Gang of One

updated 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

THESE DAYS HE SMOKES $10 CIGARS (fresh from the Santa Monica shop he co-owns with actor Chuck Norris), lives in a sunny two-bedroom Brentwood, Calif., home and shares Jacuzzi time each evening with his girlfriend of two years, Jenny Sloan. For actor Jim Belushi, 43, life finally seems to be following the script. "I think I've struggled for my own identity like anyone does," says the younger brother (by five years) of the late John Belushi. "But I've come to a comfortable place within myself."

If work is the measure, Belushi is more active than a winter virus. He is currently making the multiplex rounds in Gang Related, the cops-gone-bad action movie in which he stars with late rapper Tupac Shakur. In September he hit the home screen in ABC's Total Security, playing a private detective for a high-tech security firm in the weekly hour-long TV drama. And early next year, he'll likely be heard on a CD near you, blowing harp and singing on a blues album with his band of nearly three years, the Sacred Hearts. Still, Belushi knows just how quickly stars can fall into a black hole.

In September 1996, while in New Zealand filming a TV commercial, Belushi learned of Shakur's shooting following a Mike Tyson boxing match in Las Vegas. Though the pair had gotten off to a rocky start—"He was late for the first rehearsal, missed the second and was late for the third," says Belushi—they were buddies by the time Gang Related wrapped. When word of the altercation reached Belushi, "I assumed he'd be fine," he says. "He'd been shot five times before and survived it. So I said to myself, 'Tupac, who'd you piss off now?' "

Shakur's death was not the first to touch Belushi, of course. Now, as he stands in his Brentwood study near a glass case displaying his brother John's boyhood medals and trophies, Belushi recalls that March day in 1982 when the star of Saturday Night Live, Animal House and The Blues Brothers was carried out of the Chateau Marmont Hotel after a fatal cocaine-and-heroin overdose. Then too, Belushi recalls, "I slipped into denial, like I did with Tupac. I'm not good with death, so I tend to hang on to that state of denial for a long time."

John and Jim Belushi, the second and third of four children of an Albanian-born steak house owner, had grown up together in Wheaton, Ill. As a kid, says Jim, "I stole cars and bikes, but I wasn't your clear-cut juvenile delinquent. My report card was always good." After graduating from Southern Illinois University, the kid brother seemed to leap feetfirst into John's turbulent wake. Like his older brother, Jim joined Chicago's Second City improv troupe, did a two-season stint on Saturday Night Live and, for a while, was even set to team with Dan Aykroyd in a new Blues Brothers film.

But cutting his own path in Hollywood took its toll. Belushi suffered two failed marriages during his 30s and found himself typecast as a rumpled lunk (About Last Night..., K-9). Last year, when he signed to play a crooked cop in Gang Related, however, the film's director, Jim Kouf, saw something more. "He's got this attitude that can be explosively comic or explosively scary," says Kouf, "and that made him perfect for the role." On TV, meanwhile, Belushi has seen Total Security stagger, sinking as low as No. 81 in the Nielsen ratings. Producer Steven Bochco's record as a hit-maker (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) may buy Security time to build an audience, but no matter what happens, Belushi seems at peace.

And in love. Four years ago, he walked into a Santa Monica jewelry store to buy presents for several women he was dating, met salesclerk Jenny Sloan and invited her to lunch. Sloan, 30, moved into his Brentwood quarters in 1995, followed last year by Belushi's son Robert, 17, from his first marriage. ("He's good-looking, chiseled and smart," Belushi says of the 11th-grader. "Nothing like me.")

With his career humming and his home life happy at last, Belushi has a new outlook. "I've been scrambling to set a new goal" ever since joining Second City in 1977, he says. "Now it's just to be the best I can."

TODD GOLD in Brentwood

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