Decades after writer-director Nelson Lyon released the X-rated sex comedy “The Telephone Book” in 1971, the film has been hailed as an overlooked masterpiece. By this time, Lyons was a former “Saturday Night Live” writer long known for a darker connection: he embarked on a drug frenzy with John Belushi during the comedian’s final days in 1982.
“He was blamed for Belushi’s death, and it ruined his career,” said Dennis Perrin, author of “Mr. Mike,” a 1999 biography of former “Saturday Night Live” chief writer Michael. O’Donoghue, who had been Lyon’s writing partner.
Lyon, 73, died of liver cancer at his Los Angeles home on Tuesday, said Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo and a close friend.
When the Los Angeles County grand jury investigated Belushi’s drug overdose death, Lyon testified in early 1983 under immunity granted by prosecutors. He presented a sordid portrait of Belushi’s end of life.
Three days before his death, Belushi started a “boys night” at the Lyon apartment when the comedian arrived with Cathy Evelyn Smith. A former chorister, she will later admit to having given Belushi the heroin-cocaine mixture that killed him and will then serve a 15-month prison sentence.
“I have a big surprise for you,” Lyon Belushi told him. “Roll up your sleeves.”
Smith injected Belushi and Lyon several times that day and on March 4, 1982, the day before Belushi’s body was found at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, Lyon testified.
In a private nightclub, Belushi and Lyon mingled with celebrities before Smith injected them with a “speedball”, a mixture of heroin and cocaine. This “made me a walking zombie”, testified Lyon.
Belushi fell ill on the way back to his bungalow, where actor Robert De Niro and comedian Robin Williams pulled up, according to Lyon. He said he left an exhausted Belushi with Smith around 3:30 a.m. On March 5, the 33-year-old Belushi was found dead later that morning.
In his testimony, Lyon said he took drugs to please Belushi.
Lyon’s resume as a filmmaker was slim, but “The Telephone Book” enjoyed a renaissance almost 40 years after it was released on international air.
Initially dismissed by mainstream critics as pornographic and obscene, it is now considered a “lost gem,” Mothersbaugh said.
In his 1971 review of The Times, critic Kevin Thomas praised the daring prank of a woman who falls in love with an obscene phone caller. The pornography satire was “so sadly brilliant that those in search of the usual sexploitation entertainment witness it in peril,” he wrote.
The film “was made with an agreement of freedom to offend, assault and attack the public, as well as to try to amuse the public,” Lyon told the Wall Street Journal in January. “It was a time of sexual obsession, and the film focused on life’s biggest problem: sex.”
Through the film, Lyon met O’Donoghue and quickly wrote for “Saturday Night Live” in the early 1980s. The beefy and imposing Lyon became the basis of one of O’Donoghue’s recurring characters in the series – the sinister Mr. Mike.
“When you first met Nelson, you saw the jerky rhythms of Mr. Mike,” Perrin said, “and certainly the black humor.”
Born February 28, 1939 in Troy Hills, NJ, Lyon attended Columbia University.
He was a screenwriter-designer for a New York advertising agency when he met Andy Warhol in 1966, then worked for the artist’s studio, the Factory.
When Warhol was grappling with a concept for the cover of the 1971 Rolling Stones album “Sticky Fingers”, Lyon told him to incorporate a functional zipper into a close-up portrait of jeans, according to an unpublished memoir by Lyon. After Warhol accepted the idea, he gave Lyon five prints of Marilyn Monroe to pay for it, the writer later recalled.
Lyon has co-produced spoken word recordings for writers William Burroughs and Terry Southern, and the photographs Lyon took of Burroughs have been featured in galleries.
After Belushi’s death, Lyon opened a company that made trailers for films, essentially becoming “a filmmaker without a camera,” Perrin said. Lyon tired of work and closed the company a few years ago.
“He was up to nothing for the past two years,” Mothersbaugh said. “He had burned all his bridges … He didn’t censor himself and he was smarter than most of the people he worked for.”
Mothersbaugh, who is also an artist, hired Lyon to work on a project called “Dick Vanderbeek”, on a modern Dick Tracy in a quirky world. The work can begin as a graphic novel.
“The things he wrote over the past five years were some of his best,” Mothersbaugh said. “He didn’t go to parties. He was clean and focused on his job.
Lyon is survived by his wife, Jill, whom he married weeks before her death; and two daughters from previous marriages, Stéphanie and Natalie.