John Hughes, who captured the zeitgeist of 1980s teen life as writer-director of “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles” and produced and scripted family hits such as “Home Alone,” died Thursday of a heart attack in Manhattan while taking a walk. He was 59.
After an impressive string of hits — “Home Alone” is one of the top-grossing live-action comedies of all time — Hughes, who never won a major show business award, stopped directing in 1991 and virtually retired from filmmaking a few years later, working on his farm in northern Illinois.
The filmmaker, whom critic Roger Ebert once called “the philosopher of adolescence,” was a major influence on filmmakers including Wes Anderson, Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow, who told the L.A. Times last year, “Basically, my stuff is just John Hughes films with four-letter words.”
“I feel like a part of my childhood has died. Nobody made me laugh harder or more often than John Hughes,” said Apatow in a statement.
Bruce Berman, who was VP of production at Universal and president of production at Warners when Hughes made several films with those studios, told Daily Variety, “He was one of the most challenging relationships an exec could have, but one of the most fun, most talented and gifted.” Berman said that although Hughes was one of the fastest writers in the biz — “He could write a draft over a weekend — he didn’t like to be rewritten.”
Born in Michigan, Hughes used his high school town of suburban Northbrook, Ill., as a location for many of his films. He got his start as an advertising copywriter in Chicago and started selling jokes to performers such as Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. Hired by National Lampoon magazine after submitting his short story “Vacation ’58,” he wrote his first screenplay, “Class Reunion,” while on staff at the magazine, and it became his first produced script in 1982. His next, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” based on his short story, became his first big hit and spawned several sequels.
Hughes’ first film as a director was 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,” starring Anthony Michael Hall, John Cusack and Molly Ringwald. The teen romance introduced several of the actors who would make up Hughes’ “stock company” of thesps, several of whom became known as the Brat Pack.
In 1985, “The Breakfast Club” became the era’s iconic and influential high school film. It starred Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Hall and Judd Nelson as teens who must learn to get along when thrown together during Saturday detention.
Hughes wrote and exec produced Ringwald starrer “Pretty in Pink,” which felt of a piece with his directing projects, then directed “Weird Science,” starring Hall, and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” starring Matthew Broderick. He also wrote “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “She’s Having a Baby,” heartfelt adolescent stories that both bore his stamp.
He branched out with 1987’s more grown-up “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” starring Steve Martin and John Candy, then directed just two more films, “Uncle Buck” and “Curly Sue,” his eighth and final film as helmer.
Hughes turned primarily to writing and producing, seeing his greatest success with 1990’s “Home Alone,” which he wrote and produced. It spawned three sequels.
“He understood young people in a way few filmmakers ever have. He tapped into the feelings of teenagers and literally changed the face of the ’80s. The film industry has lost a giant — a gentle, wonderful giant,” said “Home Alone” actor Devin Ratray in a statement.
Hughes continued to write and produce family comedies during the 1990s, including “Dennis the Menace,” “Flubber” and “101 Dalmatians,” as well as an independent film, “Reach the Rock.”
While no longer active in Hollywood, he more recently provided the stories for films including “Maid in Manhattan” and “Drillbit Taylor” using the pseudonym Edmond Dantes.
He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Nancy; two sons, John, a musician, and James, a writer; and four grandchildren.