Remembering John Candy
By Jim Slotek
(March 4, 2019 – Toronto, ON) I interviewed John Candy three times in his short life. The last time I almost talked to him was Monday, October 11, 1993, five months before he died.
The Blue Jays were in the ALCS against Chicago on route to their second World Series, and I had an “in” with the production of Hostage for a Day, a Fox TV movie that was filming in town starring Cheers’ George Wendt, with first-time director Candy. I got access to the Toronto Sun box at SkyDome and got Wendt to agree to be my date as I ghost-wrote a column by him about his history with his beloved White Sox (a fun assignment for me).
An invite was also offered to Candy, of course – Wendt’s buddy from their time at Chicago Second City. But filming was over, and John was deep into post-production on this first stab behind the camera. He sent regrets.
Understood, but a little disappointed. It had seemed lately that SkyDome was like a second home for him since he’d become co-owner of the Toronto Argonauts with Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall. Of the three, Candy had been the ambassador, the man who made all the appearances, attended all the parties, becoming virtually synonymous with the team and the town.
But the bloom was off the rose. McNall would be indicted for fraud two months later. Within a year, Candy would be taken from us and his team would be sold to Labatt Brewery, which also owned the Jays.
On the 25th anniversary of his death, I remember fondly his days as “Mr. Toronto,” and they figured large in the reaction to his death, of a heart attack at age 43 on the Durango, Mexico set of the Western comedy Wagons East.
His memorial service at Toronto’s St. Basil’s Church was carried live on local TV. His SCTV cast-mate Catherine O’Hara gave a eulogy. (Pal Dan Aykroyd gave the eulogy at his L.A. funeral). O’Hara remarked on Candy’s tendency to close bars, noting that his presence drew crowds to these establishments, and he often told managers he stayed until closing, because “you could use the business.”
In a kind of backhanded goodbye, the New York Post’s obit began, “Oliver Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle, Zero Mostel and John Candy – four great oversized comedians who have all gone to the great comedy club in the sky.”
Candy would have hated that. Comedy has largely evolved from the notion that “fat equals funny,” but the trope was alive and well during John Candy’s time on this earth (the late Chris Farley said to me and others that his own comedy essentially boiled down to, “Fatty fall down.”)
Candy was in a class by himself, but he wasn’t immune to this cliché that, I believe, has literally been the death of many comedians. In a thoughtful, conversational mood, Candy talked about his struggles with his weight in an interview we did while he was filming John Hughes’ 1991 movie Only the Lonely in Chicago. Would he be less funny if he lost weight? “I’ll admit it. In the back of my mind, I sometimes wonder if it’s true,” he said.
The irony was that, even as he expressed these doubts, Only the Lonely was arguably Candy’s best performance, a touching, human comedy about a lonely Chicago cop living with him mom (Maureen O’Hara), who goes to any length to break up his budding relationship with a young woman (Ally Sheedy). If ever there was a talent that would shine at any size, it was him.
I must have got him on a good day, as he would be less open to the subject subsequently. He quit as host of the 1992 Genie Awards after they bought an ad in a trade paper saying they’d hired, “the biggest star we could find.” His last-minute replacement, Leslie Nielsen, told me they’d coincidentally ended up on the same plane back to L.A. after, and had a “no hard feelings” conversation.
At the time, Joe Flaherty confirmed Candy’s sensitivity to the subject, telling me, “I look at some stuff on SCTV now and I cringe a little knowing how John felt. He did Orson Welles and Pavarotti and Divine, but even then, we had to sell it to him.
“But I think where it really started was Stripes (with Bill Murray). He looked at the movie and felt he’d been exploited. He said, ‘I’m not a fat joke, I’m an actor!’ It really hurt his feelings.”
And it hurt his feelings to read those words. Candy and Flaherty never spoke again.
I often wonder what kind of director Candy would have turned out to be. Hostage for a Day (in which Wendt played a put-upon guy who stages his own hostage-taking for attention) wasn’t great material, and reviews were mixed. But it might have been a springboard for the kind of movie to which Candy could have brought insight and comic flair.
Moreover, the Orson Welles sketch notwithstanding, directors may be more likely than actors to be defined by their accomplishments rather than their girth (Robert Altman, Guillermo del Toro, Hitchcock).
Or he simply could have continued to create great characters. He could do charm, he could do smarm, he could do overbearing and he could do sensitive. After Only the Lonely, Splash… Uncle Buck… Planes, Trains & Automobiles… who knows what kind of last act we missed?
Also see: John Candy’s filmography.
Jim Slotek is a longtime Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter who has interviewed thousands of celebrities. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special. His writing also appears in Cineplex, Movie Entertainment magazines and in the blog Original-Cin.