“A CHRISTMAS STORY” actor Zack Ward is raising money for Alzheimer’s research | INTERVIEW

Last Updated: January 6, 2023By Tags:

If your life hasn’t been touched by Alzheimer’s or dementia, consider yourself fortunate.  The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that over 6 million adults over age 65 are battling the disease today, and that number is expected to increase to more than 12 million by 2050.  

One of those afflicted with the disease is Todd Ward, father of actor Zack Ward—best known as the bully Scut Farkus from “A Christmas Story.”  Zach is now 53; in hindsight, he says, it was about that same age that his father began showing signs of dementia.

“I could see how my father was sort of drifting into dimension in his early-50s,” Ward told me recently from his Los Angeles studio.  “Unfortunately I’m not a multimillionaire or billionaire who can push a button and get it taken care of.  And I understand that fear.”

It’s been 39 years since “A Christmas Story,” in which Scut Farkus and his toadie Grover Dill (Yano Anaya) menaced young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his friends.  Both Billingsley and Ward return in the new Netflix film “A Christmas Story Christmas,” in which now-adult Ralphie returns to his Indiana hometown to offer his own children an old-fashioned holiday like the one he remembers getting that awesome Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock “and this thing that tells time.”   

“It’s weird because, in a way, I never left Scut Farkus or Scut Farkus never left me,” Ward said of returning to the role he first played as a boy of 13.  “When we did the [new] film, it was going back to a familiar old friend and learning how they grew up, and that was really exciting.  

Like Ward, Scut Farkus is also older now too.  Billingsley, who is one of the screenwriters of “A Christmas Story Christmas,” ensured that the boy you used to love to hate has become a man who, well, might just engender some tender feelings from viewers of the sequel.  Ward called Billingsley “a sweetheart” who was out to recapture as much of that old holiday magic as fans remembered from 1983.  

But in addition to tickling the nostalgia bone, leaning into his familiar role as the bully with yellow eyes has allowed Ward to use his platform to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s research.

“Once I started doing charity fundraisers about 15 years using Scut Farkus as a lightning rod for donations, you start reliving the character with all the fans, and you’re playing that role to a certain degree,” he said.  “They tell you their stories about how much they hated him, and you get to play with it.”

Like “A Christmas Story,” the sequel takes its inspiration from the writings of Jean Shepherd, whose alter ego Ralphie he voiced from the hindsight of adulthood as the narrator of “A Christmas Story” and for several made-for-TV movies.  Shepherd died in 1999, so his recognizable voice is absent from “A Christmas Story Christmas,” but Ward has some intriguing memories of being on location in Cleveland four decades ago as Shepherd conferred with “A Christmas Story” director Bob Clark.  (Clark gave himself a small role in the film as Swede, the nosy neighbor intrigued by the Old Man’s infamous leg lamp.)

“Jean Shepherd I saw on the peripheral, but he never really interacted with me very much,” Ward said.  “He was pretty focused on making sure that the movie was what the movie needed to be.  

“He and Bob were usually locked in serious conversations that a thirteen year-old boy knows better than to interrupt.”

That thirteen year-old boy is now a 53-year-old man facing the unenviable reality that his father Todd often no longer recognizes him.  Todd is in a care home in Oregon near Ward’s sister, and he travels north as often as possible to visit.  The actor stresses that caring for someone in the throes of dementia is essentially a full-time job, and even those who might have the financial resources for this still need a loving, caring circle about them.  Ward said that getting in touch with the Alzheimer’s Association about fundraising—now that he had an up close and personal view of how the disease manifests in a loved one—provided him with such support.

“I no longer felt like I was watching my father drown and there was nothing I could do,” Ward said.  “They helped me know what I needed to do for the next steps.  Sadly, it’s a mocked issue where people don’t take it seriously; they call it ‘old timers,’ and think it’s just for old people.  

“But early onset dementia can start as early as your mid-to-late-fifties. It takes away everything you ever were, and it destroys every memory you ever had.”

The thought gives Ward pause.  Alzheimer’s and dementia are often inherited, so how much longer does he have to remain functional in his own life, he wonders.  And the recent news that “Thor” star Chris Hemsworth discovered he too has a genetic predisposition for the disease only reinforces Ward’s hopes to battle the disease.

“I feel so sorry for the guy [because] I live with the same thing,” Ward said, offering support for his fellow thespian.  “I haven’t gotten a test done, but I live with the same Sword of Damocles hanging over my head.  I hope for Mr. Hemsworth that he’s able to find some solution, and if not some solution, then some peace.  My heart goes out to him.”

Indeed, the world cheered recently as a new “miracle drug” has been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, but Ward stresses that it will take years of double-blind testing and require FDA approval yet.  The best he can do meantime, and what he stresses for others, is to be loving and patient with someone in the throes of dementia—and who sometimes can be frightened by their own now-unfamiliar reflection.

“You need to help them be as calm as possible because otherwise they [often] get afraid,” Ward said of the fear that can strike someone who might not understand the mental decline happening to them in real time.  “Then you can wear a smile and love them for who they are at the moment.  

“Whether or not he remembers who I am, I try to be there for him,” Ward said.  “He’s my dad, I love him, [and] I want to be there for him as much as I can.  That’s all I can do, so I try to do it.”

Ward emphasizes that it’s far from easy, and he often gets frustrated when trying to relate to a man so unlike the father he remembers.  He advises anyone with a loved one in the same situation to take care of their own well-being, be it through a support group or counselor, especially considering the process of mental decline obeys no predictable timeline.  

“You’re going to go through a lot of emotional upheaval.  There’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of bitterness, there’s a lot of rage,” he said.  “There’s a lot of trepidation because it’s not like you’re going toward a cliff and you know when you’re jumping off: You’re constantly falling, and that fall could last for six months or it could last for the next fifteen years. And that’s terrifying!  

“You can sit and talk to other people who are family members going through the same stuff.  It really helps, and it allows you to get rid of all your frustrations and be able to compartmentalize that emotional process when [the person] you’ve known your whole life doesn’t know you anymore.”

Ward will be traveling to Cleveland for a fundraising event at the Christmas Story House Dec. 17.  The home used in the original movie has been lovingly restored to resemble the Parkers’ homestead as it appeared that Christmas morning, complete with a museum and gift shop.  Ward, who has visited several times before, will sign autographs and take pictures with fans, whom he says often treat him “like an old neighbor they haven’t seen in a while.”  

He won’t charge for such mementos, and instead asks that people donate to the Alzheimer’s Association—if they can.  

“And if they don’t have that money because life is life, I totally understand,” he said.  “Maybe they can just spread the word to someone who might be going through that and be like, ‘There’s a support group for you!’”

Ward will then travel to Akron for a screening of “A Christmas Story Christmas” the following evening.  

“Maybe we can turn a crap sandwich into a fantastic Christmas Eve dinner,” he said.  He paused, then added, “that metaphor didn’t work very well, but I had to try.”  

He chuckled at this, showing that, sometimes anyway, laughter remains the best medicine.

To make a year-end donation to the Alzheimer’s Association, go to https://www.alz.org/.  “A Christmas Story Christmas” is now streaming on Netflix.