Many people would agree that there was something magical about the comedies of the ‘80s. And while the spotlight was mostly fixed on Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase, there was one actor who made many of us (myself included) laugh even more than the rest. That was John Candy. He was the actor who starred alongside the comedy icons and left a lasting impression on comedy and those who watched him.
John Candy was a presence in one classic comedy after another, with The Blues Brothers, Stripes, Spaceballs, Splash, Uncle Buck, Summer Rental, The Great Outdoors, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It all came to a crashing and tragic halt when Candy unexpectedly died in 1994. He was only 43 years old. As it turns out, his sudden death was the final tragedy in a life overshadowed by struggle and sadness.
John Franklin Candy was born in Newmarket, Ontario, on October 31, 1950. He came from a working-class Roman-Catholic family. His British father, Sidney James Candy, earned a living as a car salesman in Toronto. His mother, Evangeline Candy, was Polish. When John was only five years old (his brother Jim was six), the family felt their first pang of tragedy.
Sidney died suddenly of heart disease at the age of 35, forcing his mother to move her and the boys to a small bungalow in Toronto, which they shared with John’s grandparents and aunt, to make ends meet. As John grew up, the knowledge of his father’s heart disease was always present.
“It was always in the back of everybody’s mind,” John’s brother-in-law, Frank Hober, told People in 1994. The family was always worried about John’s extra weight and unhealthy habits that could (and did) lead to the same fate that his father suffered. “No one talked about it, but it was in the back of John’s mind, too.”
Aside from the family’s (and John’s) unspoken concern over his health, his father’s death left a permanent mark on Candy’s mind in other ways. As a student at Neil McNeil Catholic High School in Toronto, John wasn’t thinking about a possible future in Hollywood. Rather, his love for football is what inspired him to dream of a professional career in the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Considering that John stood at 6’2”, playing football wasn’t so unrealistic. Having played offensive tackle on his high school team made him quite the impressive opponent. But his dreams of the CFL came to a screeching halt when he suffered a knee injury that prevented him from going pro.
Unfortunately, it was only the beginning of the challenges – physical and mental –that John would encounter. John never gave up his dream of having a connection with football, though. In a sort of “coming full circle,” after achieving success and acquiring enough money, John was able to purchase a 10% stake in the Toronto Argonauts in 1991. The team even went on to win the CFL’s Grey Cup.
It seemed to be a good move for John’s investment. That is until the owner of the Argonauts sold the team in 1994. With it went John’s hopes of being a CFL owner. But that was an event that occurred in the last year of John’s life. Let’s rewind a little bit…
In 1969, at the age of 19, with a career in the CFL now a pipe dream, John was looking for some life direction. At first, he tried joining the Marines, but the same knee injury kept him from passing the physical exam. So, he had to look elsewhere.
John decided to enroll in Centennial College to study journalism and acting. But that didn’t last, either. In 1971, he dropped out to pursue a career in acting. His friend and future collaborator, Dan Aykroyd, insisted that John join the very popular Canadian comedy troupe Second City in Chicago.
John went for it and thrived in the burgeoning comedy scene. It didn’t take long for him to earn a name for himself, working alongside comedy stars like Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. By 1974, John was back in Canada, working with the Toronto group.
Second City proved so successful that in the mid – ‘70s, the troupe’s sketches and skits became SCTV, aired on Canadian national TV. It aired until 1980, at which point Candy left. But he returned once the show was picked up in 1981 by U.S.-based NBC, which aired after Saturday Night Live.
The exposure was just what John and his costars needed to become real comedy stars. Portraying memorable characters in movies seemed to be the right and inevitable direction for John. After all, he was responsible for creating so many of SCTV’s various characters.
John Candy created and played the hilariously varied characters of TV personality Johnny La Rue (a dark version of Beaver Cleaver), Julia Child (who boxes Mr. Rogers), and Harry, the Guy With a Snake on His Face.
John performed perfect impressions of Luciano Pavarotti, Orson Welles, Julia Child, among others. In 1981 and ‘82, John won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program. Just like that, the actor was etching his name into the archives of comedy history. He had his whole life ahead of him… or so he thought.
Given his growing reputation in comedy, John’s comedic genius caught the attention of Hollywood executives. He soon made acclaimed appearances as Pvt. Foley in Steven Spielberg’s war comedy 1941; Burton Mercer, a parole officer in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers; and Ox, a misfit and eccentric army recruit in Ivan Reitman’s war comedy Stripes.
