In the lengthy filmography of the late Canadian actor John Candy, 1985’s Summer Rental isn’t generally mentioned in the same breath as such classics as Splash, Home Alone or Planes, Trains and Automobiles. With a rating of just 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review-aggregation website, Summer Rental is right down there with B-level Candy comedies Once Upon a Crime and The Great Outdoors.
Despite its generic fat-fish-out-of-water plot, Summer Rental is far from forgettable and retains a loyal and loving fan base. Candy, in his first above-the-title starring role, is winsome and charming, and the supporting cast members keep up with him, and keep out of his way, admirably.
In some ways, though, the location is the real star of Summer Rental. Subbing for fictitious Citrus Cove, Florida, where the story is set, is St. Petersburg Beach.
Candy, director Carl Reiner and company arrived in March, 1985 and stayed for seven weeks. With the exception of the opening scene, which sets the plot in motion, the entire $11 million film was made right here.
The story by Jeremy Stevens and Mark Reisman concerns stressed-out Atlanta air traffic controller Jack Chester (Candy), who takes his wife and three kids to Florida for a relaxing beach vacation.
All does not go according to plan, however, and schlubby Jack endures one mishap after another.
The final third of Summer Rental involves a sailboat regatta, family bonding and the return of Jack’s dignity, pride and self-confidence.
And the bad guy gets his.
Actress Karen Austin stars as Sandy Chester, Jack’s wife. Austin remembers a fun, hassle-free shoot on the beach, on Tampa Bay and at the various one-stop locations.
“I had just come out of a bad relationship, so to be able to go to the beach with nice people, it was like medicine, that movie for me,” Austin says. “I was surprised when it became a perennial favorite.”
Austin, who had also just finished a 13-episode run on the TV series Night Court, was a Candy fan, and signed on for Summer Rental before anyone told her where Paramount intended to shoot the movie.
As Karen Brammer, she’d grown up in Largo, attended Christ Presbyterian Church (“In the early ‘60s, that was where your social life was”) and graduated from Largo High School.
She and her siblings rarely ventured out of Largo. “St. Pete was the big city,” Austin recalls with a laugh. “My mother would say ‘Don’t go as far as St. Pete.’”
Her father, Harold Brammer, owned Seminole Awning and Screening Company, fabricating screen porches for mobile home parks. Both parents were active in the church, and that’s the direction young Karen expected to head in.
“I thought I was going to be a Christian education director,” she recalls. “I was very much with social activism through the church in the ‘60s.
“But then I went to see some theater. And it was during the Vietnam war – the politicism and the passion of theater just sort of activated me.”
She performed in plays through church, but not at Largo High, where she felt “out of place” and uncomfortable. “When I went off to college, I was a philosophy major,” Austin says. “But I kept doing theater.”
Ultimately, she received a Masters in Theatre from Northwestern Illinois University, and worked in Chicago theater for a few years before heading west for Los Angeles. Soon, she was appearing in commercials, which led to film and TV work.
In 1982, Austin was a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle winner for her performance in Tom Topor’s Nuts at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and L.A. Stage Company.
She had already done guest spots on Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Happy Days and a dozen others, and had co-starred in the short-lived drama series The Quest. And Night Court.
Reiner saw her in Nuts, playing an outspoken call girl on trial for murder. “Carl saw me on the stage, wearing a bathrobe and screaming about justice, and thought ‘Hmm, perfect wife for John Candy.’
“Carl just liked good actors. And he said that being the setup person was a rare skill. He used to talk about Mary Tyler Moore being such a great setup person for Dick Van Dyke.”
Summer Rental would be the second of three movies John Candy made in 1985, but he was only too aware that it was going to be an important one for him. His weight was always a concern; he stayed on the Pritikin diet throughout the shoot.
“We got along great,” Austin says. “He was multi-dimensional, but above all things he was good-natured, and I mean that in the fullest sense. I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper, or not speak with kindness to someone. I mean, every now and then he’d say ‘We’ve got to clear the set, we gotta work this out,’ but it was never in a rude way.
“Sometimes we’d say ‘Man, this is not working, what are we going to do?’ And Carl and John would just clear the set and say OK, what are we doing here? And I’d say ‘Well, this flyswatter’s funny.’ John would go ‘Yeah, I can do something with this!’”
