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Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

The Lost Roles of John Candy

Casting is one of the most important processes in movie making. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire film rings true. Lost Roles is a weekly series that examines the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and explores how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed the film industry and the comedy world, at large.

John Candy was one of the sharpest comedic talents of his generation, leaving behind an outstanding body of work that spanned three decades. SCTV, where he debuted an eclectic array of characters, and films like Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Stripes stand as his best work, but Candy’s larger-than-life presence could make even the smallest roles memorable. John Candy’s warmth, humanity, and joy came through in all of his work. Let’s take a look at some of the John Candy roles that never came to be.

Used Cars (1980)
The role: Sam Slaton
Who got it: Joe Flaherty
John Candy was cast in a supporting role in this Robert Zemeckis comedy, but he had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts with Steven Spielberg's 1941. His SCTV costar Joe Flaherty filled in, and Candy was freed up to film his scenes for the Spielberg film.

1941 was Candy's first big Hollywood movie, and while the film had a disastrous run at the box office and was widely panned by critics, 1941's failure didn't hold Candy's career back any. He quickly rebounded with supporting roles in major hits The Blues Brothers and Stripes in the next couple years. Taking the part in Used Cars instead might have allowed Candy to sidestep the failure of 1941, but Used Cars was no hit either. Miraculously, all of the major players emerged from 1941 unscathed, with the careers of Candy, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Steven Spielberg continuing to flourish after this misstep.

Ghostbusters (1984)
The role: Louis Tully
Who got it: Rick Moranis
John Candy had worked with the team behind Ghostbusters — director Ivan Reitman, writer Harold Ramis, and star Bill Murray — on the trio's previous movie together, Stripes, and he was offered the part of accountant Louis Tully before Rick Moranis was cast. Candy brought some of his own ideas to the table, wanting to play the character as a German man who owns several large dogs. Candy passed on the project when the creative team shot down his ideas for Louis Tully, and another of his SCTV co-horts, Rick Moranis, stepped in to take his place.

Ghostbusters was a monstrous hit and a boon to the careers of anyone involved. John Candy certainly would have received a boost if he had taken this part, but if he'd talked Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman into letting him play Louis Tully as an over-the-top German man, it could have hurt the movie and changed its tone. John Candy starred in another 1984 blockbuster, the Tom Hanks mermaid rom-com Splash, but it wasn't as big a hit as Ghostbusters. Candy was still able to use supporting roles like this one to make the leap to leading man status, and allowing his buddy Rick Moranis to take his place in Ghostbusters guaranteed movie stardom for both of them.

The Flintstones (1994)
The role: Fred Flintstone
Who got it: John Goodman
Before John Goodman, then known primarily for his work on Roseanne, was brought in, John Candy was considered for the lead role in the 1994 feature film adaptation of The Flintstones.  While the end result was widely-derided, it was still a big hit with audiences. Landing the Fred Flinstone role could have been good for Candy. He passed away shortly before The Flintstones's release, but the heart attack that took John Candy’s life occurred while he was in Mexico on the set of Wagons East, the movie he made this same year. Things might have gone differently if he'd played Fred Flintstone instead.

If John Candy had been cast as Fred, it would have reunited him with his SCTV castmate Rick Moranis, who played Barney Rubble. It would have been nice to see these two share the screen one last time, even if it wasn't in a movie deserving of their talents. Candy and Moranis had a decades-long rapport built up from working with each other in the past, so they would have been funnier and had a better chemistry than the John Goodman-Rick Moranis combo.

Pocahontas (1995)
The role: Redfeather
Who got it: Role scrapped
Before his death, John Candy had signed on to provide the voice for a turkey named Redfeather in this Disney animated film Pocahontas. Candy had even recorded a significant portion of his dialogue already. Redfeather was intended to be Pocahontas's sidekick, but after Candy passed on, the character was cut from the film completely. For an idea of what the character was to look like, you can see an early pencil test here.

John Candy’s voice was perfect for animated films; he was able to cram so much infectious energy and enthusiasm into every word. He'd done a little voice work in the past, most notably in the adult rock cartoon Heavy Metal, as an albatross in the Disney movie The Rescuers Down Under, and as the title character of his own Saturday morning cartoon, Camp Candy. Pocahontas would have been his most widely-seen animated role yet, and his presence could have given the movie some much-needed comic relief.