With new and broader ambitions in the film industry, John felt the need to leave SCTV in 1983 to focus on making movies. He appeared in some of the biggest comedies of the ‘80s, like National Lampoon’s Vacation, but there’s one major ‘80s comedy that John missed out on…
Ghostbusters, the highest-grossing comedy of the ‘80s, starred a number of John Candy collaborators – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. So why wasn’t John involved? Well, the truth is that he was supposed to be. In fact, he was supposed to be in the movie from the beginning.
John was offered the role of Louis Tully. Director Ivan Reitman came to Candy with a “treatment,” which is a detailed outline of the script. “He didn’t like the treatment that I had sent. He didn’t get it,” Reitman later told Entertainment Weekly.
According to Reitman, John told him, “Well, maybe if I played him as a German guy who had many German shepherd dogs.” Reitman politely turned down John’s suggestions; he considered them over the top and unnecessary. And so, John respectively bowed out.
As we know now, Rick Moranis, John’s SCTV castmate, got the role instead. But John did make a cameo in the music video for Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters theme song. With or without Ghostbusters, John firmly established himself in the comedy world, proving himself as one of the most popular and hilarious supporting actors in the industry.
Candy’s career was a rollercoaster ride, full of highs and lows. His breakthrough role came in 1984, as Henry Bauer, Tom Hanks’ sleazy brother, in Ron Howard’s Splash. The part earned John public fame for essentially stealing the show as the film’s comic relief.
But what comes up must come down. After Splash, he tolerated a string of disappointing films, such as Brewster’s Millions (1985), Summer Rental (1985), Volunteers (1985), Armed and Dangerous (1986). John wasn’t deterred, though. He came back with a bang in 1987 with John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
The two Johns happened to share a unique understanding. As John’s son Chris Candy said, “He loved working with John Hughes. Those movies really resonated with him.” John went on to star in several of Hughes’ films, including Uncle Buck, Home Alone, Career Opportunities, The Great Outdoors, and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Here’s a (not so) fun fact: On the first day of shooting Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the crew brought in exercise equipment like treadmills and weights for Candy to use in his hotel suite. According to his costar Steve Martin, John didn’t use any of it.
John’s tall and hefty size meant he was continually cast as “the big guy” and the welcomed comic relief. I think it’s safe to say that he wasn’t Hollywood’s stereotypical type to play a romantic lead in a movie, at least not in those days.
But somehow, he was exactly that in Chris Columbus’ 1991 rom-com, Only the Lonely. In another unlikely part, he played a dramatic role in Oliver Stone’s political thriller, JFK. By 1993, he returned to his comedy roots as Blitzer in Jon Turteltaub’s sports comedy, Cool Runnings.
His size didn’t affect all of his roles, clearly. But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t face issues with it. As the years went by, John’s lifestyle was taking over, and he struggled with weight issues. He made efforts to get in shape, but he simply couldn’t stick to any regimen.
He once said, “I know what I have to do if I want to lose weight and stay healthy: eat a proper diet and exercise. All I’ve got to do is apply it.” But it’s a lot easier said than done (as most people can attest).
John was known to have faced constant criticism and cruel remarks regarding his size. Leading up to the 1992 Canadian Genie Awards, John was disrespectfully promoted with the line: “We got the biggest star we could find.” It led John to decide to opt-out of hosting the awards show.
He subsequently started overeating, even more, leading to an increase in his weight. John was also a smoker, among other bad habits. As his career flourished in the ‘80s, he encountered a growing problem with addiction. Getting famous took him down some self-indulgent roads.
John himself admitted it. By the time he made it to Second City, “The next thing I knew, I was in Chicago, where I learned how to drink, stay up real late, and spell d-r-u-g-s.” He dipped his feet in the very rampant ‘80s drug scene, with all its go-to “medicine.”
All in all, he was leading a pretty unhealthy lifestyle. However, according to the documentary Autopsy: John Candy, his newer habits matched his already ingrained tendencies. He started smoking when he was a teenager. By the time he was 18, he was smoking a pack a day.
In March of 1982, one of John’s closest friends, John Belushi, succumbed to an overdose. Just like his own father’s death, Belushi’s untimely end deeply impacted John. John knew how similar his and Belushi’s unhealthy lifestyles were. Belushi’s death came as not only a shock but as a wake-up call.
It was literally sobering and something of a message. Actor Dan Hennessey said, “John knew it was time to go home, clean up, and get his career in order.” As seen in the film Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy, after Belushi’s death, John decided to quit cocaine.
