Few directors have left a more distinctive or influential body of work than John Hughes. The creator of the modern American teenager film, who died Thursday in New York, made a group of films that are still watched and quoted today.
Hughes, who was 59, died of a heart attack during an early-morning walk while visiting family in New York City, his publicist said. He lived all his life in the northern suburbs of Chicago, southern Wisconsin, and on a farm which he operated in Northern Illinois.
Refusing to move to Los Angeles, he once told me why he preferred to bring his young acting discoveries to Chicago to film: "I like to check them into a motel far away from their friends, keep them out of trouble, and have them focus on the work."
The list of films Hughes directed, produced or wrote includes such enduring hits as "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "Uncle Buck," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Curly Sue," "Mr. Mom," "Home Alone," "Pretty in Pink," "Weird Science," "She's Having a Baby," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Beethoven," "101 Dalmatians" and "Baby's Day Out."
His films helped establish an international notion of ordinary American teenagers, and he was as popular abroad as at home. Once when I was visiting the largest movie theater in Calcutta, I asked if "Star Wars" had been their most successful American film. No, I was told, it was Baby's Day Out," a Hughes comedy about a baby wandering through a big city, which played for more than a year.
Hughes, who graduated in 1968 from Glenbrook High School in Northbrook, used the northern suburbs as the setting for many of his films, notably "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club." He converted the gymnasium of the former Maine North High School in Des Plaines for use as a sound stage, assigning his actors schoolrooms as dressing rooms, and corridor lockers with their own combinations.
Hughes was a star-maker for a generation. Among the actors he introduced or popularized were Matthew Broderick, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, MacAulay Culkin and John Candy, who worked in eight Hughes films. Some of those actors, freed from their confinement under Hughes, later became famous as the Brat Pack.
He took teenagers seriously, and his films are distinctive for showing them as individuals with real hopes, ambitions, problems and behavior.
“Kids are smart enough to know that most teenage movies are just exploiting them,” he told me on the set of "The Breakfast Club." “They’ll respond to a film about teenagers as people. [My] movies are about the beauty of just growing up. I think teenage girls are especially ready for this kind of movie, after being grossed out by all the sex and violence in most teenage movies. People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.”
“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago," he told me. "The Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”
After Hughes died today, some reports referred to him as "a recluse who disappeared somewhere in Illinois." A few years ago, a friend of mine ran into him and kidded him about having disappeared from the Hollywood radar. "I haven't disappeared," he said. "I'm standing right here. I'm just not in Los Angeles."
Hughes was incredibly productive as a screenwriter. He personally directed eight films, produced 23 and wrote 37, most recently "Drillbit Taylor" (2008). Such filmmakers as Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith cite him as an influence, Smith once saying, "Basically everything I do is just a raunchy John Hughes movie."
Hughes is survived by his wife of 39 years, Nancy, two sons and four grandchildren.
"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is in my Great Movies Collection.