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Peter Cook and John Belushi were two comics cut from the same cloth, dosed in booze, stuck in the top of a bottle and lit afire.
Two comedy geniuses found themselves in the spotlight. One burnt out very quickly; the other slipped into mediocrity. Both are sad cases of what could have been.
1997’s Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson is a superbly researched and informative look at a man who seemed to be as funny as he was charming, intelligent and well-read. He was a man keen on lampooning the well-heeled world from which he was formed and bringing it to the stage for the rest of the world to mock along with him.
Belushi was, on the surface, a Lenny Bruce figure of his day; a canny knack for what was funny, a born performer, but so reliant on his addictions that it was almost inevitable that they’d eventually get the better of him. Cook found himself jaundiced in his early twenties, so any kind of liquor consumption would be doing him irreparable damage – it stands to logic that he wouldn’t drink, and yet…
Both are examples of peaking too soon; they are examples of self-destruction; both left behind legacies of immeasurable quality and a sense of disappointment of what could have been, had a more straight and narrow path been followed.
At the time of Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special, Rolling Stone magazine ran a special edition ranking every single cast member in terms of their quality and impact. Last on the list (and there are hundreds of cast members over multiple casts over 40 seasons) was Robert Downey Jr, as someone ill-fitting of the sketch comedy format, given his wealth of talent and range of performance. Number one was John Belushi – perhaps not only because of what he did on the show, but also what kind of impact his work on the show had on those who followed him.
There’s also the enigma factor: what could have been, the mystery surrounding a figure who shone brightly and burned out. Heath Ledger gave a great performance in The Dark Knight, but would the same accolades have been afforded him had he not died before its release? There’s no way to know. Belushi – would he have gone to astronomical fame and heights of critical and commercial success? He certainly showed that he had some acting chops (Old Boyfriends, Continental Divide), and his comedy ones were there for anyone to see (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, SNL). But we’ll never know. He was too self-destructive to realise his potential. All of this is chronicled brilliantly in Bob Woodward’s 1984 book Wired – a sad tome in and of itself because everything Belushi did, career wise, was pointing to something grander; all the while his addictions and indulgences were always going to be the end of him.
Both flew too close to the sun. One got the brass ring and lost it, and became bitter about it; the other got the brass ring and dig himself in very soon after. Is it better to burn out than to fade away?
Then again, he could have gone the way of Chevy Chase, from the heights of fame and popularity to someone who now takes bit parts in unfunny movies and is a whole mess of bitterness as a result.
Dan Aykroyd was understandably livid when Woodward’s book came out, and spoke in nothing but bilious terms when the film adaptation was in the works – and quite rightly so; this was his “brother” who is featured from the opening scene of the film lying on the slab in a morgue. It was a strange film, not really done in the best taste, despite Michael Chiklis’ informed, sympathetic performance.
To Cook, though, it was all just sad. Here was a guy who was at the absolute peak of his form in the ’60s; among the most “in” of the in crowd of ’60s London. A comedic talent and brilliant comic mind unlike any before or since. Germaine Greer, who knew him, thought him a genius…and a drunk.
“I respected him as a comic genius. He was metaphysical, and his humour was totally mad. His work crossed every conceivable boundary. Every conceptual safety lock, he undid and mixed things all up together,” she said.
But his comedy husband Dudley Moore finds himself lifted to astronomical heights (movie stardom, which always eluded Cook – Moore was Oscar nominated for Arthur), and Cook is reduced to the status of an old soak at the end of the bar – once great, his comedy descendants yearning for him to do something else, something good, something that would rekindle the fire. And Cook is just drinking, watching football, pornography and just being a sad bastard who never realised his full potential.
The two of them are the opposite sides of the same coin: Cook, fades away over time, self-destructive but in slow motion. Belushi, the owner of such amazing comic timing and screen presence, gets overtaken by his addictions and demons and never achieves the heights he so clearly, obviously, was destined to achieve.
So, they both flew too close to the sun. One got the brass ring and lost it, and became bitter about it for his remaining years; the other got the brass ring and dig himself in very soon after. Is it better to burn out than to fade away? Both of these books give each case its worth.