For millions of people, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without at least one screening of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, John Hughes’s first big foray away from writing about teenage angst. The 1987 comedy classic stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, a marketing executive who is desperate to get back home to Chicago to see his wife and kids for Thanksgiving, but along the way is thoroughly aggravated by shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) and the many, many, many mishaps that befall the two throughout their travels. Here are some facts about the film that are not pillows.
Before he became a filmmaker, Hughes worked as a copywriter for the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. One day he had an 11 a.m. presentation scheduled in New York City on a Wednesday, and planned to return home on a 5 p.m. flight that same evening. Winter winds forced all flights to Chicago to be canceled that night, so he stayed in a hotel. A snowstorm in Chicago the next day continued the delays. The plane he eventually boarded ended up being diverted to Denver. Then Phoenix. Hughes didn’t make it back until Monday. Experiencing such a hellish trip might explain how Hughes managed to write the first 60 pages of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in just six hours.
Howard Deutch directed some of Hughes’s most beloved screenplays, including Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. And he was going to direct Planes, Trains and Automobiles, too. But Hughes decided to direct the film himself once Martin signed on. Deutch directed Hughes’s script for 1988’s The Great Outdoors (also starring Candy) instead.
The comedian, who had written his own screenplays, thought the 145-page length of the script was a lot for a comedy. When Martin asked Hughes where he thought they might cut scenes, Hughes was confused by the question. Martin later claimed that the first cut of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was four-and-a-half hours long.
Reid Rosefelt met with Hughes to interview for the unit publicist position on Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Though he didn’t get the job, Rosefelt later wrote about the experience on his blog, saying it was strange but admirable that Hughes did not allow Rosefelt to see the script to the movie beforehand. As the two grew more comfortable with one another during their meeting, Rosefelt asked what the movie was about, as he only knew the title and that Martin and Candy were starring in it. Hughes then proceeded to perform the entire movie for him.
On the first day of shooting, the crew brought in treadmills, weights, and other exercise equipment for Candy to use in his hotel suite. Martin said Candy “never went near any of it once.”
Some exterior scenes were filmed in Buffalo, New York. Martin claimed that the cast and crew pretty much lived the plot of the movie. “As we would shoot, we were hopping planes, trains, and automobiles, trying to find snow,” he said.
In John Hughes: A Life in Film, Kirk Honeycutt wrote that one actor, who played a truck driver, was only supposed to have a single line in the movie that would require just one day of work. Hughes chose to keep him on standby as the production faced delays, and the actor ended up working enough days while the crew waited for the snow to come that he was able to make a down payment on a house. It’s very possible this was Troy Evans, who was uncredited, as the shy truck driver in the movie. He went on to appear, credited, on ER for the show’s final five seasons as Frank Martin, and later spent nearly 60 episodes playing Detective Barrel Johnson on Bosch.
McClurg—who is probably best known as Grace, Principal Rooney’s secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—played the St. Louis car rental employee upon whom Neal dropped 18 F-bombs. For the first few takes, McClurg simply raised her finger and had a standard phone conversation with a customer. Then Hughes told her to improvise talking on the phone about Thanksgiving. That’s when she came up with the stuff about needing roasted marshmallows and taking care of the crescent rolls because she can’t cook. When she finished, Hughes asked her how she came up with those details so quickly. When McClurg explained she just got it from her own life just like he does with his scripts, he said, “Oh yeah!” She claims people to this day ask her to tell them they’re f*cked.
That sweary tirade between Martin and McClurg is reportedly one of the scenes that made Martin want to make the movie. Its overuse of the word f*ck is also apparently what pushed the movie’s rating from PG-13 to R.
In the scene that goes back and forth between Neal trying to sleep next to Del clearing his sinuses and Neal’s wife (Laila Robins) watching TV alone in their bed, she is somehow watching She’s Having a Baby, which wouldn’t be released in theaters until February of the following year. Kevin Bacon stars in that movie, and made a cameo in Planes, Trains and Automobiles as the guy who out-hustles Neal in getting a cab. Some people believe Bacon—who was officially listed in the credits as “Taxi Racer”—was playing his She’s Having a Baby character, Jake, in that scene.
After their car blew up, Neal and Del went inside a strip club to use a phone, where Del got distracted by the dancers. Actress Debra Lamb didn’t know that her scene was cut until she went to a screening.
Future Star Trek: Voyager star Jeri Ryan made her acting debut in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. She was one of the passengers on the bus ride and couldn’t help but laugh at Martin and Candy’s antics—so Hughes re-shot the scenes … without her.
Elton John and lyricist Gary Osborne were almost finished writing the theme song for Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Paramount insisted on ownership of the recording master, which John’s record company would not allow. The song has never been released.
Hughes decided during the editing process that instead, Candy’s character would be “a noble person” and finally take the hint from Martin’s character, and let Neal return home alone, before Neal has a change of heart and finds Del again.
To get the new ending he wanted, Hughes and editor Paul Hirsch went back to look for footage they previously didn’t think would be used. Hughes had kept the cameras rolling in between takes on the Chicago train, without his lead’s knowledge, while Martin was thinking about his next lines. Hughes thought Martin had a “beautiful expression” on his face in that unguarded moment, which he inserted into the film.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.