Life for John Franklin Candy began on Halloween, 1950, in Toronto, Ontario. Five short years later his father, Sidney, had a heart attack and passed away when he was just 35-years-old. Despite the loss of his father, from all accounts his early years were fairly normal.
There is little in Candy`s early years that would point to him becoming an actor, let alone a major talent on both the little screen and the big screen. He grew up in Scarborough, the same suburb of Toronto that would later produce funny man Mike Myers. He went to Neil McNeil High School where he was an outstanding offensive tackle on the school`s football team. This was in the days when the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League (CFL) and the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League (NHL) dominated Toronto`s sport scene. Major league baseball had yet to arrive in Toronto and most red-blooded Canadian boys who didn’t dream of playing for the NHL dreamt of playing for the CFL. Being just such a young man, sports dominated a lot of Candy`s early life. When a severe knee injury put an end to his plans to tryout for the CFL, and, oddly, the military, he set his sights on becoming a sportswriter. To this end he enrolled at Centennial College in 1968, electing a major in journalism.
It was at Centennial that Candy found his true talent. To round out his education, he signed up for drama and was immediately bitten by the acting bug. Performing came naturally to him and with only two years of college completed, he quit to chase the dream of being a full-time actor. He was off on a great adventure. An adventure that would see him appear in more than 60 film and television productions over the next 24 years. An adventure that would take him far from his hometown, but allow him to return a hero and fulfill his boyhood passion for football.
Like so many starting out in the film business, Candy landed a few bit parts in a number of Canadian films and television projects. He had a small break when he was cast as a regular in the children`s series Dr. Zonk and the Zunkins in 1974. Not exactly a hit, the series is notable only because he met American actress Gilda Radner and he made enough of an impact that he was invited to audition for a new kid`s show to be produced in 1975 titled Coming Up Rosie. While it may be remembered as the television acting debut for Dan Aykroyd, the show brought together John Candy and Catherine O’Hara who would go on to help form SCTV just one year later. Many of the character types, while different from SCTV, were first tried on Coming Up Rosie.
It`s difficult not to lump all of the SCTV shows into one long effort. In fact, the truth is quite different. While elements of the main cast remained unchanged, several people came and went as the series grew and moved from network to network. The first incarnation of SCTV, if you will, was brought to air by the then young Global Network. It featured a mix of Canadian and US performers including John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis and Dave Thomas. It lasted from 1976 to 1981 and when it died, just about everybody thought it was over. A year later it was back. Not at Global, but on CBC Television and this time it was titled SCTV Network. But John Candy had decided to follow his own interests and wasn’t part of the cast of the reformated SCTV. Catherine O’Hara was also missing
The reason why Candy wasn’t part of SCTV Network was the fact he had his own comedy show about to go into production at CBC`s rival network, CTV. While not a direct lift of SCTV, the show`s title gives away some of the intent. Big City Comedy was, unfortunately, an unqualified flop. When SCTV Network morphed again into SCTV Network 90 in 1982 with CBC co-producing with NBC, Candy was back and so was Catherine O’Hara. The show was called Network 90, by the way, because NBC wanted a 90-minute show. The CBC ran a 60-minute version. It was in this edition of the SCTV that John Candy became a star. Anyone who watched then still remembers Candy`s cast of alter egos included lounge lizard Johnny LaRue, Luciano Pavarotti, The Fishin’ Musician, Mr. Mambo, and one half of the Leutonia Kings of the Polka, The Schmenge Brothers. The Schmenge Brothers, by the way, played by Candy and Eugene Levy, were so popular they were given their own HBO special, The Last Polka. In a twisted tip-of-the-hat to where it all began for Candy, in children`s television, in that last season of SCTV incarnations he created the character of Mr. Jester of Mrs. Falbo`s Tiny Town. In case you have forgotten, Mr. Jester had a bit of a grisly end when he makes a Tiny Town goodwill tour of a maximum security prison
More than just the acting, which was as inventive as it was prodigious, Candy also began to get the recognition he deserved as one of SCTV`s key writers. He shared two Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Writing during his SCTV Network years.
