FILMS

A haunted humorist

Dan Aykroyd conjures up spectral comedy

Brian D. Johnson June 26 1989
FILMS

A haunted humorist

Dan Aykroyd conjures up spectral comedy

Brian D. Johnson June 26 1989

A haunted humorist

Dan Aykroyd conjures up spectral comedy

People sometimes fail to recognize actor Dan Aykroyd, even though he is Canada’s most bankable Hollywood star after Michael J. Fox. The mildmannered son of Ottawa civil servants, he looks boyishly innocent—as if he just escaped from the pages of a Hardy Boys novel. And he has made a career out of playing it straight. But behind his mask of earnest normalcy are some strange obsessions. He enjoys riding shotgun with detectives in squad cars. Like Elvis, he collects police badges. But his most unusual hobby is a passionate interest in what is euphemistically called the paranormal. For the star and co-writer of Ghostbusters and its sequel, the supernatural is more than a laughing matter. Ghosts seem to run in Aykroyd’s family. His grandparents held séances. His father once subscribed to a journal of psychic research. And since he was a teenager, Aykroyd, now 37, has been amassing an extensive library on the spectral world. “I’ve never seen a full apparition,” he says in all seriousness, “but I once

saw what could be termed ectoplasmic light, and that scared the hell out of me.”

In his ghostbuster uniform, Aykroyd is known as Ray, the enthusiastic one. And like Ray, he seems to have more ideas than he knows what to do with. When NBC’s Saturday Night Live was in its fourth season—with up to 25 million viewers per show—he was its most prolific writer-performer. His comic inventions ranged from the coneheads, an alien family in the suburbs, to his own eerie caricature of former U.S. president Richard Nixon. And with SNL’s flamboyant John Belushi, Aykroyd created the Blues Brothers, matching gangstermusicians who made a hit record and a hit movie. Since Belushi’s 1982 death from a drug overdose, the shy sidekick has found his own identity onscreen. Always the straight-arrow dupe, he played a priggish executive in Trading Places (1983), a deadpan detective in Dragnet (1987) and a love-struck astronomer in My Stepmother is an Alien (1988).

Although it seems safe to predict that Ayk-

royd’s broad comic acting will never win an Oscar, most of his dozen movies have flourished at the box office. And as a writer, he has an underrated brilliance for generating high-concept comedy. Said Ivan Reitman, the Canadian director-producer of Ghostbusters and its sequel: “He really is an original thinker and is given very little credit for it.” Aykroyd’s first script for Ghostbusters was an unwieldy saga that ran on for hundreds of pages. Co-writer Harold Ramis shaped it into a hip, efficient comedy. But Reitman added, “The basic stroke of genius is Danny’s”—the concept of a public service squad that works like firefighters, subduing spectres. Aykroyd also dreamed up the monstrous Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man who stalks Manhattan like King Kong. And he had the merchandising idea for the movie’s cartoon logo and the ;5 spin-off toys. Said Ramis: “As 5r a creator, Dan’s imagination I is not restrained by the nor§ mal bounds. He lives with one 0 foot in the spirit world and the other in outer space.”

Last February, the cast and crew for Ghostbusters lí were on location in an old firehall in downtown Los Angeles, the set for the heroes’ New York City headquarters. In the parking lot outside were great vats of a gelatinous pink slime concocted by the special-effects crew. More than a prop, it was a premise: in the sequel, subterranean rivers of supernatural slime, which reacts to human emotions, are discovered under the streets of Manhattan. In the firehall, the cameras rolled as Ray (Aykroyd) demonstrated how a sample of the substance bubbles when shouted at. “This stuff actually feeds on bad vibes?” asked a fellow gnostbuster. Replied Aykroyd: “Like a cop in a donut factory.” The line just popped out—an improvised improvement on a script that he had co-written in the first place.

Interviewed by Maclean’s during breaks in the shooting, Aykroyd admitted that he is not entirely comfortable revealing himself to the public. On his Canadian passport, he states his occupation as “writer,” not “actor.” And on his frequent travels between Canada and the United States, he tells border officials who ask that he writes “technical manuals for Northrop Aircraft.” Declared Aykroyd, whose voice has the reinforced calm of a newscaster: “Frankly, I wish I had the money and not the fame. I can’t understand a guy like Donald Trump. He’s got all the money in the world but he still loves the high profile. I don’t believe in low profile; I believe in no profile.”

Aykroyd rarely grants interviews and shields his personal life even from his col-

leagues. He lives with his wife, actress Donna Dixon, in the Santa Monica mountains overlooking Los Angeles. While filming Ghostbusters in 1983, he wed Dixon on a weekend—but most of the crew did not find out about it until reading a report in the National Enquirer. Still, he agrees that celebrity has the odd perk. Last year, he was stopped for speeding while streaking across Arkansas in a MercedesBenz. The officer recognized the star of Dragnet, and 10 minutes later he was surrounded by squad cars. “It was very satisfying,” he recalled. “I got the full escort of the state at high speed.”

