John Hughes, the director of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, has died. He was 59 years old. The Michigan-born writer, director and producer died suddenly of a heart attack while taking a morning walk during a trip to Manhattan to visit family. He is survived by Nancy, his wife of 39 years, sons John and James, and four grandchildren.
John Hughes was 34 years old when he released his first feature, Sixteen Candles, but no director before or since was ever more in touch with his inner teenager. The next four films he would make — writing and directing The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and writing and producing Pretty in Pink — defined what it was to be adolescent in the age of Reagan. The kids in his films weren’t merely mindless horn dogs peeking through peep holes into the girl’s locker-room shower; they were funny, smart, and troubled — fully formed characters in a genre that usually presented teens as little more than bundles of hormones.
Hughes began his film career as a screenwriter, penning many of the early National Lampoon franchise comedies, some based on autobiographical stories he originally wrote while a staffer on the National Lampoon magazine (1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation was based on a story called “Vacation 58”). Later in his career, after the success of his high school films, he tried directing more grown up comedies, like 1987’s Trains, Plains, and Automobiles, and 1988’s She’s Having a Baby, but they never matched the success of his “brat pack” pictures, the ones that made household names out of young actors including Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony Michael Hall. “It’s a great honor to make a little dent in the culture,” Hall ruminated over his Hughes years with EW in 2006. “That [the movies] get mentioned with seminal films like Rebel Without a Cause or American Graffiti — that just blows my mind.”
As it happens, Hollywood was originally skeptical of Hughes’ more nuanced view of on-screen teenagers. When he first screened The Breakfast Club for Universal executives, the studio brass hated it. “They said, ‘Kids won’t sit through it. There’s no action. There’s no party. There’s no nudity,’” Hughes told Premiere magazine in 1999. “But they were missing the one really key element of teendom, and that is that it feels as good to feel bad as it does to feel good. At that age, I remember, many times, staring out the window and feeling sorry for myself. ‘The whole world is against me. Nobody understands me.’ It’s a lot of fun. One of the great wonders of that age is that your emotions are open and fresh and raw. That’s why I stuck around that genre for so long.”
But even as Hughes’ directing career waned in the 1990s, his writing successes continued. In 1990, he tapped out a story about a little boy who gets accidentally left behind by his family and ended up with the billion-dollar Home Alone franchise. In 1994, he officially retired to northern Illinois, with his wife Nancy but continued to write (sometimes under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes) for movies like 2002’s Maid in Manhattan and 2008’s Drillbit Taylor. Eventally, though, Hughes finally got in touch with his inner grown-up. “If you’re a father of a teenager, you’re a dork, no matter what you do,” he said in 1999. “But it’s OK. It’s natural. Going through these phases, that’s what makes life wonderful. I ain’t going to dye my hair. I’m just fine being the old gray guy.”