Profile: Dan Aykroyd

Picking on the funny bone

Patricia Goldstone March 24 1980
Profile: Dan Aykroyd

Picking on the funny bone

Patricia Goldstone March 24 1980

Picking on the funny bone

Profile: Dan Aykroyd

Patricia Goldstone

It was a brilliant scheme, as it turned out. NBC TV execs were wearing the carpet thin trying to think up a program that would corral 18-to-34-year-old watchers (the trendy spenders) in front of television screens late in the evening. So they sent their scouts scuttling to the stages of the Second City satirical revue companies in Toronto and Chicago and signed up seven young jesters at $750 a week. Among the seven was a large, deceptively clean-cut young man with a shock of unruly brown hair and a startling gift for mimicking Presidents Carter and Nixon, Orson Welles, Clark Gable and other victims. Nobody could have guessed there was an Ottawa Valley accent somewhere in his makeup.

The show they put together back in 1975 was Saturday Night Live, now an institution. The performer was Dan Aykroyd. Today, at 27, he is rich, famous and a cult hero to more than 60 million viewers of the program. Although Aykroyd has since moved from TV to making movies, his SNL pro-1 grams are now popular, £ prime-time reruns. The at-y traction was a blend of sog phisticated, if somewhat er« ratic, slapstick humor and ¡ü pointed sociopolitical com°mentary, all served up with an alfresco improvised air. In the best tradition of humor, the show had viewers laughing at their own foibles, which in turn had reviewers talking about its “cutting edge of truth.”

Dan Aykroyd was as sharp as any part of that edge, although the word “sharp” is hard to associate with a Silly Putty face that can stretch to any age or degree of imbecilic expression. His fresh-faced good looks can switch in an instant to the unctuous, fawning grin of alter ego E. Buzz Miller, a sleazy “television personality”; or to the numbing puerility of Beldar Conehead’s blank stare. He drips hypocrisy as a puritanical newscaster accusing Jane (“You slut!”) Curtin of all his own unslaked lusts. With comedian Steve Martin he created a period piece of the late ’70s, the “Czech Brothers” routine. They put the macho image of discotheque culture on the end of a sharp thespian skewer and punctured it gleefully, enshrining “wild and crazy guys” in the vernacular. To this dimly lit pair, women were invariably “foxy chicks,”

objects of the verb “gonnaget.”

His comic writing (for TV as well as movies) has the pile-driver relentlessness of a TV pitchman—which in fact he was; as an actor he stalks his characters with the obsessive eye of a criminologist—he was that, too. His talents have taken him beyond the TV screen through two movies, 191+1 and Love at First Sight (which died after a few weeks’ run in 1976), and on to his current film project, making The Blues Brothers with actorpal John Belushi. Lome Michaels, producer of SNL, calls Aykroyd “if not the best actor I’ve ever worked with, certainly one of the best.”

A recent interview with Aykroyd was a journalist’s rare field day, since his only previously published interview, with Rolling Stone magazine, left him furious at the press in general. He had been pic-

tured as being drug-crazed, schizoid, ungrateful to his parents and condescending to his girl-friend, SNL co-writer Rosie Shuster. But on the set his acting persona bore little resemblance to the dishevelled, wild and crazy guy in the Stone’s photographs. Smartly turned out in the olive drab and puttees of a 1940s soldier, hair neatly brushed, Aykroyd looked his part: “a straight, knowledgeable, motorpool mechanic.”

The second Dan Aykroyd is probably closer to the “real” Dan Aykroyd than the first. Born in Ottawa and raised in Hull, Quebec (“Where Montreal sends its old gangsters to cool out”), Daniel Edward Aykroyd is the son of Samuel Cuthbert Peter Hugh Aykroyd, a former government official whose English lineage can be traced back to a 14th-century police constable.

Expectations for young Daniel were high at home, particularly on the part of Aykroyd’s French-Canadian mother. But Aykroyd, although no slouch intellectually, managed to get himself ejected six times from some of Canada’s finest schools, including the St. Pius X Minor Preparatory Seminary for boys. (That’s his story. His mother says he was never expelled, but that it tickles his sense of humor to embellish his delinquent past in the retelling.) “I was really a loser, man,” he remarks with some pride. “But all the real intellectuals I knew, the people who fascinated me, were losers too. They banded together for survival and became hoods. And I became part of the band.” His high-school education ended at a co-ed Catholic school in Ottawa, of which he told Stone editor Timothy White: “My friend, there were much better men than me there to serve the Lord. We were all supposed to be little angels, little priests. But we’d put on our polka dot mod shirts, Wildroot Cream Oil, Beatle boots, and cut loose”

Looking back on that period, Aykroyd marvels, “What a loudmouthed, flagrant fool I was.” His romance with delinquency continued through college atCarleton University where, “heading toward a career in prison classification,” he shuffled between courses in criminology. (He spent one summer writing a manual on “personnel placement” for the solicitor-general’s office in Ottawa.) He lived with a gang called the Black Top Vamps, played the harmonica in several bands and continued his studies on a nonacademic level with nightbirds like “George de Teef,” a French-Canadian fence. Between school years his father found him a succession of character-building jobs: railway stock clerk, warehouseman and surveyor on a road in the Northwest Territories. (Today Aykroyd’s shirts are still strongly tinged with blue. He likes to “punch in and punch out” at the studio, then “go home and forget about it.”)

