Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Where Are They Now? Update & Tribute: John Friedrich

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.

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.


Rupert Pupkin said...

Thanks again for the rec on FAST WALKING. As I mentioned to you, I really enjoyed it. Also, have never seen A SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS. That just got added to the top of my Netflix queue. I can't believe it was directed by Rob Cohen!

erik hogstrom said...

I have seen Thorn Birds, but I mostly remember Friedrich in "The Wanderers." Thanks for this post. There seem to be quite a few actors who drop out of the scene.

Ned Merrill said...


FAST WALKING is a gem, indeed. They don't make 'em like that anymore. It's on Warner Home Video to get this one out on DVD. I have only seen parts of A SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS on cable. There is a director's commentary, at least there was on the laserdisc. I wonder if Cohen has anything to say about Friedrich on the commentary. After all, Cohen used the actor twice--ASCOF and TGIF.

Yes, Friedrich is just one of many, but as THE WANDERERS is one of my favorite films, he has always stood out to me.

Mike Trippiedi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ned Merrill said...


Thanks for the information on Brad Davis and the cast of SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS. I knew of Davis' drug problems and since they may have extended to the whole cast, this could certainly have something to do with Friedrich's long disappearance from the industry.

C.L. Rogers said...

Has anyone seen the movie "Almost Summer", a long forgotten(for good reason) film but Friedrich is great as a rank and file high school student running for student body president. He is a joy to watch. This film also stars another favorite Bruno Kirby, a great actor who left us way too soon.

Unknown said...

Does he have a son who has gone into acting? I was watching a TV series called Rome, it ran from 2005-2007 and there is a guy on there who looks EXACTLY like him

Dwayne Berry said...

The Wanderers is one of my favorite movies of all time. I hadn't seen it in a long time until this week when I popped my DVD into the player and ended up watching it twice and another time with the commentary. John Friedrich, I feel like you cheated the world by staying out of films all these years. You were really great. For some reason, I didn't realize that Ken Wahl and Tony Ganios were acting on film for the first time. They both were great, but I was especially impressed with Ganios. Then there's Erland van Lidth, who left us way too soon. He was truly a comic genius.