If you were going to pick a perfect Thanksgiving film — something that encapsulates the anxiety and warmth of the season — you can’t go wrong with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. That 1987 hit, which starred John Candy and Steve Martin as mismatched men trying to get home for Turkey Day, was a great showcase for both actors’ talents, but ever since Candy’s passing in March 1994 at the age of 43, it’s been hard not to view the film in a melancholy light. Partly, that’s because of the character he played: Del Griffith, a backslapping salesman who’s hiding a lot of hurt beneath his robust friendliness. The role typified what Candy did so well. A hulking guy with a gigantic smile and personality, the comedian could also convey vulnerability, revealing the sweetness or insecurity that was always embedded in his boisterous characters. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is funny and charming and touching. Candy has a lot to do with that.
The movie was written and directed by John Hughes, with whom Candy had a lot of success over his too-brief career. Better than just about anyone, Hughes understood what made Candy special. “He played all those little guys that no one gives a damn about,” the filmmaker said upon Candy’s passing. “It takes a certain amount of guts to go out in every role and play the fool and bring the kind of voice he did to those seemingly insignificant characters. I don’t know who’s going to speak for those kind of characters now.”
Candy’s skill at playing boisterous regular guys is on display in the list I’ve put together of his finest comedies. (And let’s take a moment to acknowledge he could also be an exceptional dramatic actor: Look no further than 1991’s JFK for proof of that.) As we get ready for another Thanksgiving, Planes, Trains and Automobiles will be the go-to rewatch. But if that’s all you know of Candy’s work, you have a lot of laughs ahead of you.
This Canadian variety show, which also featured Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short and Dave Thomas, was Candy’s first big break, allowing him to do impressions and create a slew of memorable characters. SCTV was always compared to Saturday Night Live, which got going around the same time, but Candy (who had auditioned to be an SNL cast member and later ended up hosting the show) preferred SCTV’s temperament. “A lot of Saturday Night Live was very abrasive, what I call bad-boy humor,” he later said. “SCTV was never that way. It was too easy to go that route. You should be comfortable with the people in a picture or on a television show. You should care about them.”
Which isn’t to say SCTV wasn’t incredibly funny and influential. In fact, when Tom Hanks found out he’d been cast alongside Candy for Splash, he was thrilled specifically because he’d loved Candy on the variety show. Hanks would always rave about the first time he’d ever seen SCTV, checking out a skit in which Candy played Beaver Cleaver on an imaginary 25th anniversary celebration of Leave It to Beaver. “It was like hearing the Beatles for the first time,” Hanks said.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Dan Aykroyd and John Candy both came up in Second City in Toronto in the 1970s. “At Second City, he was the one who was kind of dressed like the grown-up, but looked the youngest of us,” Aykroyd said. “And he was very strong physically. It was very exciting to perform with him, because he could pick you up with one hand. … And he had a beautiful sensitivity and heart. We used to call him Aunt Candy because he was just so embracing.”
When Akyroyd and John Belushi brought the Blues Brothers to the big screen with their hit 1980 movie, they cast Candy as Jake (Belushi)’s irreverent parole officer who’s trying to track him down. This was a pretty small part, but The Blues Brothers, alongside his role in Steven Spielberg’s 1941, started getting him noticed. Candy steals every scene he’s in. (To this day, it’s hard not to order an orange whip at a bar because of John Candy.) And whereas Jake and Elwood exuded hipster cool, Candy enjoyed playing the big, happy, dorky kid.
“My roles are generally nice, human guys, fully rounded people,” Candy said in 1986. “The character I play almost always has a good sense of humor, the kind of man who can roll with the punches of life.’”
This army comedy gave Candy one of his first significant film roles — that of the lovable, oafish Ox — who, alongside Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, decides to join the military. Stripes showed the world his sweetness — he’s really good at being the butt of the joke — but during production, he resisted the scene that ended up being his centerpiece moment. It’s when the guys all go to the strip club and John (Murray) convinces him to mud-wrestle with the girls. In Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ‘80s Changed Hollywood Forever, author Nick de Semlyen reveals that Candy argued that the sequence should be cut because it was sexist. Candy lost that battle.
“I had to do it for the team,” Candy would later say of the scene. “That took an extra week of shooting. I just got a blank and couldn’t get a line out there. It got boring too, believe me. You just have to get in there with six girls, wrestle them, and then, if the take didn’t work, you’d have to go in and take a shower with them. The first two times I’ll admit it was fun. But by the sixth or seventh time — ‘Scrub my back, okay? Let’s get this over and done with.’ It was tough.”
