The Bully Pulpit of Zack Ward, aka Scut Farkus from ‘A Christmas Story’

The actor-director grew up having to deal with mean kids picking on him. But along the way, he ended up having compassion for his tormentors — and the iconic character he reprises in ‘A Christmas Story Christmas’
The Bully Pulpit of Zack Ward, aka Scut Farkus from ‘A Christmas Story’

Zack Ward is showing me the Scut Farkus fan-made art he has in his house. Someone sent him Scut as a nutcracker. There are Scut dolls, Scut paintings — including one colorful illustration of Scut reimagined as the horned Krampus, that menacing grin stretched to comical extremes. He loves it all, but he’s especially proud of a page from Mad that’s hung on his wall, the character immortalized in the magazine. “That’s me in Mad Magazine,” he says, beaming. “Dude, come on. I mean, Mad and Cracked were my thing when I was a kid.”

Our conversation is taking place over Zoom, the 53-year-old actor and filmmaker providing this impromptu tour of his Los Angeles home. We’ve been talking about the imminent arrival of A Christmas Story Christmas, the long-anticipated sequel to 1983’s A Christmas Story, in which Ward played Scut, the mean local kid who terrorizes Peter Billingsley’s Ralphie and his friends. With his evil smirk and coonskin cap — his eyes weren’t really yellow, no matter what the voiceover narration said — Scut is one of pop culture’s most indelible bullies, a big-screen representation of that one awful kid who made your adolescence a living hell. Ward has done plenty of film and television since A Christmas Story, but Scut remains a major part of his legacy. But unlike your childhood bully, audiences seem to have a fondness for Scut. 

“There’s not a fear toward Scut Farkus,” he tells me. “There’s a love and appreciation. I get stories all the time of people telling me how they had a Scut Farkus (growing up) and how they had to finally face off with him, and then years later they became friends.”

Ward was born and raised in Toronto, his mother, Pam Hyatt, an actress as well. She had to parent solo. “My father was a draft dodger who moved back to California when Jimmy Carter granted amnesty when I was about four or five,” he says. He recalls his classmates getting into hockey as boys, but “it requires someone to take you to practice, and it requires a whole bunch of gear. My mom was broke — we didn’t have the money nor the time.”

Not surprisingly, he caught the acting bug from his mom. “I grew up on sets from the age of five. When she was performing at the Stratford Festival Theater, I was backstage playing with swords and stuff like that, and it was awesome.” A Christmas Story was his first film, and portraying a bully wasn’t a stretch — after all, he’d already confronted his fair share in real life. “I went to eight different schools before junior high,” he explains. “My name was Zack, I had red hair and I had a miniature poodle named Tinkerbell, so I got into a lot of fights.” School after school, Ward noticed patterns — how each new place had their own set of jocks and nerds, cool kids and outcasts. What kind of kid was he? “I read a lot,” he tells me, “because I didn’t really have friends. You travel from school to school, you have to make new friends.”

His dad had taught him about boxing — “He was a Golden Gloves boxer,” Ward says — and the skill came in handy once bullies started giving him a hard time. “When other kids were doing the chest-bumpy thing, I was punching people in the nose.” He knows how that sounds. “That’s not to say it was the healthiest response, but I didn’t start it — I was a quiet kid who read books and comic books and trained in boxing with a tennis ball against the wall, hitting it and using my hands.”

When he was cast for A Christmas Story, Scut was actually the menacing henchman to Grover Dill. But when director Bob Clark, fresh off the success of Porky’s, noticed how much taller Ward was than his costar Yano Anaya, he had them switch lines, transforming Scut into the film’s principal villain. Ward had no idea who Clark was, unfamiliar with the Porky’s films or Clark’s earlier work, like the cult Christmas horror flick Black Christmas. He just remembers that he was sweet, and also savvy. “Bob kept Yano and I separated from the rest of the (child cast),” Ward says. “He didn’t want us hanging out with them. He wanted them, every time they saw us, to be concerned.” They’d all become friends down the road. 

Scut doesn’t have a lot of scenes in A Christmas Story, but Ward loved getting to briefly be on the other side of the bully/target dynamic. “I was by far the biggest and the most physically capable” of the young actors, he says. “I was a looming presence. If I was hovering over them, they definitely felt it. And (Clark) would be like, ‘Lean into it. You can dominate the situation. When you grab that kid, grab that kid. Don’t hurt him, but move him around.’ There’s a couple times I took it too far. You can see when I punch (Anaya) in the arm, I sock him in the arm. When I grab (Scott) Schwartz (who plays Flick) and make him scream uncle, I crank his arm. It comes across.”

A Christmas Story was a passion project for Clark, who used his clout from Porky’s to craft a nostalgic, 1940s-set Christmas comedy, based on the writing of Jean Shepherd, that chronicled the Parker family and impish son Ralphie, who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for the holidays. The movie was moderately successful upon release, but its legacy grew over time, now firmly ensconced as a yuletide special. But all that would happen years later: In the film’s immediate aftermath, Ward was just a teenager back home living in Toronto. 