He then entered a funk and would slip in and out of depression. There were periods where he didn’t leave his house or take calls from anyone. But he never gave up smoking, and in combination with bad genetics and habits, it was evident that he was going down the same road that his father had.
Health was a consistent worry to both John and those close to him. No one could ignore the fact that his father’s early death was a possible likelihood for him. Weighing more or less around 275 pounds, without any success in diets, exercise, and trainers, the forecast wasn’t looking good.
At the beginning of the ‘90s, when he turned 40, he started suffering from sudden panic attacks. His way of self-medicating was by overeating. Before long, he was reportedly 330 pounds. John’s second to last movie was the 1994 Western comedy Wagons East.
The box office bomb and critical failure of a film (which earned $4.4 million and a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) was a discomfiting end to John Candy’s stellar career. On March 4, 1994, he shot his last scene for the film and celebrated by making a late-night dinner for his assistants.
On the night that he passed away, he called his costars Richard Lewis and Robert Picardo to chat. He also called his young children who were back in Los Angeles (he was in Mexico) to say goodnight. The actor then headed to bed, only to never wake up.
He reportedly suffered a heart attack (a myocardial infarction) in his sleep. He left behind his wife, Rosemary, and his kids Jennifer and Christopher. The beloved, humble and amicable man had a major flaw, which was his inability to completely embrace himself. He once said, “I’m the one who has to look in the mirror, and after a while, it begins to eat at you.”
John met Rosemary – his future wife – in the late 1970s. They were set up on a blind date that went really well. They hit it off and started to spend more time together after he asked her to help him type up a script. Rosemary eventually became an abstract painter and ceramics artist.
After they married in 1979, the couple had two kids, Jennifer and Chris. They were 14 and 9, respectively, when their dad passed. By the way, the Candy kids (not a bad name) kept their father’s legacy in entertainment as both went into television and film.
Jennifer appeared on Liv and Maddie’s episodes, Sydney to the Max, and produced the shows Prom Queen and Cockpit. Chris appeared on the show Murder in the First as well as in a sketch on The Late Late Show with James Corden.
However, the Candy kids got their start with a project of their father’s, in which they voiced characters on the cartoon called Camp Candy. Other than the projects they are involved with, a large part of continuing their father’s legacy is by telling stories about him that only his kids could really tell…
Jennifer and Chris said that on the day John Candy died, a large piece of amethyst that he once brought home from Mexico for his family abruptly shattered. His wife told her young kids that it was their father’s way of saying goodbye.
Their father was, first and foremost, a family man. “He was an amazing talent, an amazing force,” his son, Chris, now 37, recalled. “He was on this planet to do a lot, and he did do a lot.” The Candys happen to know a lot about the man we all came to adore. So, let’s hear some of the stories they enjoyed sharing…
Neither Jennifer nor Chris have a problem discussing their dad’s death. As Chris explained, “I was 9. It was a Friday. I remember talking to him the night before he passed away, and he said, ‘I love you and goodnight.’ And I will always remember that.”
His sister added, “I remember my dad the night before. I was studying for a vocabulary test. I was 14. He had just come home for my 14th birthday, which is Feb. 3. So, I was talking to him on the phone, and I hate this, but I was slightly distant because I was studying. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, I love you. I will talk to you later. Have a great night.’ Then I hang up, and I go back to studying.”
Chris said they found out right away that it was a heart attack, which to him back then didn’t make any sense. “I remember people coming over immediately; Chevy Chase coming over and family coming in that evening from Canada.”
Their mother was “a rock” for them. She taught them to go with their feelings, that “People are going to grieve differently.” Rosemary, however, doesn’t take to the media and prefers to talk about her late husband with those close to her. “It’s just not her thing,” Chris explained. “My father was the one who was in front of the cameras.”
The Candys noted that their dad had a soft spot for animals – that he would bring home animals, rescuing them. They also said their mom was a real trooper considering the fact that she is allergic to dogs and cats. John went to shelters to rescue the pets.
At the time, they lived on a farm in Newmarket, Ontario, and had four Clydesdales: Peaches, Cream, Uncle Buck, and Harry Crumb. The family also had cows. The farm, for John, was a place for him “to escape and not be bothered, and be with his family,” as his kids put it.
Of all the characters he played and took seriously, John put the most effort into portraying Dean Andrews Jr., the nervous New Orleans lawyer in JFK. Jen and Chris were young at the time, but they still noticed their father’s focus and dedication to that role.
