Dan Aykroyd comes home to reignite the Arrow legend
BRIAN D. JOHNSONJanuary131997
Dan Aykroyd comes home to reignite the Arrow legend
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
It is July 4, 1996. On the sun-baked tarmac of Winnipeg International Airport, Dan Aykroyd holds a small, battery-powered fan up to his face, trying to keep the sweat from dissolving his makeup. Dressed in a dark suit, fedora and sunglasses, he looks strangely familiar. In fact, he could be a well-tailored version of Elwood Blues, his harmonica-blowing alter ego from The Blues Brothers. But he also bears a convincing resemblance to Crawford Gordon, the ebullient president of the company that built Canada’s Avro Arrow jet fighter during the late 1950s. Aykroyd seems very much at home in the Fifties. There is something distinctively retro about his manner. It is ingrained in his straight-man formality, his boyish enthusiasm for the marvels of the machine age—brawny cars, jet planes and motorbikes—and in his nostalgic love for an uncomplicated Canada.
Aykroyd was born in the nation’s capital on July 1, 1952, when it was still known as Dominion Day. And, despite his status as a Hollywood star, he remains stubbornly loyal to his roots. He lives on both sides of the border, splitting his time between homes in Los Angeles and Kingston, Ont. He has also remained loyal to the stuff of boyhood fantasy, like a basement hobbyist who has grown up and made the world his rec room.
Asa comedian, screenwriter, Ghostbuster, Blues Brother, radio deejay, nightclub impresario, UFO aficionado—and even an Oscar-nominated character actor (.Driving Miss Daisy)—Aykroyd has constructed the most eclectic career of any Canadian movie star. And now, with The Arrow, it takes yet another twist. The CBC mini-series is the first Canadian production that Aykroyd has worked on in 22 years—since the 1974 comedy Love at First Sight, which preceded his breakthrough on Saturday Night Live. He is also appearing in a television drama for the first time, against the advice of his Hollywood agent. “And I don’t intend to do it again until I’m 60,” he told Maclean’s. “I have a feature film career as a character actor, and I don’t want to compromise that.”
Unable to get past his agent, Arrow co-producer Mary Young Leckie got to Aykroyd by sending a letter to him through a mutual friend. And with his name attached to it, the mini-series became much more attractive to investors. But the film’s director, Don McBrearty, says that he was initially worried that the actor might not be up to the job. “Frankly, I was quite nervous,” he told Maclean’s during the shoot. “His comedies have obviously worked really well. But I hadn’t seen anything apart from Driving Miss Daisy
where Dan was playing a dramatic character that was strong and believable.” Added the director: “Crawford Gordon was not a particularly nice man. He’s a very tragic figure. But Dan pulls it off. There’s a darkness, a remoteness and bitterness, just in the way he sits. He’s doing a great job.”
He has the most eclectic career of any Canadian star
And, despite his celebrity status, Aykroyd brought no Hollywood attitude to the set, according to his co-stars. “He’s conducted himself just magnificently on the set, from top to bottom,” said Ron White, who plays test pilot Jack Woodman. “I’ve never met a man more generous with his time.”
During a lunch break on location in Winnipeg, Aykroyd reflected on his career during a wide-ranging interview in his trailer. He talked about his hopes to cast John Goodman as a Blues Brother and Jim Carrey as a Ghostbuster. He laughed about receiving an award from the California Funeral Directors Association for “most sympathetic portrayal of a funeral director” after starring in My Girl (1991). With a perfectly straight face, he told a story of an alien probe landing in Vietnam and incubating “fleas the size of chow dogs.” And he talks about Crawford Gordon.
Gordon was a high-flying alcoholic who betrayed his wife for his secretary. His fortunes took the same Icarus-like trajectory as the plane he championed. And his life was a shambles by the time the Arrow was scrapped in 1959. Gordon died just eight years later, at 52, from cirrhosis of the liver. Aykroyd was able to get first-hand knowledge of the man from his mother, Lorraine Aykroyd, who worked as an executive secretary to
C.D. Howe, the Liberal minister who put Gordon in charge of munitions supply during the Second World War. “She said he was a take-charge guy, pretty blustery,” recalls the actor. “He had that cock-of-the-walk attitude. Definitely a man’s man, an administrator of men and machines. He liked his plain-end cigarettes, his drink. And he had a weakness for women I guess.”