He was acting at the same time, and made a painless transition from campus follies to Toronto’s Second City revue after a brief stint as a TV pitchman at $35 a week. (Younger brother Peter has followed Dan’s footsteps into Second City and Saturday Night, where he has been writing and performing for the past year. “They’re very close,” said Michaels, “but we’re trying very hard for Peter not to be Danny’s shadow.”) He also ran the Club 505, on Toronto’s trendy Queen

Street East (“The best bootleg booze-can there ever was in Canada”), with buddy Marcus O’Hara. The 505 fused many of Aykroyd’s thousand faces. He could be a blue-collar barkeep, a gangster bootlegger, and an actor satisfying his need for company into the small hours after a show, all at the same time. (It was also a necessary vent for steam. In New York on Saturday Night, Aykroyd set up an identical joint with 53 friend Belushi, the famous, or infamous, Blues Bar. It was§ there that Belushi and Ay" kroyd, with first-class backup musicians, recorded the blues album Briefcase Full of Blues, which was certified platinum in the U.S. in 1979. As Joliet Jake Blues, Belushi howled out the songs while Aykroyd, alias Elwood Blues, played the harmonica.

Life was sweet. Manic actor Belushi, who met Aykroyd one night improvising at Second City, was “a little freaked out” when the 22-year-old Canadian refused to leave his niche for big bad New York and the National Lampoon Radio Hour and the off-Broadway hit The National Lampoon Show, which Belushi was directing at the time.

It was Lome Michaels who eventually pried Aykroyd over the border. Aykroyd admits that Michaels was more than a little dubious of the highly volatile elements of Belushi and himself, and hesitated a long time before hiring them. “He’d heard that we were unreliable, that there might be discipline problems, y’know?” But Michaels’ instincts proved correct, and Aykroyd had found a niche. ‘It’s interesting that Saturday Night, which commented so directly and so tremendously on the American way of life, had such a strong core of Canadian talent,” Aykroyd points out. “There was Lome and Rosie [Shuster], Howard Shore, the musical director, Shore’s assistant Paul Schaeffer, myself, and another writer, Brian Murray. Gilda [Radner], though she’s from Detroit, lived and worked in Canada for a while. There was a tremendous overlap between the two Second Cities: it’s all the same group of video commandos.”

The whole first year of the show, Aykroyd crashed on a foam-rubber mat at Belushi’s Village pad. His sleeping arrangements were somehow symbolic of the breakneck pace of the show. “You couldn’t improvise the way we did on Second City because we had five cameras rolling and the director cutting to lines and you couldn’t deviate because he’d lose his shot. When we built the script beforehand we’d improvise, then sit down and write it, cut it down, build it up, polish it, block it on camera twice, play it twice, then the third time play it for keeps. It

took one week to do a whole show. We’d go home on Sundays, worry about it all day, then boom! It would be Monday, and we’d be back with a new one.”

The fishbowl atmosphere created an “incestuous family relationship,” according to Aykroyd, who promptly fell in love with Michaels’ soon-to-be-ex-wife Rosie, a.k.a. “Rox.” All in the family, Michaels started seeing Aykroyd’s ex-girl-friend. Shuster is the daughter of comedian Frank Shuster. Aykroyd calls her a “warm, humorous, articulate, intelligent, compassionate woman,” who helped him withstand the tremendous pressure of the show. “She opened up her home to me, made me tuna-fish sandwiches, turned the TV off and on, and went out to

the movies with me a lot.

“I’m a very empty person, really,” Aykroyd continues. “I can’t sit around and have a talk, or communicate too much. Rosie likes to sit and analyse relationships and discuss human experiences, and I have a real handicap there. After work I’m like a robot. I like to sit back and watch TV and suck back a few beer and my eyes become heavy-lidded and I just moan through the rest of the day.”

Aykroyd says he would like to see the “feminine side” of his personality blossom; and that “Rox” is helping him overcome his “tremendous

male-macho orientation.” But nothing is as “male-macho” as Aykroyd’s relationship with Belushi. “We don’t make a move without each other,” says Aykroyd. “There I can communicate because he’s a male. John’s the stable one. He’ll always show up for work because he’s the one with the respect for the industry ... He’s got it in his family. I do the work because I’ve always found it easy and because it’s the closest thing to a regular paycheque that I’ve ever had.” Aykroyd has his eye on a different sort of paycheque for the future: “When I’m 40 I hope to be in another business altogether. Something I can get my hands into, with a couple of trucks and cranes—something with an inventory.”

But for the moment he’s engrossed with making Blues Brothers, possibly because his writer’s ego is also involved. “My problem is that the studio thinks it’s Animal House and I think it’s The Deer Hunter.” Sets are closed and nobody is talking, especially about the budget, which is rumored to have leaped from $6 million to an / estimated $20 million-plus. Hollywood seems like a strange place to hide out, especially for someone with “no respect for the industry,” as Aykroyd describes himself. It is emphatically not a world in which one is judged on the merits of work alone; but on the image one can or is willing to present. Clearly, Aykroyd has not yet come to terms with being a public person (“Danny is naturally shy and resents the invasion of his privacy,’’says Michaels). But, on the other hand, more than one career has been built on the words,“I Vant to Be A-lone.”

“I think Danny will make his peace with the movie world,” said Michaels. “He’s a tower of strength, and he’s always stayed with the work as long as it takes to make it as good as possible. But, like me, he’s a Canadian and we share a dislike of the hyperbole which is part of show business. I think we’ll meet again, sometime. He’s not through with television yet, not by a long shot.”