The Heartfelt Improvised Line That John Candy Added To Planes Trains And Automobiles

It's funny how your perspective on a movie can change over time. Whenever I watched "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" back in the day, I always thought Steve Martin's character was just a jerk while John Candy was such a lovable guy. Nowadays, my sympathies have really switched around; perhaps it's because I'm a dad of two young children and have far less tolerance for certain behavior. Okay, so Martin's character is a bit uptight, but he's just a hard-working family guy trying to get home for Thanksgiving, and the last thing you need in a situation like that is a clingy oaf like Del Griffith invading your personal space. Not to mention freeloading and stealing your credit card ... Again, much like my kids.

After a string of teen-centric hits like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was John Hughes's first major foray into the adult world as a director, resulting in one of his best-loved movies. The change of direction was aided by two career-best performances form Martin and Candy, who created a formidable Little Guy-Big Guy comedy act to rival all the greats. 

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is also one of Hughes's most perfectly formed films, and the incredible thing about how beautifully it hangs together is that the first cut ran almost four hours long. And one of those many missing scenes still gets Martin choked up to this day.

So what happens in Planes, Trains and Automobiles again?

Straight-laced advertising executive Neal Page (Martin) is eager to wrap up a business meeting in New York so he can catch his flight home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately his client takes his sweet time, leaving Page in a mad dash to the airport in the pre-holiday rush, losing out on a taxi but arriving at JFK just in time to find out his flight is delayed. This is where he meets Del Griffith (Candy), an overly-chatty shower curtain ring salesman who earlier took his cab.

They are seated together on the plane, which is diverted to Wichita dues to a blizzard in Chicago. When Neal can't find a hotel room but Del scores one, he reluctantly accepts the invite to share, which seals his fate for the rest of his journey home. As much as he tries to shake his new traveling companion, circumstance keeps throwing them back together.

It's a perfect set up for an odd-couple road movie, peppered with great dialogue and some outstanding set pieces. As funny as it is, the thing that really makes it stand out are the moments of genuine drama and pathos, culminating in a crushingly sad penultimate scene. Arriving in Chicago on Thanksgiving morning, Neal is finally able to leave Del behind at the station. On the way home on the "L," he thinks back over the highs and lows of the journey, and realizes that something doesn't add up with Del's story about his home life.

Returning to the station, he finds Del sitting alone in the empty waiting room. He tearfully admits that that his wife died eight years ago and he has no home to go to. Cut to the pair walking along the street carrying Del's trunk; Neal has invited him home for Thanksgiving dinner. 

I get teary-eyed even writing about that scene in the station, which ran much longer in the screenplay and original cut. This is where Candy's heartfelt ad-lib comes in.

A much longer confession from Del Griffith...

In the scene where Del comes clean about his real situation, Candy reportedly ad-libbed the line, "But this time I couldn't let go," explaining why Del feels the need to latch onto strangers. The longer scene didn't make the final cut and the line was lost, but it stuck in the memory with Martin. According to Nick de Semlyen's book "Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the '80s Changed Hollywood Forever":

Martin would still shed a tear remembering the heartfelt confession.

This story has been widely reported since the book was first published, but here's an interesting wrinkle. There is a very similar line in the original screenplay as Del goes into greater detail about his wife's death and his life on the road ever since. It reads:

I'm sorry about all this. I just kinda lost control this time. Every year since Marie's been gone, I've got closer and closer to losing it. Usually, I head for a church. I can feel like I'm part of something when I'm in a church. This time... I guess I didn't get to the church fast enough. I couldn't let go.

The video "The Lost Version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" discusses a subsequent cut scene in a diner where all this stuff comes out, so maybe Hughes switched the monologue to another location to break it up a bit. The video also relays the ad-libbed story from de Semlyan's book. Perhaps Candy added a variation of the line that Martin mis-remembered as improvisation?

Is this the real reason the line still makes Martin sad?

Surprisingly, especially given the great screen chemistry between Candy and Martin, this was the only time they starred in a film together. Edie McClurg, who has a small but memorable role as the car rental clerk who bears the full brunt of Neal's F-bomb-laden rant, talked about the genius of the casting (via a home video featurette called "Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles"):

"I think John Hughes and the casting of these two guys was brilliant, because he took the real personality of Steve Martin and the real personality of John Candy, and then amplified them to be in this film together."

The pair got along very well behind the scenes too and, some time after Candy's death in 1994, Martin told J.C. Corcoran:

"[Candy] was a brilliant actor, especially in 'Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,' I think it was his best work... The first cut of the movie was four-and-a-half hours long, so two hours got cut out. I saw him do scenes that aren't in the movie that are just breathtaking... He was a very sweet guy, and complicated, and so he was always friendly, always outgoing and funny and nice and polite, but I could tell he had kind of a little broken heart inside him."

I'm getting really into speculation here, but could the broken-heartedness that Martin detected in Candy have led him to conflate his late co-star with Del Griffith? Maybe this is why that scene (whether Candy ad-libbed the line or not) still touches him so deeply.