This article was originally published in 2010
It’s been 16 years since John Candy left this world, but friends and colleagues still keep their memories of the beloved actor/comedian very much alive.
Naturally, many of those memories go back to Candy’s earliest days with The Second City Toronto’s mainstage cast, a gig which kick-started his career and led him to the popular comedy variety series SCTV in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Back then, Candy was observed to have the tendency to “disappear” on stage when he first began with the comedy theatre company, an obstacle he quickly overcame with time and confidence.
“He was scared and thinking a lot instead of just going with whatever was going on,” recalls Sheldon Patinkin, one of The Second City’s first directors. “He eventually learned to just play in the moment, and he was able to successfully do that once he understood that’s what he had to do.
“Essentially, what he was doing was looking for how to get a laugh. He finally stopped doing it because he knew he’d get them anyway.”
But it was also his friendly and larger-than-life personality that drew in his fans. “John had this everyman quality and an ability to engage everybody,” says Andrew Alexander, president and CEO of The Second City. “He had a certain vulnerability and he made people feel comfortable around him.”
It’s one of the reasons that Alexander, also executive producer of SCTV, hand-picked Candy to join the Toronto cast. Alexander was also fond of his characters from the batshit crazy Mayor Tommy Shanks to megalomaniac Johnny LaRue, but especially liked Doctor Tongue. In one classic sketch called ‘Doctor Tongue’s 3D House of Stewardesses,’ he sends his assistant Bruno (Eugene Levy) to answer the door before ominously saying, “Meanwhile, I’ll finish my brandy.” He then stealthily approaches the camera, steps off-screen and raises his glass to fill the frame, deliberately swinging the glass closer to then away from the screen, overly exaggerating old-time campy 3D tricks, complete with cheesy Theremin sounds punctuating each movement.
Candy was also mischievous. Alexander recalls when “John had asked to go away and do Saturday Night Live for a weekend, and I said no because we thought we might be shooting early Monday morning and didn’t want to take a chance.
“And I happened to be watching SNL that night and there was John in the background, wearing a sombrero and a fake mustache.”
SCTV castmate and long-time friend Joe Flaherty has an endless supply of his own stories, from Candy purposely rolling up a car window while Flaherty’s head was leaning out, to the pair driving through Toronto in a bread truck from Chicago, to secretly squirting Candy with a water pistol in the middle of a show, unbeknownst to the audience.
“I loved doing scenes with John, I just had so much fun,” he says. “At SCTV, we were always challenging each other, but I tell you, he knew what he had and how to use it. He knew comedy and he knew what was funny, and you have to know when you can take a chance on making the audience laugh.”
Candy clearly gravitated to more comedic roles in his film career, which included Splash, Uncle Buck, Mel Brooks’ cult parody Spaceballs and perhaps his most well-known film, the John Hughes-directed Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But he was also starting to challenge himself creatively later in life by taking on more dramatic roles, notably as a corrupt lawyer in the Oscar-winning JFK.
“As it went along, he became a better and better actor,” recalls Flaherty. “He was committing to the parts, learning nuances, doing different characters. In fact, I think that what most impressed me later on his career was how good he got. I was proud of him.”
Candy was also as generous as he was mischievous. When Candy was filming Only the Lonely with Maureen O’Hara (Miracle on 34th Street), he was outraged that the legendary actress wasn’t given a trailer on set, so he gave up his own trailer for her.
Alexander also remembers a time when he’d ordered Swiss Chalet for the SCTV crew, a simple thing that triggered a rare angry outburst from Candy. “It was an example of John thinking the [craft services] had been slighted. He was always looking after the people who sometimes don’t get looked after properly,” adding that every Christmas the actor would personally shop for gifts for each member of the crew.
“He was the nicest man I’ve never known,” states Sheldon Patinkin. “And that’s a first impression and a last impression.”
Photo courtesy Second City