“Nobody cared, dude,” he says, laughing. “I never was invited to the premiere. When the movie came out, it was at a few theaters.” He took a date to see A Christmas Story, “this French-Canadian girl, who was so pretty. I had a big crush on her, and the whole time we’re in the theater, I’m trying to work up the nerve to hold her hand or put my arm around her — maybe give her a kiss on the cheek or something. But I was 14, and none of that worked.” Any hope he had that she’d be dazzled by going out with a big-time Hollywood star was dashed as they left the theater. “We walked outside, and I said very ah-shucks-y, ‘So, what did you think about the movie?’ And she looks at me and she goes” — and here, he affects a thick French-Canadian accent — “‘Yes, I don’t like this so much. Okay. Bye-bye.’ And she gets on the subway.”

“I got to say, it was kind of perfect,” he continues. “My experience was the antithesis of what you expect it to be. ‘Aren’t you in a movie? You’re famous, now you have more social value than others.’ That is not my life experience in any way, shape or form. I think it set up a good work ethic and no expectation.”

Ward had no desire to move to L.A. and chase stardom. (His mom had stayed in Toronto, and she seemed plenty happy.) He continued acting, although that failed to improve his situation at school. “Even when I was going to high school, I was doing a bunch of commercials and some TV shows. That didn’t ingratiate me with anybody. I remember I did a Doritos commercial campaign in Canada that was relatively popular, and the heartwarming welcome I got from that was getting turtled in the hallway by the hockey team. You’re like, ‘Okay, this sucks.’”

Undeterred, he gravitated more and more to performing, where he didn’t have to deal with the grief he got from classmates. “I was much more comfortable around adults, because they were much more direct. They told me what they wanted from the job that I was doing, and they didn’t punch me. So that made a lot more sense.” Plus, being on sets was just really fun. “Honestly, you’re a kid playing dress-up, make believe, imagining,” he says of his time on A Christmas Story. “That was what we did as kids (anyway) — imagination was the PS5 of the day. Putting together little plays for each other, playing superheroes — that’s how it felt when I got to act. I loved it. I thought I was doing big stunts when Ralphie tackles me and I fall to the ground: ‘Ooh, there was a mattress underneath the snow — I’m a stuntman now. I’m just like Lee Majors!’”

Because A Christmas Story wasn’t a blockbuster, it wasn’t as if Ward was immediately pigeonholed as an onscreen bully. And yet, as he got older, it sorta happened anyway. “There was a stage in my career, in my late 20s to mid-30s, where I played a lot of bad guys. I call it the ‘douchebag du jour.’ Every TV show has got its heroes, and then there’s got to be the douchebag du jour who comes on board and does heinous crap. I played all these jackasses.” 

He laughs. “I guess I just have a punchable face — I just have that face that people go, ‘Hey, he’s probably a jerk. That guy probably sucks. Oh, I want to smack him.’ I get it: I look at that every day in the mirror, and I’m like, ‘You deserve a smack.’” It got so bad that when Ward would go into bars, he would be confronted by strangers. “They’d be like, ‘Hey, I fucking know you.’ They’d get up in my face: ‘Hey, didn’t you date my sister? Go to my school? Owe me money?’ I once had a cop pull me over: ‘I know your face. You’re on the boards,’” meaning the FBI’s Most Wanted list. “I’m like, ‘I’m 24, I don’t think that’s a thing.’ But there was about 10 years where people thought I was some evil bastard they recognized from somewhere else.”

Times change, though, and as Ward eventually made his way to L.A., he started landing other parts, like the lovable stoner brother Dave in Titus. Simultaneously, he picked up on a growing love for A Christmas Story. “It was probably the beginning of the 2000s where I would get roles and (producers) would say to me, ‘You killed it, that was great — hey, could you sign my leg lamp?’ There was that attitude of, like, ‘Yeah, you’re an icon, and we wanted to work with you to see what it’d be like to work with that guy. You’re great (in this new part), but you’re still Scut Farkus to me.’”

Of course, Ward understands the downside of such mental typecasting. “I’ve met a lot of actors who aren’t happy about it,” he admits. “But I think it comes down to what you want and what you can accomplish aren’t always the same thing. What you think you’re entitled to, nobody else cares.”

Part of Ward’s sunny outlook is probably due to A Christmas Story’s delay in becoming a holiday fixture, which allowed him time to establish himself. He’s had parts in Almost Famous and Transformers. He directs his own films, like the forthcoming Patsy Lee & the Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms, which he describes as a “magical family adventure film that’s The Goonies meets Big Trouble in Little China, with some flavor of Dark Crystal in there,” that will star George Takei and James Hong. He didn’t have to face what Macaulay Culkin did when Home Alone made him a superstar overnight. He wasn’t on television every week like the young actors on Diff’rent Strokes. When A Christmas Story finally became a sensation, he was old enough to handle it.

