John Candy: The Legacy of a Legend
(Credit: Alamy)

John Candy: The legacy of a cinematic legend

“As long as you can savour the humorous aspect of misery and misfortune, you can overcome anything.”– John Candy

Comic performer John Candy was one of the most popular and amicable figures within the film industry. One of the decade’s most treasured and pivotal legends, Candy left an ineffaceable impression on the audience’s mind. Despite playing loud, eccentric, obnoxious and goofy characters, his kindness and geniality always shone through. His life was not a cakewalk; he struggled with depression and untimely losses as well as numerous challenging career setbacks. However, Candy never let personal issues seep through his performances and maintained the same cheery self while portraying iconic characters that are ingrained in the memories of the audience members. 

John Franklin Candy was born in Newmarket, Ontario on October 31, 1950, to working-class Roman-Catholic parents, Sidney James Candy and Evangeline Candy. Tragedy befell the family when Candy was only four-years-old, and his older brother, Jim, six. His father died of heart disease at the age of 35, a tragedy which forced his mother to relocate to a small bungalow in working-class Toronto borough of East York to make ends meet. His father’s death left an indelible mark on Candy’s mind and, as a student at Neil McNeilCatholic High School in Toronto, he never thought of getting involved in the entertainment industry and, in actual fact, his love for football inspired him to realistically dream of being a professional football player. Standing at a towering 6’2, Candy, playing offensive tackle on his high school football team, was quite a formidable opponent. However, his plans of playing in the Canadian Football League were disrupted by a severe knee injury that prevented him from going pro — it was just the beginning of the mental challenges that Candy would encounter. Later, however, on achieving success and acquiring enough money, Candy was able to purchase a 10% stake in the Toronto Argonauts who went on the win the CFL. However, this success was short-lived, as the other owner soon sold the team and, along with it, Candy’s dreams of becoming a big shot CFL owner fizzled out. 

In 1969, while floating around for life direction, Candy attempted to join the Marines, but the same injury kept him from passing the physical and, instead, he enrolled in Centennial College to study journalism and acting. However, in 1971, he dropped out of college to pursue a career in acting and, after at his friend and future collaborator, Dan Aykroyd’s insistence, he joined the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. Candy thrived in the burgeoning comedy scene, quickly earning a name for himself, working alongside fellow comedy stars Gilda Radner and John Belushi. In 1974, he returned to the Canadian arm in Toronto; there, he worked relentlessly to feature the troupe’s sketches and skits as SCTV on Canadian national TV in 1977. The cast comprised brilliant and talented actors like Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty among others and aired primarily in Canada until 1981 when it was picked up by NBC and aired after Saturday Night Live in the United States of America. Candy’s immaculate impressions as Luciano Pavarotti, Orson Welles, Julia Child, and his memorable iterations of the sketchy Johnny LaRue, horror film director Dr. Tongue and others left lasting impressions on the viewers and won him accolades. In 1981 and 1982, John Candy consecutively won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program, etching his name into the annals of comedy history.

Given his growing reputation, John Candy’s extraordinaire and comedic genius caught Hollywood’s attention and would go on to make a number of acclaimed appearances; from the role of Pvt. Foley in Steven Spielberg’s war comedy 1941, and Burton Mercer, a parole officer in John Landis’ 1980 musical sketch The Blues Brothers, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, to the role of Ox, a misfit, eccentric army recruit in Ivan Reitman’s 1982 war comedy film Stripes starring Bill Murray. With new lofty ambitions, Candy took the decision to leave SCTV in 1983 to focus on filmmaking. By then, he had proven his prowess as one of the most popular and hilarious supporting actors in the industry and, in the same year, Candy was approached by Ivan Reitman to play a significant role of the nerdy neighbour Louis Tully in the legendary movie Ghostbusters who, it transpired, had been sketched on Candy himselfHowever, the subtle comedy woven into the script via his character failed to resonate with Candy. In an interview, Reitman said, “John didn’t get it. He kept saying ‘Hey, well, maybe can I do him [Tully] with a German accent?'”. Reitman further said, “[Candy] was looking for a handle and we got into the very uncomfortable conversation finally, and it was clear that he was not gonna do it.” Candy wanted to play the part but failed to synthesise his style within the existing screenplay.

