The Two Local Commercials That Predicted John Belushi’s ‘SNL’ Stardom
Believe it or not, John Belushi was not a slam dunk to be hired as one of Saturday Night Live’s original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. While Belushi had many fans in the New York and improv comedy scenes — chief among them Gilda Radner, who lobbied for his casting — Lorne Michaels himself was on the fence. He was worried that the Aykroyd/Belushi combination would be trouble (he wasn’t wrong), plus Belushi had a real animosity toward the medium of television in general. Belushi owned an old black-and-white set, he told Michaels, and it was covered in spit from disdain.
But secretly, Belushi wanted in, according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. His resume was as good as anyone else’s in the developing cast, with stints at Second City and the National Lampoon’s radio show, both of which would be well represented on the new late-night program. He was also creative director of the Lampoon’s Off-Broadway revue. As for on-screen work? He didn’t have much to show, but he did act in two local television commercials that he reportedly used as his demo reel.
Both spots were created by Jim Weller, a Milwaukee ad man who would go on to national prominence a decade later. The ads show off the charismatic on-screen presence that would eventually make Belushi a star on SNL and in movies like National Lampoon’s Animal House. In the first spot, Belushi plays straight man, the nebbishy Marine Bank representative who convinces a snarling Jessie James that what he really needs is an Americard with his picture on the back. By all rights, James should have stolen this commercial right out from under Belushi (imagine if Belushi had been cast as the outlaw!), but the comic actor’s wonky enthusiasm wins out.
The second spot for Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel might as well have been an audition for SNL. It features Belushi (in surprisingly effective makeup for a local 1970s commercial) as Brando’s Godfather, holding court over his daughter’s wedding. It’s a character Belushi would reprise on Saturday Night Live’s ninth episode, attending a group therapy session as an organized crime boss working through his feelings about the Tattaglia family.
Brando was like Belushi’s Conheads, a recurring character that killed every time he brought him back.
The same impression Belushi did in the hotel commercial was featured in his SNL audition tape, with Belushi breaking out not just a Godfather version but an On the Waterfront variation as well.
As the Beatles once joked, Belushi passed the audition. That was no surprise to local viewers in Milwaukee, who’d seen the young comic’s comedic and impersonation skills during commercial breaks on their local evening news. The talent on display was an offer that even a skeptical Lorne Michaels could not refuse.