How "Wired" Betrayed John Belushi's Legacy and Misportrayed Addiction

By David Konow 08/23/19

While Belushi’s family and friends would prefer that "Wired" be forgotten, the book provides a fascinating glimpse into how we didn’t understand addiction and harshly judged people who struggled with it.

Book cover for "Wired: The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi"
For Woodward, who was accustomed to tackling American corruption, condemning Hollywood came naturally.

“Woodward – that cocksucker!”

You can’t blame Jim Belushi for being upset. In fact, many of John Belushi’s friends and family members were infuriated with the book Wired, which was written by Bob Woodward, the legendary Watergate reporter.

Published by Simon and Schuster two years after Belushi’s death from an overdose, Wired was a stark and frightening portrait of drug addiction, but those close to Belushi felt its focus was too narrow, that it didn’t contain any of Belushi’s humanity or good qualities. Woodward put together the cold hard facts of Belushi’s addiction and piled up a number of horror stories, without capturing the whole picture of who the man really was.

"Exploitation, pulp trash" - Dan Akroyd Describing Wired

A swift counter attack on the book came from Belushi’s widow, Judy Jacklin. Dan Aykroyd denounced the book as “exploitation, pulp trash,” and Al Franken told Variety, “I hated Woodward’s book because I don’t believe he made an honest attempt to understand John, who despite his sometimes gruff exterior was a gentle soul. My former partner Tom Davis put it this way: ‘It’s as if someone did your college yearbook and called it ‘Puked.’ And all it did was say who puked, when they puked and what they puked. But no one learned any history, read Dostoevsky for the first time, or fell in love.’”

The controversy made Wired a major best-seller, and the people close to Belushi, who spent untold hours telling all to Woodward, felt burned and betrayed. Woodward was seemingly befuddled by the controversy, and many found his obtuseness infuriating. Woodward told People he was sorry that Jacklin was upset, but “what is important is that Judy is not alleging inaccuracy.”

While Belushi’s family and friends would prefer that Wired be forgotten, the book provides a fascinating glimpse into how many of us, like Woodward, didn’t understand the nature of addiction and harshly judged people who struggled with it.

Today, the rise and fall of John Belushi would be written differently, and much more sympathetically.

Robin Williams once joked that if you remember the seventies, you weren’t there. Not only was it an exciting time for comedy, but many in the entertainment business were out of their minds on cocaine. No one thought the high times would ever end.

Belushi: A Regular Guy Who Became a Star

John Belushi was a regular guy who became a star, thanks to the success of Saturday Night Live and Animal House. He was relatable and appealing. The public loved him.

But his private life was more complicated. Belushi could be brusque and awful, and like many people with addiction, there was a terrible Mr. Hyde that came out when he used. But just as frequently he was kind, decent, and generous.

Despite his talent and confidence as a performer, offstage Belushi was vulnerable and unsure of himself. Bernie Brillstein, Belushi’s manager, once said that the comedian was “sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes in need of a swift kick in the ass, more often in need of a hug.”

When Belushi died at age 33, it shocked the public. In the pre-internet, pre-TMZ eighties, Belushi’s addiction to cocaine and heroin was mostly hidden from the public. 

Belushi’s death hit hard. He was a major counterculture hero and a whole generation felt the loss. It was also a big indicator that the seventies were finally over. As Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Taxi Driver and American Gigolo, told journalist Peter Biskind, “The game was up. Some people quit right away, but the feeling was, the rules have changed.”

In the world of journalism, Bob Woodward was a major star in his own right. He came from the same hometown as Belushi, Wheaton, Illinois, and his reporting on Watergate turned him and his partner Carl Bernstein into household names. He was portrayed by Robert Redford in the big screen adaptation of All the President’s Men, further cementing his legendary status.

Was His Death a Sting Operation Gone Bad?

As a political writer, drugs and the Hollywood fast lane were not in Woodward’s usual wheelhouse, but when Judy Jacklin reached out shortly after her husband’s death, he was intrigued. Jacklin felt there was more to her husband’s death than a simple drug overdose, and she believed Woodward, who was already admired by the counterculture for bringing down Nixon, could get to the bottom of it.

Michael Dare, a former dealer and film critic who knew Belushi well, started asking around to find out what happened. There was apparently a rumor going around that Belushi’s death was “a sting operation gone bad.” Cathy Smith was a groupie who sold heroin to Belushi and gave him the speedball injections that killed him; some believed she was an informer for the LAPD.

Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro were with Belushi briefly at about 2 a.m. the morning he died, and some suspected the LAPD were hoping to set up a big bust where all three would get nailed. According to the rumor, the drugs that killed Belushi were given to Smith by the police. Dare even claimed he heard that a cop “prepared the scene the way he wanted it to be found, then went down the block and waited for the body to be discovered.”

