FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Actor John Friedrich addressed a crowd Tuesday at the University of Hawaii on movie making and his career.
Friedrich wants to complete that last chapter
If John Friedrich wants to revive a once-flourishing acting career, he's on his way. At the University of Hawaii Tuesday night, the youthful-looking 49-year-old attracted a crowd to analyze clips from his movies and unearth tidbits about major stars in the 1970s and early '80s. He hinted at his reasons for leaving Hollywood more than two decades ago and confessed his desire to return to what he considers "an unfinished chapter" in his life.
Sitting next to facilitator and UH professor Marc Moody and wearing gray slacks, a black shirt and the requisite lei, Friedrich shared behind-the-scenes stories about the acting process and working with some of Hollywood's biggest names in a stream-of-consciousness style that drew the audience from one anecdote to the next.
The peak of his career was the role of Frank Cleary in "The Thorn Birds" with Richard Chamberlain, Jean Simmons, Barbara Stanwyck and Rachel Ward. "'The Thorn Birds' was like you had finally gotten into the Ferrari," Friedrich recalled of the 1983 miniseries. "The level of acting was substantially higher. It's one of my great memories. Richard was one of the reasons I became an actor," he said of Chamberlain, whose work on the stage first inspired Friedrich.
The part had been offered to Friedrich's good friend Brad Davis, a household name at the time. "They were looking for a star, and I was not at that level yet," he said. But Davis ("Midnight Express") refused the plum role, insisting Friedrich would be better. The two had become close on the set of the iconic cop show "Baretta" and the movie "A Small Circle of Friends," Rob Cohen's ill-fated directorial debut.
Friedrich also recalled his brief time with Lana Turner and considered Stanwyck and Turner "a dying breed, just royalty. They really had a presence or a charisma that I haven't seen since. You can't not look at it."
An amusing story arose from the set of "Thank God It's Friday," about a dinner with Donna Summer. "So you sing disco songs?" he said to the mega-star at the time, who answered incredulously, "You really don't know who I am!" A friendship with Debra Winger also blossomed during that film. Later, Winger often called while shooting "Urban Cowboy," worried that nobody on the set liked her.
John Travolta traveled with an entourage even when he and Friedrich filmed "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." But Friedrich said Travolta told his assistants to leave when it was time to shoot a scene, and focused intently "so that working with him was an absolute pleasure."
Friedrich got his start in 1975 at age 16 with Robert Blake on "Baretta." The rebellious teen left home the moment he started making a living as an actor. "My life took a 90-degree turn from that point," he said. "I got a good agent, and my ability to get work really took off."
Ambitions to attend Yale faded as offers flowed. He could go to college any time, his fellow actors told him. Consequently, he never went, something he still regrets. Had he attended college first, "I think my ability to last in the business would have been greatly enhanced."
When viewing clips from his movies in sequence, his range is especially evident in his ability to master accents totally unfamiliar to him.
For example: the role of Joey, an Italian kid from the Bronx, in "The Wanderers," a 1979 flop with Karen Allen that became a cult classic. Friedrich, a self-described kid from the San Fernando Valley, recalled that he'd never even visited New York City until he got the part.
"Those were just a terrifying first few days," he recalled, feeling sure the director would fire him. "I cried in the bathtub on many occasions."
Despite his impressive performance, shooting turned out to be a struggle. To make matters worse, the movie disappeared from theaters in about a month.
After "The Thorn Birds" and "The Final Terror" in 1983, he moved to New Mexico, met his wife and started a family, worked as a financial consultant and settled into what most people might call a normal life.
Gradually, evidence that he should consider reviving what he'd left behind began to emerge.
When "The Wanderers" was re-released on DVD two years ago, director Philip Kaufman publicly appealed to Friedrich to get in touch with him.
"Did I call him?" Friedrich asked the audience, laughing. "No!"
Asked what inspired such a dramatic departure, he answered, "Life happened." He indicated that his psychological state during a less-than-ideal youth was "tied to my ability to express myself as an actor; I came to the party because I liked the mask. This became more untenable as I matured."
But the fire never died. "I thought I could get the actor out of me, but I really couldn't," he said. Recently, he returned to the stage, playing the Donald Sutherland role in "Ordinary People" in an Albuquerque theater. About this time the unexpected letter from Moody arrived, inviting him to Hawaii.
"How do I reconnect with these talents and these gifts?" he asked rhetorically.
The first step, he's discovering, is to say yes.