Last month, I decided to let social media pick my Make the Case subject. I put it between Rick Moranis and John Candy. Besides working together through SCTV and related projects, Moranis and Candy share similar backgrounds. They both worked exhaustively in the 80s and 90s. Neither man has worked since roughly the mid-90s. Obviously, being dead has made it hard for the extraordinarily funny, multifaceted Candy to continue appearing in film and television. It is surreal to realize that he died more than twenty-four years ago.
John Candy’s death was one of the first celebrity deaths to impact me in some way. I honestly cannot remember a period in my life, up to his passing on March 4th 1994, in which I wasn’t watching his movies, aware and in awe of his charisma and talent. Kids loved John Candy so much, NBC gave him a cartoon called Camp Candy. It ran for an impressive three seasons, and Candy appeared in live action segments for almost all of them. It’s not a coincidence that Uncle Buck remains one of his most beloved roles. Candy had the same sincerity and kindness that Robin Williams displayed. Kids are generally not stupid. They know when someone actually cares.
At the same time, Candy was not just a jovial big man. Many of his best roles encapsulated that quality, but Candy frequently yearned to do more as an actor. He received very few opportunities to branch out as an actor. There are still some examples to be found, and at least some of them will be featured today.
Obviously, we lost Candy far too soon. He was only 43. It is clear, as we go through the best John Candy movies, he was only getting better as an actor. This isn’t necessarily reflected in his last couple of movies, but everyone has a slow period. We just didn’t get to see John Candy get out of his.
1. Stripes (1981)
By the time John Candy appeared in the now-classic Stripes, released in 1981, he had already appeared in 10 films. His TV resume was just as long, although a lot of that was related to SCTV. While Stripes was one of his first major breakthroughs, Candy was reasonably well-known among comedy fans. The same can be said for co-stars like Bill Murray. There are several comedy heavyweights here, and Stripes is a film in which many of them were just breaking through to bigger things. Stripes proved to be successful enough for names like Harold Ramis, John Larroquette, Judge Reinhold, and Sean Young.
To be honest, there isn’t a lot of depth to Candy’s character. Or to much of the movie, which is nonetheless still incredibly enjoyable after all these years. Yet the movie succeeded then, and continues to be highly regarded now, because it’s still a showcase for several comedy greats. Of course, the show belongs to Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, who are the principals. Candy is just one element of the motley crew that consists of slobs and eccentrics who have joined the army. He’s the fat guy, and that is very much played for laughs. Candy plays those laughs well, but also uses his own charisma to make the character likable for being more than just a punchline. Amongst every else, Stripes is a good early example of Candy’s brilliance.
2. Splash (1984)
Another turning point sort of role for Candy, who did four more films between Stripes and this one. Splash was a good call for everyone involved, including Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, and Ron Howard, who directed. Candy was once again in a supporting role, playing Hanks brother, but this is another one where John Candy steals every scene he gets.
That isn’t something I think he did on purpose. Everything he does in the film adds something to Hanks’ lonely-hearts-fella-who-meets-a-mermaid. Candy was clearly a generous actor with costars. Yet he makes the role of the no-good-but-lovable brother more than just a contrast to Hanks’ more straight-laced character. Many of Candy’s characters led with their humanity facing forward. They were fun, and they could be wise, but they were constantly aware of emptiness. Nothing saddens Candy’s Freddie Bauer more than the constant belief that when he stops, the world will immediately forget him. This makes Freddie desperate to have a good time.
The movie ends by suggesting Freddie will find what his brother eventually fights for. Thank god. You wind up rooting for Freddie as much as you would for anyone else.
3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles came out during arguably Candy’s most critically and commercially successful period as an actor. He continued to work at an exhaustive pace. At this point, his time was seemingly split between working in high profile roles in major works (Spaceballs), and appearing in small roles in projects split between forgettable and awful (Hot to Trot). Looking at his career now, it doesn’t seem like John Candy turned a lot down. That’s not a knock. Although he worked primarily in comedy for his entire career, few actors from this period can claim a more varied range of types of comedies.
Obviously, most of John Candy’s best films consist of projects where everyone involved had talent and energy like his. Planes, Trains and Automobiles could have been sentimental, awkward comedy garbage. Thanks to John Hughes, Steve Martin, Candy, and others, it is one of the best Thanksgiving movies of all time. That’s not a crowded field, but that’s fine.
Once again, Candy plays a guy who is just kind of a big, lovable schlub. Del Griffith is more than just a comically-disastrous shower curtain ring salesmen, who knows more about the road than Steve Martin’s uptight ad executive would initially care to hear about. Their chemistry makes this movie great, but also look to Candy making Del more than just another likable fat guy. Once again, Candy tapped into an understanding of loneliness that gives the movie an emotional core it would otherwise lack.
4. Uncle Buck (1989)
If any of John Candy’s characters qualify as iconic, it would be Uncle Buck. Yet again, Candy tapped into feelings of loneliness to create more than just a wacky relative. Even during its initial, highly successful release, Uncle Buck was the kind of movie where we all knew the beats before we even started watching. We know Buck is going to be a well-meaning, low-key hustler with a good heart and questionable past. We know hijinks will ensue, when he is suddenly called out of the blue by his brother, who he hasn’t heard from in several years. Likewise, we also know Buck’s unique personality and talents will be put to hilarious, heartwarming use in the suburbs.
It’s all there, and it’s all pretty straightforward. I don’t say that with cynicism. This movie is warm and pleasing in ways that feed nostalgia, and in ways that reflect the film’s ability to still be very funny. Few directors better understood what John Candy could do with simple stories better than John Hughes. He produced, wrote, or directed (or some combination thereof) many of Candy’s most beloved characters. Among other things, Hughes knew how to make crowd pleasers. He was smart enough to know Candy could help create those stories in a multitude of different ways. Uncle Buck hits all the right marks, while leaving us to wish Candy could have played it straight more often.
Later projects like Only the Lonely (produced by Hughes) gave him the chance to do that, but such film’s barely scratched the surface of his true potential. This a recurrent theme throughout his career.
5. JFK (1991)
Just 3 years after this appearance in Oliver Stone’s star-studded, intensely entertaining tribute to batshit conspiracies and crazed pretension, John Candy would be dead. At 43, his death was attributed to a combination of weight, and working at an exhaustive, relentless pace for well over 20 years. By the time he died, Candy had acquired 67 TV and film credits. That includes acting, writing, producing, and even directing.
To be clear, nothing in JFK should be taken seriously. If you weren’t around when the movie came out, trust me when I promise you that it was a spectacular shitshow. This is arguably the project that started Oliver Stone down his long path to becoming as crazy and insufferable as humanly possible. Still, if you can let go of all that, you can have a lot of fun with this sprawling, ensemble-heavy account of the JFK assassination. Candy appears here in the small-but-pivotal role of Dean Andrews Jr. Candy had been a caricaturist for years at this point. His celebrity impersonations on SCTV are well worth looking up on YouTube and elsewhere. He nails a phenomenal impression of the real-life Andrews, and then adds a bunch of his own ideas. The result is a spellbinding scene in a movie filled with memorable moments. Candy’s sweaty, arrogant, terrified, and corrupt Andrews is a physical manifestation of the madness that ensued the death of John F. Kennedy. Beyond obviously deserving an Academy Award nomination, it is yet another example of Candy’s depths as an actor.
If you can, imagine Candy exploring those depths over just a little more time than what we ultimately got with him.