For a brief period in the early ‘90s, the pizzazz of Hollywood merged with the muscle of football to produce some of the most electric games in CFL history.
These were the years that movie star John Candy was part owner of the Toronto Argonauts and championed the team so feverishly that many credit him with inspiring the squad to clinch the 1991 Grey Cup.
His dedication to the Argos is the focus of the TSN special “John Candy: True Double Blue,” a half-hour spotlight that examines the funnyman's lifelong love of the team and the indelible mark he left on its players and fans.
“John Candy had a profound impact on people, whether they were actors like Jim Belushi, or football players,” the show's narrator and interviewer Brian Williams said Thursday by phone from Vancouver.
“And it's because he was so real.”
“John Candy: True Double Blue” includes interviews with Candy's famous movie star friends Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Belushi, as well as his Argos business partners Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky.
Candy's children, Chris and Jen, trace their father's infectious enthusiasm for all things football, noting that his three passions, in order, were: family, the Argos and his acting career.
Meanwhile, players including former wide receiver Raghib (The Rocket) Ismail and tough guy Carl Brazley recount the tireless lengths Candy went to promote the team.
“You think about how many people have the opportunity to help people but don't and then you think about somebody who goes out of their way and doesn't have to,” Brazley said as he tears up on camera.
“That's why it was so powerful, even now.”
It all started in February 1991, when McNall, Gretzky and Candy bought the Toronto Argonauts for $5 million. Gretzky and Candy each took a 10 per cent stake.
It was a dream come true for Candy, who played left tackle on the offensive line in high school until he was sidelined by a serious knee injury.
Later that year, the Argos would actually outbid the NFL to snag hot draft pick Ismail from the University of Notre Dame, signing him to a record four-year, $18-million contract.
Suddenly, the city was buzzing about Canadian football.
“John was larger than life.... It's a sports story but it's more than a sports story,” Williams said of Candy's impact.
“For Toronto, those were the Hollywood days.”
Players recount how the “SCTV” star would fly to each CFL city to rally the fans. Some days would start as early as 4:30 a.m. so he could hit radio stations and push more ticket sales.
Game day would be punctuated with rousing rock ‘n' roll shows studded with Candy's famous friends. The stunts worked — once-empty seats began to fill and the Argos didn't lose a single home game that year.
“It was so exciting to have everyone talking about the CFL again,” said Short. “But mainly I was there because John was my friend.”
Much of the special centres on the dramatic match-up between the Toronto Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders for the 79th Grey Cup.
It was the first time the Cup headed to Winnipeg and went down as one of the coldest championship games in the history of the league. Mike (Pinball) Clemons remembers that day well.
“The most inspirational moment for me that entire year may have been John Candy standing on the sideline in a leather coat, in 20 below at the Grey Cup,” said Clemons.
“He's not in the press box ... he's down on the field with his guys and now all of a sudden, I'm not as cold.”
Those were the glory days. The ensuing years featured a series of setbacks that included high-profile defections and McNall's massive fraud conviction in 1994. Candy died that year while shooting a film in Mexico, shortly after learning the team had been sold.
“John Candy: True Double Blue” premieres Friday on TSN and repeats Saturday. It also airs on Sunday on CTV.
Other specials this Grey Cup weekend include Saturday's “A Grey Cup Love Story,” which profiles 91-year-old CFL fan George Hitzroth, who has attended 65 Grey Cups, and Sunday's pre-game special “Journey to the Grey Cup,” which follows the B.C. Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers from the end of last season to the championship game.