John Candy, an actor whose robust comedic delivery was matched by his body size, died Friday morning after a heart attack in Durango, Mexico, while filming his latest movie. He was 43.
Filming on the comedy western Wagons East, co-starring Richard Lewis, was nearly complete when Candy collapsed.
The Toronto native endeared himself to some Pinellas County residents in 1985 when he filmed his first top-billed role in Summer Rental along St. Petersburg Beach. One of those was restaurateur Billy Moore, who lived near Candy and actor Rip Torn for two months during filming.
"He was a great, great guy; a lot of fun to work with," said Moore. "Candy was a hard, hard working guy. He was very professional at that point in his life."
Moore chuckled and added: "He was actually kind of boring to be around because he was studying his script all the time."
Jeweler Evander Preston's shop was visited by the actor on several occasions.
"In my limited experience, he was pretty much the same as what we saw (on screen)," said the St. Petersburg Beach jeweler. "He gave us a great sense of comedic relief."
Candy debuted on the silver screen in 1971 in a little-seen Canadian film titled Face of the Lady. Bit parts in the Summer of '42 sequel Class of '44 and the low-budget, scattershot comedy Tunnelvision were his most visible screen works over the next seven years. Oddly enough, his first positive notice came in the violent bank robbery drama The Silent Partner starring Elliott Gould, also filmed in Canada. Candy didn't get another dramatic role until 1991 when Oliver Stone cast him as a slimy lawyer in J.F.K.
Candy's work with Toronto's Second City comedy troupe gained more attention and the ensemble began producing a 30-minute syndicated television series. By 1981, the show was expanded to 90 minutes, titled Second City Television, and built an avid following in the United States.
Another incarnation, SCTV Network 90 _ the title referred to a phony station in fictional Melonville _ had a two-year, late-night run (1981-1983) on NBC as a replacement for the Midnight Special concert series. Candy won two Emmys on the show. After its cancellation, SCTV shows were edited into 60-minute programs and syndicated for years.
This is where most of America discovered the bull-in-a-china-shop comedy of John Candy. He didn't have the chameleonic talents of his cast mates like Rick Moranis, Joe Flaherty or Andrea Martin, but Candy's energy sold us on the characters he created.
He played Stan Shmenge to Eugene Levy's Yosh, the polka kings with a constant urge for coffee and cabbage rolls. He was Johnny LaRue, scheming his way to Melonville celebrity. Candy and Flaherty spoofed film critics and audiences as yahoos who liked movies that "blowed up real good," on "Farm Film Celebrity Blow-up." He was Jake the Snake, a lurid sex-shop owner _ "the guy with the snake on his face" _ in bogus SCTV commercials. Candy was an integral part of a acclaimed cast, and movie stardom seemed inevitable.
A small part in The Blues Brothers (1980) didn't help, but Stripes (1981) was Candy's breakthrough, one of the highest-grossing hits of the year. Bill Murray starred and Candy's gung-ho mud wrestling scene in a topless bar was a show-stopper. More supporting roles came, but Candy's turn as Tom Hanks' pushy brother in Splash convinced Hollywood he might be able to carry a film on his beefy shoulders.
Candy had plenty of chances to do just that, but few films with him in a lead role showed box office strength. Mel Brooks' Spaceballs (1987) and John Hughes' Uncle Buck (1989) were exceptions, but that may have been due more to the directors' audience-friendly reputations than Candy's star power.
Most films showcasing Candy _ Who's Harry Crumb? (1989), Summer Rental, Armed and Dangerous (1986), The Great Outdoors (1988), Delirious (1991), Nothing But Trouble (1991) and Only the Lonely (1991) _ were dismissed by critics and mostly bypassed by moviegoers.
Candy's best moments on screen were as a blustery, but cuddly second banana. He was Steve Martin's ultimate travel annoyance in Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), yet still elicited sympathy for his holiday season loneliness. Candy was twice an eager foil for Hanks, in Splash and Volunteers (1985). He scored with brief roles in Home Alone (1990), alongside SCTV alumnus Catherine O'Hara, and Little Shop of Horrors (1986).
Off-screen, he married Rose Candy and they had a son and daughter. An avid sports fan since his youth, Candy teamed with hockey star Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall to purchase the Toronto Argonauts, a Canadian Football League team.
Hollywood cooled its interest in Candy as a leading man when his films flopped, until Walt Disney Pictures took a chance and gave him top billing in Cool Runnings, loosely based on the exploits of the Jamaican bobsled team that tickled the 1988 Winter Olympics. It was viewed as a smart move; Candy needed the work and Disney, with its new budget-conscious attitude, got a name star who didn't demand an exorbitant salary.
Cool Runnings became the surprise hit of 1993, grossing more than $67-million to date. Candy's performance as the team's unorthodox coach was generally complimented by critics, but he took a back seat to the charismatic young actors he led. Even so, Candy's career finally seemed back on track.
Carl Reiner, who directed Candy in Summer Rental, was shocked by the actor's death.
"You don't expect someone as young as John to die," Reiner told reporters. "We expect that you get in line to meet your maker. John was out of line. He was not ready.
"If John had a fault, it's that he gave too much of himself to others. It wasn't enough that he gave an autograph. He had to know that person's life history so that he could write something meaningful."
Martin, who also co-starred with Candy in Little Shop of Horrors, called Candy "a gentleman and a great comic talent. I count myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him."
_ Times wire services also contributed to this report.
JOHN CANDY FILM HIGHLIGHTS
National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
Brewster's Millions (1985)
Summer Rental (1985)
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Uncle Buck (1989)
Who's Harry Crumb? (1989)
Home Alone (1990)
Only the Lonely (1991)
Cool Runnings (1993)