Friday, March 4, 2011

IN MEMORIAM: John Candy (1950 – 1994)

John Candy as Barf
Spaceballs (1987)
Seventeen years ago today the world suffered a great loss, not only in terms of size and stature, but also in talent. I remember waking up the morning of March 5th, it was a Saturday, and walking into my kitchen vividly. The local newspaper was lying on the table and as I went to push it out of the way to make room for breakfast I noticed a familiar face on the front page. Just above the fold in the left hand column was the headshot of a face I’d recognize anywhere, having grown up in the 80s and practically raised by the television. It was John Candy. I a lifted the paper to see the story and was caught off guard by what I discovered. The lovable, overweight comedian, who had appeared in many of my favorite comedies up to that point, had passed away from a heart attack the previous day while filming some movie called Wagons East (1994) in Mexico.

Being only ten years old at the time I had no real understanding of death, especially as it pertained to people I only knew from television. I always knew that the murder and mayhem I witnessed in movies as a small child was fake and that it was done with stunts, props, and make-up. I also knew that death was a real thing that commonly happened to old people. John Candy was probably the first person I “knew’ who was there one minute and gone the next. His passing completely changed my perception of death. Suffice it to say, when Kurt Cobain died a month later I thought the world was ending. Remember, I was ten, but my prayers went out to “Weird Al” Yankovic and Bill Murray just the same. When Wagons East came out later that year I had absolutely no desire to see it, and still haven’t to this day, 1) because it looked pretty awful, and 2) because that’s the movie that killed John Candy and I’d rather remember for the pictures and characters that allowed him to live.

John Candy as Frank Dooley
Armed and Dangerous (1986)
Candy was born on October 31st, 1950 in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. He began acting in the early 1970s with small, uncredited roles in films such as Class of ’44 (1973) and allegedly Hercules in New York (1970). As the decade continued Candy found more prominent roles on Canadian television as well as comedy and horror films. His first starring role was in the film Find The Lady (1976) where he plays a detective looking for a kidnapper. During this time Candy had been a part of the Second City improv comedy troupe based out of Toronto. When SCTV (1976) began in 1976, Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live (1975), Candy was a featured player. This constant television exposure gave Candy both national and continental recognition, which led to bigger and better opportunities.

It was during his time at SCTV (1976-1983) that Candy sharpened and honed his comedic skills such as improvisation, timing, delivery, writing, and mimicry. Throughout his career with SCTV he impersonated Curly Howard (of the Three Stooges), Luciano Pavarotti, famed drag queen – Divine (Pink Flamingos (1972)), Julia Child, Alfred Hitchcock, Herve Villechaize, and Orson Welles, to name a few. In addition to these Candy also created several original characters on show including: 3-D Horror auteur Doctor Tongue, Leotonian clarinetist Yosh Shmenge, and Tommy Shanks, Mellonville’s corrupt Mayor. By the end of the 1970s Candy had appeared on Hollywood’s radar along with a whole new crop of comedians from SNL and SCTV who were making their transition from television to film.

John Candy as Det. Burton Mercer
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Beginning in 1980 with supporting roles in films such as The Blues Brothers (1980), Stripes (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), and National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Candy built on his public familiarity established by SCTV, which he was still doing at that time. His breakout role came in the romantic comedy, Splash (1984), directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. Candy’s role as Hanks’ brother allowed him to showcase not only his comedic talents but also a subtle dramatic side as well. This combination of straight comedy, as opposed to the goofy slapstick faire he had been doing on SCTV, upgraded Candy to co-star and leading man roles in films such as Brewster’s Millions (1985) with Richard Pryor and Summer Rental (1985). 

His increased status as a star allowed him to take leading roles, like
Armed and Dangerous (1986), supporting roles, like Spaceballs (1987), co-starring roles, like Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), and still make scene stealing cameos in films like Little Shop of Horrors (1986). Candy is probably best known for his work with writer-director John Hughes. Beginning with the aforementioned films Vacation and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Candy appeared either as the star or a featured cameo in seven of the filmmaker’s works. The pinnacle of their relationship, and probably Candy’s career, is unquestionably his role as Buck Russell in Uncle Buck (1989). That film is the most sincere display of Candy as an actor, comedian, and person. His fun-loving demeanor outshines all of his character flaws, of which there are many in that film, and presents probably the most accurate portrayal of the real man. He’s not as high strung as the father in The Great Outdoors (1988), or as off the wall as the title character in Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989). He comes across as a real person, with real feelings, concerns, and quirks. 

John Candy as Buck Russell
Uncle Buck (1989)

Had he lived Candy would have no doubt developed further as an actor. His first and only real dramatic role came in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), in which Candy cameoed as Dean Andrews Jr., a southern defense attorney. This unknowingly final foray firmly established Candy’s legacy as one of the finest character actors in his or any generation. Many people would be quick to resurrect another actor fitting Candy’s profile. John Belushi and Chris Farley come to mind, both for their physical presence and comedic comfort zone. But when you look at not only the scope of the work, but their personal demise Belushi will always be the tragedy, Farley will always be the wannabe, and Candy will remain the genuine article. 


  1. Great post. I remember hearing the news of John Candy's death on March 5th, which happens to be my birthday, and needless to say it was ruined that year.

  2. wonderful article about a wonderful guy. He was definitely one the most underrated / underappreciated actors of all time :-(

  3. I remember too, I was in Elementary, but I heard about it on the radio as my mom was picking me up from school...sad day indeed.
    I had grew up with Uncle Buck, Spaceballs, and The Great Outdoors, so even at an early age, I knew that his life was to be remembered

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  7. Nice post,he was one of my favorite actors in the 80s,watching his movies was the best laugh i got like Plains,Trains & Automobile,Splash,Summer Rental,The Great Outdoors,Uncle Buck,Blues Brothers,Home Alone,Armed & Dangerous,Whos Harry Crumb & too many to count.
    I remember the day he died i was at school & my sister was home sick,she saw the news about him passing away then she told me he died,the day before that i was watching VHS tape of The Great Outdoors just for fun.
    Boy that was truely the sadest day for me,i wish he was still with us today.
    RIP John Candy,we miss you :(

  8. Really great and touching tribute. I remember where I was when I heard the news on the radio that he had passed on, and was saddened and stunned by it. May his work live to be a tribute to his talent now and forever.

  9. he was a fantastic actor and a really nice guy too and i remember the morning i woke up to put the tv on and the news came on and said he had a heart attack and he had died, i felt very sad that day and a long time afterwards, i still think of him and how wonderful he was and i like him in splash, armed and dangerous and uncle buck, trains planes and automobiles and home alone and also cool runnings and brewster's millions, damn this man did so many good movies, really sadly missed

    rest in peace John

  10. I loved Trains, Planes and's embarrassing how many times I've watched it. I also loved one of his very last, not well known movies, called Canadian Bacon, released after his death. Funny satire about American/Canadian relationships. He was a great talent and we will always miss him!

  11. The world misses you John Candy. I know I do. :(

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