Gone Fishin’ (1997)
The role: Unclear, either “Joe Waters” or “Gus Green”
Who got it: Either Joe Pesci or Danny Glover
Several years before it was a horrid Danny Glover-Joe Pesci buddy comedy, Gone Fishin' was a project that John Candy and Rick Moranis were considering making together. John Candy died soon after these discussions began, and Rick Moranis retired from the movie business shortly thereafter. Before you assume this would have been a bad move for Candy and Moranis, consider that this project was at a much earlier stage and the Candy-Moranis version of the movie would likely have had different writers, supporting actors, and a new director. It could have been an entirely different comedy. (On a side note, Gone Fishin' was an early writing project for J.J. Abrams, then going by the much-less-hip moniker of Jeffrey Abrams).

I'm not arguing that Gone Fishin' would have been great — or even good — with John Candy and Rick Moranis, but it couldn’t have been much worse. Pairing Danny Glover and Joe Pesci, two actors known mostly for their dramatic parts, up in a broad, silly comedy like this was an odd decision and where this one went off the rails.

Considering that they could have starred together in both this project and The Flintstones, it's surprising that John Candy and Rick Moranis almost ended up a recurring comedy team. They'd worked together on SCTV, but their stints only overlapped during the show's amazing fourth season, and the two tended to gravitate towards other performers for their sketches, with Moranis frequently working with Dave Thomas, and Candy most often partnered with Eugene Levy or Joe Flaherty. Spaceballs stands as the only film in which both actors have a big role, but they seem to have been close friends. Candy and Moranis presented an Oscar together in 1989 and occasionally popped up in supporting roles in each other's films (Candy in Moranis's Little Shop of Horrors, Moranis in Candy's Brewster's Millions), but these two never made a true buddy movie together. Gone Fishin' might not have been the perfect project for them to debut their double act with, but it's interesting to think they both had the desire to work together in this capacity.

Telling Lies in America (1997)
The role: Billy Magic
Who got it: Kevin Bacon
In his autobiography Hollywood Animal, controversial screenwriter Joe Eszterhas details his efforts to cast John Candy in this project, which was called The Magic Man at that particular phase in its development. Eszterhas writes of a meeting with John Candy at the funnyman’s office — which was a fully-stocked barroom with Candy as the bartender — during which John Candy begged Eszterhas to let him be a part of the project. Estzterhas writes, “He said he was trying to change his image from the goofball funnyman to a real actor.” The Magic Man would have been a nice opportunity for Candy to switch things up a little bit, but Ronnie Meyer, Candy’s then-new agent at CAA, talked him out of it, saying it was bad for his career. Eszterhas suspects this was in response to his own feud with CAA agent Michael Ovitz.

Holy Man (1998)
The role: G
Who got it: Eddie Murphy
Gone Fishin' wasn't the only god-awful late '90s comedy that John Candy was at some point attached to. Holy Man was an Eddie Murphy movie so bad that even Eddie Murphy has admitted it’s “horrendous.” Nevertheless, John Candy was signed on for the lead role in 1993. As with Gone Fishin', Holy Man would have had a different cast and creative team if it had gone into production with John Candy; and while the end result may not have been an enjoyable movie, it could have at least been mediocre instead of terrible.

Last Holiday (2006)
The role: George Byrd
Who got it: Queen Latifah
The Queen Latifah terminal illness comedy Last Holiday was actually based on an early '50s Ealing film that starred Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi!), so adapting the story to fit John Candy makes more sense than calling in Ms. Latifah for the job. John Candy was attached about a decade before the Latifah version went into production. The source material, at least, is pretty sophisticated stuff and it would have been nice to see John Candy stretch his abilities in a role that had a little bit of dramatic depth. He showed a great affinity for getting serious in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and it would have been exciting to see him try it again here.

A Confederacy of Dunces and Atuk (both unproduced)
The roles: Ignatius J. Reilly and Atuk, respectively
Two "cursed" projects that a lot of portly actors signed onto before dying young, A Confederacy of Dunces and Atuk each went through a series of stars. Dunces, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning John Kennedy Toole novel, at one point was set to star John Belushi, with Candy taking interest after Belushi's death, and Chris Farley signing on after Candy's passing, only to meet a similar fate himself. The supposed curse extends to the book's author, John Kennedy Toole, who killed himself before its publication, and to the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission, who was murdered (New Orleans was where the book and planned film were set). Will Ferrell was the latest actor to try his hand at the lead role, but the "dreaded curse” spared his life.

