Mexico, March 4, 1994. Actors Richard Lewis and Robert Picardo arrived on the set of the comedy film “Wagons East.” Before they could exit their car, a production assistant greeted them with devastating news. The movie’s star, John Candy, had suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep earlier that morning. Picardo collapsed in his seat, while Lewis ran into a field and dropped to the ground. “And then we both began to weep,” Picardo later told People magazine.
Born in Toronto on Oct. 31, 1950, John Franklin Candy was the younger of Sidney and Evangeline Candy’s two sons. John was 4 when his car salesman father died of heart disease at age 35, and his aunt and grandparents helped his mother raise him. Although he was passionate about football while attending the all-boys Holy Cross Separate School and later Neil McNeil High School, it was in high school that Candy found his calling, appearing in several theatrical productions. He enrolled at Toronto’s Centennial Community College in 1969 to study journalism and acting but left 2 years later to pursue an acting career.
1971 was also the year that Candy met fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd, who encouraged him to audition for the Toronto branch of the popular Chicago comedy troupe Second City. Candy’s audition was so successful that he was invited to join the troupe's Chicago group, where he would spend 2 years working with fellow comedy stars such as John Belushi and Gilda Radner. In 1974, Candy returned to Toronto and worked with that city’s Second City group, which made it to Canadian television in 1977 as “SCTV.” The cast also included Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Harold Ramis among other talents. Candy was a featured performer by the time “SCTV” landed a spot on NBC's late night line-up in 1981, not only impersonating such celebrities as Julia Child, Orson Welles and Luciano Pavarotti but creating many noteworthy characters. The show’s writing earned Candy two Emmys.
In 1979, Candy had a small role in Steven Spielberg’s war comedy “1941.” That same year he married his high school sweetheart, Rosemary Hober, with whom he would have two children, Jennifer and Christopher. The following year he appeared with Belushi and Aykroyd in “The Blues Brothers.” Appearing with Bill Murray in “Stripes” further elevated his film career. As Candy put it, “I went from macaroni and cheese to macaroni and lobster.” With a promising future in the movies, Candy left “SCTV” in 1983. His film breakthrough came in Ron Howard’s 1984 comedy “Splash,” in which he played Tom Hanks’ sleazy brother, but he followed it with a series of disappointments, including two 1985 films, “Brewster’s Millions” and “Summer Rental.”
But Candy had more than career setbacks to worry about. He had long struggled with his obesity – “I'm the one who has to look in the mirror, and after a while it begins to eat at you,” Candy told People in 1981 – and never got used to snipes from critics (one called him “the elephant” while reviewing “Stripes”). “Summer Rental” director Carl Reiner attempted to help Candy by having a cook prepare healthy food for him on the set. Reiner’s efforts inspired Candy to check into the Pritikin Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., for a month in April 1984. Upon leaving, Candy hired a personal trainer and began a routine of jogging, biking and swimming. Candy lost 75 pounds that summer, but his success – like those of past and future efforts – would be short-lived. “For a while he would eat nice,” Reiner said, “but then he would say, 'Let's go have a bucket of shrimp.' He just couldn't resist.”
While Candy was struggling with his health, his career recovered thanks to the success of the 1987 comedy “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” which co-starred Steve Martin. He also appeared in “Spaceballs,” Mel Brooks’ spoof of “Star Wars,” that year. In 1989, Candy starred in the enormously successful John Hughes comedy “Uncle Buck.” A year later, he had a small role in the smash hit “Home Alone.” 1991 saw Candy become a part owner of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and broaden his acting range with two roles. He played a romantic lead in Chris Columbus' “Only the Lonely” and had a small dramatic role in Oliver Stone’s political thriller “JFK.” He enjoyed more success with 1993’s “Cool Runnings,” which told the story of the first Jamaican bobsled team entering the Olympics.
Candy was making more than $4 million a movie in the later years of his career, but the money couldn’t curb his worries. Producer Peter Kaminsky befriended Candy when the actor hosted the Montreal Comedy Festival in 1988 and recalled, “He would just stand backstage before he went on with his eyes shut, breathing in and out. Eating, ingesting, smoking. For John, it was a way of swallowing that anxiety.” Severe panic attacks led Candy to seek professional help from a therapist when he turned 40. Meanwhile, his weight problem worsened. “At a point, you just couldn’t push it,” said close friend Eugene Levy. “Otherwise you stop being a friend and start being an irritant.”
In January 1994, Candy arrived in Mexico to begin filming “Wagons East.” Shortly after midnight on March 4, he called Lewis and Picardo to discuss the successful day of shooting that they had just completed. “He was like a little kid who had had a great day at camp,” Picardo said. “He wanted to thank us.” Soon after hanging up, Candy fell asleep for the last time. He suffered a heart attack at approximately 6 a.m. and died in his sleep. Candy was 43 years old.
On March 21, 1994, a line of 200 family and friends – including Martin Short, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Tom Hanks, George Wendt and Rhea Pearlman – filed into a small white church in Brentwood, Calif., to pay their final respects to Candy. “It hasn't sunk in yet,” Levy said. “We don't realize yet that John will be no more. Feeling his absence will be tremendously hard. Like the air has been sucked out of the world.”