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Ozploitation Icon: Interview with Roger Ward

  Roger Ward is one of Australia's most instantly recognisable character actors, with a resume that takes in many cult movies: Mad Max, Turkey Shoot, Quigley Down Under, The Man from Hong Kong and many more. He was an integral actor in the Ozploitation boom, but also had a parallel career as a writer. The first film based on one of his books, The Set, is released now on a streaming platform near you, and it is out on DVD in a special edition for true fans. Mr Ward was kind enough to share his thoughts on that film and his career.

TSI: Did you set out to be a writer first, or was acting your first ambition? How did you get started in the business?

RW: Strangely, even as a 'dead-end' kid, living in a rough tough neighbourhood, mixing with a gang of similar kids, including my brother Peter and doing all of the usual boyhood things, fighting with shanghaies, (dingers we called them), swimming in swamps, riding daredevil on put together push bikes and pushing and shoving at the lolly counter of the 'Bug House Picture Theatre' of a Saturday afternoon, I still held a note of refinery, of wanting to be 'someone' (I coulda been a contender) as Marlon once said. So I aimed for that elusive star and became the groups entertainment. In fact, when I was eight, a young girl of the same vintage told me, "You should be on radio."

That was the limit of our expectations then, the local radio that for many years, I was convinced housed the big bands, and singers that turned my heart and I was disappointed when I eventually entered a studio and found it so clinical and sparse. But to answer your question, I did both on a parallel level, always commended on my writing skills at school, I was also praised for my 'reading out loud', but acting won, as I performed in my first play at the age of 12, and did not begin my apprenticeship as a journalist until I was 15. By then, by the way, I was already a radio pro, performing educational plays for the local ABC schools programme at two shillings and sixpence a gig. The pay has improved slightly since then, but not to the extent one would imagine or hope.

TSI: How did The Set become a film? Were you approached by the producer to turn your book into a film, or was that the idea from the beginning?

RW: My intention always was to adapt to film. I knew there was not much money in publishing, there was glory, but hardly a commensurate reward, so I sought the glory and the reward of selling for film. I had dabbled in novel form writing from the age of 14, much to my brother's angst as I worked on a rather clackety typewriter on a card table at the foot of my bed. Peter was hardly two feet away and struggling for sleep while I pounded away, oblivious to time and location. My fictionalized writing always incorporated theatrical life. Because, as young as I was, I knew it would be far more interesting than the traditional Australian writings of drought, hardship, and cattle droving. Although I did enjoy reading that I knew, if one wanted to sell for film, one had to write something unique. But in order to gain the reward, traditionally one had to first gain glory.

But publication evaded me, the publishers of the day were old school, traditionalists who threw me, with a pointed finger from their ivory towers. Only one, after receiving the manuscript by mail, was man enough to request a meeting. His words and I remember them as clearly as if it were yesterday were, "Mister Ward, I have spent the past twenty-four hours reading your novel. I am going to read it again, and then I wish to meet you." At the appointed time, in the crowded foyer of a plush office in Sydney and wearing a newly acquired cream suit, purple shirt and yellow tie I turned toward the man calling my name. He was big and burly and wore a walrus moustache and horn-rimmed glasses. "I knew it was you," he said. "Anyone who writes like you would obviously dress like that." He turned on his heel and indicated I follow. Once he was settled at his desk and I sat opposite he leaned across the expanse and said. "Mr. Ward, you have a Harold Robbins quality about your work."

To that time, my work, during its many assessments and presentations had been compared to everyone who had lifted a pen from Shakespeare on, so I smiled wryly, indicating "Oh no, not another comparison." My reaction appeared to anger the publisher and he leaned back and barked. "There's no reason to smile, Mr. Ward, because Harold Robbins can't write either." Needless to say, that offer in the making was discarded by my proud self and I walked out in a huff. And as fate would have it, I ran into an acting mate named Ed Deveraux. I told him of my recent experience and he suggested contacting a producer he had just worked with who was seeking Australian stories to film. That was how I came to communicate with Frank Brittain who made an offer of film rights the morning after he received the unpublished work.

