After years of bouncing around show business, Jim Belushi has a surprise hit... and the last laugh on critics
BY SHAWNA MALCOM
According to Jim Belushi, the press is bad news.
"A lot of reporters are mean-spirited and looking to make a name for themselves," he rants. "I was thrilled to see the media doing stories about the New York Times scandal, about what a liar that guy [writer Jayson Blair] was. It's like, 'They're turning on themselves finally. The rats are going to eat themselves.'"
Considering the media frenzy that surrounded the fatal drug overdose of his older brother, John, in 1982, Belushi's contempt for the press isn't completely surprising. What is remarkable is the 49-year-old actor's decision, despite that, to invite a journalist into his Brentwood, California, home. At 10:30 on a late June morning, the sunny kitchen is bursting with activity: As a housekeeper, Belushi's assistant and his two German shepherds scurry about, his 22-year-old son, Robert, rustles up a late breakfast. Meanwhile, a flushed Belushi — who has just returned from a 4-mile run — steadies his wide-eyed 16-month-old son, Jared, on the center island while he attempts to reach for the pots and pans above. "I'm here to help you with your job," he says by way of explanation, "and you're here to help me with mine."
Clearly, Belushi takes his role as star — and primary promoter — of ABC's comedy According to Jim seriously. If getting the word out to millions of potential viewers means temporarily putting up with a reporter, then so be it. He might as well do it where he feels most comfortable.
Belushi realizes this is a critical time for his two-year-old series, which revolves around his opinionated, potbellied Chicago contractor and his exasperated but loving stay-at-home wife, Cheryl (Courtney Thorne-Smith). Generally dismissed by critics, who branded it everything from "bland" to "formulaic," Jim has managed to attract a loyal, if not Friends-size, audience. Last season, Jim averaged a respectable 10.3 million viewers. That it did so well against American Idol and Frasier made ABC executives elated.
"Jim has a real point of view yet is very accessible to a broad audience because he has this great Everyman quality," says Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC. "His relationship with his wife is one you like. It feels real."
ABC execs obviously view Jim, along with fellow family comedies My Wife and Kids and The George Lopez Show, as an integral part of their strategy to resurrect the ailing fourth place network. To that end, ABC is airing Jim reruns up to four times on certain Mondays this summer. "There are many people who haven't sampled the show yet," Braun says. "If they do, they'll stay."
Not everyone is as optimistic. "I don't see Jim skyrocketing up the ratings in its third season," says analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media. "It might be able to move up some, given the promotional push it's getting from ABC, but I don't see it becoming a big breakout hit."
Belushi has little patience for such talk. He even went so far as to cancel his subscription to the Los Angeles Times after a negative review. It was precisely this black-and-white mentality that made executive producer Suzanne Bukinik believe Belushi would be ideal for the strong male point-of-view family comedy she was creating. "Jim [is] a funny, down-to-earth kind of guy," Bukinik says. "He's the guy who says, 'I'll get it' — but doesn't get up from his chair."
Maybe, but getting motivated about doing a TV series was an entirely different matter. While the actor has made more than 40 films, including Oliver Stone's "Salvador," recent efforts like "K9:P.I." had gone straight to video. A comedy series would provide not only steady work but also a family-friendly schedule, something the twice-divorced actor had been craving since marrying third wife Jennifer Sloan in 1998 (the couple have two young children, daughter Jami, 5, and Jared). "The real appeal was the lifestyle," Belushi admits. "I get to have breakfast and dinner with my children. And four months off in the summer."
Jim's timing proved propitious for Thorne-Smith as well. The 35-year-old actress, who was coming off Ally McBeal, had been looking to do a sitcom for more than a year. "I was at the end of my rope," she remembers. "I called my agent and said, 'Seriously, I'm retiring.'"
Ultimately, her agent persuaded her to read one more script, then called Untitled Jim Belushi Pilot. Despite initial reservations, she found herself responding to the relationship between the two leads. "I had all these narrow ideas, like I didn't want to play a wife [or] mother," says Thorne-Smith, who is engaged to Robert Andrews, a doctor. "But I read the script and thought, 'This is a woman I really like.' I loved Jim and Cheryl's [marriage] right away."
The relationship, Belushi says, is based in large part on his own experiences. Case in point: In one episode last season, Cheryl discovered that Jim previously proposed to another woman using the same engagement ring he later gave Cheryl. "I had a ring from my second marriage that I wanted to give Jenny," Belushi remembers with a laugh. "But everybody talked me out of it. I thought, 'Why not?' I already had a ring — it was beautiful."
For Belushi, the beauty of Jim is the way it allows him to combine several passions. "I get to put all the things I love in one show," says the actor, whose blues group, the Sacred Hearts, appears on the series as Jim's garage band. "The love of family, the love of acting, the love of music. I even got my dogs on one of the shows." He also got friend Dan Aykroyd a recurring role as a cop and son Robert a one-episode part as a pizza-delivery guy. It's likely both will pop up in the upcoming season.
"Jim is much more stabilized emotionally and psychologically than he was 10 years ago," says Aykroyd, who recently released a new blues CD with Belushi. "He has stability in the family. He's fulfilled in his work. Everything is in place."
As Belushi's wife returns home with daughter Jami in tow, it's clear he's feeling at peace. "Do you hear me complaining about anything?" he says with a big grin.
Well, nothing except the media. Belushi's smile fades, and he shoots a look that says: Don't press your luck.