Alternate Universe Movies: Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's American Hustle

By David Konow

American Hustle is a brilliant telling of the real-life FBI Abscam story, but it wasn't the first time Hollywood tried to adapt the sting operation to screen. Back in the early eighties, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi almost starred in a comedy about the same subject, and it’s a shame the movie never got made.

This year, American Hustle, along with Gravity, dominated the Academy Awards nominations, with 10 Oscar nods each. Yet David O. Russell wasn’t the only filmmaker who realized the FBI's Abscam story would make a great movie. In fact, back in the early eighties, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi almost starred in a comedy about the same subject, and it’s a shame the movie never got made.

Abscam was a complex sting operation created in the late seventies by the FBI, which eventually lead to the conviction of a number of politicians. The FBI were assisted in the Abscam operations by a convicted conman, and the acclaimed French director Louis Malle (Pretty Baby, My Dinner With Andre) knew this story could make a great movie, except in his head it would be suited as a straight-up comedy.

Dan Aykryod in Grosse Pointe Blank.

Malle learned about Abscam when he was making the film Atlantic City with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. Malle eventually moved to America, and he wanted to make another movie set in the States. With a strong cast, he also knew he could do a biting political satire and get away with it. With playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), Malle got to work a script, and they called it Moon Over Miami.

As recalled in the Belushi biography "Wired," Malle felt the comedic energy of Saturday Night Live still hadn’t been fully captured on the big screen, and he was anxious to capture it in Moon Over Miami. The original Saturday Night Live cast had all left the show by this point, and SNL was in its down period before the next generation found its audience. If a movie could recapture the feeling of the original when it was at the apex of pop culture relevance, there was no doubt it would be a hit.

After the incredible success of John Landis' Animal House, Belushi’s career stagnated. He starred in 1941, a big budget disaster directed by Steven Spielberg that was roasted by the critics. Then Belushi and Aykroyd did The Blues Brothers movie, which is a beloved classic today, but at the time it got a lot of bad press for running way over budget. (At the time, a number of films came under fire for out of control spending, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which cost a then whopping $46 million dollars.)

Belushi wanted to stretch and do different kinds of roles, but he had a hard time branching out into new things. He tried romantic comedy with Continental Divide, but it didn’t stick, then came Neighbors, a dark comedy that was one of the worst catastrophes of his career. But back in the day, audiences maybe weren't comfortable with seeing comedians take on non-comedic roles. When Jerry Lewis played a serious role that was too close to home in King of Comedy, it was a big step forward in this regard, but it was an anomaly at the time.

As much as Belushi tried to avoid being stereotyped, audiences still wanted to see him in a crazy slap-stick comedy, a la Animal House. Although both John and Dan agreed to work separately for a while, Aykroyd wanted Belushi to play Venkman in Ghostbusters, and he knew that Moon Over Miami would have made a great vehicle for the team as well.

Moon Over Miami could have provided Belushi with a great vehicle where he could play a role the fans wanted him to play, as well as do a comedy with more sophisticated satiric sensibilities. It would have made a great comedic combination that had never been done before. Not to mention that Aykroyd and Belushi didn’t have a following in Europe, and Miami could have been a great vehicle for them to crossover to foreign shores.

Belushi would play Shelly Slutsky, an outrageous slob conman--the analogoe to Christian Bale's Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle.

The screenplay featured two fictional characters inspired by the real-life FBI agents and conmen of the Abscam sting. Aykroyd would play Otis Presby, a ten-year veteran of the FBI with a shrine to J. Edgar Hoover in his home. Belushi would play Shelly Slutsky, an outrageous slob conman--the analogue to Christian Bale's Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle. Presby was obsessed with upholding the law and he wouldn’t do anything illegal in a million years, but to trap Slutsky, he would use any means necessary to bring him in. Although those who read the screenplay felt the Slutsky character may have been too close to the real Belushi, Aykroyd loved the script, and knew he could convince John to do the movie.

The yin and yang antagonist/protagonist roles of the script reflected the same polar opposites of the Aykroyd/Belushi team. Aykroyd was the one in control, the one who admired authority (at one point he wanted to be a policeman), a great straight man to Belushi, who was often wild, manic, and out of control. Malle and Guare saw Belushi when he could be charming and great fun to be around, and they also saw him when he was clearly high out of his mind, an elephant in a china shop. They both decided they would rely on Danny to reel John in, and try to keep him from going off the rails.

There was also a strong rebellious streak in Malle. He loved pushing the envelope with his work, and he saw the same impulse in Belushi, who didn’t like safe, predictable comedy. By this point, Belushi was abandoning the blues, and was getting into the punk scene heavily. He liked the cutting edge, flirting with danger, which was clearly attractive to Malle as well.

Malle hated the American studio system, and had Moon Over Miami set up as a package deal with his agent, where the studio that wanted to make the movie would be presented with the director, script, and cast all ready to go, thereby keeping control over the material. Belushi’s agent told Malle that Aykroyd and Belushi would be ready to do Miami by May 1982, which meant that Belushi probably would have done Ghostbusters afterwards.

As much as Aykroyd loved the Miami script, Belushi never got the chance to read it. As we all know by now, he died of an overdose on March 5, 1982 at the age of 33.

With Moon Over Miami, Malle was clearly on to a compelling idea, because once a movie adapting the Abscam scandal eventually got made, it became a big hit at the box office (in no small part thanks for David O. Russell and cast), and it could also sweep the Academy Awards this March. When you think about what could have been done with Aykroyd and Belushi, though, the mind boggles at the possibilities.

While Belushi made some career mis-steps after Animal House, you didn’t get the impression the fans had given up on him. We were just waiting for him to make another great movie again, and maybe Moon Over Miami or Ghostbusters would have been the comeback boost he finally needed to get things back on track. Now we’ll never know.

Moon Over Miami also died with Belushi. After the comedian passed, Malle lost all interest in the project, and moved on to other movies. Where some projects that Belushi was up for, like Confederacy of Dunces, are still languishing in development hell after all these years, there has never been any attempt to resurrect Moon Over Miami with any other comedians. But what a movie it could have been.