TSI: Did you have any problems with censorship considering the subject matter? Did you feel you were pushing back boundaries for Australian film?

RW: There was a lot of talk about censorship, how the film should be banned, and a bit of a barney in London over cutting but, except for a minor slice, the movie was never cut by a censor.

I never gave a thought to pushing boundaries, those sections in the novel were written to satisfy curiosity more so than libido. And the homosexuality was only a theme that ran through a sociological, adventurous novel. It was Frank Brittain who chose to use the homosexual segments for the film.

TSI: It was unusual to see gay themes in a mainstream film of the time, even in America or Europe. Were you influenced by any other movies or books? Had the Andy Warhol films made it to Australia, for example?

RW: No, I was not influenced in any way. I chose that subject because I knew it was taboo and even though many were aware of the existence of homosexuality, not many knew of the life Gays lived. I was fascinated by it and decided to write about it, with a long term thought of it being filmed.

TSI: Were you pleased with the reaction The Set had on its release? I understand it was a pretty big deal at the time.

RW: Yes, I was delighted by the press the film received. Even before completion, we had four or five front-page headlines. Almost a world record I would think, a film, in the throes of being filmed, to receive on going front-page coverage. And, at the opposite end of the scale, even a "Stop Press" remark on the back page. A sign of vast importance. The publicity continued on talk shows, on current affairs, on radio, and has continued to this day. It also broke monetary box office records and was shown in cinemas for up to ten weeks at a time. It also caused News warnings that 'owing to the motion picture The Set, there are traffic jams near the...' (Drive In theatres that it was being shown.)

TSI: What are your main memories of filming Mad Max? Did you have any idea how massive internationally it was going to be?

RW: No, I had no idea, to me, it was just another film. At that particular time, the 70's early 80's I was going from one film to the other, usually back to back, and while working on the current production, I was plotting and planning on what I would do and wear on the next. I now wish I had taken more notice of the films I was making, had enjoyed them more, but at that time my life existed to make money, I was ambitious and ruthless and had many goals, film making as an actor was merely one of them. As far as foreseeing its success; it was only toward the end of my involvement that I realized it had potential. And there was a moment, just before my last scene, that I looked at George (Miller) the director, and he looked at me and said. "Well Fifi, this is your last scene." I knew what he was alluding to, and I was feeling the same way. "Offer to work on for points," I said to myself. Because I had hit George hard for money, not hard by industry standards, but hard for a first-timer causing him to inform he just could not afford that sort of fee.

"Well, I'm sorry, George" I had said magnanimously, "I'd loved to do the film, but I can't work for anything less." My hard balling backfired. George agreed to the fee, but cut my involvement in the film and crammed what I had to do into as small a time frame as he could. So there we were, two Rottweilers eyeing up the opposition. 'Should I?' 'Will I?' Raced through our minds. But we ended up pussy cats.

"Yep," I finally said. "Been a great time."

"Action," Called George, and it was all over.

TSI: On Turkey Shoot, what did you think when you saw one of the characters was a werewolf? Was a film as crazy as that fun to make?

RW: I loved shooting Turkey Shoot, it was only one of the few films that I relaxed into and enjoyed. It was shot in Cairns North Queensland and I love the tropical life so I made the most of my time in that area. Also, most of the cast were mates including Steve Rackman who played the werewolf you mention. But despite that, nothing that occurs on film phases me, especially with Brian Trenchard Smith at the helm. He has been a friend since before his feature debut and nothing Brian does, or creates, surprises me.

TSI: According to your filmography, you worked with Tony Hancock on his final project. Do you have any memories of him?

