The Ghost of John Belushi : Inspiration of a Pop Culture Classic
By: Chris Darkes - November 22, 2016
Category : 80's
The year was 1982. After the untimely death of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd was left picking up the pieces of his best friend’s legacy. Among the things John left behind was a script Aykroyd had been working on for the better part of a year. As he hammered out the finishing touches, he received a phone call about the comedian’s accidental overdose.
The script had been written with Aykroyd and Belushi traveling through different times and dimensions catching ghosts in S.W.A.T.-like outfits. The story was called Ghostmashers and would require an array of special effects along with a hefty budget. Studios hadn’t been eager to scoop it up, even before Belushi’s death — Belushi was a liability, and hadn’t reached a hit since The Blues Brothers, almost two years earlier. Aykroyd on the other hand, was keen on getting things moving again, and wanted to keep his best friend’s spirits up. If things were shaky before, now they were almost all but certain.
But in almost a preternatural way, Aykroyd pushed forward. He wanted to honor his now deceased friend, and was going to get it made regardless of the outcome. He turned to his fellow S.N.L. co-star, Bill Murray (who studios were eager to cast), and handed him a half-completed screenplay. According to most sources, Murray agreed to take part in the film right there. There was a catch though. He wanted to star in a low-budget film titled, The Razor’s Edge, and as collateral he would agree to this project.
Next, Aykroyd turned to director Ivan Reitman who previously worked with Murray on Meatballs and Stripes. Reitman knew that Murray was known for flaking out last minute on projects, and could be the one to coax him. At a lunch meeting , Reitman and Aykroyd poured over the unfinished script. Reitman suggested they bring in Harold Ramis, who had written Animal House, directed Caddyshack, and starred opposite Bill Murray in Stripes. They walked immediately from lunch over to Ramis’ Burbank office. Thumbing through the script, Ramis listened to their infectious energy of the story, and after 20 minutes…Ramis said “I’m in.”
With that, Columbia Pictures greenlit the newly titled Ghostbusters, but stipulated the nearly impossible task of filming and ready for theaters in the summer of 1984. But with an unfinished script, shooting not even underway, and giving them less than a year — they were now fighting the clock. Ramis, Reitman, and Aykroyd quickly went into overdrive — fleeing to Martha’s Vinyard to get the shooting script prepped, writing 7 days a week for a month.
To make matters worse, Columbia Pictures president, Frank Price, was not convinced Murray wouldn’t back out of the deal after he wrapped filming on The Razor’s Edge. A team of lawyers sent by the board members grilled Price about what a mistake this movie was to greenlight, and if Murray didn’t show up, or the film failed, he was out on a limb.
By October ’83 they began filming in New York City. Murray, alas, showed up and Reitman personally delivered him to wardrobe. It wasn’t until they were deep into filming, they found out the title Ghostbusters had already been taken. Adding to the expensive headache — signs had to be reworked, reposted, and taped over the originals on the chance they couldn’t get clearance to use the name. But the biggest issue was they already wrapped the climax of the film where hundreds of people shouted, “Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters.” They eventually got clearance, and the filming wrapped up in February of ’84, giving them less than 4 months to edit and execute the nearly 200 special effects-driven shots they needed to make it successful.
With only weeks until the summer premiere, the studio got a cut of the film. The unanimous vote was the film was a complete failure, and financial waste. Frank Price, who genuinely enjoyed the film, was convinced the others were wrong.
When the film opened, lines around the block formed. Kids were dressing up for Halloween as their favorite Ghostbuster, and the proverbial sound of the cash register was ringing for Frank Price, and Columbia Studios. He recalled getting a phone call from the C.E.O. simply stating, “you were right,” and hung up quickly. Estimates state the film sold over 68 million tickets during its inital release.
Aykroyd credits his background and love of the paranormal for creating the latticework of the story. But he fondly stated what kept him going was knowing the film was really meant for his best friend. He added a little character in there, to reflect the hurricane that was John Belushi. That character is Slimer. The lovable ghost that would end up becoming as iconic as the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man, referring to it as “the ghost of John Belushi.”
What went from nearly a script never to see the light-of-day, into a success beloved by millions across the globe proves sometimes all you need is inspiration and imagination.
Also published on Medium.