From Blues Brother to booze impresario, we find Dan Aykroyd in the place where the “spirits” of his past and future meet.
Most people remember the moment they meet Dan Aykroyd. It’s just that, at the time, they might not realize it.
“He was in character, talking like he was from Rochester and a truck driver,” Michael Budman, co-founder of the Roots fashion label, says of their introduction during a party at Toronto’s Global Village Theatre in 1972.
Fellow Canuck funnyman Martin Short met Aykroyd at a party for Gilda Radner at the same theatre in the early 1970s, where, alongside comedic partner Valri Bromfield, Aykroyd claimed to be Gilda’s upper-crust father from Detroit.
“Of course you knew they weren’t the real parents because they were 22,” Short quips. “But … I’d never seen anyone improvise like that. I thought, ‘Boy, is he original and is he funny.’ It was one of the first Danny characters.”
Aykroyd hasn’t changed. In no time he’s flipped on a pair of dark shades, reminiscent of Elwood Blues, and I find myself hopping into his banana-hued antique convertible roadster. The opening scene of the 1980 film The Blues Brothers sees Elwood pick up brother Jake, played by John Belushi, from prison before testing their new ride’s mettle by hitting the gas and jumping a bridge.
On this day, the auto aficionado forgoes the bridge jumping and, instead, we take off past a row of trees and into a wide green field. In the distance, blues music from outdoor speakers booms into the late summer sky. The tunes are an Aykroyd trademark, a tether to his formative years in his native Ottawa.
“Music was a big part of my life,” he says. “At 13, 14, 15 [years old], I was seeing all these great blues acts and pretending to be [blues musician] Charlie Musselwhite, greasing my hair back, wearing shades and a long raincoat, playing in bars.”
Surely the only teenager anywhere impersonating Charlie Musselwhite during the height of the British invasion, Aykroyd’s dedication to the blues paid off one night when he briefly kept the beat for Muddy Waters when the regular drummer took a break.
WHAT I SAW of the Aykroyd family’s lakefront getaway contains very little in the way of show business mementos, though unconscious homages to the creative brilliance that established him as one of the premiere writers and performers of his generation pop up everywhere: the music, a Blues Brothers calling card; Aykroyd’s fully clothed dunk in the lake, evoking the anything-for-a-laugh attitude of SNL; the antique roadster, reminiscent of Driving Miss Daisy, a drama that earned Aykroyd a best supporting actor Oscar nomination; the kitchen in his house, or “domicile,” as Beldar and Prymaat, the Conehead couple that “consumes mass quantities” in their French style, would say; the arrival of Belle Aykroyd, one of three daughters to Dan and his wife of 33 years, actress Donna Dixon, who draws out the doting father from My Girl; his patriotism, echoing the CBC miniseries The Arrow, about the Avro Arrow aircraft, which Aykroyd starred in and consulted on; and the bookshelves lined with his father’s tomes on ghosts, a nod to the Canuck paranormal drama Psi Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal, which his brother, Peter, co-created and Aykroyd hosted.
In an age where prepackaged reality shows turn socialites into celebrities quicker than you can say “Kardashian,” anyone in Hollywood worth a paparazzi snap would envy Aykroyd’s resumé.
“I think, when you talk about legacy, there’s great power in someone’s originality,” Short says. “They’re the people you tend to remember the most, who created these things that literally no one else was. Or creating a style that no one else does.”
Aykroyd’s Canadian humility, meanwhile, remains intact despite decades of collaborating with artists like Lemmon, Tandy, Poitier, Spielberg, Reitman and Attenborough “I had a great run – 35 years in the business, 37, whatever,” he says nonchalantly. “I did have a really satisfying career and one that was successful in many ways in connecting with audiences.”
However, when it comes to personal history, Aykroyd’s far keener to discuss heritage than Hollywood. And it’s clear why Budman calls Aykroyd one of Canada’s great ambassadors. “I was born on July 1, 1952, in Ottawa, the grandson of a Mountie and [son of] a French mother and an English father … I’ve got maple syrup flowing in my veins,” Aykroyd explains with such fervour that I can almost hear the opening notes of “O Canada,” or perhaps “The Hockey Song,” playing softly in the background. “Danny never forgets his roots,” Budman attests, noting the actor is godfather to his daughter.
Around his parents – Lorraine, 97, and Peter, or “Pop,” 93 – who live in a home on the property, Aykroyd reverts to a sort of boyish adoration, proudly recounting their civic contributions – Lorraine, a former ex-ecutive secretary in Ottawa and Peter, chief engineer on the city’s Gatineau Parkway before a stint as deputy minister of transport under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and, eventually, authoring books on his family’s history.
“This is what my generation is facing, those of us who still have parents that are aging,” he explains. “I’m able to enjoy their company … It’s a joyous mission because I get to sit with them and hear them talk and still hear their humour and stories.”
Lorraine remembers bringing Dan to a child guidance clinic for testing. “They called me back and said, ‘You have a lot to look after because he has genius IQ.’” Meanwhile, Peter smiles and recalls how Dan’s “been referred to by an anchor guy on one of the major networks as the ‘legendary Dan Aykroyd.’ I think that’s pretty cool.”
Then there’s the little white farmhouse, the Aykroyds’ ancestral home that looks as if plucked from a pioneer village with its low, wood-beamed ceilings, wallpaper, narrow staircase and vintage photos, built on this land that the family settled in 1810.
Aykroyd, meanwhile, relishes his “lateral shift” away from acting that has everything to do with the other spirit that permeates the seance room – one that’s conjured through the crystal skull liquor bottles lining the mantle, windowsills and tabletops.
“This is the family business now,” he declares, referring to the Crystal Head Vodka brand he launched with artist John Alexander in 2007. “I’m fully devoted to it and having the greatest time.”
Though their vodka venture is only nine years old, Aykroyd and Alexander’s relationship dates back to the early 1980s and the summer Aykroyd was away promoting the Blues Brothers film. And unlike Michael Budman and Martin Short, you can rest assured that Alexander was keenly aware of Aykroyd the first time they met.
Alexander, having recently moved to New York City from Houston, began dating comedienne Rosie Shuster, daughter of famed comedian Frank Shuster and then-girlfriend of Aykroyd. Upon Aykroyd’s return, he paid the new couple a visit outside The Bottom Line, a famed jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village. “I go [outside] and [Dan’s] pacing back and forth on the sidewalk,” Alexander says. “His Harley is parked on the curb, and Belushi’s just leaning up against the cars, kind of looking at me very surly. Dan had on a red bandana and a motorcycle jacket. And he says, ‘Well, I understand Rosie has fallen in love with you and these things happen … I just want you to know that you’re part of the family now.’” Then Aykroyd embraced him. “It was just the strangest thing,” Alexander remembers. “Instead of this hideous animosity, it turned into this wonderful friendship.”
And, most recently, into a successful business partnership. Crystal Head is produced in Newfoundland, using the area’s glacial water and peaches and cream corn from Chatham, Ont. If that wasn’t pure enough, it’s also filtered through Herkimer diamond crystals.
“People like it,” Aykroyd attests, “because there’s no laminine, no citrus oil, no glyceride and no sugar.” The vodka is then bottled in the distinctive crystal skull designed by Alexander – “It’s a grinning skull, not a doom skull,” Aykroyd points out – and has earned numerous awards including a gold medal at the Moscow ProdExpo International Tasting Contest in 2013.