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Comic tragedy

Six years ago, actor John Candy passed away–quietly and suddenly–during his prime

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He started north of the border, finished south of the border, and was truly larger than life everywhere in between. On March 4, 1994, John Candy, the portly comedian with a comically fitting surname, died in his sleep on the Durango, Mexico, set of the Western send-up Wagons East. While some were quick to blame the fatal heart attack on his massive 6-foot-3-inch, 275-pound frame and the fact that he was a smoker (doctors said that Candy’s weight was not necessarily related to his death), cast-mates insisted that he appeared to be healthier and cheerier than ever.

The husband and father of two was born in Toronto on Halloween, 1950, and seemed haunted from the beginning. His dad succumbed to heart failure when John was a boy, he struggled as a comic after leaving Toronto’s Centennial College and was always dogged by his weight (Candy once said, ”I’m the one who has to look in the mirror, and after a while it begins to eat at you”). But in 1971, fellow starving Canadian Dan Aykroyd encouraged Candy to audition for Chicago’s Second City improv troupe, and during the next decade Candy emerged as a star. By 1981, the SCTV Network show landed him on late-night NBC, where he honed his sketch-comedy acting while sharing two Emmys for writing.

Candy’s jump to the big screen was similarly successful with crowd-pleasing turns as Tom Hanks’ racquetball-challenged brother in 1984’s Splash, the half-dog intergalactic copilot Barf in 1987’s Spaceballs, and, that same year, Steve Martin’s travel companion-cum-bedmate in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Working with John Hughes (who directed Candy in Automobiles and Uncle Buck) and Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Only the Lonely), Candy showed that unlike such plus-size funnymen as Dom DeLuise, Louie Anderson, and, later, Chris Farley, he could flourish by embracing rather than exploiting his girth. As critic Pauline Kael wrote of his Splash persona, ”He doesn’t add weight, he adds bounce and imagination.”

Indeed, with more serious roles in early-’90s movies like JFK and Cool Runnings, as well as his shift to the director’s chair for the 1994 TV movie Hostage for a Day, Candy seemed unwilling to have his talent pigeonholed as one fit only for silly comedies.

And on the eve of his death, though still struggling to control his weight (past dieting had proved mostly ineffective), Candy was full of unwavering optimism and vigor. ”He was loving what he was doing — I’d never seen him happier,” recalled Wagons East costar Richard Lewis. ”It just makes his passing that much more shocking and ironic.”