "You know the 'Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger' place?" Belushi says, referring to one of John’s most popular Saturday Night Live characters. "That was my dad’s place, the Olympia Lunch — and he built it up all the way to a steakhouse." Jim was 16 when he first saw his brother perform at Second City, Chicago’s famed sketch-comedy launching pad. "For the next eight years, all I wanted to do was perform at Second City because it was magic," says Belushi. "I auditioned, and I got in, and I called John. I said, 'Hey, man, I just got into Second City!' There’s a long pause, and he goes, 'Uh … I thought you were more like a drama guy?' "
John eventually accepted that Jim would follow in his footsteps and mostly left him to find his own way — but would occasionally dole out some advice. ("Stick around at the afterparties just long enough to say hi to the bosses," was one that always stuck with Jim.) Mostly, though, he helped Jim by "showing the possibilities we could have in this little immigrant family," says Belushi. "If it wasn’t for John, I would be serving dinner tonight at my dad’s restaurant."
After John shot to stardom on SNL in 1975 with characters like Samurai Futaba, an ancient warrior who worked menial jobs, and the Olympia Diner sketch, he would return occasionally to Chicago a conquering comedy hero. On one of those trips, he took his 21-year-old brother with him to the local Russian baths. "The steam’s coming through the pipes, and a guy comes up with a bucketful of soap and starts smacking me with a bunch of oak leaves," recalls Belushi. "Then John puts me in a cold shower, and I’m just standing there, naked. He takes some shampoo and washes my hair. That moment to me was like: 'This guy loves me.' "
Later that night, the brothers went to a Sam Goody record shop: "John talks to the manager, the manager calls his accountant, and the next thing you know, he says, 'You’ve got 10 minutes to get every album you’ve ever wanted.' I got [Jimi Hendrix’s] Cry of Love. All The Doors. Keith Jarrett. … I had a box to carry them out."
But John could be competitive and territorial, too, something that increased as Jim started getting noticed by Hollywood. In 1979, Jim made a splash in Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the David Mamet play that served as the inspiration for About Last Night. "Don Simpson flies out, sees the play, takes me for a beer, and he goes, 'Yeah, they should make a movie out of this,' " Jim recalls of the Top Gun producer, who died in 1996. A few weeks later, he got a call from John. " 'Hey, Jimmy,' he says. 'Don Simpson just sent this Sexual Perversity in Chicago script for me and Danny [Aykroyd]. It’s pretty good.' I said, 'Don’t do it, John.' He goes, 'What are you talking about?' I said, "This is my character. I developed it. Leave it alone.' John goes, 'Jimmy, you don’t understand Hollywood. They’re heat-seeking missiles. Danny and I are really hot right now, so we get everything. They’re not going to make it with you. If we pass, they’re going to offer it to Billy Murray. Wouldn’t you rather have someone in your family play the role?' What a dick."
The project was put into turnaround at Paramount but would be resuscitated six years later as a vehicle for Lowe and Demi Moore. Only after virtually every comic actor in Hollywood read for the part he had originated in the play — Lowe’s oversexed best friend — did the studio finally OK Jim, then 32 and best known for his own two-season stint on SNL. Recalls Lowe, "John’s death was still recent and raw enough that it was clear that it was a subject that was not to be spoken about."
SNL had been a dream for Jim since his early 20s, when he’d drive down to New York City to bask in his brother’s success. That’s where he first met Captain Jack, a hippie adventurer who had earned the nickname "The Smell of SNL" around Studio 8H (Jack declines to give his last name). "I was always welcome backstage from the beginning of that show," says Jack, who, now in his early 70s, features prominently in Growing Belushi. (It’s his Gulzar Afghanica seedlings, from seeds purchased on a trip to Afghanistan, that Jim scorches in the first episode.) "30 Rockefeller Center stank like a skunk," Jack continues. "Even [then-NBC chief] Fred Silverman up in the Rainbow Room had to tolerate those clouds. Everyone was so successful they couldn’t do anything wrong." As for Jim, Jack remembers him hanging around, "but he was John’s younger brother — and who talks to anybody’s younger brother?"
John was a star middle linebacker on his high school football team, and Jim is certain he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), recalling the terrifying moment a teenaged John had a convulsive seizure in the family’s laundry room. He suspects John’s escalating drug use was an attempt at self-medicating and maintains that if his brother had stuck only to pot — his death was the result of a speedball mixture of cocaine and heroin — he’d still be alive today. He also blames L.A. for his brother’s death. "I don’t think John would have died in any other city," Jim says. "There is a loneliness that can prevail in Los Angeles, coupled with the unbelievable accessibility of everything."