Woodward never found any evidence of this, “not even as a wacko theory,” Dare said, and in retrospect the theory does seem ludicrous. But this was the primary reason Jacklin reached out to Woodward in the first place, and Wired is the result: a hard rebuke to that “wacko theory.” (Where Deep Throat told Woodward to “follow the money,” Dare told the reporter to “follow the drugs,” which he probably now regrets.)

As far as personalities, Woodward and Belushi couldn’t have been any less alike. Many who worked with Woodward found him cold, aloof, an uptight authoritarian workaholic without much of a sense of humor. In other words, he was the wrong person to write Belushi’s story from the get-go. But could be disarming, and many people confused the real Woodward with the version of him they knew from the big screen: Redford-as-Woodward.

In fact, when one of Belushi’s friends, Anne Beatts, was contacted by Woodward, “my secretary thought it was Robert Redford on the phone. Woodward was so charming, such a good listener, and we were so impressed meeting him. It was like, would Robert Redford lie to you?”

Woodward was so good at getting sensitive information out of people, most of Belushi’s friends didn’t catch on to him until it was too late. (“None of us knew what he was really up to,” Aykroyd recalled.) In hindsight, Belushi’s peers realized they were naïve. Considering Woodward helped topple the White House, what made them think he could be trusted not to reveal anything they didn’t want to see in print?

Woodward Wasn't the Best Person to Write About Belushi...or Addiction

There were other reasons why Woodward wasn’t the best person to capture a complicated personality like Belushi, or the complexities of addiction. Jacklin said that he took a complicated story “and made it very simple,” and one of Woodward’s colleagues told Rolling Stone that he “isn’t all that introspective. He’s a wonderful machine for gathering facts. He’s not good at insight…He wanted to go beyond the facts, and the gray areas were too immense…the facts about Belushi became his only refuge.”

What was especially infuriating to Belushi’s survivors was that Woodward blamed the Hollywood system and many close to him for enabling his death. But for Woodward, who was accustomed to tackling American corruption, condemning Hollywood came naturally: “There was no friendship and a safety net in that circle to save him,” Woodward told journalist Alicia Shepard. “I think it would have been morally offensive for me to try to please.”

Bernie Brillstein was one of Belushi’s peers who objected to Woodward’s characterization of show business. In his memoir, he wrote, “Woodward blamed John’s death on what he thought was a morally corrupt business that indulges its stars with reckless disregard for their well-being because so much money is on the line. That really offends me. We’d have to be scum. Inhuman. No amount of money in my pocket would have made me ignore John’s health for my own gain.”

When celebrities like Belushi needed help, it was a different world. In the early eighties, we didn’t have rehabs on every corner or TV shows like Intervention. The underlying causes of addiction were not well understood by most doctors, and treatment options were still in the dark ages. (There’s speculation in Wired that Belushi’s addiction and mood swings could have been from a chemical imbalance like “manic depression,” but he was apparently never diagnosed.)

Belushi's Death Signaled a Need for More Addiction Treatment

“We’d talked about institutionalizing Belushi but never did,” Brillstein explained. “The choices at the time were limited to hospital psychiatric wards and white-bread joints for alcoholics. Belushi’s death, perhaps the first high-profile cocaine casualty of the ‘80s, certainly signaled a need for drug rehab centers.” (The Betty Ford Center opened the same year Belushi died.)

Aykroyd added, “Intervention back then was not a tool that was used. Today if we had a problem like this, we’d get six to ten people together, we’d get the guy in the room, sit them down and say, ‘It’s gonna stop. You’re going into rehab and that’s it.’ Back then that was not a technique that was wide-spread.” For a while, Belushi had a sober companion hired from the Secret Service who did a good job keeping the drugs away, but it was a triple overtime job that wasn’t sustainable.

Years after the Wired fall-out, Jacklin and Tanner Colby wrote an authorized Belushi biography, and it’s fascinating to read both books back to back because together they give you a good idea of the intense highs and lows of John’s life. Jacklin’s book gives you the good memories, the brilliance of Belushi’s comedy, and the good side of his personality. Then when you pick up Wired, you realize what terrible, terrifying lows Belushi sank to in his addiction.

If Belushi had lived, he would be 70 today. His comedy still stands the test of time, but he had so much more to give. Not long after he died, a fan left a note on his grave: “He could have given us a lot more laughs, but NOOOOOOOOOO….”

If any good came from Belushi’s passing, it was that it scared a lot of people straight. SNL producer Bob Tischler recalled in the book Live From New York, “When John died, it changed me. I gave up doing drugs. And I haven’t done any since.”

He Made Us Laugh, and Now He Can Make Us Think

And while many felt that Wired gave an incomplete picture of Belushi’s life and legacy, Woodward definitely got one thing right: “Nonetheless, his best and most definitive legacy is his work. He made us laugh, and now he can make us think.”

Or as Brillstein summarized, “Four years of television, seven movies, and we’re still talking about him. Isn’t that amazing?”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.