In 'The Castle on Sunset' — currently being adapted into an HBO series by John Krasinski — Hollywood historian Shawn Levy retraces the comedian's final days inside the legendary hotel where pal Robert De Niro stopped by to snort cocaine just hours before his death and the hotel's famed discretion was put to the ultimate test.
When he checked in at the front desk on the night of Feb. 28, 1982, John Belushi was a time bomb, a waste site, a mess. Sweaty, flabby, edgy, pale, disheveled, worn to a stump at the age of 33, he had called ahead to reserve his favorite bungalow, No. 3, one of the ones Al Smith had purchased that stood close to the private entrance on Monteel Road. Like other members of the extended Saturday Night Live family, Belushi had been introduced to Chateau Marmont by the show's producer, Lorne Michaels, who stayed there when he was a comedy writer for a variety of TV shows and who liked to joke that he moved around the place as his fortunes in the business ebbed and flowed: "I lived all around in the hotel, moving from room to room. If I had the money, I moved to a larger suite. If not, I took a smaller one."
Belushi had been in residence at the hotel for more than a month earlier that winter, at first in a suite in the upper floors, No. 69, only to abandon it when he and his neighbors found one another noisy: them complaining about Belushi's music and carousing, him being woken by their crying baby. He moved to a penthouse, No. 54, and then, after a visit from his wife, Judy, who found the setting depressing — "Are you sure you want to stay here?" she had asked him, after finding a quaalude on the floor of his room — he moved into the bungalow, with his script drafts, his research materials, a new stereo system, and the rest of his belongings. He was going to get a movie written. He was going to create a hit.
The film he wanted to make was Noble Rot, a romantic comedy about a robbery scheme set in the early years of the California wine industry. And in the days after his frazzled arrival at the front desk, he would take meetings with writers and development executives and ask any number of friends in and out of the business to give their impressions of the script.
But the work wasn't going well, and neither Belushi's manager, Bernie Brillstein, nor executives at Paramount Pictures were happy with the results so far. The studio had run out of patience and was willing to cut its losses and start anew; Michael Eisner, Paramount's production boss, even came around to the Chateau to pitch Belushi on a whole new idea, a spoofy adaptation of The Joy of Sex with Belushi playing a variety of characters representing the range of human sexual experience.
But it became clear to everyone dealing with the comedian that he was off, badly: His attention span was negligible; he took and made mysterious phone calls around the clock; he was frequently hours late or completely AWOL from meetings and appointments; his hotel room was a pigsty; his speech was scattershot and even incoherent; the clothes he wore were dirty and rumpled; he didn't seem to be bathing or shaving regularly; he was barely sleeping. When the filmmaker Al Reinert came across Belushi waiting for his car in the hotel garage, he noted the star's clearly disoriented manner: "He would pace around the valet area, muttering incomprehensible curses, his pupils as black and dilated as wide-open camera lenses."
Everyone assumed Belushi was using drugs, and the suspicions were absolutely correct. He had long been known to be an all-in sort, devouring food and booze and controlled substances with the same impressive gusto with which he dove into physical comedy. His superhuman capacity had always been a point of amazement, and he wasn't shy about boasting of it. Heedless hedonism was one of his comic gifts, and he made great comedy of his appetites onscreen and off. But the state of him that winter wasn't a piece of acting. He had been drinking and smoking pot and, especially, using cocaine all day, every day, for a long time, and he'd begun to dabble in heroin — partly, he would tell people, as research for a movie he wanted to make about the punk rock scene.
Given that it was Hollywood and the early '80s, this sort of behavior, while extreme, was often tolerated: You generate income for entertainment conglomerates, they don't care too much what you do with your free time or to yourself. But Belushi was riding a poor streak. His two 1981 films, Continental Divide and Neighbors, were bombs, as was his 1979 film, Steven Spielberg's 1941. He saw modest success with 1980's The Blues Brothers, which gained a cult following but hadn't sold enough tickets to compensate for its out-of-control budget. His last true hit was Animal House, almost four years earlier, a lifetime in Hollywood. He was in danger of squandering his career, and his life choices were making that seem a likelier outcome than not, even to casual observers. During his stay at Chateau Marmont, he took a meeting at a Sunset Strip nightclub with a pair of studio executives who brought their wives along. After their parley, which was — as was becoming more common with Belushi — disjointed and unproductive, one of the women said to her husband that she was reminded of a classic Hollywood tale: Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. But that was a movie about a forgotten star, he replied; everyone knew Belushi. "Sunset Boulevard," she repeated. "I'm telling you. We just saw it."
