March 14, 2020

FTV: Dan Aykroyd

     Dan Aykroyd’s movies averaged $50 million at the box office in 1983.  Unfortunately, one of his films, Doctor Detroit, was a stinker that only accounted for $8 million, thus lowering the overall average just a bit.  Doctor Detroit cost $10 million to make and was Aykroyd’s second flop in a row.  The pundits were already shoveling dirt on his grave. Prior to his solo flop with Doctor Detroit, Aykroyd had a similar failure with the 1982 release of his last buddy movie with John Belushi, Neighbors.  Neighbors started out with much promise but ended up as a lemon of immense proportions.  Had it not been for his 1983 film (Trading Places) that paired him with the newest Saturday Night Live shooting star turned movie actor, Eddie Murphy, reports of his demise might not have proved premature.  Trading Places pulled in more than $90 million riding on the coattails of Murphy’s first breakout movie 48 Hours (with Nick Nolte, the fourth highest grossing film of 1982 at $76 million).  Dan Aykroyd’s life and career, like so many Hollywood stories, has had more twists and turns than a pulp fiction novel.

     The web footed Dan Aykroyd was born and raised in the rather sedate hamlet of Hull, Quebec.  His grandfather was a Royal Canadian Mountie and his father was a rather straightlaced government official.  In his book, Wild and Crazy Guys – How the Comedy Mavericks of the ‘80s Changed Hollywood Forever (2019 – Crown Archetype), Nick De Semlyen describes the youthful Aykroyd’s teen years as a period when he tormented his parents and teachers in equal measure:  “He told his long-suffering parents he wanted to be a funeral director, until he saw an embalming and changed his mind. At fourteen he was arrested for drunkeness.  At seventeen he spent a summer in the Northern Territories, totally isolated, roasting squirrels over a campfire for dinner.” He absorbed books on subjects like hydraulics, was often dressed in motorcycle leathers, and as his wardrobe choice may have hinted at, collected motorcycles.  In the words of producer John Landis, “[Aykroyd is] a remarkable, wonderful, wacky motorhead.” Aykroyd seemed to have a universe of his own to study and dissect. He told those around him, “You look at the floor and see the floor. I look at the floor and see molecules.”  

     Aykroyd’s fascination with the paranormal no doubt came from his great-grandfather Dr. Sam Aykroyd.  Among Dr. Aykroyd’s spiritualist correspondents were the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Albert Durrant Watson.  Eight year old Daniel had access to his great-grandfather’s library and explored the numerous volumes about what came after death written by these early investigators..  The research had a profound effect on him and as De Semlyen puts it, “Early in life [Ackroyd] became, quite literally, a card-carrying member of the American Society for Psychical Research.”

      At the time his best pal John Blushi died of an overdose (in March of 1982), Aykroyd had been working on a screenplay he called Ghost Smashers.  It was begun as an Aykroyd/Belushi project.  Before Belushi died, it was rather dark and depressing for an intended supernatural-comedy vehicle.  It was set in the future on another planet and as director Ivan Reitman remembered it, “[It] was mind-bogglingly vast.  There were many teams of characters battling stuff and there were monsters on every page. It would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make.”  It mattered little at this point because with his buddy John now permanently out of the picture, Aykroyd shelved the eighty pages already written to concentrate on other things.  One of those things was the ill-fated Doctor Detroit film.  

     The one positive take away from the lumbering production of Doctor Detroit was Donna Dixon.  Dixon, already romantically involved with KISS guitarist/vocalist Paul Stanley, was playing one of many prostitutes in the movie (don’t ask and I won’t waste your time explaining the weak premise).  Fellow co-star Fran Drescher saw the potential sparks between Dixon and Aykroyd. A couple of days before the shooting was complete, Dresher encouraged Dixon to walk in and plant a big kiss on his lips Lauren Bacall style.  The potential sparks turned into fireworks. Dixon quickly ended her involvement with Stanley and Dan suggested they take a 72 hour road trip to his home town in Canada to see if they still felt the same by the end of the trip.  Wedding bells soon chimed and they purchased a spooky-looking home in the Hollywood Hills that they christened ‘Witch House’.

     Now a married man of property, Aykroyd’s career was still in limbo.  His last film with Belushi (Neighbors) had floundered, in no small part because they had decided to shake up their normal working arrangement.  Wild man Belushi would take the part of the uptight straight man while Aykroyd would assume the ‘wild and crazy neighbor’ part.  It just didn’t work. This failure was already weighing on Aykroyd when Belushi ODed (the flop had also affected Belushi who, while confronting his lack of recent movie success, turned up the party mode to unprecedented heights).  Talk began to circulate that Aykroyd wasn’t the same talented guy without Belushi.