As well as playing Gordon, Aykroyd immersed himself in the Arrow’s history and served as consultant on the film. He has been an aviation buff ever since the summer of 1975, when he visited California’s Mojave Air Show with The Beach Boys. ‘We saw B-51s racing around pylons, and got a ride in a B-25 bomber,” he recalls. “I began to read all about planes. I’ve flown a DC10 simulator. They let me take the stick on aT-38 trainer. And I’ve taken the yoke on a couple of Leaijets.”
There is a knock on the trailer door. Wally High, a crony from Kingston who serves as Aykroyd’s assistant and bodyguard, steps in and hands him a plate stacked with greyish meat and pale vegetables.
“What’s this piece of shoe leather?” asks Aykroyd, eyeing the meat as if it should come with a lab report.
“It’s dead ... beef,” says Wally.
Aykroyd shrugs. Life on the set of a CBC mini-series is a step down from the luxurious trappings of movie-making in Hollywood. But he is not complaining. “There are a few compromises that we’re willing to live with,” he says. “They’re doing the best they can with the money they’ve got.” In fact, Aykroyd has gone out of his way to help. “I waived my standard perks, and cut my fee way back,” he notes, explaining that he is working for about one-third of his usual seven-figure rate. Sure, he had a bigger trailer than anyone else in the cast. But he paid for it out of his own pocket, along with his two rented Fords.
“If you’re on location,” says the actor, “you’ve got to have a car to drive around at night to distract yourself. You’ve got to have an assistant. You’ve got to have top-of-the-line accommodation.” He also got a good rental deal on two Harley Davidson bikes from a local dealer in exchange for some free promotion. “We’ve really been having fun with the bikes,” he says, “riding around town hitting the blues bars.”
Jamming with local bands, and making himself highly visible during the shoot, Aykroyd was the biggest thing to hit Winnipeg since ... well, since Keanu Reeves hung out for three weeks performing Hamlet in the winter of ’95. “When you’re on location away from the family, it’s important to get out and have some fun and not sit there
and be lonely,” Aykroyd explains.
Before his plans to have his wife and two children join him in Winnipeg fell through, he had asked for “a house on the river with a swimming pool, a playground and five or six bedrooms.” His assistant persuaded a local fashion stylist, Melanie Sifton, to move out of her luxury home and make it available. “He convinced her that it would be good for the Arrow, for Canada, for the Aykroyd state of mind, if I lived in her house,” says the actor. “But lo and behold, she’s become a friend.” He turns to his assistant. “When we leave Melanie’s house,” he says, “I’d like to stock her fridge with champagne and white wine.”
At home with his family, he tends to live a much quieter life than on location. There are exceptions, such as when he entertained Keith Richards and several of The Rolling Stones in Kingston for a weekend in 1994. “But usually it’s, like, read to the kids and in bed at 9:30,” he says. Aykroyd, now 44, and his wife, actress Donna Dixon, 39, have two girls, ages 6 and 3. “We got started late. And for a while I didn’t think I’d want kids,” he adds, explaining that after the 1982 death of Blues Brother-in-arms John Belushi, “I didn’t want to get attached. I didn’t even want a dog for a few years. I didn’t want to feel love for any entity other than my wife. Well, we got a dog. We practised on the dog. Now, of course, once you have children it’s a beautiful thing. Warren Beatty told me God has this veil that he doesn’t let you see through until you have them, then it’s opened up.”
Aykroyd’s wife has retired from acting to be a full-time mother. ‘She’s very happily given it up,” he says. “I’m the one who wants to see her work.” Asked if they really need the extra money, he says, "A double income, man? C’mon. It’s cash flow. It flows in and it flows out.” Over the years, says Aykroyd, he has watched some of it go down the drain in “weird businesses,” including a toxic-waste-bustng scheme in the 1980s. “I had a piece of a beautiful product. It was i plastic over-pack for all the metal drums in the world that are roting through with toxic chemicals. We were this close to getting nuclear regulatory approval in the States, and then the company went bankrupt.” Adds Aykroyd: “I’m not a good businessman investmentwise. I provide for my family and don’t have to worry too much, but by the time I’m dead it will all be gone.”