During all of this television mayhem, time was not standing still. For example, he married in April 1979 and later that same year he was in Steven Speilberg farce 1941. While 1941 didn’t do boffo box office, as they say, it became a bit of a cult hit, and more importantly for Candy, teamed him with some of the stars of the hugely successful US television hit show Saturday Night Live, including John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. When Aykroyd and Belushi had a chance to bring their SNL act of The Blues Brothers to the big screen in 1980, they made sure Candy was part of the cast.
This was the beginning of a decade that saw Candy begin to hit his stride as a performer. In no particular order, he co-starred with Steve Martin in the hit Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and played his own best friend as the half-man/half-dog (Barff) in Mel Brooks’ spoof, Spaceballs (1987). He was a voice actor in both the adult animated feature Heavy Metal (1981) and in Disney`s animated Rescuers Down Under (1990). In an odd case of life imitating art, following his role in Stripes (1981), in which he plays a reluctant hero and overnight sex symbol, Candy was placed on Playgirl Magazine`s list of most desirable men. Odder still is that this honour came just as Candy was beginning to seriously battle his obesity. He was almost 35, the age his father was when he died of a heart attack. He had reached a crisis with his weight and he turned to the Pritikin Longevity Center for help. Although he lost over 75 pounds it was the beginning of not just a battle but a lifelong war. A war he would ultimately lose.
Despite his personal health problems, Candy entered the 1990s in very high spirits, and had back-to-back dramatic roles in Only the Lonely and then in Oliver Stone`s JFK. Both films were released in 1991 and when he joined with hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and investor Bruce McNall to buy the Toronto Argonauts, he thought it fitting that his team jersey should carry the number 91. Not wanting to be a silent partner, Candy lived out his boyhood fantasy by taking a very active role in the team. As if to reward his devotion, the Argos won the CFL`s Grey Cup during his first year of ownership. When is longtime friend Aykroyd joined with Belushi in starting up the House of Blues nightclubs, Candy became an early investor. In short, he never had it so good.
But it wasn’t to last. His weight problems had returned and he was under severe stress when Argos co-owner Bruce McNall was jailed for fraud, leaving Candy in the difficult position of having to find money to save his franchise. Meanwhile, he withdrew as host the 1992 Genie Awards after the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Telelvision ran ads that poked fun of his weight. The following year things started to look up with the release of Cool Runnings (1993). The film, in which he played a reluctant coach to the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team was a minor hit. John also made his directing debut when he completed the made-for-television movie Hostage for a Day for Fox Television.
In late 1993, Candy had started work on the film Wagons East. Calling on all of his comedic talents, he was cast as a scout hired to guard the wimpiest wagon train ever to head West. The role was strenuous and came at a time when he was beginning to lose the war with his weight. Years of the extra wear-and-tear excess weight on his bones and joints had taken their toll and he was forced to take a break in shooting to see an orthopedic specialist in Los Angeles. The news wasn’t very good. John was in need of hip replacement surgery but the doctors told him, as they often do in such cases, that they would not attempt the operation until he had lost a lot of weight.
Candy returned to the Wagons East location in Mexico, and continued to work despite being in debilitating pain every single day. On some of the worst days he resorted to using a double. The shooting schedule for March 4 had turned out to be a long and difficult day, and when it was over, Candy was clearly exhausted. Some hours after going to bed, he suffered a full cardiac arrest in his sleep. John Candy had turned 43 just four months earlier.
Naturally, when his last projects were released, they were dedicated to his memory. One of the most touching tributes came later that year when his beloved Toronto Argonauts opened their 1994 season with a ceremony retiring his number 91.
Thanks to television reruns, video and DVD, we will have a part of John Candy with us forever. What is difficult to contemplate is the loss of what might have been. His body of work, when condensed to just a handful of his very best films, held the promise of an even greater future.
Also see: John Candy’s Filmography.
All of the images on this page with the exception of the poster for Wagons East, were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection. This biography is Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without written permission. For more information about copyright, click here.