Tuesday, March 4, 2008

In Loving Memory . . .

Today is the 14th anniversary of the passing of one of the few “heroes” I have had in my life and my only “idol” (who is not a golden bull or a contestant on a Fox reality show).

It is not that my ego is so big and self-focused that I can’t/don’t/won’t admire people. I do. I admire LOTS of people in the public domain (P.T. Barnum, William Seward, The Clinton Family, The Cuomo Family, etc.) and in my personal life I have a handful of people that have proven to be admirable and remarkable and inspiring all at the same time.

Still, there is only one person that has touched my life that I would say is my idol (sorry Dad (grimace)). That man is none other than John Candy.

The larger-than-life comedian and actor was, to me, the best case scenario a fat kid like me could have hoped for. He weighed well over 300 pounds but his humor, unlike Chris Farley or John Belushi, was never about his weight or size. He was never the butt of the joke because he was fat. Sure, there were some digs here and there and early in his career his size was part of the humor but he quickly moved beyond that. John Candy showed kids like me that you can be big - but you can be BIGGER if you use your intellegence and humor and charms before you let them use your size.

I used to try to dress like John Candy. I wanted John Candy's hair. I tried to make his laugh my laugh. I would mimic his gestures and body launguage in my day to day life. I truly wanted to be him.

In one of my favorite movies of all time, Uncle Buck, Candy played the disconnected, dishevled Uncle that stays with his neices and nephew when family disaster strikes only to find out how unwelcome he is in the house and how much of a mess his life is but - he comes out a better man and helps the family grow stronger in the process. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles he played the "annoying" shower ring salesman that got Steve Martin home for Thanksgiving. In Brewster's Millions he helped Brewster spend his millions. He was just a nice guy in every movie. He was funny. Self depricating. Physical and verbal. He helped. He discovered himself. He enriched those around him. He always made it right for everyone.

Another of my favorite movies, Only the Lonely, was probably Candy's finest movie. While the movie was technically a comedy . . . it was actually a drama. A mid-30s cop lives at home with his widow mother and, long after every one has given up on Candy that he will ever fall in love and move out of the house and get married and have a family of his own - he meets a funeral home assistant (played beautifully by Ally Sheedy) and they fall in love. It is not an easy path for them but - in the end - Candy comes out ahead and so does every one else in the movie.

I took the day off from school the day after Candy died. I was truly sad. My hero was gone. My hero was taken from me. And all the media coverage made it out to be his weight that took him. His memory was exactly what his life was not . . . about his size.

John Candy died of a genetic heart condition. His weight certainly contributed to his death but his father died at a younger age than John despite being in better physical condition and, if I understand the real story correctly, his brother died at an early age too from the same condition and he was also in much better physical shape. Some of the media reports of his death made that known - most just let you believe that if you are a heavy man you WILL die early. You WILL leave a beautiful widow and two wonderful daughters in your wake. You WILL hurt those who were silly enough to love you despite your weight (but BECAUSE of your persona and your charm and your wit and your caring nature) around you because of your size.

That was a terrible blow to my 17 year old psyche. It was a huge set back. My hero, who had shown me so many possibilities in my life and had done so much despite his weight left me only to scratch my head at what the realities of being obese are. I was sad for my loss and scared for my future.

This no doubt is too much confession and makes me look far too fragile and emotional but it was exactly how I felt that day in 1994. As a senior in high school. That is still how I feel when I see a glimpse of John Candy as a state trooper in the Sesame Street movie Follow That Bird or if I catch Summer Rental on TBS at 2:00 AM when I can't sleep or if I happen to be wasting time on YouTube! and I find some of John Candy's old SCTV sketches that, for my money, were better than anything SNL was doing in the same era (despite it being the golden years of SNL).

I have John Candy's death on my calendar year after year. I use it as a benchmark. Every year that I am around to mourn him on March 4th is another year that I am following his example by not letting my size dictate my life. Every year that I can remember him is another year that I am a better person for having ever admired and tried to emulate him. Every time I can cross today off my calendar - I can lay out my plan to make it to another March 4th to do it all again.

I'm sure some would wonder why his death didn't motivate me to go on a diet and why I never saw that I could have his persona in a smaller body but - understand - up until my gastric bypass surgery . . . I've been GAINING weight my entire life. The idea of losing that part of myself was not something my little mind could grasp.

My favorite quote from my idol was from his real self (not a character he played) and it was simple . . . "I think I may have become an actor to hide from myself. You can escape into a character."

While I never wanted to be an actor (I did enjoy being in plays in high school and college but never saw it as a career paty), I used to want to hide from myself too - but John Candy made me feel like I was just fine being who I was, where I was.

I still miss you and I still THANK you, John. Rest in peace, my friend.

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