Jim Belushi wrote me an e-mail once.

It was about two years ago, and Belushi's ABC sitcom "According to Jim" was going into its 8th season. Rather than go the expected route and write a screed about how the show's continued existence was an affront to all that's good and decent about America, I instead took a more statistical approach. I listed some of the all-time classic sitcoms that had had shorter runs (it ran more seasons than "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and made more episodes than "Seinfeld"). Then I listed some of the shows (some good, some bad) that "Jim" had aired against and outlasted, including "Frasier," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Veronica Mars" and "Father of the Pride." Then I listed a bunch of comedies (including "Arrested Development" and "Undeclared") that debuted around the same time or shortly after "Jim" without lasting nearly as long.

"Jim Belushi," I wrote, "I'm sorry I ever doubted you and your mighty, mighty Buddha belly. I have faith that your show will outlast everything else on television. It will outlast me, and my children, and my children's children. 'According to Jim' is eternal."

And Belushi wrote me a brief note to thank me for not doing the knee-jerk thing of just using his show as a punching bag, which every critic in the country did throughout its 182-episode run.

The thing about Belushi is that he's a much better actor than he gets credit for, mainly because he's picked (or been given) awful material for much of his career. It's easy to think of him as the guy from "According to Jim" or "Mr. Destiny," but when given good material ("Salvador," "About Last Night...," his recent small role in "The Ghost Writer"), he rises to it. He obviously never made the impact on "Saturday Night Live" that his late brother John did, but he also came in at the worst possible time: a year at the tail end of the Eddie Murphy-dominated period, then a year where outgoing producer Dick Ebersol brought in ringers like Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest who dominated the airtime. And then Lorne Michaels came back and got rid of everyone, so he never had a chance to really prove himself there.

And Belushi is the main reason I enjoyed the pilot for CBS' "The Defenders," which debuts Wednesday at 10. As a shameless Vegas defense attorney, Belushi is likable, convincing when he wants you to take this clown seriously, funny when he doesn't. Like most CBS dramas, it's not reinventing the wheel, but it's effective for what it sets out to be, and Belushi is a huge part of that.

So when I sat down after "The Defenders" panel at press tour to talk with Belushi about the role, and his career, and lessons learned from his John, I of course opened up by mentioning that e-mail. He thanked me again, and said, "That was so nice, because - man! - people were just dumping on us." We'll let the transcript take it from there...

That show very quickly became the easy punch line for a lot of critics.

It was an easy shot for people. I’ll tell you a great story.  There was a restaurant in Chicago that claimed to be the origin of the cheeseburger-cheeseburger sketch (that John appeared in on "SNL"). The origin of the cheeseburger-cheeseburger sketch was my dad and Uncle Paul’s restaurant called Olympia Lunch, and this guy took it like John had got it from them. I said, "Hey, John, this guy is saying you ripped him off," and he goes, "What do you mean?" And I told him the story and he goes, "Well, he must have needed it." And he laughed. There was nothing to it. And these guys are jumping on ("According to Jim"), so I thought, "Well, must have needed it." They must have needed the easy shot.

But you spend 8 years doing the show that becomes a media punching bag, does that become hard or do you just sort of let it wash off your back?

Well, I’ll be honest with you, I read probably 2 articles about it in 8 years. One was yours. And one was a guy who was freelancing for the L.A. Times. And I responded to both. Called him and I emailed you and said thank you for being so cool about it. And I remembered that. Thanks. It means a lot to me. It does. It’s like you actually have balls to stand up for what you think as opposed to jumping on the easy wagon. That show, to me, was a very funny show. Fun, we delivered to audiences, they enjoyed it, families enjoyed it, it was a family show.

In the panel, you were saying "Now people think of me as this (sitcom actor)," but you were in "Thief," and you were in "Salvador" and you’ve done all this other stuff. You have this career and you do these things and people choose to identify you by this or that or the other thing and I guess that’s out of your control.

Yeah, that’s alright.  It’s okay. That’s the whole thing about the magic of reinventing, you know? Do another little switch and, "Oh, I didn’t know he could do that." That’s alright.

Okay  This reminded me a little bit of "Total Security" (a short-lived Bochco/Milch private eye show featuring Belushi and James Remar) in that it’s a sort of a drama where you’re bringing the comic relief but you can turn it on a dime when you need to.

But Total Security wasn’t as honest as this. This one, the humor is so organic to the relationship and the chemistry that Jerry (O'Connell) brings. He brings it.  That "Total Security" was almost kind of trying to squeeze in jokes. Trying to squeeze in humor. Here, it just comes out of the relationship.

How is this style different of selling a joke here vs. on the stage when you’re doing "Jim"?

"Jim" is selling a joke. There are rhythm jokes. There are physical gags that we have to build up to. It’s much more of a science and math.  And here it’s much more organic to the emotion and the more you’re committed to the emotion sometimes the funnier it is.

So how, if at all, does your sketch background help in stuff like this?

Well, it’s not the sketch background as much as the improvisational part. You do Second City for 2 years and you build a confidence on being in the moment and you’re not afraid of it.  So the real key is to be as present as you can be in that given moment. And accept whatever is coming your way. And then if you are present,  then you will react. And sometimes that reaction is funny because it’s coming off what just happened. It’s just more organic. It’s not as planned. The improvisation will give you that confidence, too. I’ve ad libbed in a lot of movies and a lot of those lines made movies, but I’m just carrying the scene one more beat. It was just a natural progression and they leave it in.

It’s interesting; you have the comedy background, John was obviously famous for comedy, and yet some of the best things you’ve done and certainly some of the best notices you’ve gotten have been for dramatic stuff. Even with "Ghost Writer."