Atuk was another literary adaptation, this one of the Mordecai Richler novel The Incomporable Atuk, about an eskimo adapting to life in the big city. Candy was one of many now-deceased actors at one-point signed on, including John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Sam Kinison.

Bartholomew vs. Neff (unproduced)
John Hughes wrote this comedy script, about two feuding neighbors, and was preparing to direct it as his next film after Curly Sue in the early ‘90s. John Candy — Hughes’s most frequently-used adult actor — and Sylvester Stallone were attached to play the two neighbors, a former baseball player and a banker. By this point in Hughes’s career, he had turned his back on the more-sophisticated teen and adult fare that made his name in the 1980s in favor of creating slapstick movies that starred kids (Home Alone, Curly Sue) and animals (Beethoven, 101 Dalmatians). While it would have been neat to see Candy and Hughes work together one last time, Hughes was past his prime at this point and it would have just been a disappointment. Also, let’s not forget Sylvester Stallone’s unsurprising lack of comedic ability. See Oscar or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot for evidence of Sly’s ineptness with our favorite genre. Actually, don’t see Oscar or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Just know that these movies exist and that people shouldn’t see them.

The Magic 7 (never released)
The role: Smokestack Sam
John Candy recorded his lines for this long-in-gestation animated TV movie back in the early 1990s, but a series of delays have led to the film never seeing the light of day. The movie seems to have been a piece of Captain Planet-era “Save the Planet” propaganda to shove down kids’ throats on a Saturday morning. Production on The Magic 7 began in 1990 with Candy, Michael J. Fox, Ice-T, and Madeline Kahn laying their audio tracks down two decades ago now. A series of delays and financial issues led to the project being pushed back a few years. Another studio bought the rights to The Magic 7 in 1995 with the intention of airing it on Earth Day in 1997, but that date was postponed. The project was shelved until the early 2000s, when an attempt at resurrecting it was made, with Candy and fellow departed comedic legend Madeline Kahn’s voices stripped out. That incarnation fell apart too, and it looks like The Magic 7 won’t be seeing a release any time soon — or at all, for that matter.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

  • grovberg

    I don't always agree with the conclusions, but I always enjoy this recurring feature. Thanks for an enjoyable read.

    Also, holy shit did I forget all about Camp Candy. I ate that up as a kid.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @grovberg Thanks for reading. I loved "Camp Candy" as a kid, too. It was probably my first exposure to John Candy's work. Spoeaking of John Candy in the world of Saturday morning cartoons, I was shocked to learn as an adult that he wasn't the voice of Uncle Ted on "Bobby's World." Whoever voiced that character sounded exactly like him.

  • iamconnor

    Stallone's greatest comedic performance was given in 'Rhinestone' with Dolly Parton. (But no, seriously, it was Death Race 2000[No, for sure it was Spy Kids 3-D])

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @iamconnor His background work in Woody Allen's "Bananas" is top-notch, too.

  • John Wade@facebook

    I saw John and the gang @ Second City Dinner Theatre in Toronto in 1976. They were so funny. I also bumped into them on new years eve 1979 as they all jumped onto the subway in Toronto at Bay/Bloor street. Everyone was shocked! Super people. Awesome memories. We miss that sincere charm they all had together.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @John Wade@facebook God, I'm jealous of you. That's amazing that you got to see them perform live. Seeing the Second City gang perform is the comedy equivalent of seeing the Stones or the Beatles live during their primes. There are few comedic ensembles I prefer to that '70s Second City roster; each member's so versatile and talented. The group didn't have anyone who wasn't up to par with everyone else. Plus, there was no one standout member hogging the spotlight, they all got equal time.

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    Why would things have gone differently had he played Fred Flinstone? He died of a heart attack in his sleep.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Jason Farr@facebook I'm just saying the heart attack might not have come at that exact time if he had been working on The Flintstones in a different country, eating different food, and keeping a different schedule.