I remember the day — March 4, 1994 — when I learned that John Candy, big of heart and large of funny bone, had died from an apparent heart attack at age 43. I was a movie critic and a film writer in the Life section of USA TODAY, distracted by the Winter Olympics TV coverage of Nancy Kerrigan’s silver medal comeback. But the minute I heard that one of the warmest and funniest actors around had passed away, I poured myself immediately into writing his appreciation.
As someone who grew up in Buffalo, I was lucky to have early access to “SCTV,” the Canadian sketch-comedy counterpart to “Saturday Night Live,” long before the series was picked up by NBC. I was cued into the genius of Candy and his clowning cohorts Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as they inhabited sundry out-sized characters who worked at a fictitious television station.
An eager Hollywood soon came calling to raid the troupe’s players, with Candy at the top of the list. He showed up in small parts in Steven Spielberg’s sprawling war spoof “1941” in 1979 and as a parole officer in “The Blues Brothers” in 1980. But it was Ron Howard’s “Splash” in 1984 – which also featured Levy – that provided his break-out role. His biggest fan, though, was director, writer and producer John Hughes, who featured Candy in seven of his movies, including cameos in “She’s having a Baby” (1988) and “Career Opportunities” (1991) plus bigger roles in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” “Home Alone” and “Uncle Buck.”
Somehow, there is serendipity, given his last name, that his birthday lands on October 31 for Halloween. For the too-short time he was around, Candy was nearly always a super-sized treat on the big screen. Tour our photo gallery above of his 15 greatest films, ranked from worst to best.
15. WAGONS EAST (1994)
This so-called Western comedy is pretty much the opposite of dandy as Candy’s crusty alcoholic wagon master allows his horse to lead the way, with his passengers ending up being captured by the Sioux before they head back East. With a zero percent ranking on Rotten Tomatoes, “Wagons” is mostly known as the film that Candy was filming when he died, which was completed by using stunt doubles and special effects. One wonders what would have happened if he had done his dream role: Eccentric misfit Ignatius J. Reilly in the adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
14. CANADIAN BACON (1995)
“There’s a time to think and a time to act. And this, gentlemen, is not time to think,” so says Candy’s Bud Boomer, the gung-ho sheriff of Niagara County, N.Y. The actor’s last release, completed before “Wagons East,” is the lone non-documentary by Michael Moore that imagines a not-too-far-fetched premise of a U.S. president (Alan Alda) scoring popularity points by raging a cold war with our placid neighbors to the north. If the very thought of such Canadian imports as maple syrup and Alex Trebek makes you laugh, have at it.
13. THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)
Maybe it was the combination of his baby face and 6-foot-2 presence, but Candy was often cast as a law enforcer or security guard. In this music-filled spin-off of an “SNL” skit, he is a parole officer pursuing the titular siblings played by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. His Burton Mercer tries to snare them at one of their gigs. Before the show, he graciously orders drinks – orange whips to be exact – for his two colleagues before participating in a car chase that finds Candy on the police radio their vehicle has landed inside a truck.
12. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986)
Nebbishy Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) and his exotic man-eating plant, Audrey II, go on local radio station WSKID to promote his place of employment, Mushnik’s Flower Shop, and his unusual specimen that came to life after a solar eclipse. A pompadour-sporting Candy appears briefly yet memorably as a‘60s-style disc jockey Wilk Wilkinson, who invites people with oddities on a show called “Weird World.” Besides re-uniting two “SCTV” alum, the scene is most notable for Candy’s uncanny DJ stylings and sound effects as he manages to stretch the word “weird” into multiple syllables when he asks, “Seymour, where did you get such a WEEEEIIIIRRRRDDDD plant?”
11. SPACEBALLS (1987)
This quite silly yet not unsatisfying Yiddish-infused spin on “Star Wars” has gained a cult following over the years, considering that the franchise that George Lucas built has no end in sight. Candy is dandy as Barf, a furry canine riff on Chewbacca and sidekick to Bill Pullman’s Han Solo-like mercenary Lone Starr. As his creature cheerfully explains, “I’m a mog — half man, half dog. I’m my own best friend.” His “SCTV” buddy Moranis is the villainous Dark Helmet aka Darth Vader but they share no scenes. In any case, Mel Brooks as Yoda-ish Yogurt never fails to amuse whenever he says, “May the Schwartz be with you.”
10. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION (1983)
Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and his family finally take the road trip of their dreams to visit California theme park Walley World, whose mascot is Marty Moose. After numerous mishaps along the way, they get to their destination only to learn from Candy’s mild-mannered security guard, Russ Lasky, that the park is closed for repairs for the next two weeks. “The moose should have told you that out front,” he explains. But after driving 2,460 miles, Clark is not having it and uses a BB gun to force Russ to escort them around the park, including the giant roller coaster Screemy Meemy. “SCTV” colleague Levy shows up as a used car salesman.
9. COOL RUNNINGS (1993)
In the ‘90s, Candy began to seek out different sorts of parts. That is how he ended up in this uplifting sports comedy as Irv Blitzer, the once-disgraced fictional trainer for the first Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 Winter Olympics. He even took a pay cut to snag the part, beating out Kurt Russell and Scott Glenn. Janet Maslin found it at least bronze-medal worthy as “a cute, buoyant sports fantasy, jolted along by a reggae soundtrack and playfully acted by an appealing cast” although some reviewers found it patronizing in its culture-clash depictions of the team.
