I always thought it was a shame that actor John Friedrich disappeared from the screen at the beginning of a very promising career. The actor, who appeared in several memorable film and television projects in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, left the industry in 1983 and was never publicly heard from again for nearly twenty-five years.
As much as I love the movie version of Richard Price's novel The Wanderers, I have to agree with Danny Peary when he writes in Cult Movies 3 that the film would have been even more interesting if it had focused on the character of Joey, played by John Friedrich, rather than gang leader Richie (the classically handsome Ken Wahl). Joey is undersized and has the requisite chip on his shoulder. He has talent as an artist, is shy around girls, and has an abusive father. Friedrich is brilliant in the role, which is no surprise if one is familiar with the rest of his oeuvre of sensitive, underdog-type characters (The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Almost Summer, Thank God It's Friday). Even though he's billed just under Wahl, the film's ostensible star, Friedrich makes a very strong impression and he's afforded plenty of screen time. Based on his performance here, which followed a string of character parts on television and in film, Friedrich should have gone on to more full-bodied, leading roles.
However, following The Wanderers, whose release pattern was negatively affected by the violent incidents involving other gang pictures (The Warriors and Boulevard Nights), most of Friedrich's parts were smaller and far less pivotal in the grand scheme of things. He continued to appear in high profile television films and mini-series--Studs Lonigan and A Rumor of War--and in features. In A Small Circle of Friends, his small-town boy turned Weatherman-like radical is interesting, but he's very much in support of the film's key trio: Brad Davis, Jameson Parker, and Wanderers castmate Karen Allen. In 1982's fine and underrated Fast-Walking, Friedrich is in heavy character mode as a strung out lackey for prison bigwig Tim McIntire. He doesn't make much of an impression because his small role is easily eclipsed in importance by stars James Woods, Kay Lenz, and McIntire, not to mention cult favorites M. Emmet Walsh and Susan Tyrrell.
I'm not sure if these roles were all that Friedrich was offered or if he received questionable advice from his agent(s). One thing I can say is that many of these post-Wanderers roles are heavy on character. By this I mean they are overtly offbeat (i.e. crazy or weird with exaggerated features) and, it seems, mostly there to show that the lead characters might have problems, but they are not that far gone. These aren't the types of roles to follow a strong, potentially star-making performance as seen in The Wanderers. But, maybe that's not what Friedrich wanted, and he was barely into his twenties at this point.
He followed with a major part in a poor Sam Arkoff-produced horror film, The Final Terror, with a cast and crew that would go on to much bigger and better things--director Andrew Davis, Daryl Hannah, Rachel Ward, Joe Pantoliano. Other cast members of note included Adrian Zmed, Jim Youngs (a former Wanderer and brother of John Savage), Lewis Smith, and Mark Metcalf. If I'm not mistaken this film was actually completed a couple years earlier. His final role was that of Frank Cleary (originally intended for good friend Brad Davis) in The Thorn Birds. I have not actually ever seen this much-celebrated mini-series, but based on clips, Friedrich looks mature, confident--he was still only 25 at this point--and ready to continue a thriving acting career. Then...Friedrich would disappear from the public eye for nearly a quarter century.
On director Philip Kaufman's commentary track for The Wanderers, he basically pleaded with Friedrich to get in touch with him. Still, it was not until early 2007 that Hawaii filmmaker and professor Marc Moody got ahold of Friedrich, now living in New Mexico and working as a financial consultant, and persuaded him to come out to the University of Hawaii for an "Inside the Actor's Studio" type of event. The invitation came at a time when Friedrich said he was looking to return to "an unfinished chapter" of his life.
Not having been to the event, I'm deprived of many of the stories and insights Friedrich shared. According to this article covering the event, Friedrich moved to New Mexico after finishing The Thorn Birds mini-series where he met his wife and started a family. That narrative seems a little simplified. This is not to say that any time a successful performer leaves the business it must be due to some kind of personal crisis, but it does seem odd that Friedrich would move on at a time when his career was ostensibly on a big upswing--The Thorn Birds was the most watched television mini-series after Roots and he had a major role alongside the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Christopher, and Jean Simmons.
Probably because of the great sensitivity and range of emotions that Friedrich displayed in roles in The Wanderers (a difficult shoot for Friedrich) and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, the diversity of his roles, and Kaufman's plea, I figured it was not out of the question that he'd had some kind of breakdown. I would be curious to know what else he had to say about his departure from the industry. In any event, based on the quotes and the picture from the Hawaii event, Friedrich looks and sounds good, and even suggests that a return to acting is in his future. He recently appeared in an Albuquerque stage version of Ordinary People in the Donald Sutherland role.
Even if he does not appear in another film or on television again, Friedrich's brief acting career offers a handful of vital and moving performances. I can't help, but get a little choked up whenever I see him lovingly slap Ken Wahl's cheek while repeating the phrase, "Wanderers forever!" and driving off to an uncertain future.