Upcoming John Belushi Biopic Casts an Unlikely Star as the Late Funnyman

Movie Talk
Emile Hirsch/John Belushi
Emile Hirsch/John Belushi

John Belushi only appeared on four seasons on "Saturday Night Live" and in seven feature films before his untimely death at the age of 33, but he made an indelible impact on American comedy (and college life). Now more than 30 years after his death, a new movie about his life is in the works, and it was announced on Monday that an unlikely young actor has been cast in the lead role: Emile Hirsch.

Hirsch is an odd choice for a number of reasons. The 28-year-old California native does not physically resemble Belushi (the offspring of Armenian immigrants) all that much. Which isn't always a problem for biopics, but can be an issue when the subject is so instantly recognizable like John Belushi.

Belushi is known, of course, for his size, with his weight fluctuating between a reported 180 to 230 lbs. Hirsch, on the other hand, is svelte to the point of skinny. But while he lost over 40 pounds to play the emaciated lead role in "Into the Wild," he more recently put on 20 lbs. for the film "Prince Avalanche." He trimmed down again to play a Navy SEAL in the upcoming "Lone Survivor," but he has proven he is willing to transform himself for a movie.

It's also notable that Hirsch is not particularly known for comedies. He has been acting professionally since he was 8 years old, but a majority of his roles have been in dramas. He had his first leading role in 2002's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" alongside Jodie Foster, and followed it with "The Emperor's Club" opposite Kevin Kline. His first breakout hit was the 2004 comedy "The Girl Next Door," but he mostly played the straight man for the comic sidekicks. His most high-profile role was as the title character in the big-screen version of "Speed Racer," but that was a box-office flop.

He does, on the other hand, have a lot of experience playing real people. He portrayed skateboarding pioneer Jay Adams in "Lords of Dogtown," and a character based on a real drug dealer in "Alpha Dog." And after his award-winning turn in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," he appeared opposite Penn as gay rights activist Cleve Jones in the biopic "Milk." While the role of Belushi would seem to demand comic instincts, it is a dark and ultimately tragic story that will certainly have dramatic moments.

Belushi's life story has been put on film before, in the 1989 adaptation of Bob Woodward's unauthorized biography "Wired." Michael Chiklis played Belushi in what was supposed to be a star-making turn, but Belushi's friends and family members objected so strongly to the film's portrayal that it actually damaged Chiklis' career (that it was a critical and financial disaster didn't help, either).

This new biopic is actually sanctioned by Belushi's widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, and his longtime friend and costar Dan Aykroyd is an executive producer. The film will be written and directed by Steve Conrad, who scripted Ben Stiller's upcoming "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Other roles, including the part of Aykroyd, have not yet been cast.

Filming will begin next spring, so we'll have to wait until then to see just how well Hirsch can fill John Belushi's toga.

Watch John Belushi's "SNL" Audition on Yahoo Screen: