Actor Zack Ward is cemented in holiday film history due to his role as the yellow-eyed bully Scut Farkus in the 1983 classic holiday comedy “A Christmas Story.” We spoke to him about how the film provides comfort to families during this unusual holiday season and about how his own family is finding comfort as they work together to care for Zack’s father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2020.
Zack, what are your thoughts on playing one of the most famous on-screen bullies in one of the most popular Christmas films ever made?
It’s an incredible honor. The part of Scut Farkus was my first film role. It’s a blessing, one of those random events that changes your life in ways you could never predict or understand. Folks I’ve never met before treat me like a long-lost friend.
The friendships that were created on that film set have lasted with me for decades. The director, Bob Clark, was a kind and generous man with endless patience. He taught me so much as a director and as a man, and it was an honor to be a part of the process. Now, I am eternally connected to a film that is part of American culture and holiday seasons around the world.
You are bravely sharing your family’s journey with Alzheimer’s on social media. Tell us about your father’s diagnosis.
Back in July of 2020, my dad got lost on his way driving to my house; a house he remodelled and has been to hundreds of times in the last 20 years. Not only did he get lost; he couldn’t figure out which direction was north, south, east or west, a big deal for someone who was a lifelong Boy Scout. After I picked him up, we discussed his confusion and I convinced him to get a cognitive test. He was not happy about it. I kept on telling him that we have “modern technology and solutions for everything, so surely they have something for Alzheimer’s by now!” That is what I truly believed.
The test was brutal. Watching him try to bisect a triangle or draw a clock face was heartbreaking. The doctor said, plainly, “Mr. Ward, you have stage four Alzheimer’s, and there is nothing we can do to help you.” My dad wilted in his chair, shrunk down to the size of a small child. It was literally his worst nightmare, having seen his own mother die a painful death from Alzheimer’s.
Once we had a diagnosis, we had to begin to face this disease and plan accordingly. The process has brought us closer, Dad included. He still knows who we are and we’re grateful for that. But we can’t know how long that will last.
Can you share how you are approaching Alzheimer’s as a family?
Alzheimer’s is sneaky and brutal. It steals so much of life from everyone around it. And it can be incredibly overwhelming for everyone involved. Thankfully, I have a good team around me. I worked with my sister, Audrey, and my brother, Jay, to find long-term care accommodations for Dad. Audrey is a wizard with bureaucratic red tape and found a great assisted living facility just a mile from her house, so Dad can visit with his grandkids and her. That gave me a lot of comfort. Meanwhile, I took care of selling Dad’s vehicles and all the heavy-lifting monkey work that had to get done. I was happy to be the monkey.
Dad’s disease is progressing, and he has become more and more frustrated by his situation. I didn’t mean to, but I feel like I lied to him when I told him, “modern technology and solutions for everything!” I was wrong. There is no cure for this disease.
This is why I am sharing my family’s story. We must speak out on behalf of our loved ones so that more research is funded, so that we do not lose more of the people we love to this horrific disease. Our parents and our grandparents are not disposable. We destroy our future by ignoring the people who came before us, the people who gave us life. They are the people who helped make us who we are today, and paved the road for us.
Dad has always been a fighter, a guy who sticks by his beliefs. Now I have to stick by him, as I always have.
What advice or a message of hope do you have for families who are facing Alzheimer’s this holiday season?
Be brave. Take breaks. Get help. Reach out to the Alzheimer's Association.
When we learned about my dad’s diagnosis, I honestly didn’t know what to ask for. My family has felt so powerless and isolated by the combination of Alzheimer’s disease and the pandemic of 2020. Learning that the Alzheimer’s Association can connect people who are dealing with similar experiences to support groups and resources to help everyone involved in their family’s care is truly amazing.
Alzheimer’s is a 24/7 war. This is the time to be strong. It is the time for family caregivers to be kind to those we love — and ourselves — and do our best to be proud of the decisions we make during this process.
That’s not to say that any of this is easy. It is really, really hard and I hate it. But I will not give in or give up. Dad recently turned 74, and I am still always trying to make him laugh. Sometimes he is so present that I think his diagnosis was a mistake. Then he forgets my sister's name, or can't figure out how to put on an item of clothing. Each day is different. All I can do is just keep trying to make him smile.
For families who re-watch “A Christmas Story” every year, what do you think the nostalgia of the film brings to families during the difficult times we’re in now?
The beauty of the film is that no one is perfect. Life is hard, money is lean and the family has to make do with what they can and, in the end, the real moment of Christmas is the family being together, because their love helps them overcome life’s hardships. And there were so many hardships for so many people in the year 2020.
As we all enter 2021, let’s look ahead to brighter days and spending quality time with the people we love. Let’s make every moment count.
About: Zack Ward is a Canadian-born actor who recently wrote and directed the feature film entitled “Patsy Lee & the Keeper of the 5 Kingdoms.” A writer, actor, director, producer and editor, Zack is married and lives in Los Angeles, where he has resided since 1995.
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