Ask Belushi where he was when he learned of his brother’s death — John famously died in the Chateau Marmont’s Bungalow No. 3 — and he describes it as if it happened a few days ago. "I was in the middle of a voice lesson at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago," he says. "I was doing Pirates of Penzance, and a guy in the box office was listening to the radio, and he came backstage and told me he heard it, and I thought it was just some joke him and Danny [Aykroyd] were doing. I went to the box office, I called WBBM Radio, and the guy said, 'I’m sorry, Jim.' He read it from the AP report, and that’s how I found out. And then I went and did the show that night."
John at that point had become the leader of the Belushi family. "In our family, the most successful was the head," explains Jim. "So it was like chopping the head off. It was like throwing a hand grenade into a family: The shrapnel hits everyone differently, rips us apart. And then to put the extra layer of notoriety around it just overwhelmed me."
When Bob Woodward, of All the President’s Men fame, approached the family in the early 1980s to write what they thought would be a reverential account of John’s life and tragic death, they opened themselves up to the Washington Post journalist. The book, 1984’s Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, offered nothing but a harrowing portrait of the superstar’s downward spiral. "That was the true trauma of my life, the release of the articles on Wired to promote his book," remembers Jim. "The betrayal [by Woodward,] the guy we thought was the white knight who brought Nixon down. He convinced us that there were conspiracies and people trying to kill John, all of this bullshit." Responds Woodward, 77, "I do describe John’s talents and skill and charm, but the drug use is so shocking and raw, that is what you remember from the book. I had to do my job as a reporter. It’s a horrifying story. And at the time and for many years later I got letters from people saying that the book saved their lives, because they were living Chapter 34 — and in Chapter 40, you die."
Belushi insists that, unlike his brother, he was never much of a party boy. "I never got high or drunk," he says. "I didn’t want anything getting in the way of my work." He still isn’t a weed smoker, but he does partake of his product; he likes to eat pot-infused chocolates containing 2.5 milligrams of active ingredient. "Really lightweight. Most people take five because five is described as a 'warm hug.' " He enjoys a strain he calls Cherry Pie, which he refers to as "the marriage counselor" because it turns him into a sweetie pie. His wife since 1998, Jennifer Sloan, likes it when he uses Cherry Pie; she filed for divorce in 2018, but the two have since reconciled. They raised two children together, daughter Jami, 21, who studies drama at NYU, and son Jared, 18, entering his final year at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. (Jim’s third child, from a previous marriage, Robert Belushi, 39, is part-owner of Prime Pizza in L.A.) "I can’t go there," Belushi says of the state of things with Sloan, who spends the majority of her time in L.A. and runs a children’s boutique at the Brentwood Country Mart. "As of this moment, we’re still together."
His weed business, meanwhile, has found its footing. Legalization resulted in a glut of product early on, making it hard to sell, but that has since settled down. Belushi’s Farm produced 1,200 pounds of cannabis last year, a market value of $1.3 million. The name Belushi helps: Varietals like Blues Brothers, Belushi’s Secret Stash and Captain Jack have taken off in Oregon, and Belushi is negotiating to sell the product in the rest of the U.S. and Canada. But running costs and taxes are high, and a cheaper black market for pot continues to thrive. "I spend about $500,000 in labor," Belushi says. "There is another $350,000 in grow expenses, and then there is marketing and travel. If we can make a couple hundred thousand bucks, I’d just give it out to everybody as a bonus. My goal is to break even."
Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, Belushi spent two weeks of every month on the farm, the other two traveling with side projects like The Blues Brothers or Board of Comedy, his improv group. But COVID- 19 has forced him to hunker down at the farm for the past four months, son Jared by his side. "Turned that Brentwood boy into a bit of a farmer," he chuckles, "putting fence posts in, cleaning up the chicken coop." Belushi’s next goal is to open a pay-what-you-can dispensary in Portland’s Old Town district. "So the homeless, the veterans, anyone can come in and buy a gram for 35 cents if that’s what they have." He’s also a founder of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit that seeks to reverse the country’s roughly 40,000 cannabis-related incarcerations.
There’s a scene in the second episode of Growing Belushi when Jim and his cousin and business partner Chris head down to Colombia in search of strains of weed recommended to them by Aykroyd. As he coasts by helicopter over the country’s lush jungles bordering Venezuela, the pilot tells him that he’s entered the Red Zone: Beneath them is the coca field where Pablo Escobar made his fortune soaked in the blood of tens of thousands of cartel-war victims. Peering down, Belushi can make out farmers tending to their leafy crops.
"I wonder if the cocaine that was involved in my brother’s death came from one of these fields," he muses, and it suddenly dawns on him that the trip to Colombia was an attempt to get closer to John. “I wanted to get down in that coca field and pull it up from the roots and look at it in the eye and say, 'Stop hurting people and families,' " he says. "If they could turn those fields into cannabis, those families could make their living farming, and they could make a plant that could heal people — spiritually, physically, emotionally."
Perhaps this is the answer to Belushi’s late-life rebirth. Pot as panacea. Mother Nature as family therapist. Or maybe it’s just a lot of fun.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.