I was in it for 3 minutes!

Yeah.

I’ve got more write ups on that damn thing than anything. Great write-ups. "Thief," even back then I got great write ups.

Do you think people are just surprised? They don’t expect it because of who you are?

Well, when I got into Second City, my brother called me and he said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Hey man, I just got in the touring company.” “Yeah, yeah. That’s what I heard.” “Yeah, this is really great.” “I think you should stick to the drama stuff.” “No, no, it’s like you brought me here to Second City when I was 16, John. It’s all I ever wanted to do is be here at Second City. I’m thrilled.” “You should stick to the drama stuff.” “You want me to quit?” “I just think you’re better at that drama stuff aren’t you?”  And so now I’m thinking 30 years later, maybe he was right.

Did John do serious stuff when he was still doing stage work?

Oh yeah. He did "The Crucible," "Tender Trap." He was pretty straight in "Continental Divide." (Inaudible) Me, I’ve gotta work at it. I’m probably better at the drama stuff, huh?

So when you say some films you improv and some of those lines get in, what’s something that I might maybe remember that was yours?

There's the chase in "Red Heat." Going up the back stairs chasing a bad guy, and he’s coming down, put a gun to his head and the line is, "Don’t worry, I’m a professional." I do the take, do another take, 3 different cameras, and they say okay let’s move on, and I say, "No, no I just want to try one more thing." Run up the stairs, and instead of, "Don’t worry I’m a professional," I say, “You look a lot like Marvin Haggler. I lost money on Haggler!”  Remember that line?

Yeah.

Walter (Hill) goes, "Alright, that was funny, did you get that out of your system?"  "Yeah, I just wanted to try it."  A few days later, he sees the dailies and he goes, "You know that Haggler line? It played better on camera." Oh, okay. Cut to every trailer had that line in it. It was one take, one ad lib. I have a lot of those. There are a lot of those.

You’re underestimated.

Well, my problem is I can’t really - every time I pitch a joke, like, "Hey I want to try this," they always go, "Oh, I don’t know." So now I just do it. I’m better in action than in meetings.

So with "The Defenders," was there a moment in the script when you’re reading it and you say, "All right, I want to do this"?

Well you want the real story?

Yeah.

My agent calls and, "We really want to you meet with this executive." "What for?" "Just a general meeting." "All right."  Met with her. Had the most wonderful meeting with this woman. 2 weeks later my agent sends a script with a cover page on it: "Dear Jim, CBS is offering you the role of Pete in a CBS pilot of 'The Defenders.'" I read it. Go call them up and they go, "What do you think?" "I don’t know, I don’t see myself in this role." "What are you talking about?" "Well, I don’t know. It’s a little bit of a stretch for me." "What are you, nuts? You’re perfect for this role!" I said, "Well, let me re-read it."  And I re-read it.  And I read Pete. Making love to the prosecuting attorney, kind of hot. Dressed kind of sharp and I’m going, "You know, Jim, you’ve got to think of yourself better. Maybe you are hot. If these guys think you’re hot and CBS thinks you’re hot, my wife thinks I’m hot—maybe I’m hot! I’m hot. I’m a hot dude. I’m a hot 50’s dude." And I call him back and I go, "Well, listen, I don’t really think I’m right for this role, but if you guys really believe in me, I’m going to work on it." "What are you talking about? You’re drinking a martini in a bar at 10:30 in the morning," and I went, "Well, that’s Nick." That’s Nick!  I read the cover page and on there it said Pete. Who typed this? Who typed this? So for 3 days I’m like punishing myself that I have low self-esteem. So I was relieved that I was Nick and that I really liked Nick.

It always seems like with the people who were on "SNL" in the Ebersol years, every retrospective treats that period in a condensed fashion, because Lorne wasn't there and he doesn’t really consider it part of the history of the show. Do you have any kind of relationship with him?

Oh yeah, yeah. I get along with Lorne very well. Lorne has been a part of our family for 35 years. I like Lorne. He’s quite brilliant and to keep a show on the air for that many years is incredible, but you're right: that section is a little forgotten.

And you spanned a couple of different installments because you were there…

I did 2 different installments.

Yeah, Eddie and then Billy.

It was tough times. It was tough times.

Did you feel like you got your footing when you were there?

I just started to. I look at it when John quit. He did 4 years and I said, "What are you doing?" And he goes, "It’s like high school, Jim. Freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. It’s time to move on."  So I felt my sophomore year—the 2nd semester, I was just getting my footing and I could have used another 2 years there.

Is that the year you did the chess coach?

 I love the chess coach!  I loved chess coach. "Just give him the king!" I loved that. Well, I did very well on "Saturday Night Live" in the films, and in most of the live stage stuff. It takes time to get your footing, though. It’s the most pressure I’ve ever had in my whole career. It’s like a MASH unit, you know? Or if you’re a doctor you go to Bellevue. So yeah, I could have used a couple more years.

Then Lorne came back.

Yeah, Lorne came back. He did the right thing. He did the right thing. There’s no regret there.

So how long do you want to do this show? Ideally, this thing goes 6-7 years; are you ready for that sort of commitment again?

My wife is. We had a little spat last year and out of the blue she goes, "I’m calling your agent. You need to go back to work." And I was just enjoying my time off. But man, I had a lovely time off and that sit-com really allowed me to be with my kids when they were growing up. And football and basketball and soccer. I did all that stuff. But this one is - I’m a little scared I’ll be honest with you. It’s a lot of hours. But I’m in shape. I’ve lost 30 pounds. I’m eating right. I’m really taking care of myself.  I’m a work-horse. I’m going into battle.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com