While Belushi was trashing his bungalow and himself, people around him were scheming to get him back to New York, where his wife, Judy, and his partner and best friend, Dan Aykroyd, felt they could help him get clean from drugs and resume working productively. Aykroyd could always bring out the best in Belushi; when he visited the Chateau during Belushi's previous stay, the pair were seen on a lark, staging a mock sword fight in the lobby lounge, using 2-foot-long candles as weapons. Aykroyd was busily working on a script, titled Ghostbusters, for the two of them to make together with another SNL alumnus, Bill Murray. But even tracking Belushi down to have a chat was becoming impossible. He darted around erratically from nightclubs to people's homes to restaurants to guitar shops to his favorite bathhouse to assignations with drug dealers, sometimes abandoning limousines he hired and driving off with some new acquaintance. When he was in the bungalow, he was often too addled to talk or answer the phone, or he was surrounded by clutches of sycophants and drug-world people and hangers-on and unable to have a serious conversation. He was a wreck, and he was spinning beyond the reach of anyone who could help him.
At Chateau Marmont, Belushi was occasionally seen in the company of Robert De Niro, who had come to Los Angeles to look into some new film projects. The pair knew each other from lower Manhattan. De Niro had been a guest at Belushi's home, where a basement rec room was the scene of some wild late-night parties (at one, De Niro cut his hand so deeply that he had to go to the hospital for stitches). Since he had last visited the hotel to make the aborted Bogart Slept Here, De Niro had acquired the habit of keeping more or less on retainer an upper-floor penthouse at the Chateau, preferring to stay in the hotel after having some bad experiences with rental houses during recent trips to Hollywood. His laundry was done by the hotel staff, his car was kept under a dustcover in the hotel garage, and he came and went unnoticed: a New York apartment dweller utterly at home in a place that felt like a Manhattan high-rise.
On this visit, De Niro had been joined for a time by his young son and adolescent daughter. One afternoon, he took them to a party where they encountered Belushi snorting such quantities of cocaine and heroin that he had to excuse himself to go find a place to vomit. That sordid spectacle didn't stop De Niro, who was using cocaine himself in those days, from seeking Belushi's company regularly after the kids went back east. De Niro would occasionally come down from his suite to Belushi's bungalow to hang around, laugh and party, or the two would bump into each other in the VIP rooms of various Sunset Strip restaurants and nightclubs and set off together on some sort of spree.
On Thursday night, March 4, De Niro was bopping around town with actor Harry Dean Stanton, and the two kept phoning Belushi to get him to come out and join them, first at Dan Tana's, an Italian restaurant favored by movie people, and then at On the Rox, the exclusive nightclub on the Sunset Strip where famous folks could get up to just about anything. Failing to raise him, they drove over to the Chateau to see if they could coax him into a bit of play. Instead, they found him — and his bungalow — in an awful state. The living room was a shambles — not sloppy, but actually trashed, as if in a rage. And worse, a flinty, hard-eyed woman named Cathy was lounging amid the discarded pizza boxes and wine bottles and dirty laundry as if she had some claim to the place and to Belushi himself. De Niro didn't like the look of her at all — he called her "trashy" later — and he was happy to leave when Belushi suggested that he and Stanton go back to On the Rox and return to the bungalow after the club closed.
De Niro left, and when he returned to the Chateau a few hours later, it was to his own suite in the company of Stanton and a pair of women they'd met. There, he got a phone call from Robin Williams. The comedian had run into De Niro and Stanton at On the Rox, and they all agreed to meet up at Belushi's after Williams performed an unscheduled set at The Comedy Store, also on the Sunset Strip. On the phone, De Niro told Williams that he was busy and that he should stop by Belushi's on his own. Williams did and, like De Niro, was creeped out by the scene, leaving after a few words and a little coke. After he left, De Niro, too, stopped in at the bungalow, entering through the sliding glass patio door. He had a few words and a few lines and then took some of the cocaine that was piled on the living room table and went back to his suite. It was some time past 3 a.m.
At 8 a.m., a room service waiter delivered wheat toast, jam and a pot of coffee to Belushi's bungalow; Cathy Smith, the woman whom De Niro had shied away from, signed for the order, had her breakfast, cleaned up the room, especially the drug paraphernalia, checked in on Belushi, who was snoring loudly in bed, and left.
A little while later, the music producer and manager Derek Power came knocking on the bungalow door while looking for Miles Copeland, manager of the rock trio The Police, who was himself staying in one of the hotel's bungalows. Power knocked several times without getting a response before realizing he was at the wrong door and moving along.
