Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candyby Martin Knelman
Funny and gentle, John Candy was loved by millions of movie fans for playing true-to-life characters. Whether as the irrepressible bon vivant in Splash, the misunderstood slob in Uncle Buck, or the generous lonely salesman in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, John Candy struck a perfect balance between self-deprecating humor and irresistible,/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
Funny and gentle, John Candy was loved by millions of movie fans for playing true-to-life characters. Whether as the irrepressible bon vivant in Splash, the misunderstood slob in Uncle Buck, or the generous lonely salesman in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, John Candy struck a perfect balance between self-deprecating humor and irresistible, emotional warmth. But behind the scenes, beneath the booming laughter, award-winning journalist Martin Knelman in Laughing on the Outside paints a compassionate portrait of John Candy--a man blessed by comic genius and goodness of heart who was ultimately and sadly undermined by self-doubt and misguided ambition.
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Laughing on the Outside
The Life of John Candy
By Martin Knelman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1996 Martin Knelman
All rights reserved.
Hockey Night in California
John Candy was sitting in the stands at the Great Western Forum on that momentous night — the sixth of October, 1988. This was not just hockey night in Los Angeles, not just the opening home game of the season. It was the biggest night of hockey mania in the history of the L.A. franchise, and for the first time, the Kings had a sell-out crowd of 16,000. When Wayne Gretzky skated onto the ice at the L.A. Forum wearing a Kings uniform for the first time, the crowd exploded with excitement and anticipation.
No wonder: Gretzky was almost universally regarded as the greatest player in hockey, period. He was capable of transforming the previously lethargic Kings into stars on ice and dangerous contenders for the Stanley Cup, thereby banishing California's bemused coolness toward this odd, quintessentially Canadian game. (Jack Kent Cooke, the Canadian sports tycoon who established the franchise in 1967, once quipped: "There are 800,000 Canadians living in the L.A. area, and I've just discovered why they left Canada: They hate hockey.")
This wasn't just a hockey game; it was a coronation. In Edmonton, hockey fans were so shocked that they hanged Oilers owner Peter Pocklington in effigy for trading Gretzky. Now just before Gretzky's first game as one of the L.A. Kings, the lights were turned off for dramatic effect, and each player skated through the darkness into the spotlight at centre ice, where, sporting their flashy new silver and black uniforms, they were greeted in turn by the new owner of the Kings, Bruce McNall.
When Gretzky skated into the spotlight, wearing his celebrated number 99 uniform, the applause was thunderous. And when he scored a goal on his first shot-on-goal of the night, the crowd at the Forum went wild. By the end of the evening, Gretzky had added three assists, and the Kings had defeated the Detroit Red Wings by a score of eight to two.
No one in the stands that night was more thrilled than John Candy — a shy, sweet-faced guy from Toronto who within a few years of arriving in Hollywood had become one of the most popular comedy actors in town. Candy looked more like a garage mechanic or an appliance salesman than a movie star, but that's precisely what made audiences warm to him.
Candy had four season's tickets in section twenty. That night he was accompanied by two old friends from Toronto — writer/director Martyn Burke and actor/businessman Stephen Young (also known as Stephen Levy). It was an unspoken custom that there would be only three people occupying those four seats. Candy had about three hundred pounds on his six-foot-three frame and he needed the extra seat to be comfortable.
As usual, Burke and Candy had convened at Candy's house in Brentwood and been driven to the Forum in Inglewood (near L.A.'s international airport) by Candy in his big black Mercedes. (When he was working on a film, Candy would be chauffeured around by his devoted driver, Frankie Hernandez, but on his days off, Candy preferred to be his own driver.)
The man of the hour, on his way to becoming the most revered and popular promoter/entrepreneur in California, was Bruce McNall. And he knew how to make the most out of a dramatic occasion.
McNall was a pudgy, friendly character who had made a fabulous fortune trading antique coins and art and racing horses. After dabbling for several years in the movie business, McNall had bought out the Kings' previous owner, and electrified hockey followers everywhere by buying Gretzky and bringing him from Edmonton to L.A.
With a background in show business, McNall was well aware of celebrity power, and that night he was being taken through the Forum by the team's media director, Scott Carmichael, who introduced him to notables in the crowd — celebrities who also happened to be sports fans. One of them was John Candy. In contrast to McNall, who was dressed in a natty black suit, white shirt and tie, Candy looked like an unmade bed, wearing a big ski jacket and rumpled chinos.
* * *
If anyone should have recognized a con artist, it was John Candy. After all, even before the combination of his sweet vulnerability and impeccable comic timing made him a favourite of movie audiences in Splash and a full-blown movie star in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the lovable overgrown kid from the East York section of Toronto was cherished by followers of the inspired comedy series "SCTV" for his gleeful, over-the-top send-ups of rogues, blowhards and hypocrites.
And as a comedy writer and performer, Candy was at the absolute top of his considerable form when he was lampooning egomaniacal charlatans. His greatest comic creation was Johnny LaRue — that hilariously self-indulgent mover and shaker in the fictitious small town of Melonville, who managed to be producer, performer, politician, restaurant critic and bon vivant.
