It was the summer of 1974 and John and Judy Belushi pulled up to the Woods Hole ferry terminal with a guidebook, a sense of adventure and no ferry reservation. The two were working for National Lampoon at the time and were enjoying a real vacation for once in New England.
“We didn’t know about the Vineyard but along the way [of our trip] it got recommended, so I bought a guidebook to New England and I remember it was on the bottom left of the page, it was only two paragraphs,” Ms. Belushi Pisano recalled at her home this week. “We went up to the window counter and said we want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.”
But without a reservation, the couple would have to rent a car on the other side.
“It was toward the end of our vacation and we were low on funds and going to tap out,” she continued. “So we really had to think about it.”
This was before Mr. Belushi became famous, before Animal House, Saturday Night Live and the Blues Brothers, when the actor and comedian became a household name.
“We just started driving and the road led us right to the Menemsha Inn,” she said. “We would walk to Menemsha and Homeport and read and walk and relax. On our last day we asked if there was another beach we might go to and they said you should go to Lucy Vincent.”
“When we got to the beach, we walked to the right and set ourselves up,” she continued. “John said, I want to own this beach someday.”
The couple later ended up buying a home along the south shore nearby.
“We didn’t go looking for it, it kind of came to us,” Ms. Belushi Pisano said.
Mr. Belushi’s life is the subject of a new A&E documentary called John Belushi: Dancing on the Edge, which screens on July 12 at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Tickets are $100 and benefit drug and alcohol programs at the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. Ms. Belushi Pisano will hold a question and answer session following the film.
“The program is a really essential program on this Island,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re getting a better handle on it but there are a lot of better tools. Anyone who’s trying to help people go through this kind of struggle, I’m very supportive of.”
For Mr. Belushi, the Vineyard was “a coming home kind of energy,” Ms. Belushi Pisano said. “It felt healing, healthy, relaxing. The people we encountered seemed down to earth and grounded. . . . he was a real water baby. He could really be on a beach for hours.”
In 1982, Mr. Belushi died of a drug overdose at the age of 33. Ms. Belushi Pisano considers it a responsibility to herself and to those whose lives he touched to continue his legacy.
“I like to say it’s like we were farmers and I inherited the farm,” Ms. Belushi Pisano said. “I can’t go plow . . . I had to expand my overview and caretaking to everything.”
“John lived his life — and he had a really great life I think,” she continued. “He left a legacy and many lessons. He was a very influential person, power-wise and energy-wise.”
Ms. Belushi Pisano had been working on the documentary as a consultant, but when she saw a preview of the film she wasn’t a fan.
“I thought it was mediocre, something got lost all of the sudden,” she said. Instead of sending notes, Ms. Belushi Pisano became involved in the project. “I think I gave it a little more authenticity. They got off on lore.”
“I’m not the voice of John, I’m not the end-all by any means,” she continued. “But more often than not they get caught up in the drug thing.”
There have been several projects done on Mr. Belushi’s life, many of which Ms. Belushi Pisano has assisted on, but this one is different.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to hit that one that I can really look at and say, you really, really got it,” she said. “I think this one is probably it.”
Ms. Belushi Pisano is currently working on several projects based on Mr. Belushi’s life, including a Broadway adaptation of the Blues Brothers film.
It took time for Ms. Belushi Pisano to absorb the tragedy and make something of it, she said.
“A drug overdose is shocking and disturbing and you wonder what you could do and there’s guilt and remorse as you go through the different steps,” she said. “Once I got past all that and got into healing mode and could look at his life less emotionally, I could see how much he’s done and the people he touched and how he spent his time.”
Although he’s been gone for more than 30 years, the lessons he left behind are still palpable for Ms. Belushi Pisano and others.
“The thing I learned from being with him was his sense of adventure, he was open to anything and not afraid,” Ms. Belushi Pisano recalled. “I was afraid when I met him, I was very conventional and afraid to step out of what my friends thought was appropriate.”
There were more practical lessons, too. When Ms. Belushi Pisano was producing a musical at the Vineyard Playhouse several years back, she was called in at the last minute to perform. Flustered momentarily, she channelled Mr. Belushi.
“I remembered something that John had said — it’s the actor that makes the part,” he said. “That’s what an actor does, he’d say. You take what you have and you make it into something.”
John Belushi: Dancing on the Edge is at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in Vineyard Haven on July 12 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets visit mvfilmsociety.com.