Michael Keaton had been considered for the role of Allen, the nice-guy protagonist in Splash. He turned it down because he felt like he’d done something similar in Night Shift and didn’t want to be typecast. (“Two guys, one guy’s the wild guy, one guy’s the other guy,” Keaton said.) But Keaton did have one regret about turning down the hit comedy: “The only thing I miss is that I didn’t get to work with John Candy, who I loved.”
As the loudmouthed, skirt-chasing Freddie, Candy was the loose cannon to Tom Hanks’ more buttoned-down brother Allen. He was very much “the wild guy” in Splash, but even though Freddie is boorish, you don’t hate him — even when he’s bragging about getting published in Penthouse Forum. And that’s all due to Candy, who gives the character enough of a big heart that you know he actually means well.
Splash earned Candy glowing reviews. (Writing in The New Yorker, eminent critic Pauline Kael enthusiastically called him “a mountainous lollipop of a man, and preposterously lovable … he doesn’t add weight, he adds bounce and imagination.”) But Candy wasn’t nearly as impressed by himself in the movie as so many others were. “It wasn’t Willy Loman or King Lear,” Candy said. “People said, ‘Wow, you can really act.’ Hell, I was just doing what I had been doing for years on SCTV.”
As a takeoff on the loyal Wookie Chewbacca, Candy played Barf, right-hand man to Bill Pullman’s Han Solo-esque Lone Star. Basically, Barf is a big dog, which suits Candy’s puppy-like adorableness. (Okay, fine, technically, Barf is half-man, half-dog: As the character says in Spaceballs, “I’m my own best friend.”) But the role required him having to deal with a lot of prosthetics and makeup. “John’s sense of comedy was so ephemeral,” Pullman said. “It was these shy, short moments, and there was real difficulty delivering that while trusting the ears and him wanting more control over the tail.”
Befitting a film in which “I see your Schwartz is as big as mine” is one of the key lines, Candy gives a big, broad, goofy performance, clearly having fun being as ridiculous as possible. Spaceballs is pretty hit-or-miss, but the rapport between Pullman and Candy is a constant highlight. Candy could be good in star vehicles, but the truth is — and Planes, Trains and Automobiles definitely bears this out — he was always better as part of a duo. He’s the perfect buddy — or, in the case of this silly Star Wars satire, an excellent mawg.
The Great Outdoors (1988)
Candy’s ability to get a viewer on his side was put to good use in The Great Outdoors, a very so-so comedy that was lucky to have him. He’s Chet, a good dad and father who squares off with his shallow, egotistical investment-broker brother-in-law Roman (Dan Aykroyd) on a family vacation. The two men are set up as opposites — one’s nice, one’s a shark — and although Aykroyd overdoes Roman’s assholeishness, Candy is very appealing as a put-upon working man who’s tired of having to compete with this pretentious Master of the Universe.
Unfortunately, The Great Outdoors didn’t do very well, critics hated it and Candy didn’t have a fun time making the movie. When he got to set, he immediately clashed with director Howard Deutch, who was unhappy that his star had a huge beard. “Candy was very upset,” Deutch remembered. “‘This is my character, an outdoor guy,’ he kept saying, and I kept saying, ‘I can’t see your face.’ He shaved but it was a black spot on my soul, and that’s how we started the movie.” It’s a credit to Candy that you don’t notice his annoyance on screen — although maybe it helped inform Chet’s growing anger at that schmuck Roman.
Uncle Buck (1989)
Candy worked with Planes, Trains and Automobiles writer-director John Hughes several times, including on this funny, touching story of a no-account bum who agrees to babysit his responsible brother’s malcontent kids. “There was a harder edge to [the character] initially,” Candy recalled. “We shaved a lot of that off and gave him more of a vulnerability.” If he had lived, it would have been fascinating to see Candy at some point play an edgier, bitterer middle-aged failure — a true son of a bitch who’s the black sheep of his family — but in Uncle Buck, he and Hughes conspire to craft an endearing comedy about an underestimated bachelor who, deep down, cares about others.