The actor has a strong affection for police. Apart from collecting badges, he rides a motorcycle that he bought from the Ontario Provincial Police and he co-owns, with several Toron-

to officers, a tavern called Crooks. He has even cruised with crime-fighting units in American cities. “I’ve had some amazing rides,” he said. “I was once handed a rifle and told to watch out through the windows while they interrogated a guy.” While he was filming The Blues Brothers in Chicago in 1979, the police lent him two squad cars for his personal use. “When I was late for work, bang—the lights, the siren!”

A Mountie’s grandson, Aykroyd considered becoming a cop before settling on show business. His French-Canadian mother, Lorraine Gougeon, was a government executive secretary in Ottawa. His father, Peter Aykroyd, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, rose to the rank of assistant deputy minister in the federal civil service and now works as a private consultant. When Dan and his younger brother, Peter, were children, their father was the chief engineer in charge of building the capital region’s Gatineau Parkway. “I grew up with bulldozers and diesel fuel and bush camps,” the actor recalled. “A man’s world, as it were.”

Raised a Roman Catholic, Akyroyd attended parochial schools, where he flirted with delinquency in a climate of strict discipline. He says that he left his first high school, the St. Pius X Minor Preparatory School for Boys, after its authorities “sat me down and said, ‘We don’t think you're priesthood material—better move on.’ ” Despite a smart-alec style that rankled his teachers, Aykroyd made it to Ottawa’s Carleton University, where he studied criminology. Meanwhile, he developed a comedy act with partner Valerie Bromfield and hung around the pop-music scene. And in the summer of 1970, while working on a road survey crew in the Northwest Territories, he learned to play the harmonica, a skill that became part of his act in the Blues Brothers. “It was a good place to learn, out there in the bush with the ravens and the wolves,” he said. “It was a great experience—I got hooked on the North.”

By the time he completed his bachelor’s degree at Carleton in 1971, Aykroyd had abandoned the idea of a career in criminology. With Bromfield, he joined the Second City comedy troupe in Toronto. There, he met two Canadians who would later become American comedy’s most influential producers: Lome Michaels, who went on to create Saturday Night Live, and future Ghostbusters baron Ivan Reitman. In 1975, Michaels lured Aykroyd to New York for the opening season of SNL. The chameleon of the cast, Aykroyd stretched his personality into a wild array of characters and he came up with some of the show’s most outrageous ideas.

At SNL, Aykroyd forged a strong bond with Belushi. Critics dubbed the SNL gang “the Beatles of comedy”—and Belushi and Aykroyd were its Lennon and McCartney. Leaving television in 1979 to appear in movies, they starred together in Steven Spielberg’s war farce 1941 and in The Blues Brothers. And they both bought houses on Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod. But while Aykroyd appeared to withstand the pressures of fame with a level head, Belushi was drawn into a fatal romance with cocaine and heroin that killed him in a Hollywood hotel room in 1982.

The day before Belushi died, Aykroyd— worried about his friend—called him from New York and asked him to return home. “I just missed by a hair getting him to come back. I feel badly that I didn’t go out there.” At the time, Aykroyd was writing Ghostbusters—with Belushi in mind for the starring role. Aykroyd, too, has experimented with drugs. “I tried everything that was going,” he said. “But I really found coke to be quite repulsive. It never worked for me, and I certainly didn’t like John when he was on it.” He added, “ I never had a drug problem. I like a nice cold Canadian Dow or Red Cap, if I can find it.”

Passionate about his homeland—his birthday falls on Canada Day—Aykroyd spends two or three months a year in Ontario. Each sum-

mer, he visits his parents’ cottage north of Kingston. He even has vague plans for a Canadian movie. It would involve Americans invading Quebec to quell a rebellion and to protect their hydroelectric interests.

Meanwhile, he recently produced a sitcom pilot about a mining colony on another planet titled Mars Base One—he has a small role as a Martian cop. He just finished shooting a soonto-be-released Hollywood comedy titled Loose Cannons, in which he stars as a schizophrenic forensic scientist. And, in a strange departure, he has taken on a serious role as a dowager’s son in Driving Miss Daisy, a movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning southern drama by Alfred Uhry. More caricature actor than character actor, Aykroyd says that he enjoys the opportunity to put on an accent. “What I like to do most,” he said, “is to get on glasses, a wig, and do a funny walk and a funny voice. I don’t like playing myself.”

But as a ghostbuster, he comes close to doing exactly that. According to Ramis, Reitman “really wanted Dan to play that side of himself that we know personally: exuberant, excited about a hundred things, always very busy.” He clearly enjoys the ghostbusting business and sees some social merit in it. “It lets people know that there are spiritual, metaphysical implications to life,” he said. “And it's not violent. We’re trapping ghosts and putting them away in a storage facility. We're not killing them.”

The civil servant’s son has come a long way from his rebellious days at the seminary school. In Hollywood, he has found a world big enough to contain his boyhood dreams. He has his own gang—and he is riding with the good guys.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON