This was in the backyard of John’s house on Morton Street in Greenwich Village. He would happily have mugged in front of the camera for hours. In fact, just before this shot, in which I tried to capture the Joliet Jake character of the Blues Brothers act he developed with Danny Ackroyd, John had wrapped his head in a towel to impersonate an Arab prince. “I believe in America,” he said, a mock middle-eastern homage to the opening lines of “The Godfather.” His own father had left Albania for Chicago when he was sixteen, and ultimately opened several restaurants. Now John was back in homage mode, shaking his upraised hands to the heavens. “Three years ago, I didn’t have one hundred dollars in the bank,” he said. And now…” He motioned toward the townhouse he’d been able to buy. “Now Graceland. See what can happen in America.” I had met John in 1973 at a performance of “Lemmings,” an off Broadway musical in which he had debuted his eerie and amazing spoof of Joe Cocker – something Cocker himself loathed. The “Lemmings” cast essentially morphed into the “Saturday Night Live” cast (by way of “The National Lampoon Radio Hour”). “I hired him,” SNL producer Lorne Michaels told me, “because he walked into my office and started to abuse me. He said, ‘I can’t stand television,’ and that was just the kind of abuse I wanted to hear.” After the success of “Animal House,” John decided to leave SNL to focus solely on films. “There’s a big difference between television and movies,” John told me. “When you’re on television, people who notice you will just walk up to you like you’re a real person and tell you they thought something you did was awful. But when you’re a movie star, they think you’re something special. It’s like you’re in your own world and they’re peering in.” Ten minutes before we shot this picture, John had gotten into an argument with his wife Judy when one of his many drug dealers showed up at the house with a bottle of 100 Quaaludes. “Why are we ethnics always attracted to WASP girls who don’t eat,” John had asked rhetorically earlier that day while the three of us were having lunch. “Her parents loved me. I ate everything on my plate. I think it was one pork chop.” He was always uproariously funny, although his humor was clearly a mask for an enormous depth of pain. At a Christmas party at Michael O’Donoghue and Carol Caldwell’s Manhattan home in 1981, I stumbled onto him sitting alone on a bedroom floor, chomping away at an entire roast beef that he held his hands while he watched rotund James Coco perform in a movie that was playing on a small black & white television. A few months after that, I was in LA with Robin Williams. One afternoon we stopped by to see John at the Chateau Marmont, the quintessential Hollywood hotel. Twelve hours later he was dead.
back to top