John Belushi was 33 when he died of a drug overdose in a bungalow in Hollywood in March of 1982. In a short period of time in the late 70s, Belushi became a household name. Saturday Night Live would not have become the phenomena it did without the likes of him, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase. Belushi owned it in Animal House and The Blues Brothers and he was slated to co-star with Aykroyd in two movies: Spies Like Us and Ghostbusters – parts that ultimately went to Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, respectively. He had written his own screenplay (Noble Rot) with former SNL writer Don Novello and really could have been one of the biggest stars of the 1980s. Unfortunately, he read a “cursed” script called Atuk that has claimed the lives of at least five actors who have been attached to it.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t the cursed script that did him in. Doing speedballs at the rate he did them at more than likely was the real cause. But Atuk remains a fascinating part of cinematic lore despite scriptwriter Tod Carroll’s insistence that his words aren’t killing the comedic actors who read the screenplay.
Atuk, the Inuit word for grandfather, is a yet-to-be-filmed screenplay adaptation of the novel The Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler. The story revolves around an Inuit hunter who must learn to adapt to the culture of a big city and faces the challenges of greed and other vices. In the screenplay, the main character, which Belushi was set to play, is an Alaskan who moves to New York City. Months after reading the script, Belushi died.
But the project didn’t die when Belushi did. Six years later, the film went into production with Sam Kinison in the lead. Kinison was difficult to work with and essentially tried to rewrite the script. After eight days of filming, Kinison quit the film. Four years later a drunk driver killed him in a head-on car accident.
The story still doesn’t end there. John Candy was the next actor who showed interest in the role. He died of a heart attack in 1994. A few years later, Chris Farley read the script. Belushi had been an idol of his and this would have been a great way to pay tribute to him. But Farley enjoyed food, cocaine and morphine and died of an overdose in 1997. In attendance at Farley’s funeral was one of his best friends, Phil Hartman. Hartman had read the Atuk script with Farley and was slated to have a co-starring role in the movie. Six months later, Hartman was shot and killed by his mentally unstable wife.
Hollywood is not in shortage of films thought to be cursed. Films such as The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Crow and The Omen all have some link to odd deaths and occurrences on the set thought to be the work of some unknown force. But while Atuk may stand out as the most curious of them, due to the magnitude of the stars who died and were associated with it, the film might be the easiest to explain. It all starts with the original casting of Belushi. He was a larger than life person in both personality and stature. If he was tied to the lead role it only makes sense that anyone else who would do the movie would have to be of a similar disposition. Guys like Kinison, Candy and Farley fit that bill so it makes sense they would all be approached about the role. And while Kinison was killed in an accident, he also had a penchant for eating, drinking and doing drugs. So it stands to reason he too could have met the same fate as the aforementioned actors attached to Atuk. Just saying, being overweight and addicted to cocaine does not come as a result of reading a screenplay. So while Atuk is an interesting footnote in film history it is probably not cursed. But let’s test out that theory. Does anyone have Michael Bay’s number handy?