“One thing I can tell you is that everyone loved John, they all have so many stories and memories of him, he was generous and big hearted and almost magical.”
Tracey Morgan has a story to tell. It’s the story of a Canadian actor who became one of the most recognized, and best loved comedy stars ever to appear on the silver screen. In classics, ranging from The Blues Brothers to Cool Runnings, his performances are studies in subtly on an epic scale. John Candy (1950-1994) was a man liked and admired by everyone who knew him. And there’s the problem.
Was John Candy too nice a guy for modern publishing? Who on Earth would want to read a life entirely devoid of lurid scandals, debauched episodes, half-remembered highs and all-too-public lows? Here Tracey talks with Dan Lentell about the possibilities and pitfalls of self-publishing, as well as about the larger-than-life artist whose life she is rendering into print.
What is your first memory of John Candy? Was it love at first sight?
My big brother was a huge influence on me and when we were younger, he was obsessed with various films, one of them being Brewster’s Millions, he used to watch that a lot and in turn so did I. Shortly after that I also saw Splash which I became obsessed with. Two very different characters in the films played by John, but both have that very human and funny element. I was always drawn to him, so yes I would say love at first sight.
What was Candy’s big break, the project or moment that made people sit up and take notice?
Well people started taking notice of him when the Second City Toronto troupe he was part of started their own TV show SCTV. Set up to rival Saturday Night Live (Second City were worried SNL would poach their talent) the show was huge in Canada and also started to get a US following.
However, I think the world took note when he played Dewey Oxberger (Ox) in Stripes, all of a sudden John was a movie star. His old agent Catherine McCartney told me John went incognito to a showing of Stripes in Toronto to see people’s reactions. He sat at the back of the cinema with Catherine and when Ox walked on screen for the first time the auditorium erupted! John was so touched he started to cry and had to leave. From then on in everyone knew who he was.
When did you decide to write his life, and was there a particular epiphany that determined you to do it?
About four years ago I was recovering from an awful bout of depression and I started revisiting things from my childhood that made me happy. One of those things were John Candy movies, there is something about Irv Blitzer, Uncle Buck, Gus Polinski, Del Griffith, Freddie Bauer, those characters that John played always made me feel like I could do anything and that it was OK to be yourself as long as you have a good heart.
So when I wanted to find out more about John I was shocked there wasn’t more about his life, the only real biography about him was written quite soon after his death and I think for some it was just too soon to talk about John, they were still grieving. The author had also decided to paint a darker side to John that I just couldn’t believe existed, so I thought I better do the research myself. They always say if you can’t find the book you want to read on the shelf, write it. Also if I am being honest, I felt like I had a calling from JC himself – just not the JC most people expect!
I have been very lucky to interview over sixty people that worked or were friends with John. Some have taken longer to trust me than others but the general response is that they are glad I am writing the book, after they have spoken to me they know that I am doing it for the right reasons. One thing I can tell you is that everyone loved John, they all have so many stories and memories of him, he was generous and big hearted and almost magical. Those that have contributed include Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Mariel Hemmingway, Kevin Pollak, Lonette McKee, Jay Underwood, Dave Thomas as well as many others.
There are a couple of other biographies out there, what’s going to be special about Searching for Candy?
Well for one Searching for Candy isn’t being written for money, just total love. The fact it is written from a fan’s perspective and that I have interviewed people who have not been in previous biographies will make it very different. But there is only one other biography written. Apart from that there is a fake Wikipedia article book that someone has fudged together, I don’t think anyone can class that as a work of passion.
Candy appeared in several classics, but he didn’t posses the midas touch. Did he do more than his fair share of dud flicks, or is it that he just didn’t live long enough to unassailably embellish his filmography?
John worked hard, very hard. He always thought he was going to die young so he wanted to bank role money to ensure his family were taken care of. He was also very bad at saying no and would always help people out if he could even if it wasn’t to his own advantage. In his career he was in over forty films, some that completely bombed, but every picture he did he always made the film better than it would have been without him and surely that is all any actor can hope for?
Could Candy have ever made a straight or serious role his own?
Yes, he was a brilliant dramatic actor. Just watch him playing Dean Andrews in JFK, John got to be the bad guy for a change and if you watch real life footage of Andrews you will see just what a brilliant job he did. There are also moments of true beauty in Planes, Trains and Automobiles where he will melt your heart.
How will your biography balance exploration of Candy’s professional and private lives?
Well I think his professional and private life were very intertwined. The interviews I have done dictate the balance and as many of his colleagues were also close friends it is hard to distinguish what falls into which category. He lived to work, and he lived for his family.
You’re crowd funding the project. What are the benefits and downsides?
Well the benefits so far are that I have been in contact with people like you, who have learnt about the project and have helped me promote it. I have had so many messages of support, people pledging and sharing the project and I would like to thank everyone who has contributed. If I raise the money I get to self-publish and make the book exactly as I want it to be.
The downside is that I am having sleepless nights worrying about not hitting the target! If I don’t hit the target I will find a plan B. Sometimes I think you just have to be brave, it doesn’t always work out but maybe that is because there is a better plan you have not come across yet.
What are the movies, made since 1994, that made you think, “Gosh! I wish he’d been available for that.”?
Good question! Very difficult to answer really, I think there are many roles he would have been fantastic at. I am not sure I want to say what they are, and I am not sure John would want me to, purely because he would hate me to disrespect any other actor. I think if John was still around he would have found more dramatic roles and taken on more projects as a Director. One thing for sure is his legacy still makes us laugh today.