At around noon, a taut, spry man walked through the grounds of the hotel, past the swimming pool, with a typewriter in his hand. The sky was clear, the air was warm, and the few sunbathers and lap swimmers who had come out to enjoy the weather took no notice of him: People were often passing through the pool area with musical instruments, wardrobe cases, cameras, easels — the clumsy stuff that creative folks use to make art.
Maybe 20 minutes later, a second man came by, in a suit, rushing, but again, nothing terribly odd and, again, nobody paid much mind.
But presently there were paramedics, moving with purpose, and then policemen, snooping about, and within an hour, outside the hotel grounds but creating an unignorable hum, television camera trucks and packets of paparazzi.
Finally, one of the sunbathers wandered into the lobby, which was unusually active, and asked a hotel employee what was going on. He was told, in the understatement for which the Chateau had long been known, "There has been a slight disturbance." Soon he learned that the truth was more than just "slight" and far bigger than a "disturbance."
John Belushi had been discovered in a state of unconsciousness by the man with the typewriter, his personal trainer and bodyguard, Bill Wallace. Wallace had performed CPR on the comedian but wasn't able to rouse him. Because it was Hollywood, and agents mattered more than cops, Wallace had phoned Brillstein, whose offices were just down Sunset Boulevard at 9200 — 10 blocks away.
"I'm having trouble waking John up," Wallace said, clearly agitated. Brillstein thought Belushi might be playing possum to avoid a meeting he was to have that day with Paramount executives, and he told Wallace that he'd send someone over. Wallace called again a few minutes later, in an even more stressed voice: "There's something really wrong with John!" Brillstein had his secretary call a doctor, who recommended calling for paramedics, which she did, and then he ordered his assistant, Joel Briskin, to get over to the hotel. He was the second man on the scene, the man in the suit who'd rushed past the pool.
When he got inside the bungalow, Briskin found Wallace weeping, still trying to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Belushi. "Get out of here," Wallace hollered at him. "John's dead!" Almost immediately, an ambulance arrived and EMTs assessed the comedian's state. They didn't even try to defibrillate him; he was, as Wallace had declared, gone. They called for the medical examiner, but they saw the needle marks on Belushi's arms: They knew he had died of an overdose.
Brillstein, for his part, had left his office and driven to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he assumed Belushi would be brought for treatment. He warned the staff that a major star had suffered an accident and was on his way and would require immediate care and, above all, privacy. And then he waited for news, which was painfully long in coming. He paced and smoked, his mind racing: He imagined that Belushi didn't need to come to the ER at all, or that he was taken to another hospital, or that it was the worst case possible and time wasn't of the essence, an outcome that he didn't want to believe.
And then the call came from his office with the horrible news.
He felt his body react with sweat and hollowness and a shudder that was "like a little stuttered giggle." He hung up and gathered himself sufficiently to take the next steps, a professional manager and problem solver in his bones. He called Aykroyd and told him what had happened, point-blank, no sugar coating, instructing him to get to Belushi's house and tell his wife before the media got the story. And then he returned to his offices to deal with the aftermath of an unimaginable tragedy that almost everybody had seen coming and no one knew how to prevent.
The hotel staff was busy improvising a response to an event that none of them had ever faced or prepared for. By chance, general manager Suzanne Jierjian wasn't at her usual post but at a medical appointment when the news came from Belushi's bungalow. When she returned, she was jolted by the spectacle of emergency vehicles on the street and a steady flow of reporters and cameras to the site. She was greeted by her assistant Tom Rafter, with word of what had happened, and even that was sketchy: Belushi had died, he told her, but nobody knew how or why. She was at a loss as to what to do when rescue came in the form of co-owner Ray Sarlot, who had been having lunch at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills when the news broke. He had raced back to the hotel. "It was bedlam," he remembered, "swarming with outsiders, the switchboard was lit up."
Among the callers was De Niro, who had been trying to reach Belushi throughout the late morning and wasn't getting through. Perhaps noticing the commotion in the streets below his suite, he called the front desk directly, only to find his inquiries rebuffed. He demanded, finally, to speak to Jierjian, who reluctantly took his call.
"Where's John?" he asked her. "There is a problem," she said. "What?" "It's bad." "Is he sick?" "It's really bad."
De Niro suddenly understood. He dropped the phone, crying.