RW: Yes, I do. Rather sad memories in fact. I had admired Tony for some time and had seen most of his films. But meeting him was to meet an unhappy, desperate man. He was lonely, a situation he confided to me and I could tell he felt out of his depth and intimidated by the raucous cast that surrounded him. I offered him a sympathetic ear but he wasn't into obscure small talk so I left him to brood wherever he chose. However, during a weekend break, I heard that one of Tony's compatriots, a fellow English comedian had married an Australian actress. Knowing their relationship, I surmised Tony had attended the Sydney venue, so upon seeing him on the Monday, I asked. "How was the wedding?" Tony had a stutter and it came to the fore in his reply. "Wh, wh, what wedding?" When I told him to whom I referred, he went extremely quiet and retreated to his dressing room. And in the times he was needed on set, he was even more contrite than usual. That night, he returned to the flat he had been allocated, rang his ex-wife and spoke to her at great length. Then he overdosed on prescription pills and booze and died. A very sad ending to lovely, but simple, man.

TSI: Quigley Down Under has become a cult movie for Western fans - are you fond of the genre? How did it feel to be making an Australian version of a Western?

RW: I was fond of the genre and remember running to the 'Bug House' of a Saturday afternoon, weekend shilling in hand, pretending, in my excitement, to ride a bucking horse, or to throw a filmic roundhouse at my brother or Tommy or Johnny Fox who accompanied us. And I remember the roar from all of us, sitting inches from the screen when the MGM lion roared or the RKO Tower came into focus and a stagecoach or a galloping horse raced across the screen. Little did I know, although.... I did silently dream.

I did enjoy the atmosphere of doing Quigley, we were embedded in the Northern Territory for a lot of the shoot and most of the time lived like a cowboy, riding and mingling with horses, letting our beards grow.

TSI: Are the stories of Dennis Hopper's wild behaviour on Mad Dog Morgan true? What was he like?

RW: Yes, unfortunately, they were true. I didn't like the man. He was obnoxious, arrogant and a total tool. He spent the entire time on and off set, day and night, shooting or not, speaking in a broad Irish accent, and treated everyone with arrogance and disrespect. Strangely, the producers allowed him to get away with it, their attitude to his ridiculous carry on reminiscent of a doting mother protecting her miscreant schoolboy.

TSI: What was Stone like to make? Did you do any of the stunts at all?

RW: Stone was another of those, you beaut, films where you had a ball each and every day. We lived on our motorbikes, they were ours for the duration, and we were encouraged to live like bikers and indeed most of us did. It was rather unfortunate for me though, as I could not live the bikers' life 24 hours a day, as at 8 pm on each and every day, except Sunday, I wore a dinner suit on stage until 11 pm. It was a glorious moment when I tore off the glad rags, pulled on the denim and the black singlet and roared into the night looking for my fellow bikers and seeking the wonderful life we were then living. As far as stunts are concerned. I have always done my own stunts, even up to the present day.

Initially, it was because productions could not afford stuntmen, so we actors were forced to do our own stunt driving, riding, horse or motorbike, our own fights, our own falls, whatever the character was scripted to do, we did. It began to change in the early '70s, when stuntmen or those with athletic or fighting ability edged their way into the industry but none were my size and even if I had allowed it, there was no one to do my stunts. But I did not allow anyone to take over what I considered my work. Whatever my character did, it was acting and there was no way I would share that. The problem was overcome Union-wise, by me being made an Honorary Stuntman who was graded to the top of the tree.

TSI: Is The Pirate Movie the most expensive film you've ever worked on? Did you enjoy being on such a huge production, as opposed to the lower budget efforts you were often in?

RW: I've never thought of it that way, but you're right, it was an expensive movie, although I did make equal money on Quigley and was tied up for a similar amount of time. I had heard about it and knew being cast would be a long term thing and I also knew the money would be good so I rang the casting agent, Helen Rolland who was an old Buddy from our Crawford Production days. But she, remembering one too many drunken nights in my company, or perhaps a no show for an arranged outing during our wild days put me down with a sarcastic, "Oh Roger, you can't be in everything." And cut the call. So that was it, my involvement in The Pirate Movie was aborted by the whim of a casting girl. For at least a week. And then, Helen rang me, virtual cap in hand. "Roger, it's Helen, would you ring Richard Franklin, he'll be directing The Pirate Movie and wants to offer you a role."