Yet in 1988 when Candy met Bruce McNall — exposed six years later as a prodigious white-collar criminal who defrauded banks and other investors of $250 million — Candy was impressed to the point of awe. He felt honoured to be introduced to him.
Unlike the other movie stars who became members of McNall's inner circle, Candy was destined to be more than casually involved. Not only would McNall become Candy's business partner in the ownership of the Toronto Argonauts football team (along with Wayne Gretzky), he would also become a role model, setting the pattern for how Candy would henceforth shape his whole career.
Looking back with bitter-sweet insights, a few old friends of Candy could not help wondering if the night Candy met McNall was a turning point in his life.
Candy was susceptible to a charismatic confidence man like McNall. To Candy, imprisoned as he was by secret yearnings to be a big operator taken seriously by the whole world, McNall's promises must have had the ring of answered prayers.
In interviews Candy confessed to having trusted people in the movie business he should not have trusted. Yet perhaps his transparent vulnerability was one of his most appealing qualities; that was one reason audiences had been embracing him ever since he first stepped onto a stage.
What was the nature of his magnetism? Well, as the great critic Pauline Kael described him, Candy was "a mountainous lollipop of a man, and preposterously lovable." Given his size, one surprise in Candy's personality was how amiable and empathic he turned out to be. Far from being threatening and aggressive, he gave the impression there was a shy, frightened mouse inside that enormous frame. And there was another way he confounded the fat-boy stereotype: Candy was delightfully bouncy, energetic and fast on his feet.
Candy was big, all right, but there was nothing mean about him. He telegraphed softness; he came across as a genial giant whose feelings could easily be hurt, and who would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid inflicting pain on others.
Lack of pretence and staying true to the kind of unassuming people he grew up with — that was all part of the John Candy package his fans bought into. The essence of what they loved was expressed in Planes, Trains and Automobiles when the Candy character, after being put down by the Steve Martin character, says: "I'm the real article. What you see is what you get." To Candy's loyal followers, that wasn't just a line in a movie; it was a summing up of what John Candy was all about.
Candy's sense of comedy was sharp and accurate — gleeful without being malicious. He managed to embrace the targets of his satire even while skewering their follies. He picked up on every trace of hypocrisy and sham and turned them into a carnival of human foibles. Not perhaps since Preston Sturges, the great satiric Hollywood writer/director of the 1940s, had anyone made vice so damned entertaining. Candy had the special gift of revealing the self-indulgent child within every crazed monster he depicted. His antics suggested that giving in to the spoiled child within all of us was terrific fun — for those who could get away with it.
* * *
Having moved a long way from home psychologically as well as geographically, Candy liked going to the Kings games because it made him feel in touch with his roots, cheering for his team with the simple, heartfelt ardour of the shy and awkward baby-faced kid who used to watch the Maple Leafs from the cheap seats at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Since landing in L.A., Candy had held season's tickets between the blue line and the goalpost. Ever since his own personal aspirations to athletic glory were cut short by injuries in high school, Candy had had to settle for being a dedicated fan.
He showed the same staunch loyalty to his sports heroes as he did to long-time personal friends. And his devotion could go to extraordinary lengths; according to his friend Bill Sussex (a sound technician from Toronto), Candy would feel personally betrayed if a friend happened to make a critical remark about, say, one-time Leafs goalie Johnny Bower.
Still, the Kings had been disappointing, and Candy had missed so many games he was thinking of giving up his season's tickets. But the news that Gretzky was joining the team had given Candy such a thrill that he called the Kings office almost immediately to make sure he could hang onto his old seats.
Now he was doing what any red-blooded Canadian sports fan would do if forced by circumstance to live in Los Angeles: going to hockey games.
It seemed to be at least as meaningful a religious ritual for Candy as his sporadic attendance with his wife and two children at a Catholic church in Brentwood.
Within the confines of a simple, dramatic struggle for supremacy on the hockey rink, Candy could for an hour or two quell his anxieties, calm his demons. For despite what might seem like a fairy-tale ascent to stardom, and despite his penchant for entertaining friends and colleagues with a steady stream of uproarious anecdotes and impersonations, John Candy was still a man who almost always seemed to be hurting.
The pain certainly didn't stem from lack of acclaim. Candy's brilliant work on the comedy series "SCTV" had given him a cult following. And after a few years of knocking around Hollywood appearing in movies of uneven quality, he had broken through with Splash.
In Splash, Candy endeared himself to audiences as Freddie, Tom Hanks' chain-smoking, squash-playing older brother. Then, less than a year before this night at the Forum, he had become a star in the role of the unwelcome companion — a knuckle-cracking compulsive talker — Steve Martin is unable to get rid of in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
In a way, Candy was finally getting what he had been fighting for and dreaming of for two decades. But one thing didn't change. As always, John Candy found a lot to worry about. He had a tremendous need to be liked and approved of. And no amount of success seemed capable of quenching his need for validation, of filling the hole in his heart that had always been there, as far back as he could remember.
