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.”
The behaviour seems peculiar but when you consider the context – this is a comedian famous for characters ranging from proton pack-wielding ghostbusters to cone-headed aliens to Georg Festrunk, half of a Czechoslovakian brother tandem and one “wild and crazy guy” – all of a sudden, a trucker from Rochester or a rich dad from Detroit doesn’t sound so ridiculous.
Aykroyd, 63, relaxed, gracious and sans costume or regional accent, greets me at his family’s sprawling Sydenham, Ont., property. Ask anyone who’s known him long enough about his real-life character and you’ll repeatedly hear words like “loyal,” “sincere,” “humble” and “brilliant.” Short calls to mind the time he walked into a Saturday Night Live after party, “and Danny was telling the bartender what he had to do to make a better drink. He takes over, but it’s in a very sweet, loving, paternal way, of all situations social.”
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.
By 1973, while a member of Second City and around the time of one of his earliest television gigs as the original announcer and voice of Citytv in Toronto, Aykroyd ran his own bar – the 505 Club – in the city’s west end. One night, John Belushi pulled up a barstool, and Aykroyd introduced him to the sound of Canadian group Downchild Blues Band. Three years later, the Blues Brothers, recidivists in fedoras, dark suits and sunglasses whose livelihoods hung on a harmonica and a soulful rhythm section, debuted on SNL.
“Danny’s just funny, and this is what he does,” Short notes. “Some people just have this ear to recreate a type of person through impersonation or a type of attitude through a character.”
Before long, the Blues Brothers vaulted to both box office success and the top of the music charts. “John and I were doing [it] because we liked the music,” says Aykroyd.
“So we had to be actors who became musicians and stunt drivers and writers and producers and dancers. And that was – as far as multitasking – the most satisfying of the jobs.” Budman, who spent time on the Chicago set of the Blues Brothers film, says of Aykroyd and Belushi, “They were best friends. They really complemented each other … they were just electric to be around.”
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.”
One of the last times any audience saw Aykroyd on screen was in February 2015, when he returned to reprise his Super Bass-O-Matic sketch for Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary.
An original cast member, he speaks with fondness about “watching the work of my colleagues for the first time, Gilda bouncing around the bed doing that Judy [Miller] character and the over-the-top energy and hazardous delivery. And Jane [Curtin’s] professionalism and [Belushi] and Laraine [Newman] doing The Godfather. Billy [Murray] coming on and just nailing everything that he did.”
“I think he has a great sentimentality toward seeing anyone that was there for his entire journey,” Short explains. “It means something to him. He’d be the guy that, if you were arrested, he’d probably know the cop so it’d be fine.”
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.
Today, the expansive property includes multiple modern Aykroyd family homes spread out along the shore of Sydenham Lake, a golf cart ride away from each other amid the trees and boat docks and the fire pit, perfect for family gatherings. Centuries later, the farmhouse has that innate sense of genuine hospitality and cosiness that comes with a home well lived in.
It also has a seance room. Yes, the seance room, a remnant of “my family business,” where Aykroyd’s great-grandfather, Samuel Aykroyd III, a dentist and psychic medium critic, and medium Walter Ashurst, contacted spirits during the post-First World War mediumship and spiritualism boom of the 1920s and ’30s.
“This room is why Ghostbusters exists,” Aykroyd reveals, gesturing to the forest green walls as we settle in at a small table by the fireplace where people once joined hands in the hopes of contacting lost loved ones. “I’m sitting one afternoon, reading about quantum physics and parapsychology, and I go, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do an old-style ghost comedy but use the knowledge that people have been researching for years?’”
It’s not quite mediumship, but I, too, attempt to channel a spirit from the past via the Dan Aykroyd Ghostbusters action figure I retrieve from my bag. I hand it to him and ask Aykroyd if we’ll ever see him as ghostbuster Ray Stantz, suit up for another film. “No. That was a totally mutual decision across the board,” he admits, citing the passing of Harold Ramis, his co-writer and co-star, and the fact that co-star Bill Murray doesn’t want to reprise his role. His tone suggests the decision isn’t without regret, though he reveals, “a prequel, like Ghostbusters High where they meet in New Jersey in 1969” has been discussed.
Then, of course, there’s the Paul Feig-directed all-female Ghostbusters reboot opening this summer, starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, which Aykroyd executive produced and has a cameo in. “It’s time to let the next generation step up and have their voice heard … [Paul Feig] will be delivering a really fine movie and a big hit,” Aykroyd predicts. “Leslie Jones is going to steal the show. And from what I saw [filming] in Boston, they’re badass. And they’re all just the most accomplished comic actresses of our time.
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.
Last summer, Crystal Head’s Aurora vodka, named after aurora borealis and made from English grain for a spicier, dry taste, hit stores. The distinct crystal skull bottle boasts a kaleidoscopic infusion of colour as a tribute to its namesake.
“The public sees … artifice and they see bogus things coming a long way off,” Aykroyd explains. “So whether it’s a comedy or any kind of product, you’ve got to be honest. We couldn’t have built the business that we did on the vodka if it really weren’t the real thing.”
And then, as if conjuring yet another bygone spirit, Aykroyd admits that when he’s not travelling in support of Crystal Head he longs for the time when he slips back into character and brings the Blues Brothers act to parts of the world where they’ve never performed.
“It’s the one-and-a-half hours in my life I don’t have to think about anything else except delivering that music, singing and dancing faster than Jimmy [Belushi],” he quips, referring to the brother of the late John Belushi who headlines the act with him. “I’ve got 80 per cent of the moves left. I can’t do the knee drops anymore. You’re not going to get that out of a 63-year-old man that runs the deuce, maybe even the trice.”
As he sits before me, rubbing his legs at the thought of a Blues Brothers performance, his face lights up with an enthusiasm usually reserved for talk of antique autos and Canadiana.
“It really is joyous. I’m sitting backstage and I tape the knees and the ankles, and next it’s going to be a girdle. And I’m thinking, ‘Geez, an hour and a half – why do I do this anymore?’ And then all of a sudden the band starts and Jimmy … he’s doing the stretches.” Aykroyd laughs, rubbing his legs a little faster. “I’m thinking, ‘Mick Jagger does this at 70. I can do this.’”