He certainly lives comfortably enough. Aykroyd and his family own a house in the Hollywood hills that once belonged to Ringo Starr and before that to Cass Elliott of The Mamas and the Papas. “It was where they wrote California Drearnin’,” says the actor, who moved in with Dixon after their marriage in 1983. Aykroyd, meanwhile, tries to spend summers in Kingston, in a lodge-like house that he constructed on a farm established by his family in 1880. ‘We built the house around the fireplace,” he says. “I took four stones that were cut for the Kingston breakwater. Pink granite. I brought them home with a crane.”
The house is furnished on the same Citizen Kane scale. ‘That’s Donna,” says Aykroyd. “My conception of furniture is a color TV and a milk crate for the albums and a Northern Electric cable spool for the coffee table. But we went kind of Gothic oversized. We’ve got overstuffed chairs, and big old acolyte candles from cathedrals that we’ve turned into lamps, and a huge couch that looks like two front seats of a ’69 Lincoln put together.”
Despite his binational residency, Aykroyd has decided that he will never dilute his Canadian identity by taking out dual citizenship. “The star-spangled banner brings a tear to my eye,” he says. “I love the American flag. I love the American people. I have an American wife. But ultimately, if it came down to a cross-border conflict, you’d find me at the Vimy barracks operating a word processor. If it came to grabbing those power dams in Quebec, I’d be defending them. I’d work for peace first, but count on me to be that motorcycle messenger between Ottawa and Kingston. I’m also a pretty good shot.”
Aykroyd owns two pistols, a shotgun and a rifle in Los Angeles. “I’ve always liked guns,” he says. “I just detest the way they’re used. But in L.A., you’ve got to have a gun in the home. It’s essential.”
Guns, cars, bikes, planes, harmonicas: Aykroyd likes his toys. But these days his favorite is the word processor. He has recently written scripts for a Ghostbusters sequel, a Blues Brothers sequel, a movie he wants to do with Chevy Chase called Clumsy and Awkward—“obviously cashing in on Dumb and Dumber,” he says—and “I’m 30 pages into my Hollywood exposé novel.” Adds Aykroyd: “If I had the time to do something exclusively, I would write for the screen. I like the pure process of it. Getting up at eight in the morning. And seeing at the end of the day that I actually have product there, from air.”
Meanwhile, Aykroyd the song-and-dance man continues to front the Blues Brothers, a performing band born from the Saturday Night Live skit and the 1980 movie. Jim Belushi has replaced his deceased brother, John, as Aykroyd’s partner onstage. And Roseanne’s John Goodman, “who has a better voice than either Jimmy or myself,” says Aykroyd, has become a third member of the Blues Brotherhood. On radio, as the Chicago-accented Elwood Blues, he hosts a weekly syndicated blues show. And, although he does not own it, he promotes the ever-expanding House of Blues nightclub chain. “I serve as a mouthpiece,” he says. “I’m a good salesman.” And, as if the real world were not big enough to absorb his energies, he continues to play pitchman for the paranormal, most recently by hosting the TV show Psi Factor.
Get Aykroyd talking about close encounters of the spooky kind, and there is no stopping him. He believes in occurrences that “basically defy the four dimensions—time loops, time warps, apparitions, ghosts, people bi-locating (being in two places at once).” He also maintains that the U.S. government is hiding evidence of alien visitation. The giant fleas, for example. “In North Vietnam, it was reported that farmers in rice paddies were getting their limbs eaten and hacked to bits by a creature,” he says. “They went in and found a nest of fleas the size of chow dogs, with full armor and mandibles. And they determined that these fleas bred out of an alien probe, a meteor-like capsule.They have one in a freezer somewhere.”
Aykroyd looks dead serious. Is he? Hard to say. Either he has a mind so open that Forrest Gump could seem cynical by comparison—or he is a better actor than anyone gives him credit for. □
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