Born with a name that perfectly encapsulated his quality of high-calorie sweetness, John Candy was also a walking illustration of the familiar thesis that great comedy is almost always created by driven, tormented people who hope the jokes can relieve or at least mask their pain. Candy had legitimate cause for anxiety: the weight problem he battled his whole life, and a family history marred by heart disease and early death.
Along with those real problems went the ones that Candy either invented or embellished. Perhaps because he was extremely shy, he often imagined slights that were not intended. Out of his need to be liked and his sensitivity to pain in himself and others came Candy's phenomenal generosity, which was known to his friends as one of his most wonderful qualities. But that generosity also got Candy into difficulties, because he sometimes mistakenly directed it toward people who didn't deserve it, people who exploited him.
As Candy became more famous, hence more exposed to such risks, he became almost haunted by mounting paranoia about what he regarded as bad people who took advantage of him. Typically he found a way to blame himself for allowing it to happen.
The self-destructive syndrome included letting his weight get out of control, which made him feel more insecure. His success in movies failed to offset that insecurity.
As Martyn Burke observed, "John cared so deeply what people thought, it was a fire that could never be stoked. He had a need for recognition that could never be satisfied."
Candy used his own psychological problems in creating comic characters, almost as if he could exorcise his demons by making a mockery of them. Perhaps his greatest creation was SCTV's big operator Johnny LaRue — a cartoon of vanity, corruption and narcissism.
A lewd hustler and would-be bon vivant, LaRue would typically wear garish sequined robes and hobnob with minor celebrities. Whether delivering shameless bits of self-serving rhetoric or shrugging off endless scandals, Johnny LaRue always, above all, would find a way to keep the party going.
* * *
Los Angeles was a long way from Melonville, but there was more than a touch of Johnny LaRue in Bruce McNall — a chubby, gregarious reincarnation of Jay Gatsby from one of L.A.'s blandest strip-mall suburbs who for a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s threw a spirited ongoing bash unlike anything the world capital of glitz had ever seen before.
It was an episode of sublime folly, southern California style. As Kevin Cook later wrote in GQ magazine, McNall threw a ten-year party with other people's money.
Hitherto known as a showman and sports promoter, McNall had teamed up with disgraced former Columbia Pictures executive David Begelman to produce such movies as The Fabulous Baker Boys.
But it wasn't until he became the owner of the Kings and created hockey hysteria by buying Gretzky that McNall became the toast of L.A.
The spell cast by McNall was almost frightening. He had that combination of affability and apparent business acumen that Hollywood loves. He was turning the Kings into a hot franchise, and it was said that everything he touched turned to gold. Something about him seemed too good to be true, but everyone insisted it was true.
There could be no doubt he had a knack for creating excitement. Never before had hockey fever been as rampant in Los Angeles as it was that fall night in 1988 when Candy met McNall. As a gregarious promoter and all-around entrepreneur, McNall showed a special genius for merging the glamour of show business with the glamour of pro sports.
Not since that giddy interlude in the 1950s when Joe DiMaggio, the pride of the dominant New York Yankees baseball team, married Marilyn Monroe, the big screen's most attention-drawing object of male lust, had the high rollers of the sports world and the entertainment world been cross-pollinated to such spectacular effect.
No one could accuse McNall of failing to appreciate the value of a star. It was McNall's understanding of showbiz economics that made him decide eighteen million dollars was not too high a price to pay Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington for Wayne Gretzky. McNall was the new boy among NHL franchise owners, and he had a strikingly different attitude from the others, who privately thought he was out of his mind when he bought Gretzky.
Being in show business, McNall had a different way of looking at things. Certain film stars were paid as much as ten million dollars per picture. Some might balk, but in McNall's view, if an actor added five times that much to a movie's box office, he was worth it.
McNall doubled Gretzky's salary to $2.5 million. At first, McNall wanted to pay Gretzky three million dollars, which seemed excessive even to Gretzky. The superstar said he was sure two million would be enough, and the story of their reverse negotiation became a cherished anecdote in NHL lore. (By 1996, Gretzky's salary had climbed to eight million dollars, and the Kings could not afford to keep him. Gretzky was traded to the St. Louis Blues.)
Just as McNall anticipated, Gretzky's aura would turn the Kings from a losing proposition into the hottest property in pro sport. Thanks to Gretzky, the value of the franchise rocketed from twenty million dollars to more than one hundred million.
Movie stars were not incidental to McNall's strategy. He realized that if you could get movie stars turned on to hockey, the rest of the population would follow. Once Gretzky joined the team, an odd ritual became part of the Kings' routine. After every home game, for half an hour or more, the corridor outside the Kings' dressing room would be full of movie stars and other celebrities.
This was part of Bruce McNall's never-ending private party. In other cities players might think there was nothing to do after a game except take a shower, get dressed and give a quick quote to sports reporters before going home. But in the peculiar atmosphere that McNall created, shmoozing with stars was part of the scene. And as one pro sport executive puts it, "If you're an athlete who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, it kind of turns your head to find yourself living in a Malibu beach house, earning a million dollars and hanging out with Clint."
Excerpted from Laughing on the Outside by Martin Knelman. Copyright © 1996 Martin Knelman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Martin Knelman is an award-winning cultural journalist and the author of Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
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