Anyone who hit adolescence in the 1980s is likely to reserve some affection, whether full-blooded or grudging, for the writer-producer-director John Hughes, who has died aged 59 of a heart attack. Hughes rarely granted interviews and hadn't directed a movie since 1991. "He's our generation's JD Salinger," noted the fellow filmmaker Kevin Smith last year. "He touched a generation and then the dude checked out."
Despite his elusiveness and recent inactivity, Hughes's reputation remained intact thanks entirely to his mid-1980s run of so-called Brat Pack movies, named for the unofficial stock company of young actors on which they drew. Beginning with Sixteen Candles (1984), and moving on to The Breakfast Club, Weird Science (both 1985), Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (both 1986) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), these films were brashly American: a recurring theme was what to wear on prom night, while young British audiences looked on enviously at the sight of teenagers driving spiffy cars to school. But the perceptive and light-hearted portrayals of teen angst bridged any cultural chasm.
Hughes's widely adored protagonists could range from a misfit in thrift-shop threads (Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink) to a slick Jack-the-Lad outwitting the teacher who would thwart his truancy (Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off). What united these figures was the spirit of individuality and defiance they retained in the face of a stifling, conformist adult world. No wonder the films were prized by audiences of equivalent age, who felt both understood and flattered by these celebratory snapshots of their generation. "Many filmmakers portray teenagers as immoral and ignorant," Hughes remarked in 1985, "with pursuits that are pretty base ... But I haven't found that to be the case. I listen to kids. I respect them ... Some of them are as bright as any of the adults I've met." The following year, he said: "My generation had to be taken seriously because we were stopping things and burning things. We were able to initiate change, because we had such vast numbers. We were part of the baby boom, and when we moved, everything moved with us. But now, there are fewer teens, and they aren't taken as seriously as we were. You make a teenage movie, and critics say, 'How dare you?' There's just a general lack of respect for young people now."
The newcomers who got their breaks in his work responded enthusiastically to his sympathetic perspective. Ringwald, the star of three films scripted by Hughes, said in 1986: "I think the reason why I like working with John is that he really understands kids because he genuinely likes young people. He doesn't condescend to them. He treats us not like adults or kids, just as a person. He writes about kids in a really intelligent way. And he's a good person."
Ally Sheedy, who starred alongside Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, said: "He's very vulnerable. And I think he likes to write about young people because that's a real part of him. There's something open about him. There's something childlike about him. He likes to play. He likes to laugh." On the rare occasion that Hughes did discuss his working methods, it was with a melancholy tinge. "I so desperately hate to end these movies that the first thing I do when I'm done is write another one. Then I don't feel sad about having to leave and everybody going away. That's why I tend to work with the same people; I really befriend them."
Hughes was born in Lansing, Michigan, in 1950 to a mother who did voluntary work for charity, and a father with a job in sales. He described himself as an introspective child who felt cast adrift after the family uprooted to Chicago when he was 11. His youthful passion was music – he cited The Beatles (aka The White Album) and Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home as records that changed his life – and he enjoyed a spell as a self-professed hippy. He would later characterise his high-school years as unexceptional, ironically so given the major role that school life would play in his writing, although it was there that he met his future wife, Nancy Ludwig, whom he married at the age of 20 shortly before dropping out of the University of Arizona. Hughes took menial jobs whilst writing in his spare time, and claimed to have assigned himself the task of dashing off 100 jokes every day. The best of these he then dispatched to stand-up comics, who paid him $5 per gag, except for Joan Rivers, who stretched to a generous $7.
In 1979, two years after the birth of his first son, John III, Hughes swapped his job as an advertising copywriter for the editorship of the irreverent National Lampoon magazine, which had been publishing his writing for some time. From there, he got his first break as a screenwriter under the auspices of National Lampoon, which was desperately seeking a follow-up to its 1978 hit comedy Animal House. In 1980, his second son, Jamie, was born.