Delighted, I rang Richard, whom I had never met, and we discussed my involvement and a certain, very healthy fee. But at that stage, he was unsure of the role he was going to offer. Instead, he sent me a contract that gave me a length of film involvement and included whatever time it took to ready for the film. I was to leave immediately for Melbourne where I would partake of sword fighting classes with an ex-Olympian, rope climbing, weight training, dancing, and singing. It was an all-day five times a week programme and I was mixing with dancers, singers, actors, and bodybuilders. A wonderful time until we received the news that Richard, the director, had died. A meeting was held and we, the assembled cast were told to continue what we were doing, no matter the time it took, the producers would find another director. It took weeks but my fee was banked religiously and my accommodation paid. Eventually, the Director was assigned, it was Ken Annakin, a well known and experienced director from the UK.

Upon arrival, he held a meeting to address the three dozen or more singers, dancers, weightlifters with whom I had been rehearsing those past weeks. "Have any of you ever uttered a line on stage or film?" Ken asked. All eyes turned to me and hands fluttered indicating I should admit to such an endeavour, but my pride, and the fact that Ken should have been informed by the producers of my presence, so I did not utter a word and was relegated to the role of a Pirate, a part I loved and had a lot of fun portraying while that weekly wage poured into my bank. About eight or ten weeks into the shoot, I was walking toward the sailing vessel we used when Ken Annakin fell into step beside me. "They tell me you've done a lot of work," he said. "Yes, I have," I replied. "You should have told me," he mumbled. "You should have known." I snapped.

TSI: What was Jimmy Wang Yu like to work with on The Man from Hong Kong? Did you get to do any kung fu?

RW: Jimmy was okay with me. Not so much with Brian Trenchard Smith. There were egos flying and bad-mouthing, but as Trenchard Smith said. "I will win my battle at the box office." And he did. But whatever went on between them is all forgotten. They're now good friends. As far as Kung Fu in its true form, no I didn't do any, although I did have a good old fight using every mode of self-defense and attack known to man when I fought Sammo Hung on Ayers Rock. A very dicey fight spread over a few days.

TSI: What roles are your favourites, would you say? And would you like to have done more writing?

RW: I don't really have any favourites, every role I've ever done had its own particular charm, challenge, edge, although there are some television roles I am very proud of and a few stage, but each character I've played, I've played him to the best of my skills, because once I'm committed, I go all the way, no matter the role or the money being earned. For what one does in front of the camera is there for posterity for millions to see. Blow it, and you're the one who cops it.

As far as more writing! I'm doing enough thank you very much. It's not widely known but I am a script editor, and I rewrite and correct scripts in association with my wife, Jayashree Pillay a red hot journalist and grammar Nazi who learned her trade at Kings College London. We work as a team and almost non-stop in that category. I also sold the film rights and wrote the script for a second novel, Reflex which was shot in New Zealand, the Philippines and Sydney in Mid 1980. And just after that the Australian film Commission sent me to France to write a script for what was to be a collaboration between the two countries. Then followed a commission to write thirteen episodes of a children’s television series and the scripts for the Australian segments of the American, "That's Incredible." I have also just recently finished the third novel in a series based on two photojournalists who cover war zones around the world. And over the past few months, a producer has been pushing another children's series of thirteen episodes which I completed in mid-2019.

Does that answer the last portion of your question?

TSI: It certainly does! What projects do you have coming next that you're excited about?

RW: Late last year I completed a half-hour film entitled Dusters, it was set in 19th century America and was a Western. It is an extremely polished work and has received great feedback. The young writer/ director, Noel Vinson, is now preparing the work for a feature-length. In the meantime, he has offered me a two-hander that I will film with a young American actress who was a producer on Dusters. I am also producing, in collaboration with a very talented young writer, Daniel Ritchie, a six-part series set in a fictional country town entitled Arndell Reach. We have a strong cast lined up, studio space with three camera coverage, Brian Trenchard Smith to direct and are now seeking a production house or television studio to get behind us financially.

Many thanks to Roger for taking the time to reply, and check out The Set on Amazon, iTunes or the streaming service of your choice - or you can get the DVD.

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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