The larger-than-life comedic star John Candy dies suddenly of a heart attack on this day in 1994, at the age of 43. At the time of his death, he was living near Durango, Mexico, while filming Wagons East, a Western comedy co-starring the comedian Richard Lewis.
Born in 1950, Candy’s first professional acting work was in children’s theater in his native Canada. In 1972, he was accepted into the prestigious Second City comedy troupe in Toronto, where he would become a regular writer and performer for the group’s television program, SCTV, alongside other rising comics like Eugene Levy (later Candy’s co-star in Splash) and Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters). When SCTV moved to network television in 1981, Candy moved with it; that year and the next, he won Emmy Awards for writing for the show. Candy’s recurring (and most famous) SCTV persona was Yosh Shmenge, a clarinet player in a polka band. He would reprise the character in a mock documentary, The Last Polka, on HBO in 1985 and would also play a polka musician in the smash hit Home Alone (1990).
Candy made his big break into movies with Splash (1984), in which he stole most of his scenes as the idle, high-living brother of the main character, played by Tom Hanks. The film, directed by Ron Howard, was a smash hit, jump-starting the careers of Candy, Hanks, Darryl Hannah and Levy. In one particularly memorable scene, Candy throws himself with abandon around a racquetball court, using his hefty frame to full comedic effect. Six-foot-three and weighing as much as 275 pounds, he struggled with dieting over the years, but his heft undoubtedly contributed to his success as a comic performer.
After Splash, Candy was in high demand as a lovable oaf. He starred in a number of box-office hits over the next 10 years, including Spaceballs (1987), and collaborations with the writer, producer and director John Hughes in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), The Great Outdoors (1988) and Uncle Buck (1989). A devoted sports fan and co-owner of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, he was also part owner of House of Blues, with the actors Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi. In 1993, Candy won praise for his role as the sensitive coach of an unlikely Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings (1993).
At the time of his death, Candy had just completed his directorial debut, the Fox Television movie comedy Hostage for a Day. He had performed two-thirds of his scenes in Wagons East, which was finished after the filmmakers’ insurance company paid a reported $15 million settlement. Another recently wrapped movie, Canadian Bacon, was released in 1995. Candy was survived by his wife, Rosemary, and their two children, Jennifer and Christopher.