Hughes became renowned as Hollywood's script doctor of choice. But his Midas touch at the typewriter when it came to his own work was slower in materialising. He worked on a Jaws sequel (Jaws: 3, People: 0), and with PJ O'Rourke wrote The History of Ohio from the Beginning of Time to the End of the Universe, neither of which were made. He locked horns with the director of his first produced screenplay, the horror-comedy National Lampoon's Class Reunion, and the film was widely considered a disaster; he also co-wrote the unremarkable swashbuckling adventure Nate and Hayes.
But in 1983, Hughes's winning streak began with two hit comedies, both concerned with the fluctuating role of the modern father: National Lampoon's Vacation and Mr Mom. The following year, he made his directorial debut with Sixteen Candles, from his own screenplay about a girl whose 16th birthday is overlooked by her family. This good-natured comedy, reassuringly chaste in an era of bawdy teen hits such as Porky's and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, featured many of the ingredients that would constitute the Hughes formula, including a quirky love triangle later reprised in Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. Ringwald, in the lead role, and Anthony Michael Hall, as the nerd who lusts after her, made a lasting impression. Both actors rejoined Hughes for his next film, The Breakfast Club, about five disparate high-school students thrown together in an all-day detention.
The US critic Gene Siskel wondered whether teenagers would flock to "an adolescent My Dinner with Andre", alluding to the film's single location and wordy script, but The Breakfast Club is arguably Hughes's most popular and influential movie. It helped that most viewers could identify with at least one character amongst the movie's mix of stereotypes (characterised in the script as "a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal"). An anti-establishment bent only sealed the film's appeal. For his part, Hughes claimed to have based some of the characters on himself, but later admitted that this was pure mischief: "People ask me, 'Were you the geek?' No, I wasn't. 'So which one were you?' I don't get it. Who was Alfred Hitchcock in his movies? Janet Leigh? Did anyone even ask him? But I get asked, so I make up an answer."
His reign as Hollywood's foremost chronicler of hormone-frazzled high-schoolers lasted a few more years, during which he acquired a reputation for being difficult and demanding: "In a town full of people who are impossible to work for," wrote Premiere magazine in 1992, "he's impossible to work for." In 2005, Peter Bart wrote in Variety that "working with Hughes during his peak years was akin to a tour of duty at Abu Ghraib. He randomly fired aides and a.d.'s [assistant directors] and daily reminded everyone around him that he was the resident genius."
After his final teen script, Some Kind of Wonderful, Hughes seemed intent on proving his versatility as a writer-director outside that genre, first with the rambunctious but ultimately sugary road-movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), then the romantic comedy She's Having a Baby (1988). His scriptwriting became increasingly prolific: The Great Outdoors (1988), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), the slapstick phenomenon of Home Alone (1990) and its 1992 sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Career Opportunities (1991) and Dutch, aka Driving Me Crazy (1992). But quality control had declined sharply, and audiences no longer had any sense of who John Hughes might be.
He was to direct two more features: Uncle Buck (1989) and the queasily sentimental Curly Sue (1991). Those films, which both hinged on cutesy child actors (including, in Uncle Buck, the future Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin), hinted at a future spent cranking out wholesome family entertainment. So it proved. Subsequent screenplays, some credited to Edmond Dantès, a nom de plume borrowed from Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask, included the canine comedy Beethoven (1992); the kiddie-slapstick of Dennis (1993) – aka Dennis the Menace, but nothing to do with the Beano – and Baby's Day Out (1994); the schmaltzy remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1994); the live-action 101 Dalmatians (1996); Flubber (1997), which was a rehash of The Absent-Minded Professor; and the unnecessary Home Alone 3 (1997).
Hughes himself seemed not to crave approbation, or to harbour illusions about his work. "I don't think I'm making any great statements," he said in 1998, "and I certainly don't think I'm making art."
He is survived by his wife, Nancy, two sons, John and James, and four grandchildren.
• John Hughes, screenwriter, director, producer, born 18 February 1950; died 6 August 2009.
Just for the record, Edmond Dantès is the main character of "The Count of Monte Christo", not "the man in the iron mask" which is in fact just a side character in "The Viconte of Bragelonne" the last volume of the Mosqueteers saga...