Candy’s career was turbulent with many highs and lows. His first breakthrough role as Henry Bauer, Tom Hanks’ sleazy brother, in Ron Howard’s 1984 film Splash earned him public fame for stealing the show as the comic relief. Following this, however, he endured a string of disappointing films, including Brewster’s Millions (1985), Summer Rental (1985), Volunteers (1985), Armed and Dangerous (1986) and more. However, not one to accept defeat, Candy was back with a bang in 1987 where he starred in John Hughes’ popular comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. The two Johns shared a unique and fruitful understanding and, as Chris Candy said, “He loved working with John Hughes. Those movies really resonated with him.” Candy starred in several Hughes’ films including Uncle Buck, Home Alone, Career Opportunities, The Great Outdoors, National Lampoon’s Vacation to name just a few.

Given Hollywood’s obsession with a distinct romantic hero, Candy’s tall stature and hefty size cast him in the roles of ‘the big guy’ and the quintessential comic relief. However, he had the rare opportunity to play the romantic lead in Chris Columbus’ 1991 rom-com Only the Lonely starring Ally Sheedy and Maureen O’Hara. He was also a part of Oliver Stone’s political thriller JFK in which he portrayed his sheer genius in dramatic acting. As his stock continued to rise, In 1993, he achieved box office success once again by starring as Blitzer in Jon Turteltaub’s sports comedy film Cool Runnings and cemented his presence across cinema.

John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

A true Canadian hero, John Candy never abandoned his roots. Despite gaining major success in the profitable and lucrative world of Hollywood, he continued making appearances in films that constituted the more modestly-budgeted and regional Canadian entertainment industry. He was eternally grateful to the exposure it had given him when he was at the start of his career. 

However, while John Candy’s career flourished in the 1980s, he had a growing problem with addiction. As Candy himself admitted, as soon as he made it to the comedic troupe of the Second City, “The next things I knew, I was in Chicago, where I learned how to drink, stay up real late, and spell d-r-u-g-s.” Candy dabbled with cocaine and led a pretty unhealthy lifestyle. In March 1982, one of Candy’s closest compatriots, John Belushi, succumbed to a drug overdose. Just like his father’s death, Belushi’s untimely demise deeply impacted Candy who slipped into sudden bouts of depression, preventing him from leaving his house or taking calls. He realised how similar and unhealthy their lifestyles were. Belushi’s death came as a shock as well as wake up call to Candy, it was almost “as a message”. As actor Dan Hennessey said, “John knew it was time to go home, clean up, and get his career in order.” 

With his lifestyle taking over, Candy struggled with weight issues throughout his life to further compound his struggles. While he made a lot of efforts to get in shape, he had a hard time sticking to it. He was quoted saying, “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.” 

Candy had to face constant criticism and crude remarks regarding his size. Once at the 1992 CanadianGenie Awards, he was, quite disrespectfully, promoted as “We got the biggest star we could find”, which led to him pulling out of hosting the show, and subsequently overeating even more that led to a rapid increase in his weight. His regular smoking habits contributed to his dwindling health, and by the cruel combination of genetics as well as habits, Candy went down the same road as that of his father. Tragedy struck once again on March 4, 1994, when Candy had finished shooting his final film Wagons East at Durango, Mexico. He suffered a massive myocardial infarction in his sleep at the age of 43 and is survived by wife, Rosemary, and children, Jennifer and Christopher Candy. 

The entertainment industry was left shocked; robbed of one of the greatest comics in history and mourned his premature demise. Widely known and adored for being a warm, kind-hearted and lovable oaf, Candy was set apart by “a tenderness, a gentle emotional candour that made him instantly credible and lovable.” John Candy was a tragic hero; his legendary contribution to the world of cinema is celebrated far and wide. Humble and amicable, Candy’s only flaw lay in him not being able to embrace himself completely and letting go of habits that slowly ate away at him. To quote Candy, “I’m the one who has to look in the mirror, and after a while, it begins to eat at you.” 

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