The John Belushi Tragedy Was A Wake-Up Call For Robin Williams

Williams was with Belushi just hours before he died.
The John Belushi Tragedy Was A Wake-Up Call For Robin Williams

A new installment of VICE TV’s Dark Side of Comedy serves as a grim reminder of Robin Williams’ struggles with drug addiction. In the episode, fellow comics like Allan Stephan remember early days in Williams’ stand-up career when he wouldn’t take the stage without chemical assistance. "Know anyone with any blow? I have to go on and I can't go on without any blow."

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But Williams got clean in the early 1980s after a tragic incident that scared him off drugs for good. The comic had become friendly with John Belushi during his visits to New York, goofing with him on stage at Catch a Rising Star and touring the city’s punk clubs with Belushi as guide, according to the Williams biography Robin. The experience, said Williams, was “like being on a tour with Dante, if Dante were James Brown. I was like Beaver Cleaver in the underworld.”

Belushi dropped by the Mork and Mindy set to watch Jonathan Winters do his thing in early 1982, where Williams and Belushi made vague plans to hang out. Two months later, Belushi was staying in a Chateau Marmont bungalow working on his next project. On the night of March 4, he met up with Robert De Niro and Harry Dean Stanton at a nightclub -- the same club Williams headed to after a late-late set at the Comedy Store. Now it was 2 a.m. and the club had closed but the bouncer told Williams that Belushi was looking for him. With that, Williams headed to the Chateau Marmont.

Williams ended up in Belushi’s bungalow where he was joined by Belushi and Cathy Evelyn Smith, a singer and drug dealer. According to Williams, the evening didn’t amount to much -- Belushi banged out a few chords on an acoustic guitar (Williams was amazed how well Belushi could play considering his state of intoxication) but he was groggy from quaaludes. Williams called it a night and went home to his wife Valerie, telling her about Belushi and his friend Smith. “He was with this lady,” he said. “She was tough, scary.”

At some later point that morning, Smith injected both herself and Belushi with speedballs, a potent mix of cocaine and heroin. Belushi died in his sleep of an overdose -- the combination of the speedball with other drugs he had taken that night proved toxic.

Williams showed up for work the next day on the Mork and Mindy set a little hungover, clueless as to what happened after he’d left the bungalow.  Near lunch time, news of Belushi’s death made its way to the set and Williams’ costar Pam Dawber broke the news. 

“I said, ‘I’ve got something really terrible to tell you, Robin. He went, ‘What? What?’ And I said that John Belushi was found dead last night,” Dawber said in Robin. “He went, ‘What? I was with him last night! I was with him last night!’”

While Dawber tried to comfort her grieving friend, she also wanted to deliver a warning: “I said, ‘Robin, if that ever happens to you, I will find you and kill you first.’” A solemn Williams insisted that it wouldn’t. 

Williams -- and a lot of Hollywood’s hard-partying crowd -- saw Belushi’s death as a “huge wake-up call,” said Dawber. Belushi was larger than life, seemingly indestructible. Williams knew something had to change or he would suffer a similar fate. “It was like, ‘Look at you, you little frail motherfucker. You’re small change, Jack.’”

For Williams, that meant not only walking away from drugs but the Los Angeles scene altogether. “I think that was pretty much the bottom rung,” Williams confessed later. “You don’t get much lower than that. It was time to leave this unhappy watering hole—time not to wander down this canyon any longer.”

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