Sarlot, meanwhile, leaped into action. He had every intention of cooperating with the authorities, whatever that meant in such a situation, but he didn't care for the tumult being caused by the droves of newspeople and gawkers who were descending on Chateau Marmont. He had to protect his other guests, as well as the reputation of his business. He stationed guards at all the entrances to the hotel, directing anyone who wanted to come inside to the garage, which was the easiest point of entry to control. The police set up a barricade at the foot of Marmont Lane, allowing only hotel guests and residents of the streets above the hotel through. "It was the first time in all the years I've stayed there that I had to show my room key to get back into the hotel," recalled a guest.
Some in the media breached the cordon. One camera crew made its way up to De Niro's suite, hoping to get a response from the actor. They banged on his door repeatedly — on live TV — until they finally heard a voice from within hollering, "Go away!" Another reporter found an uncharacteristically talkative subject in one of the hotel's gardeners, who stated with great confidence that Belushi had died of a heart attack with his clothes neatly folded beside him, "as though he had gone to bed for the night … It looked like he choked on his tongue and the phlegm in his mouth." (The next day, when his bosses saw his comments in the paper, the chatty greensman was sent away from the property and assigned to work on Sarlot's San Fernando Valley home before returning a few days later to his regular post.)
Sarlot and his team managed to keep a lid on the situation so that other guests of the hotel not only avoided intrusions into their lives but didn't even know that something so dreadful and sensational was going on right under their noses. Sarlot relished a particular example of how well his staff managed to deal with the awful scene. "What people don't realize about the night Belushi died," he confided to the Los Angeles Times a few years later, "is that the whole time all of that stuff was going on, Tony Randall was living right next door! Tony had no idea what was happening until he saw the coroner's wagon."
Eventually, Belushi's body was strapped to a gurney and rolled out to a coroner's vehicle on Monteel Road. The street was lined with photographers, reporters and curiosity seekers, as close to the bungalow as they had been able to get for hours. The reporters pushed toward the body, barking out questions, until Jierjian stepped up and reproved them. The reporters, chastened, quieted and backed off. A police lieutenant watching the spectacle approached her and asked if she had any interest in working for the LAPD. "We need somebody like you who can handle the press," he said.
The following day, Brillstein and an assistant were permitted to enter the bungalow and retrieve Belushi's personal belongings. The police had already made a thorough sweep of the place, turning up some marijuana and residue of white powder in a dresser drawer and some small folded paper envelopes of the sort commonly used to package cocaine and heroin. Brillstein couldn't believe the state of his client's rooms: "The scene was not only depressing, it was depraved. I couldn't believe John had lived there." There were half-drunk beers and bottles of wine and cups of coffee, plates of cold food, heaps of garbage and dirty laundry, and scattered papers, including piles of phone messages. Brillstein grabbed a few documents that he thought looked personal and a jacket that he thought was appropriate to dress Belushi in, and he left for the mortuary, where he would help prepare the body to travel back east for a funeral, a trip on which he would accompany it.
Sarlot and his staff, meanwhile, cleaned the bungalow more thoroughly, throwing away most of what they found and identifying a few valuable-seeming items to put in the hotel safe in case the comedian's family claimed them later. They then set about completely remodeling the room, changing all the furniture and decor. "It was no longer the same unit," Sarlot said. "We didn't want the place to become a cult symbol." The hotel kept a small but tight security cordon in place for about a month after the comedian's death, hoping to discourage the wrong type of attention.
But that wasn't to be, not entirely. For decades, even during the '60s heyday of the Sunset Strip, Chateau Marmont had enjoyed something of a privileged position amid the hurly-burly of Hollywood: It stood slightly apart from the commotion around it — compact, old-world, elegant, just off to the side of the circus, much as it sat just off Sunset Boulevard itself.
After Belushi, that changed. The Chateau became part of the show. A species of tourism sprang up in the '80s, a variant on the traditional tours of movie stars' homes dedicated, instead, to the locales where various notorious Hollywood incidents occurred. Invariably, these "ghoul tours" would slow down in front of Marmont Lane so that guides could point out the famous "naughty" hotel where John Belushi died. Looky-loos would occasionally enter the grounds trying to get a glimpse of the infamous bungalow, but they would either be turned away or simply leave in disappointment when they saw how staid and demure the setting was. (Among those who wanted a piece of the place was the New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who came to Los Angeles soon after Belushi's death and insisted that his art dealer host put him up in the bungalow where the comedian had overdosed — a fate to which Basquiat himself would fall in 1988.)
