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Classic Royko: My Belushi pals

SNL 40TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL -- Season 4, Episode 5 -- Pictured: (l-r) John Belushi as Samurai Futaba, Buck Henry as Mr. Dantley during "Samurai Optometrist" skit on November 11, 1978 -- (Photo by: Fred Hermansky/NBC/NBC)

Editor’s note: John Belushi, one of the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” died of a drug overdose on March 5, 1982. This column by Mike Royko ran in the Chicago Sun-Times two days later.

Like so many Chicagoans, last Thursday night I was watching a rerun of the original “Saturday Night Live” show.

I was rewarded when John Belushi came on to do one of his outrageous skits.

As happened whenever I saw John perform, I felt a mix of emotions.

Amusement, of course. All he had to do was lift a brow and curl his lip and he could make me laugh.

OPINION

But I also felt pride. As I wrote here once before, I go back a long way with the Belushi family. John’s late Uncle Pete was one of my closest friends and was godfather to my first child. John’s father and I were also friends. I first set eyes on John when he was about five years old, running around his uncle’s backyard while I devoured his Aunt Marion’s wonderful Greek cooking. I don’t remember that he was very funny then. But he and the other Belushi kids were sure noisy.

So when John became successful, I suppose I felt something like a distant uncle and was proud of him.

But, as I watched him on my TV or in a movie theater, I always felt puzzled. Where had this incredible comic instinct come from? His parents were good people, but not visibly humorous. Yet they produced two sons, John and Jim, who have the rare gift of being able to make strangers laugh.

I remember when I first learned that John had become an entertainer. It had to be, oh, a dozen years ago and I was at an independent political rally at a big restaurant on the South Side. A young man came up to me and, in a shy way, said: “Uncle Mike?”

I guess I blinked for a moment because he said: “You don’t remember me?”

I said: “I know you’re one of the Belushi kids by your goofy face, but I’m not sure which one.”

He laughed. “I’m John, Adam’s son.”

I asked him if he was there because he was interested in politics.

“I just joined Second City. We’re going to be doing a few skits here tonight.”

I was impressed. Second City was already a nationally known improvisational theater group. I wish I could say that after I saw him perform, I knew he would one day be a big star. But I didn’t. I could see he had a flair,  but I wouldn’t have bet you money that by the time he was 30, he’d have one of the most familiar faces in America. A lot of people are funny, but very few have a talent that might be called genius.

As I said, I always had a mix of feelings when I watched John. And last Thursday night, I also felt a twinge of sad nostalgia.

That’s because he was playing Pete the Greek, the owner of the short-order diner. You know the one: “Chizbooga, chizbooga, cheeps, cheeps, cheeps.”

Whenever I watched him do that character, it was like flipping back in time almost 30 years.

I’d be sitting in a short-order diner in Logan Square, waiting for my wife to finish work upstairs in a doctor’s office. The diner was where Eddie’s Barbeque now stands, just across the side street from where the old “L” terminal used to be.

John’s Uncle Pete would be at the grill, slapping cheeseburgers on the grill, jiggling the fries. Marion would be serving the food and coffee and handling the cash register.

I don’t remember if Pete said “chizbooga” and “cheeps” exactly the way John later did. His thick accent was Albanian, not Greek. But it was close.

And somewhere in another neighborhood, in another short-order joint, Adam Belushi was slapping cheeseburgers on another grill. Everybody in the family was chasing the American dream. And they were doing it the way immigrants have always done it. Whatever works — and never mind how many grease burns you get on your arms.

If it was a Friday, we’d probably wind up in Peter’s third-floor flat or my attic flat, drinking Metaxa and talking about the things we might do some day. If I ever got off that weekly neighborhood newspaper and he and Adam could pyramid those short-order grills into the restaurant of their dreams.

We were all together the night a few years later that the dream restaurant opened. Adam, Pete and me and our wives. The place had thick carpets and cloth wallpaper, oil paintings, a piano player in the bar and the best prime rib I’ve ever had. Maybe you remember it — Fair Oaks, on Dempster, in Morton Grove. It’s now a big Mexican restaurant.

We toasted their success. It was a long way from tending sheep in Albania, and they had earned it. It didn’t stop there, either. Before long there were other businesses. Pete figured he might as well go on and become an American tycoon.

But life has a way of giving you the gladhand. Then slamming you with a fist.

A few years ago, Pete, still in his 40s, died. At the funeral, we talked about John and how he had gone to New York and was starting to make a name, and how proud everybody was.

And the last time I saw John, we talked about those times and my friend Pete. It might surprise those who saw him only on the TV or in movies, but he was still shy and often quiet. And he had not let his success and wealth turn him into a jerk. He was still a genuinely nice kid.

That was the night his movie “Continental Divide” opened in Chicago and there was a party after the show. A reporter for “Rolling Stone,” who covered the evening, later wrote that as the evening ended, John and I were hugging.

I guess we were. When you feel like a proud uncle, and see the kid up there on a movie screen, you ought to give him a hug.

This column seems to have rambled. I’m sorry, but I just heard about John a few hours ago, and I have difficulty writing when I feel the way I do right now.

He was only 33. I learned a long time ago that life isn’t always fair. But it shouldn’t cheat that much.

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