He’s been called one of the greatest holiday-movie villains of all time for his portrayal of a raccoon-hat-wearing, brace-faced bully in the 1983 classic “A Christmas Story.”
But Zack Ward says he was actually the opposite of his cruel character while growing up as a latchkey kid with a single mother in Toronto, where some of the film was shot.
“I went to eight different schools before junior high. I was a new kid with red hair named Zack, which was not a thing back then. I had no dad, didn’t play hockey, was broke as hell, we were poor, and I had a miniature poodle named Tinker Bell,” Ward, who now lives in Los Angeles, said during a recent stop in Toronto to visit family for the holidays.
“I got beat up a lot.”
In fact, Ward wasn’t originally cast as Scut Farkus, the evil redhead with the “yellow eyes” who terrorizes neighbourhood children in the wintry comedy directed and co-written by Bob Clark.
After a “cattle call” audition against hundreds of kids, Ward initially got the part of bully sidekick Grover Dill while Yano Anaya was cast as Scut.
But when they showed up on set, Clark realized 13-year-old Ward was about a foot taller than Anaya and he swapped their roles.
“That changed my life,” said Ward, noting it was his very first feature film after a string of commercials.
“So I became Scut Farkus, the horrible, evil, awesome bully.”
“A Christmas Story” stars Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker, who longs for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. The story is set in the early 1940s and the wardrobe, including Scut’s famous hat, was ”very itchy,” said Ward.
“The clothing was originally from the 1940s and it was made out of the angriest sheep in the world, because it was wool that just bit into you and tried to tear your skin off,” he said.
Ward’s braces, which were his own, made for a maniacal grin that gets an extreme close-up when Scut tauntingly screeches to Ralphie, “Come on — cry baby, cry.”
“That was me just being a jerk and Bob Clark pulling it out of me,” said Ward. ”He was like, ‘Go bigger, be meaner, lean into it,’ and he was literally on the other side of the camera doing that to me.”
The provocation prompts Ralphie to furiously punch Scut, while wearing leather 1940s mittens that were frozen solid.
“He’s missing me but he’s slapping the crap out of my face, so when you see the red cheeks, they’re actually slap marks,” said Ward.
Most of the exterior scenes were shot in Cleveland, Ohio, while the interior scenes were done on a soundstage in Toronto. Schoolyard shots were staged in St. Catharines, Ont.
Ward has gone on to have a prolific acting career and also writes and directs.
He said he only earned $5,000 for the role of Scut and gets about $1,800 in royalties from the film every two years.
“It’s nothing,” said Ward. “I leave it in the bank in Canada in an account in case Mom falls and breaks a foot.”
Yet he’s always happy to appear at public events for the film and raise money for bullying prevention programs and other charity events on behalf of “A Christmas Story,” which has been adapted into a musical that recently had a live performance on TV.
“The thing I love about the movie is, it’s so brilliantly written,” Ward said. ”It’s basically Homer’s ‘The Iliad.’ The BB gun is not a BB gun, it’s his father’s respect.”
Ward said he still gets recognized on the street “all the time” for his role of Scut, which he embraces.
“It’s fantastic, especially for someone who got bullied,” he said. ”I saw that I was ranked — as Christmas villains go — higher than the Grinch. That’s amazing.”