Comedy is the one genre where there seems to be an apprenticeship system in place for movie stars. It goes something like this: begin as a writer/impro performer in some stage show, work on a TV show, do whatever bits in movies you can, wind up playing the sidekick, then graduate to leads. At any rate that’s how it seems to have gone for Seth Rogen, Tina Fey, Jim Carey, Steve Carrell, Will Ferrell, Sasha Baron Cohen, Adam Sandler, Anna Faris, etc. Of course there are variations to this – some people leap to fully fledged stardom in their first movie (eg Steve Martin), others take years and year to become a star (Jason Bateman, Paul Rudd), some never really get a fair crack at being a star (most women comedians).
And then there’s Dan Aykroyd. Chubby, Canadian, floppy haired, least-funny-Blues-Brother-and-Ghostbuster Daniel Edward.
Was Dan Aykroyd a star? Kind of – he had above-the-title billing in a couple of movies. His presence in the cast got a green light for Driving Miss Daisy. He dated Carrie Fisher. He had a hot wife. He turned director. He’s big in Canada.
But I always think of Aykroyd as a side kick rather than a star. In every popular film he made he was overshadowed by someone else – John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Jessica Tandy, Woody Allen, Tom Hanks, Kim Basinger. It’s not hard to conjure up memories of those actors – bug-eyed, drug-fuelled, pot bellied Belushi; rapid-patter, lithely sexual Murphy; sexy, casually nude Leigh; deadpan, droll Murray; wisecracking, handsome Chase… What is the memory one has of Aykroyd? A sort of deadpan drollness? Officiousness? That floppy fringe? I can’t remember.
Maybe it’s different because I’m an Australian and never saw Aykroyd do his impersonations on Saturday Night Live. Apparently he was very good – which maybe is why he was never much of a star: he was a cypher, able to copy someone else but not create a specific persona. All the films he made in which he was the sole star flopped.
But he was a good sidekick – one of the best. Those actors I listed above were never better than playing alongside Dan Aykroyd. He provided strength and solidity. He was a very Canadian star in that respect – polite, unassuming, lacking in ego, supporting their bigger brother. (The Canadians were so damn polite when the Allies were holding a war conference in World War Two they didn’t insist on being invited – even though the conference was held in Canada!) When Aykroyd played someone bold and brassy – Neighbors, Dr Detroit, The Great Outdoors – it didn’t work. His best roles were someone staid and buttoned down, like Canada – Trading Places, Ghostbusters, Spies Like Us.
Aykroyd’s had an incredible career – helping make Saturday Night Live a phenomenon, burning the torch of blues, being married to Donna Dixon for almost 40 years, popping up in all sorts of random films (My Girl? Sneakers? Grosse Pointe Blank? 50 First Dates? Pearl Harbor? Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom?) and being pretty good in all of them. When he flops the flops have been spectacular (1941, Nothing But Trouble, Loose Cannons).
I’ve always liked Aykroyd – maybe it’s a Felix Leiter thing. People such Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and even Chevy Chase have a rare performer talent. But Aykroyd isn’t that obviously funny. He clearly got where he did by sheer hard work rather than talent. You can watch him and think “I can do a job as good as that”. On you, Danny.