“JFK was my favorite of him for the longest time because he is so good in it,” Jennifer recalled. She remembered him taking a dialect coach and working night and day on the script. “He was so worried about it, getting that accent down.”
John had a lot of respect for the film industry and admiration for all those he worked with, but he wasn’t a fan of seeing the big screen’s final product. Chris said that his father didn’t go to the movie premieres of his own movies.
What he would do instead is send his wife to the screenings. She would then come back and tell him at which points the audience laughed and what they laughed at. It just goes to show no matter how talented an actor may be, sometimes self-confidence (or lack thereof) trumps it all.
It doesn’t take a lot to see just how much Jennifer and Chris look like their late father. It was actually something Chris admitted having struggled with for years. “When I was younger, I had a problem with it. But as I have gotten older, I look at myself, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.'”
He explained that it would bother him because people would call him John all the time by accident. He says it still happens to this day. “I accepted it. We look like our parents. We all do.” As for Jennifer, on the other hand, she’s always embraced the resemblance.
John Candy worked with the biggest names in comedy during his career. He had friends from his SCTV days, like Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty, Martin Short and, Eugene Levy. But he was most keen on working with late writer and director John Hughes.
John appeared in eight films that were either directed, written, or produced by Hughes. Chris recalled a story that Hughes shared about a classic scene from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. He explained that the production was over budget and overscheduled, “and Paramount was coming down to get everything going…”
It was the day they were filming the devil costume scene. John had the idea that it would be hilarious if Steve Martin saw Del (his character) as the devil. So, the Paramount executives finally got on set, and John was walking around in this devil costume.
Chris described how everyone was like, “What the hell does this have to do with anything?” Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (which has a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) went on to be a financial and critical success. Hughes and John were both praised for their work.
After his death, John’s friends took his kids under their wing. While Jennifer and Chris don’t like to name drop, they say several of their father’s castmates have always been there for them. However, they did say that Tino Insana (who did voiceover work and was Uncle Ted in Bobby’s World) was one of John’s best friends.
Insana was always there for Chris and Jennifer, they said. He took them to Chris’ tee-ball games. Hughes would also check in on the two kids regularly and even have them come over to his place for movie and game nights. And he always had a story about their father to tell them.
Chris recalled one story that Hughes told them about a time when he and John decided to go to dinner. They were going to meet in the lobby of a hotel and get in a car. There was this guy in the car, and he was “kind of nervous, and they both noticed.”
The guy then spilled a glass of wine at dinner, which is when Hughes says to John, “Your friend can’t keep it together.” John says, “My friend? I thought it was your friend.” As it turns out, some random fan found his way into the car. They made him leave, but it made for a great story.
To this day, the Candy kids (albeit full-grown adults) are still learning about their father. “We have been going through a ton of boxes,” Chris said. “When he passed away, his office got all boxed up, and through the years, we have slowly gone through it.”
“He’s not really gone because we talk about him so much, and we’ll always open a box, and there are a billion photos of him. So, it’s like, there he is, Chris added. “As much as he is gone, he is not gone. He is always there.”
Pretty much every big name in comedy and other genres has been asked to host Saturday Night Live. But John Candy only hosted the sketch show once in October 1983. Apparently, SNL often made plans for John to appear, but they kept falling through. Show writer Bob Odenkirk (who plays Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul) explained the host selection process.
“Two weeks ahead of time, they’ve got a pool of names, two or three people, and they ask these people to host the show.” As the week gets closer, Lorne Michaels picks one of them, and the other two get burned. According to Odenkirk, John Candy was the “most-burned potential host.”
There are a number of projects that John Candy was involved in that were left unfinished due to this sudden passing. He was in talks about portraying Ignatius J. Reilly in a now-shelved movie adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
John was also reportedly interested in portraying Atuk in a film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s The Incomparable Atuk and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It was supposed to be a biopic based on the silent film comedian’s life. These shelved projects were dubbed as “cursed” because John Candy, John Belushi, Sam Kinison, and Chris Farley were each attached to the roles, and they all died before the films were made.
John was originally considered for Alec Guinness’s role in the remake of the 1950 film Last Holiday with director Carl Reiner. Eventually, the role was given to Queen Latifah in a loose remake that was released in 2006.
He was also supposed to collaborate with John Hughes yet again in a comedy with Sylvester Stallone called Bartholomew vs. Neff. John and Sly were supposed to be feuding neighbors (which is actually something that could have been hilarious). John Candy was also going to collaborate with Disney. In the animated film Pocahontas, the role of the turkey, Redfeather, was written for John but was cut from the film after his death.