Dan Aykroyd on his formative years as an actor, his time on 'SNL,' and his best career advice

Dan Aykroyd on his formative years as an actor, his time on 'SNL,' and his best career advice
Dan Aykroyd is an actor who gained fame on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1970s.Photo: ®AmandaNikolic
  • Dan Schawbel is a bestselling author, speaker, and host of "5 Questions with Dan Schawbel."
  • In a recent episode, he spoke with actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd.
  • He talked about his time at "SNL" and recent ventures - a chain of music venues and vodka brand.

Dan Aykroyd is a Canadian actor, producer, comedian, musician, and filmmaker. He rose to fame as a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" and eventually starred in hit movies like "The Blues Brothers" and "Ghostbusters."

Aykroyd is also a businessman, having cofounded the House of Blues chain of music venues and the award-winning Crystal Head Vodka brand.

In our conversation, Aykroyd talked about how his parents encouraged him to be an actor, his experience on "Saturday Night Live" and at Second City, his new business venture, and his best career advice.
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What did your parents see in you as a child that made them encourage you to be an actor, and how did they support your career as it progressed?

When I was very young, they heard me imitating the announcers on old fifties television, like "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Phil Silvers Show," and the "Texaco Star Theater." I would stand in front of the television and imitate the announcers and the hosts. When I was about five or six years old, my dad cut off the top of a hockey stick, put some tape and a cord on it, handed it to me, and said, "Here's your microphone."

From then, my parents encouraged me to take theater classes at Ottawa Little Theater in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, when I was 11 or 12. They started me off very young, because they recognized that I had a gift for mimicry and they encouraged me to do it.
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You were in an all-star cast during your "Saturday Night Live" days. How was being the youngest cast member on the show an opportunity for you to stand out and shine?

By being young and inexperienced, I opened up to learning a lot. I learned from everybody - the sound men, the cameramen, the guys that did the cue cards. Being so young enabled me to open up and learn a lot from people who could teach me. What did you learn about the entertainment business during your time at Second City that helped you with your future endeavors?
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I learned that show is a business, and that art and commerce can be married profitably. Sometimes art must serve commerce and sometimes commerce must serve the art, but you have to have both hand in hand. So I learned about marketing and selling the shows, for example, by getting the word out on the Second City shows or the improvs we were doing.

I also learned about the execution of a concept, where you start out with nothing and then end up with a finished show. And of course I learned about collaboration, which I've needed throughout my career. Basically, I learned about running a show and being in a circus - and that it's a business.

You narrated Patron founder and billionaire John Paul DeJoria's documentary "Good Fortune," and you're also his former business partner. Can you talk about the business and life lessons you learned from him as you launched Crystal Head Vodka?
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I learned from JP that if you're going to go to the consumer with any kind of a product, it has to be of an impeccable quality and superior to what's out there in the marketplace. You have to start with quality, stay with it, and execute soundly all the way through, or your consumer will abandon you.

Along with that, JP taught me about ethical and empathic operation. You can have a strong, profitable corporation, but if you don't treat people right or if there's a toxic environment, it will be detrimental to what you're doing. We've seen so many brands fall because of toxic environments.

What's your best piece of career advice?
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In anything you're doing, collaborate with experts - people who are smarter than you in the disciplines that they govern - and listen to what they have to say and take their advice.

And in building that team of experts or collaborators, make sure that there's harmony right from the start. If you catch any kind of a whiff of disharmony or maltreatment or abusive behavior, that individual must be cut immediately. You can't have disharmony in a collaborative venture. I've learned this in everything that I've done.

For example, as I shifted from films and into the beverage alcohol business, I went to the best collaborator on the planet that could give me the best water. And I went to the experts in distillation, the experts in filtration, and the experts in glass-making for our beautiful skull package, and I listened to what they had to say and took their advice.
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By actually going to the lengths and the expenses we had to in order build the product, instead of disputing and trying to cut corners, we now have a successful, sustaining business which is in 70 countries.

It's about collaborating with the best, listening to what they have to say, and not trying to do shortcuts. If they advise you to spend a little more or do a little more to make your product great, then take their advice and do it. In the end, that's what success is built on - and you'll have a durable brand story. Listen to the audio episode
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Watch the extended video episode on YouTube

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