Also importantly, Uncle Buck gave Candy a commercial jumpstart after The Great Outdoors and Who’s Harry Crumb? failed to make a dent at the box office. As much as Hughes is known for his 1980s teen comedies, his work with Candy allowed him to explore more adult issues than you’d see in Pretty in Pink. Likewise, Hughes seemed to understand how to tap into Candy’s full potential, letting him play big kids who had complexity and soul. “I know there were films [Candy] didn’t want to do,” the comic actor’s daughter Jen said in 2016, “but with John Hughes, it was always, ‘What’s the next one? You gotta hurry up and write something,’ because they were perfect for each other.”
Home Alone (1990)
While making Uncle Buck, Candy worked with Macaulay Culkin, who played one of his nephews. They’d team up again, sorta, the following year for Home Alone, the biggest film of 1990, in which Culkin played Kevin, the boy left behind by his family for the holidays. Candy didn’t have any scenes with Culkin — he’s Gus, a polka musician who’s surprised you haven’t heard of him — and he’s utterly lovable alongside the stressed-out Kate (Catherine O’Hara), who desperately wants to get back to her boy.
It was a small part, but Candy made the most of it. “John Candy is on the list of the three greatest actors I’ve ever worked with in terms of personality, their devotion to the craft and their genuine enthusiasm for making films,” director Chris Columbus said this week. “John’s possibly the nicest human being who ever walked on this Earth and was up for anything. His entire role was shot in a long, 24-hour shoot — which would never happen today. A lot of that role was improvised by John and Catherine. That entire story in the van about John being locked in the funeral parlor with the corpse? He just made that up on the spot. That was not in the script. I wish there was a way to put more of John in the movie, but it didn’t fit the pacing of the film.”
Over the years, there have been differing stories about how little Candy got paid for his cameo and whether he was angry about not being better compensated. (In his biography Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy, author Martin Knelman claims that Home Alone screenwriter John Hughes offered Candy a cut of the profits but that Candy refused because his part was so small.) Regardless, Home Alone illustrated how Candy’s sunny presence could enliven any film. Gus is a very Candy-like fool — seriously, you’ve never heard of “Polka, Polka, Polka”? — but he just wants to help. His spirit of generosity is what the holidays are all about.
Only the Lonely (1991)
Because Candy was usually the onscreen cutup, Only the Lonely was an intriguing change-of-pace: He’s more of the straight man, playing Danny, an Irish Chicago cop who lives with his overbearing and sharp-tongued mother Rose (Maureen O’Hara). When Danny meets a nice girl, Theresa (Ally Sheedy), the two women will lock horns, leaving him in the middle. This is among his most everyman roles — Danny is just a regular guy, albeit a bit of a pushover and hounded by Catholic guilt that he’s not a good enough son.
A riff on Marty, the movie proved that Candy could do grownup romantic comedies, and Only the Lonely was just one example that year of the actor branching out into more dramatic fare. (His electric cameo in JFK hit theaters about seven months later.) As delightful as he was in more full-on comedic roles, Only the Lonely hinted that maybe Candy was hungering for something different. In an interview at the time, he admitted that he never felt that his wilder parts expressed his actual personality. “It’s what I’ve been given over the last few years,” he said. “I don’t mind doing that type of role. I don’t think it’s really me.” It would have been nice to have seen Candy get an opportunity with more leading-man roles like this one.
Cool Runnings (1993)
Released five months before Candy’s death, Cool Runnings suggested a direction that he could have gone professionally. In this likable sports comedy, he plays Irv, a disgraced former Olympian who decides to coach the Jamaican bobsled team in the Winter Olympics. The movie is based on a true story, which you wouldn’t know since Cool Runnings follows every genre trope imaginable. And yet, the film is awfully appealing, and that goes double for Candy, who gets to deliver inspirational speeches and serves as a kindly mentor for his athletes.
Cool Runnings is far from the best thing Candy ever did, but he’s so lovely in the film that you could picture him transitioning away from broadly comic parts into more mature, sensitive roles. Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to watch that happen because of his tragic passing.
Dawn Steel, who had been a producer on Cool Runnings, always felt that Candy — who was beloved by his fellow actors but sometimes lamented his difficulty at finding roles that made full use of his talents — emotionally connected with Irv’s fall from grace and eventual redemption. “Irv was a guy who won medals and then made mistakes and wasn’t welcome anymore,” she said. “In some ways John felt that also. He had an extraordinary body of work, yet he felt out of the core of Hollywood decision-making.”
This Thanksgiving, spare a moment to reflect on a terrific comic whose best days could have been ahead of him.