8. THE GREAT OUTDOORS (1988)
A rather routine weeklong lakeside vacation goes awry when snooty in-laws crash a family getaway. Fellow Canadians Aykroyd and Candy should have been comedy gold as dueling brothers-in-law, and the big guy tries his best during a frantic water-skiing bit and a steak-eating contest. But they are upstaged by wildlife shenanigans by raccoons, bear, a bat and leeches that slither into a rowboat. This was Annette Bening’s film debut and she only went up from here.
7. STRIPES (1981)
Bill Murray as a slacker Army recruit and Harold Ramis as his buddy are sent to basic training and proceed to tick off their sergeant (Warren Oates). But Candy, shaved head and all, is a hoot as big lug Dewey Oxburger. Or as he says, “My friends call me Ox. You might have noticed that, uh, I got a slight weight problem.” When their sergeant gets injured during a drill, the platoon heads out to a mud-wrestling bar and encourages Ox to dive right in with gusto with four ladies who somehow lose their tops in the glop and the club is raided. When asked by an angry captain what happened, Ox innocently explains, “Well, sir we were going to this bingo parlor at the YMCA, well, one thing led to another and the instructions got fouled up. …”
6. JFK (1991)
A definite change of pace for Candy. According to IMDB, Oliver Stone selected Candy to play Dean Andrews Jr. in his political thriller because he resembled the attorney in this sprawling counter-punch to the Warren Commission’s findings about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. When he meets with Kevin Costner’s District Attorney Jim Garrison in a New Orleans restaurant, the sweat on his face is real since he was nervous about acting in a dramatic film with top-notch stars. He wears a white suit like Sidney Greenstreet in “Casablanca” and employs a Southern accent as he says such lines as, “Kennedy’s as dead as the crab meat, the government’s alive and breathing. You gonna line up with a dead man, Jimbo?”
5. HOME ALONE (1990)
The main event of this now-yuletide perennial is the ever-escalating slapstick showdown between Mccaulay Culkin’s 8-year-old Kevin McCallister, who is accidentally left behind when his family flies off to Paris, and Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s bumbling burglars, who are out-witted by the kid. But Hughes, ever a softy, places the film’s heart into Candy’s hands in the form of Gus Polinski, a traveling polka band member. He offers a ride to Kevin’s hysterical and guilt-ridden mom (O’Hara, a fellow “SCTV” alum), desperate to get out of Scranton, Pa., to be with her unattended child in suburban Chicago after all flights are booked. Not only that, Candy improvised all of his lines, including the anecdote about leaving his son in a funeral home, and filmed his role in one day — for free.
4. UNCLE BUCK (1989)
Candy gets a rare lead role as a hapless mess of bachelor uncle who is more comfortable betting on horses than he is babysitting his grade-school niece and nephew and their disagreeable teen sister. He and Culkin as inquisitive Miles exhibit mad chemistry as in this exchange: Miles: “You have much more hair in your nose than my dad.” Buck: “How nice of you to notice.” Miles: “I’m a kid, that’s my job.” Buck becomes an unlikely hero, saving his older niece from a worthless beau, attempting to unjam the overstuffed washing machine and standing up for his young charges. Often crude, but also often funny.
3. SPLASH (1984)
Is it wrong to say that I enjoy this film more for the relationship between upstanding guy Tom Hanks and Candy as his ne’er-do-well playboy brother rather than Hanks’ shy bachelor and Daryl Hannah’s sweet mermaid? In fact, this romantic comedy became plus-sized Candy’s career calling card, as he takes charge of every comic situation. Whether drinking beer on a racquetball court and getting bopped on his noggin or casually reading “Penthouse” at work, Candy is a lovable loutish force of nature. You can even forgive him for laughing at Dody Goodman’s ditzy receptionist, after learning she was hit by lightning. He laughs raucously as his brother assures him she can still do some tasks. “Like what, jump-start a car?”
2. ONLY THE LONELY (1991)
Candy is Danny, a Chicago policeman who still lives with his demanding Irish mother, Rose (Maureen O’Hara), where off-duty life is split between her bingo games and an Irish pub. He meets and falls in love with Ally Sheedy’s shy Theresa, who works in her father’s funeral home as a cosmetician. The pair’s relationship is threatened by Rose’s constant presence in their lives. Chris Columbus was inspired by the unlikely 1955 Best Picture winner “Marty.” The humor is there but it is less broad and emotion-based in its approach. Needless to say, gentle Candy and fiery O’Hara — who came out of retirement — make a great match.
1. PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987)
The innocent goofball goodness of Candy and the cynical hard-hearted stubbornness of Steve Martin coalesce into comedy greatness in another holiday season must-see. For me, this is peak Candy at his lovably oafish best as Martin’s uptight ad man Neal is forced by a snowstorm to share a flight and a cheap motel room with his shower-ring salesman Del Griffith as he attempts to get home by Thanksgiving. The three knockout scenes? Candy removing his shoes and sweaty socks on the plane and declaring, “Boy, my dogs are barking today.” Martin’s f-word-filled reaction to Edie McClurg’s cheery car rental agent. And when Del and Neal wake up after sharing a bed and realize what Del thought were pillows, well, weren’t.