     Paramount Pictures head Jeffrey Katzenberg was about to throw Aykroyd a life ring.  Having been impressed with the young Eddie Murphy, we called up John Landis and pitched getting Murphy on board for a script called Black and White.  The script had been written in 1980 with Richard Pryor in mind but his self-inflicted burns caused by freebasing drugs put the brakes on the project.  Katzenberg felt Murphy would be perfect as the wise-cracking street hustler Billy Ray Valentine. Landis proposed casting Aykroyd as Murphy’s comedic foil, and then had to fight to get him in the door past Paramount’s fierce resistance.  When the pieces came together, Aykroyd took a substantial pay cut to play the rich and snooty Louis Winthorpe III. The ‘Valentine and Winthorpe switch places’ comedy was released with a new title: Trading Places.  Murphy’s reviews were again outstanding, but it was Aykroyd’s career that was rejuvenated by the movie.  Critic Rex Reed had savaged Aykroyd’s most recent movies, but for Trading Places, he gushed, “I expected another Dan Aykroyd trashy farce.  Instead I got a film with true wit and imagination . . . featuring the most consistently sustained acting Aykroyd has yet managed in featured film.  He was splendid.”     

     With his credibility and confidence restored, Aykroyd revisited his shelved Ghost Smashers script and enlisted Reitman and Harold Ramis to help rework it.  The interplanetary setting was scrapped in favor of New York City.  Reitman remembers that is when the idea took off: “Suddenly the idea of those blue-collar guys hunting a panoply of spooks, goblins, and other things made sense.  They were pest control, or sanitation men. It was a relatable idea.” With Aykroyd and Ramis written in as two of the central characters, the search began for the rest of the Ghostbusters (as the film was now titled).  Eddie Murphy turned it down in favor of working on his new stand up show.  John Candy was offered the smaller role of Louis Tully but wanted to play him like an overbearing German man (plus he wasn’t keen on making less than the $350,000 he was paid for his role in the movie Splash).  This was good news for Candy’s old Second City TV (SCTV) mate Rick Moranis.  Moranis’s take on Louis Tully made him a dweebish accountant with a brain for numbers.  Moranis earned tons of fan mail from those in the accounting trade who liked the accuracy of the mind numbing accountant speak he inserted into the plot.

     The final Ghostbuster slot remained a question mark until they were able to pry Bill Murray from his semi-retirement.  Murray had responded to success and his new position as ‘adored star and (now) public property’ by retreating from the business.  He craved more serious parts and turned down anything resembling comedy. Aykroyd got him on board to fill the hole created by Belushi’s death by suggesting that Murray would do Ghostbusters only if the studio first let him run with the more serious The Razor’s Edge project he wanted to pursue.  The ploy worked and when The Razor’s Edge wrapped up filming overseas in the summer of 1983, an exhausted Bill Murray took a Concorde flight back to New York to join the Ghostbusters playing the part of Dr. Peter Venkman.  At first, Murray found himself slogging from shooting film to sleeping and remembered, “Ten days ago I was up there working with the high lamas in a gompa, and here I am removing ghosts from drugstores and painting slime on my body.”   When he got over his jet-lag, he got into the spirit of the film. By the time they set up shop in L.A. Murray commented, “This is the only movie I’ve ever had lines in that were good enough to say.” The promotional music video of Ray Parker, Jr’s Ghostbusters theme (featuring cameos by John Candy, Chevy Chase, and a host of Hollywood’s finest mugging to the song) ramped up interest in the movie.  Aykroyd was worried about the $33 million project until Murray got him out of his funk over lunch one day: “[Murray] looked at me and just said, ‘Pal, you’ve written one of the biggest comedies of all time.  Relax.’”

     Aykroyd’s fears were allayed when the film opened in June of 1984 by racking up $23 million and held the top spot on the charts for seven weeks.  “It was like hitting a gusher in the oil business,” said Aykroyd. “That kind of hit is good for a lot of people. It was good for everyone who worked on Ghostbusters, it was good for the agents, it was good for the studio and the lenders, it was good for the shareholders.”  Aykroyd’s last brush with success at this level had been with The Blues Brothers back in 1980.  

     The Blues Brothers began in a little back alley club Aykroyd and Belushi established in New York for wind down parties in their Saturday Night Live years.  Aykroyd filled the bar’s jukebox with blues records that turned the heavy rock loving Belushi into a new fan.  Belushi’s education in the blues and a little encouragement from then-SNL music director Paul Shaffer led to the creation of The Blues Brothers characters.  Begun as a one off comedy skit, The Blues Brothers popularity soon morphed into a parallel recording and touring career. The title of their 1978 hit album Briefcase Full of Blues was derived from Elwood Blues’ (Aykroyd) penchant of carrying his harmonica in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist which Jake (Belushi) would unlock with the key he carried.  Both the movie and the album leaned heavily on a band that included aces like guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (Booker T. and the MGs), and a whole list of A-list studio musicians like guitarist Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, trumpeter Alan Rubin and sax man Lou Marini.  While this bevy of musicians made their names in the studio and on stage, it is a pretty sure bet that none of them were reluctant to pick up paychecks from the three Blues Brothers movies.     Dan Aykroyd hasn’t been idle in the first decades of the millennium by any means.  Since the release of the first Ghostbusters movie, he has made appearances in more than 65 theatrical releases up through 2019’s Zombieland: Double Tap (in which he plays himself).  Include a multitude of television appearances (with more than a dozen guest slots on SNL alone), and we can expect to keep seeing Dan Aykroyd on a regular basis.  The trade papers have recently mentioned that he is involved in pre-production of another movie where he will again reprise his role of Dr. Raymond Stantz: Ghostbusters 2020.

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