Park Ridge set designer succeeds with 'Untouchables,' John Hughes

  • Park Ridge filmmakers Dan and Kimberly Clancy met on the set of the John Hughes movie "Baby's Day Out."

    Park Ridge filmmakers Dan and Kimberly Clancy met on the set of the John Hughes movie "Baby's Day Out."

  • Park Ridge resident Dan Clancy served as set decorator on the Chicago-shot romance "Return to Me" starring James Belushi, left, director Bonnie Hunt, Minnie Driver and David Duchovny.

    Park Ridge resident Dan Clancy served as set decorator on the Chicago-shot romance "Return to Me" starring James Belushi, left, director Bonnie Hunt, Minnie Driver and David Duchovny.

Updated 1/27/2015 2:25 PM

The moment he stepped into the 1920s Chicago, Dan Clancy knew he'd found his life's calling.

"My dad told me that a movie filming in Chicago was looking for production assistants," the Park Ridge resident told us. "I got lucky enough to get on the movie 'The Untouchables.'


"It was amazing to meet Sean Connery, to meet Brian DePalma. That was pretty cool. On a street off Ogden Avenue on the West Side, they transformed the entire neighborhood into the 1920s and it was just mind-boggling! I saw that and said, 'I want to do this for the rest of my life.'"

That was 1986.

Today, Clancy works as a production designer after moving up through the ranks as a production assistant, set dresser, leadman and set decorator.

What exactly do all those titles mean?

"If I'm a set dresser and need an empty room to be a 1940s diner, I go out and get the props, furniture, the counter tops, the stools, napkins and other things that make the scene look appropriate for the period.

"A leadperson is in charge of the set dressers. A set decorator is in charge of the overall look of a movie. That person works with the production designer in charge of actually building the set and bringing things to life.

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"The production designer, the job I have now, is in charge of the overall art department that oversees all of the visual aspects of the movie."

Among his credits is serving as set decorator for Bonnie Hunt's 2000 romance "Return to Me," a Chicago-set feature that comes out on Blu-ray for the first time today.

"'Return to Me' was such an amazing movie to do for many reasons -- for one, the director Bonnie Hunt," Clancy said. "I actually went to grammar school with her. We were both born and bred on the Northwest Side."

The movie stars "X-Files" actor David Duchovny as an architect whose wife dies suddenly. He thinks he'll never find love again. That's before he meets Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver).


The movie also cast Chicago's landmark Twin Anchors Restaurant and Tavern as O'Reilly's Italian Restaurant.

"We made a lot of changes to that place," Clancy recalled. "We put in new walls, curtains, lamps, chairs, props. We created the garden in the movie to look magical. If you look carefully at the movie, you can find a lot of Chicago touches all over."

Clancy was born in Chicago. His parents, retired Chicago Fire Department battalion chief John Clancy and wife Ruth, moved to Arlington Heights around the time Dan headed off to Southern Illinois University to major in communications with a minor in advertising.

Young Clancy tried his hand at advertising, but the job didn't feel right. Then Dad tipped him off about "The Untouchables."

"I got hooked on showbiz, and that didn't make my parents too happy," Dan Clancy said. "Would they rather have me in a much more stable 9-to-5 job? Yes, they are children of the Depression. They think you should have one job all your life."

Show business is quite different.

Clancy said each job "is like summer camp, meaning that it will all end very soon. Jodie Foster said it best: 'People in film are blue-collar carnies. We go from carnival to carnival.'"

So after "The Untouchables" came an amazing series of John Hughes movies, including "Uncle Buck," "Home Alone (1 and 2)," "Curly Sue," "Dennis the Menace" and "Miracle on 34th Street."

"I got to work with the great Chris Columbus," a writer who went on to direct the first two "Harry Potter" movies, Clancy said. "I got to watch Hughes at work. He was a genius. Nobody could direct teen movies like he did. I don't think anyone understood the Northwest suburbs like he did. He was doing films I could totally relate to."

Hughes' movies have given Clancy much more than a paycheck. He met his future wife Kimberly on the set of "Baby's Day Out," written by Hughes. Kimberly worked as an assistant set decorator with her husband on the Chicago-based Starz series "Boss."

Last week, Clancy completed working on a TV commercial with Chicago's own Jennifer Hudson. His last movie? John Krasinski's directorial debut on the upcoming release "The Hollars."

Even though he travels to wherever the job requires, Clancy, a father of three, remains dedicated to the Chicago area. Ask him why and he starts to sound like a promo from the Illinois and Chicago film offices.

"There is a certain work ethic that Chicagoans have," Clancy said. "They will work their butts off for you. Especially if you're a local guy who went up the ranks, as I have been blessed to do. They want you to succeed, and believe me, that doesn't happen other places."

-- Dann Gire

• ­­­Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always on the hunt for Northwest suburbanites with showbiz careers. If you know someone who has a good story to tell, contact them at and

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