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John Hughes, Director of ’80s Comedies, Dies at 59

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Published: August 6, 2009

LOS ANGELES — John Hughes, the once-prolific filmmaker whose sweet and sassy comedies like “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” plumbed the lives of teenagers in the 1980s, died Thursday on a morning walk while visiting Manhattan. He was 59.
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The director John Hughes in 1984. More Photos >

The cause was a heart attack, according to a statement from the publicists Paul Bloch and Michelle Bega.

Mr. Hughes turned out a series of hits that captured audiences and touched popular culture — and then flummoxed both Hollywood and his fans by suddenly fading from the scene in the early 1990s. He surfaced sometimes as a writer, occasionally under his pen name, Edmond Dantès, the real name of the Dumas hero in “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

His seeming disappearance inspired a 2009 documentary, “Don’t You Forget About Me,” by four young filmmakers who went in search of a man who was by then being compared to J. D. Salinger because of his reclusiveness. It became a tribute to Mr. Hughes’s influence on youth culture.

Mr. Hughes, who began his career as an advertising copywriter in Chicago, had been living quietly on a farm in northern Illinois. He is survived by his wife, the former Nancy Ludwig, whom he met in high school; two sons, John and James; and four grandchildren.

John Wilden Hughes Jr. was born on Feb. 18, 1950, in the suburbs of Detroit before moving, at 13, to the Chicago area. His father worked in sales, and he lived in a middle-class, all-American reality that became the mainstay of his films.

“I didn’t have this tortured childhood,” he told The New York Times in a 1991 interview. “I liked it.”

While visiting New York during his advertising days, Mr. Hughes hung around the offices of National Lampoon magazine and was published when he showed a gift for comedy. Once having begun work as a screenwriter, he pursued the craft relentlessly.

In the 1991 interview, he said: “If I’m on a roll, and I finish a script at 3:00, I’ll start another at 3:02.”

Mr. Hughes’ biggest success, in box-office terms, was the “Home Alone” series, of which he was the writer and a producer. The first film, released by 20th Century Fox in 1990, turned the simple tale of a young boy, played by Macaulay Culkin, who was forgotten by his vacationing family, into a monster hit. The film took in more than $285 million at the domestic box office and spawned two sequels.

He had a reputation for discovering and bringing out the best in young actors. In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Culkin said: “I was a fan of both his work and a fan of him as a person. The world has lost not only a quintessential filmmaker whose influence will be felt for generations, but a great and decent man.”

Mr. Hughes’s greatest professional effect came from a series of teen-oriented films he directed in the 1980s, beginning with “Sixteen Candles” in 1984. It was a whip-smart but tender look at coming of age, with Molly Ringwald as a girl whose 16th birthday is forgotten in the whirlwind of her sister’s wedding; it featured emerging actors like Anthony Michael Hall, John Cusack, Joan Cusack and Jami Gertz, among others.

“The Breakfast Club” followed in 1985, with “Weird Science,” immediately behind, in the same year. By then, the troupe of young actors who showed up in films by Mr. Hughes and others who worked in the same vein had expanded to include Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy; they were tagged “The Brat Pack.”

Probably no film so completely captured the arch and almost noxious, yet somehow loveable, quality of Mr. Hughes’s characters as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The movie, released by Paramount Pictures in 1986, starred Matthew Broderick as a ne’er-do-well high-schooler who spends more energy avoiding the classroom than he might have used inside.

“He can lie, manipulate and con people with inspired genius, especially in the service of a noble cause such as playing hooky,” Nina Darnton wrote of the Bueller character in a less-than-admiring New York Times review.

But the movie took in $70 million at the box office, and wound up 20 years later on an Entertainment Weekly list of the 50 best high school movies of all time, alongside others from Mr. Hughes.

If the magic seemed to fade — Mr. Hughes’s last movie as a director, “Curly Sue,” fell flat in 1991 — he continued to write for the screen. As recently as last year, working as Edmond Dantès, he shared a story credit with Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown on “Drillbit Taylor,” in which Owen Wilson played a low-budget bodyguard hired to keep a couple of kids from getting pushed around.

Some in Hollywood surmised that he had stepped away simply because, for all his successes, he did not particularly like the film business and its ways. He was known as a stickler for control who often tangled with executives even as he made their companies a fortune.

Yet Mr. Hughes ultimately marked the business so indelibly that his name has become identified with an entire genre: comedies about disaffected youth.

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