In 1984, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Watergate fame published Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, a painstakingly thorough but often tone-deaf account of, in the main, the final years, days and hours of the comedian's life, interviewing scores of Belushi's intimates, including his widow; his actor brother Jim; Dan Aykroyd; Bill Wallace; Bernie Brillstein; even Cathy Smith, who in 1986 pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter for supplying Belushi with drugs and injecting him with his final fatal speedball doses of cocaine and heroin. The book was a best-seller, but it was something that nobody wanted: a misdeed-by-misdeed account of a life gone wrong, a chronicle of addiction that indicted everyone, a book that uncovered everything about Hollywood, drugs and Belushi and yet seemed to understand none of it.
Brillstein felt that Woodward had an agenda of his own by taking on a project outside his habitual milieu of politics, saying he "came to town and looked at the situation through the eyes of a guy who knew nothing about the times or the environment or the people. He didn't want to understand how Hollywood worked. He just wanted to condemn it. I think he already had his mind made up." Aykroyd shared in the disappointment: "He painted a portrait of John that was really inaccurate … This was my friend that was being besmirched … It was all about the drugs and the excess, not about the quality of work and the background in theater and the preparation and the respect that John's friends had for him." And Jim Belushi held back nothing in his disdain for his brother's biographer: "Woodward — that cocksucker. That motherfucker! … I don't think Woodward's capable of understanding what love is, or compassion, or relationships. He is one cold fish."
Even from the vantage of Chateau Marmont, to which Belushi was technically no more than a guest who'd caused an unusual disruption, Wired was an affront. The owners of the hotel didn't mind what was said about the comedian. They objected, rather, to the first line of the dust jacket: "John Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose March 5, 1982, in a seedy hotel bungalow."
"Seedy"? Their $250-a-night bungalow? (Approximately $655 in 2019.) That was a fighting word.
"He made it sound like some place near a downtown bus station where big drug deals are made," Ray Sarlot moaned. He and his partner, Karl Kantarjian, filed an $18 million defamation suit ($43 million today) against the publisher, Simon & Schuster, demanding that the cover be removed from the books and/or recalled. "Ray had spent so much time and effort bringing the hotel up to respectable condition," remembered Sarlot's wife, Sally Rae. "It was a blow to him to hear someone call it seedy. He was defending its honor."
At first, Simon & Schuster pushed back: "It was the author's opinion that the bungalow was seedy on March 5, 1982." But they quickly realized it was best to put the squabble behind them. They settled with the hoteliers within weeks, changing the wording in subsequent printings of the book jacket and issuing a press release in which Woodward qualified that it was Belushi's mess that he was referring to and not the hotel itself. "The Chateau has a charming ambience," the author said, "and I would enjoy staying there myself." (His first words had a lasting sting, though: The month after the hotel and Woodward worked out their conflict, a travel piece about the Chateau in the Chicago Tribune was published with the headline "If the Marmont's So 'Seedy,' Why Is It a Retreat for the Elite?")
Wired was a big enough hit to draw the attention of moviemakers, although many in Hollywood were loath to touch the material. Veteran producer Edward S. Feldman managed to get the film made, despite obstacles and even violence: Jim Belushi stormed into his office one day and trashed it, instructing a secretary to "tell Feldman who did this." "I would," she replied, "but I don't know who you are, sir." The film premiered at 1989's Cannes Film Festival to a reception of walkouts, catcalls and boos. Much of it was set at Chateau Marmont, which was explicitly named and shown in exterior shots several times early on. A mock-up of a bungalow stood in for Belushi's rooms (for the record, it wasn't especially seedy); it was the primary set for the final third or so of the story. Woodward, who was written into the script as a kind of observer/hero, walking through Belushi's final days with him like an impartial guardian angel, told reporters that he found the film "exceptional … It deals with the themes with utter clarity." But critics and audiences agreed with the Cannes crowd; the picture died, grossing barely $1 million.
More than three decades after Belushi's death, the tragedy was still synonymous with Chateau Marmont. Almost every article about the hotel would mention the connection, and even for many in the Hollywood community, the comedian's overdose was considered a feature of the hotel and not a sad fact from its past.
Novelist Jay McInerney, who was a regular at the Chateau for a number of years and became a good friend of one of its owners, made his first trip to Hollywood as a guest of a production company that was interested in acquiring rights to his novel Bright Lights, Big City. "They told me they were putting me up at Chateau Marmont," he remembered, "and I said, 'Is that good?' And they said, 'Is it good? John Belushi died there!' "
From the book The Castle on Sunset by Shawn Levy. Copyright © 2019 Shawn Levy. To be published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.