Scenes on Pass-a-Grille beach, with dozens of extras, were the hardest to shoot. Candy would be walking on the “hot” sand, carrying beach chairs, an umbrella, a leaky plastic cooler and the actress playing his 3-year-old daughter, when somebody in the background would yell, or make inappropriate movements. Reiner would yell “Cut,” and they’d re-set everything and start over.
Paramount’s $11 million production reportedly employed 2,000 local extras, and approximately 25 Florida-recruited crew members.
According to the Internet Movie Database, locations included Billy’s Stone Crab on Tierra Verde, for the interiors of Scully’s seafood restaurant; various locations on St. Pete Beach and Redington Beach for the Chester and Gardner homes; and 10 Beach Drive, for the scene in which John Candy’s character confronts his nemesis, played by Richard Crenna.
The Johns Pass Bridge appears near the beginning of the movie, as the Chesters arrive in “Citrus Cove.”
The sailboat regatta was filmed on Tampa Bay; numerous landmarks, including the Vinoy and the old Weedon Island power plant are visible in the background.
One brief but memorable scene was filmed in the lobby of the Beach Theater, the vintage single-screen movie house on Corey Avenue (the Beach has been closed since 2012).
It’s a rainy day, and while sunburned Jack stays home and watches golf on a TV with poor reception, Sandy takes the children out for a movie.
There, she realizes she’s forgotten her money, and the man in line behind her offers to buy her tickets, too.
He’s played by John Larroquette, then in the second season of Night Court on NBC.
“He and I got to know each other better on Summer Rental than we did on Night Court,” Austin says.
Together, the two actors visited Haslam’s, where Larroquette loaded up on old books. On a Sunday, they drove up to Largo to say hello at First Presbyterian.
One of the plot holes in Summer Rental is the disappearance of Larroquette’s character, the newly divorced father of a teenage son, after that Beach Theater scene.
He doesn’t turn up again until the ending, as a spectator watching the regatta (these scenes were filmed at the summit of the old Inverted Pyramid pier).
“I’ve forgotten exactly what we shot, but I had some nice scenes with John,” says Austin. “He and I were getting closer, and at one point I said to him ‘I really love my husband,’ or ‘I’m not available.’ We had a montage of things with him, and the kids, where we did more touristy things. I think we went to Busch Gardens and shot with parrots. And then, more scenes of me coming home and John (Candy) being sad.
“So that was sort of a B plotline. But when they showed it to audiences, audiences hated it. Because they didn’t want anything to threaten John Candy. They didn’t even want the hint that he might be hurt by his wife.”
By 1985, Austin’s parents had long since relocated to North Carolina, so there weren’t any “old-home” visits.
In fact, the shooting schedule was tight – Paramount’s directive was to have the film in theaters by the summer.
“When you’re working, you’re working,” says Austin. “We’d go out to dinner every now and then. I remember one day I said “I’ll go see this Disney World thing!’ I had a couple days off, so I made a reservation … I was going by myself because nobody else had a day off. So I drove up there.
“I get into the room, and the light’s flashing. I pick it up, and they said ‘There’s a message for you: Turn around and come back.’ The schedule was changed.”
Released in August, Summer Rental was a modest success, with $25 million in domestic box office receipts. “We shot it too fast,” Candy told reporter Gene Siskel in 1986. “We were trying to fill a time slot for Paramount.
“The script, as I said, was threadbare. Carl and I tried to resolve the problems and make each moment as funny as possible, but it didn’t work, despite some wonderful performances by Rip Torn and Richard Crenna.”
Karen Austin next appeared in Jagged Edge, alongside Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges, and co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in the TV movie Laura Lansing Slept Here.
Her post-Summer Rental resume includes dozens of TV spots, including iconic series like L.A. Law, Beverly Hills 90210, JAG, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
She is a successful acting teacher (online, of course, these days) in the Los Angeles area.
“It’s funny,” Austin muses, “you don’t know what you’re going to be known for in Wikipedia! Until you’ve reached your golden years, as they call them, you don’t really know how you’re going to be seen in the public eye.”
Now, she knows. “It’s Summer Rental.”
This story was originally published in the Catalyst in November 2020.