We don’t often agree on things among the Popdose Staff. Ask us what we feel about “How Much I Feel” by Ambrosia, the solo albums of Ben Folds, whether George Lucas can ever be forgiven for Star Wars I-III and the replies will be varied and vociferous. But ask us about John Candy and we tend to agree in unison: we love Candy. He was in some great movies and some bad movies. He had some iffy characters on SCTV and some that will stand permanently as milestones in television comedy. Uniformly we are forgiving of the lesser efforts like his final flick Wagons East, the misfire that was Michael Moore’s first and only scripted comedy film Canadian Bacon, and any number of smaller roles that sneak by the mantle of his better-remembered offerings: Barf The Maug in Spaceballs; the friendly if slightly obnoxious Del Griffith in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Stripes‘ Ox; and the larger-than-everyone’s life Freddie, brother of Tom Hanks’ Allen in Splash.
There were also those classic SCTV characters Johnny LaRue; Billy Sol Hurok; one of the 5 Neat Guys; one of the two Shmenge Brothers; and Harry, the Guy with the Snake on His Face. Candy could play bold and blustery, or be the warm, cuddly type, or as seen in the film Only The Lonely, the romantic lead. He could even pull off slithery duplicity as seen in his cameo in Oliver Stone’s JFK. We don’t agree all the time here, but we do believe the world is a poorer place because we lost Candy so soon.
But how soon exactly was that? The guy was a knockabout comedic actor for many years. His film debut, such as it was, was in the 1973 film Class Of ’44, uncredited. He wouldn’t get the spotlight until 1976 with the launch of Second City Television (SCTV) in Canada, which we wouldn’t get until the 1980’s when NBC picked it up as a follow-up after Saturday Night Live. By that time things were starting to move fast. He was cast in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 which should have been his breakout role as sideman to Dan Aykroyd. It didn’t work that way. Instead he would become a troop member led by another SNL alum, Bill Murray (whose sideman was another SCTV alum Harold Ramis) in Stripes. The relationship between the two television comedies was highly commingled, if not particularly incestuous and, to Candy’s credit, he worked well with whoever he was playing with.
And that was the key to John Candy. It was all play time, even the serious stuff. That was what made it work for him — he loved what he was doing and it showed. Class Of ’44 may not have been that big a deal, but it was the start of something big and we appreciate it for what it gave us.
Robert Cass – He did a lot of great impressions on SCTV, from Pavarotti to Divine (as Peter Pan, most memorably) to Hervé Villechaize, and they really were “impressions” rather than imitations — he took an element of each of them that was funny and, well, blew it up real good for comic effect.I also loved Candy characters like Mrs. Falbo’s assistant, Dr. Tongue, and William B. Williams.
There are some great stories about Candy on the SCTV DVDs and in Dave Thomas’s 1996 book about the show. He apparently would have great ideas for sketches but never actually write them, or he’d ask one of the non-performer writers to come over to his house and write a sketch with him, then spend the rest of the day dragging the writer around on various errands. (On the DVD, in an extra called “Remembering John Candy,” Bob Dolman’s story from the 1996 book (is the one) I mentioned.)”
Robert Cass – There’s also a story about the writers and performers hearing about cuts dictated by NBC, and coming up with a plan to fight back.
Paul Flaherty, writer (1980-’84): “He had a diaper on and a big kind of Baby Huey bonnet — he was dressed up like a big baby. And there was a big production argument going on in one of the offices about cutting some scenes or something like that. And we were all in there, and it was very serious, and the producer was there and somebody from NBC, and John came walking in. And he had his baby outfit on, smoking and trying his damnedest to be serious [while] making a point, and every time he’d make a point that baby bonnet would flop [around]. He could not be taken seriously, and he couldn’t figure out why.”
Chris Holmes – Candy usually played the affable, goofy type to great effect, but I always gravitated to the roles where he got to be a bit of a jerkoff too.
My favorite Candy moment is one that is so subtle that it would likely never make a top 10. There’s a scene in Stripes where his character (Pvt. Dewey “Ox” Oxberger) is playing poker with some of the other guys in his Army platoon, and he’s “teaching” Pvt. Cruiser (John Diehl) how to play. He looks at Cruiser’s cards and convinces him to put all his money in, then acts supportive as he takes all the dumb bastard’s money. I never get tired of that bit.
Robert Cashill – I was a devotee of SCTV–and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who stayed up until 2am on a Saturday morning to watch each episode (all on DVD now, and as funny as ever). If I had to pick one Candy moment (was ever a performer more perfectly named?) it would be “Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Pancakes,” which made me laugh so hard my dad awoke and came downstairs to investigate. “What’s so funny down here?” he asked, sleepily, which made me laugh even harder.
Loved him as well in Vacation and Splash, his breakthrough. I saw PTA with my mom and dad on Thanksgiving weekend and thought he was terrific in it. By the end I think he was ready to gravitate more toward JFK-type character roles, but it was not to be. A tragedy.
Scott Malchus– I ran through a list of his films today and was amazed at how many of them I consider favorites from my youth. “Orange whip? Orange whips? Three orange whips.” was something my friends and I quoted for a good ten years. I loved him in Delirious, Who’s Harry Crumb, and Armed and Dangerous, three of his “lesser” films that he managed to make very funny. And thank God for Chris Columbus wrote for him in Only the Lonely, which is a really sweet movie and (again) had Candy playing against type as the romantic lead.
I recently rewatched Spaceballs. My kids love that flick, which is fine by me because they now know who John Candy is.
Keith Creighton – Uncle Buck remains one of my all-time Top 10 films — I laugh until I cry — his performance is sheer genius (a mixture of great physical comedy, line delivery and believable drama with a big heart). When the daughter hugs her mom at the end (spoiler alert), I am weeping like a baby. On SCTV, all of those 3D bits were hysterical — Tip O’Neil in the 3D House of Representatives. “Here, sign this BILL… with this PEN.”
Who’s Harry Crumb is chock full of classic sight gags (especially a subtitle bit) — and who can forget the “Orange Whip? Orange Whip? Orange Whip? Three Orange Whips” bit from Blues Brothers.
Robert Cass – When John Hughes died in ’09, a fan wrote a blog post that revealed she’d been in correspondence with him for the past 20 years or something like that. Hughes said to her in 1994, right after Candy died, “John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that “they” (Hollywood) had “killed” his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard.”
Brian Boone – Only the Lonely is a wonderful little movie. That should have been a big deal for him.
Thierry Côté – I’ll second (or is it third or fourth?) this. Only the Lonely is one of those warm, likeable movies that I always find myself watching when they come on television on a weekend afternoon – Roger Ebert even mentioned (albeit briefly) how it captured an overlooked side of Candy’s acting (see the sweet but sad penultimate paragraph in his piece on Planes, etc.)
Brian Boone – I can’t stand it when people talk about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as this great comedy. I mean, it is, but it’s completely undone by the horribly, horribly sad ending.
Scott Malchus – From City Lights to Louie, comedy and tragedy go hand in hand, Brian.