John Candy: Gone too soon -- The comedian and ''Cool Runnings'' star's untimely death cuts short a career in its prime

By Nisid Hajari
Updated March 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

You don’t pay an actor to act,” John Candy explained last January while on the set of his directorial debut, the Fox TV comedy Hostage for a Day. ”An actor will do that for free because we love to act. You pay an actor to wait.”

Candy never did much waiting in his 22-year career as one of Hollywood’s most prolific and familiar comic talents. When he died of a heart attack on March 4 at age 43 — on the set of his latest project, Wagons East, in Durango, Mexico — the stocky star left a professional plate as full as ever:

· Wagons, a Western comedy in which Candy plays a bumbling wagon master leading a group of reluctant pioneers back east, had only 10 days left to shoot (though all of Candy’s major scenes were completed). The night Candy died, he and costars Richard Lewis and Robert Picardo (China Beach) ”were jumping up and down like we had just finished a great scene,” says Lewis. ”It was a wonderful moment and it turned into one of the worst experiences of my life.” The film will be completed and will likely be released this summer.

· Canadian Bacon, a farce starring Candy as an American sheriff who foolishly invades Canada, is scheduled for a fall release.

· The actor had also been cast in the Little Rascals feature, Tearing Down the Drive-In, Love Boat: The Movie, and Mama’s Boy.

In January, Candy jokingly described his demanding horseback-riding work on Wagons as ”very painful” and ”tougher than I expected.” Although he planned to finish shooting on March 12, he claimed his ”legs will probably be back around April 12.” But when Candy called Lewis at 11 p.m. on the night of his death, ”he didn’t sound ill,” says Lewis. ”There was nothing noticeable as far as I could tell.” He died a few hours later in his sleep at his rented home in Durango. His death, doctors say, was not necessarily related to his estimated 275 pounds. Although he was a smoker, Lewis says that during production, ”he didn’t appear to be chain-smoking at all and he was losing the weight.”

Born Oct. 31, 1950 in Toronto, Canada, John Franklin Candy was raised by his mother, Evangeline, after his father, Sidney, died of a heart ailment in 1955 at age 35. Candy played both football and hockey (neither well) in high school while booking bands for school dances. He started acting in 11th-grade productions, continuing at Centennial Community College in Toronto.

After a series of odd jobs that included selling paper napkins and mixing paint, Candy’s career took off in 1971 when he met Dan Aykroyd, who suggested he audition for Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe. In the years that followed, his work as a writer-performer on the biting satire SCTV — where he created such characters as the chain-smoking ersatz celeb Johnny La Rue and polka-playing Yosh Shmenge — won him two Emmys, as well as a growing cult for his off-kilter humor.

By comparison, the relatively slack demands of feature acting rarely evoked the manic genius of Candy’s early years. Many of his films met with critical disdain, but the healthy grosses of his hits, including last year’s Cool Runnings ($68.2 million to date) — indicate the breadth of his extra-large, teddy-bear attraction. Candy — survived by his wife, Rosemary, and their children, Jennifer, 14, and Christopher, 9 — projected a rumpled, lived- in, regular-guy presence that not only mirrored but enhanced his characters’ appeal. ”Here’s a guy who made it to the top by being really, truly a gentleman,” says Lewis. ”His loss is great.” — Reporting by Angela Baldassarre and Frank Spotnitz

Dear John
Despite Candy’s breezy comic gift, his films never quite came up to the inspired-nutball dementia of his best SCTV skits. His finer career moments:

SCTV Network Candy’s sharpest and most inspired shtick was invented on this sketch-comedy show (now airing on Comedy Central and available on video, The Best of John Candy on SCTV). A+

Stripes (1981) As a mama’s-boy soldier who gets turned into a ”mean, lean, fightin’ machine” by Bill Murray, Candy caught the notice of both audiences and Hollywood. B+

Splash (1984) Not the least of this fishy romance’s many pleasures is the sight of Candy playing racquetball while simultaneously smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. A

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) A cheery slob of a traveling salesman (Candy) is stuck with an uptight businessman (Steve Martin) in holiday-transit hell. B-

Uncle Buck (1989) An agreeable John Hughes confection. The star’s verbal duel with a pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin is a stitch. B-

JFK (1991) A small but pungent role as a Southern-fried lawyer in Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller looked to be a springboard to more serious roles. A-Ty Burr and Benjamin Svetkey