A handful of Saturday Night Live sketches have been appropriated by time and loss. The long-running sketch comedy show has seen more and more casualties from the ranks of the hundreds of cast and crew members who’ve walked the stages and hallways of Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H and has chosen to memorialize their deaths with representative pieces from their time on the show, with unerring acumen.
Steve Martin responded to the death from cancer of original Not Ready for Prime Time Player Gilda Radner during his 1987 monologue, the emotional comic introducing a 1978 sketch where he and Radner, as two strangers locking eyes across a singles’ bar, come together for a silly and swooning romantic dance. The lovely waltz that forms 1987’s filmed short “Love Is a Dream” saw multiple duties over the years, the sentimental tale of two old lovers reuniting for a dream dance serving as a fitting memorial for both its stars, Phil Hartman in 1998 and Jan Hooks in 2014. And the late Chris Farley’s spirit has forever been tied to one specific “Chris Farley Show” sketch, where the wide-eyed comic wild man guilelessly asks guest Paul McCartney if, as the Beatles sang, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”
But no SNL piece has come to encapsulate a late performer’s legacy so fully as Tom Schiller’s 1978 film “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” That makes sense, as not only is Schiller’s lovely black-and-white mood piece a suitably somber rumination on death, but it’s also the first such sketch to find its reputation unexpectedly hijacked by the death of a Saturday Night Live star.
John Belushi died of a drug overdose on March 5, 1982, almost four years to the day after “Don’t Look Back in Anger” was first broadcast on the Art Garfunkel-hosted March 11, 1978, episode.
The film begins on a train, where an elderly Belushi rides to the lonely cemetery where all his former SNL cast members are buried together. The 29-year-old Belushi plays his elderly self utterly straight, with some fine makeup and wardrobe coupling with Belushi’s weathered croak of a voice to convey Schiller’s premise with stark authenticity. Struggling from his seat with a grunt, the elderly Belushi then trudges through the snow to a cluster of gravestones under a bare old tree, sadly noting to the camera, “They all thought I’d be the first one to go. I was one of those ‘live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse’ types, you know? But I guess they were wrong.”
For Schiller, the idea for the piece sprang from a talent the longtime SNL filmmaker claimed to possess, that he could see how someone will look when they get old. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” reads completely differently after Belushi’s death, since he was, indeed, the first of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players to go. But watching the sketch freed from that foreknowledge is to see a playfully morbid combination of score-settling, self-mythologizing and genuine affection from Belushi, whose tumultuous time on the show is the stuff of backstage legend.
Watch John Belushi Look Back in Anger on ‘SNL’
First stopping at Radner’s grave, the aged Belushi notes that Radner went on to become a big TV star in her native Canada after SNL, the old man noting sadly that he can, at least, always catch his “cute as a button” costar in reruns. Laraine Newman’s is next, her strange fate wrapped up in a murder scandal, a California pecan farm and Belushi’s assertion that she had apparently (holding his fingers about six inches apart) shrunk to inexplicable tininess when she died of unmentioned causes.
Jane Curtin’s eulogy takes a turn for the petty, as Belushi notes how Curtin had left showbiz to raise a family before dying of complications from cosmetic surgery. Curtin and Belushi’s relationship was always fraught, with the indeed happily married and stable Curtin absorbing constant abuse from the infamously boorish (and frequently misogynistic) Belushi in her time on the show. Garret Morris’ supposed fate is perhaps even more troubling, as Belushi relates how Morris — a trained actor before SNL — returned to the “Black theater,” before succumbing to an overdose of heroin. Both Morris’ marginalization of the all-white SNL and his burgeoning drug problems were well established by 1978, with Schiller and Belushi’s account of Morris’ eventual fate (and Belushi’s real-life fate) hanging heavily over the lines.
Recently joined player Bill Murray rates only a joke about his mustache, but Belushi’s revelation that Murray lived the longest of all his dead colleagues (he was 38) is a jolting twist. The departed (from the show, not from life) Chevy Chase’s controversial decision to leave after Saturday Night Live’s first season leads to the sketch’s meanest gag, as Belushi notes in passing that Chase died “right after his first movie with Goldie Hawn.” Chase’s fate is the only one to get big laughs from the studio audience.
Pausing to finally lay his lone wreath at the grave of best friend Dan Aykroyd, the old man weaves a tale of a 175 mph motorcycle crash, Aykroyd’s real-life predilection for risky behavior lending the ghoulish eulogy a certain credence. Belushi notes that he was able to identify his friend’s body because of his webbed toes, a condition Aykroyd proudly showed off in the following year’s infamous Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video.
The punchline to the bit comes when Belushi, seemingly asking the heavens why he only should have survived, raises a mischievous eye to Schiller’s camera to boast that his longevity comes from being “a dancer,” the elderly Belushi ending the film by doing a spirited dance to the old Yiddish folk song “Roumania, Roumania,” right on top of his departed castmates’ graves.
Taken on its own, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is a far more defiant and cheeky proposition than it would become. Belushi was settling scores with some while paying tribute to others of his fellow performers, all while perpetuating his aura as the fun-loving comic dynamo that was propelling him to superstardom. Famously, it ultimately fell to friend Brian Doyle Murray to pay tribute to Belushi on the first show after Belushi’s 1982 death, the then cast member (and elder brother to Bill) relating an anecdote of Belushi pushing Murray out of the way of a truck before being dramatically struck by it himself. Murray, still stunned by Belushi’s death, uses the word “indestructible” to sum up how he (and the emergency room doctors who found Belushi improbably unharmed) always thought of his friend, forming yet another memorable Saturday Night Live milestone marking death in the SNL family.