In the interim, Ward’s own relationship to bullying changed — because his relationship to bullies changed. Well, one bully in particular. Later in his life, Ward reconnected with a former classmate who used to antagonize him. “He and I were at loggerheads — we got in fistfights all the time,” Ward tells me. “I found out later that his father had abandoned him and his younger brother. They lived two-and-a-half hours away from the school I went to. They were taking buses to get there because my ‘bully’ was dyslexic and he needed help being able to read. The family had to choose which days of the week they would not eat.”

Learning more about the classmate left Ward with a lot of empathy for a troubled boy he’d seen only as a tormenter. “Here I am dealing with my own life, and I’m getting into it with this big kid, who all I know is, he’s pissed off. But as you get older, you see that person in a different light. He grew up to be an incredibly upstanding citizen in the community. He helps a lot of people and is just a wonderful human being.” 

“Young men are not the most educated in how to discuss their feelings,” Ward adds. “So once we got to know each other, we found out that we had a lot more in common than we didn’t, which was awesome.” 

As for Scut, he may terrify the neighborhood kids, but Ralphie eventually gets his revenge, snapping and pummeling the brat, reducing him to tears. Ward thinks that’s key to why so many fans have such affection for this bully. “It’s like they took the mask off Darth Vader,” he says of that moment in the film. “He’s just a dude.” Maybe that’s why nobody ever tells Ward how much they relate to Scut or look up to him. “People love Scut Farkus,” says Ward. “But nobody wants to emulate him. That’s the funny thing: They adore him, but they don’t want to be like him.”

There has been talk for years of doing a proper Christmas Story sequel. (To be sure, there have been other follow-up films, like the direct-to-video A Christmas Story 2, but Ward, probably speaking for many viewers, says, “The other ones that happened, I don’t include.”) So when A Christmas Story Christmas started coming together, Ward felt protective of Scut, making sure the sequel did justice to the bully as an adult. 

“My father had a saying: ‘In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, the chicken’s involved, but the pig is committed,’” he says. “And for me, I’m a pig, because I get to meet fans all over the country. I do charity fundraisers. Generations of Americans have a relationship with A Christmas Story. For something to come out that I’m in that is garbage, they’re not going to blame the studio. They’re not going to blame the writer. They’re not going to blame the director. They’re going to look at me and call me out to my face. I’m going to be stuck with it, so it better be good.”

When Ward made the original film, he didn’t do “research.” (In fact, he didn’t meet Clark until his first day on the set.) But over time, he’s thought about Scut, wondering how he got the way that he did. “Jean Shepherd had done a lot of spoken-word radio shows, and in one of them I found him referencing Scut Farkus’ father. His father was described as (owning) a junkyard. He had a guttural accent and was a ‘blue-faced man.’ I didn't know what a ‘blue-faced man’ meant — apparently, that means he’s got a thick five o’clock shadow all the time. ‘Farkus’ is Scottish, and Scut in Scottish means ‘shit.’ If you call someone a ‘scut,’ you’re calling him ‘shite.’” 

Pretty soon, Ward was constructing his character’s backstory after the fact. “You start putting the math together, and you’re like, ‘Okay, so his father was an immigrant who came to the United States. (The first movie is) in the 1940s. Scut’s about the age I was, 10 to 13. His father probably got to the United States when he was in his 20s, and his dad’s probably in his mid-30s now — that means he’s an outsider who probably came over right between World War I and World War II. We can acknowledge that not everybody was treated fantastically when they were immigrants without any money. Getting into a business like the junkyard, that’s pretty rough and tumble. You got to work pretty hard with your hands — it doesn’t take a lot of couth. So using that as a backstory for how Scut became who he was made a lot more sense.”

Ward’s very pleased with the new movie, and he thinks viewers will be happy to see what’s become of Scut. “Scut is always going to be Scut,” he says. “Scut doesn’t make any apologies for being Scut. Now, whether he’s still a full on d-bag, or whether he’s grown up, well, you’ll have to find out.” But in our modern age, when cyberbullying has become far more insidious and harmful, Scut’s mild reign of terror in A Christmas Story feels wonderfully quaint. “I wouldn’t (even) call them bullies,” Ward says of today’s online adolescent harassers. “I call them minor-league terrorists, because they don’t have the gumption to stand up, get in your face and state their piece. They have to do it remotely, and then just giggle to themselves about how they’re hurting someone’s feelings. That stuff is just weak. It’s just pathetic.”

Which may explain people’s fondness for Scut: He may be a bully, but he’s ultimately pretty harmless.

“Scut Farkus is that uncle,” Ward concludes. “He’s kind of a jackass. He’ll probably slip your kid a little bit of beer before you want them to taste beer. He’ll probably get in a fight on the Fourth of July. But you still love him.”

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