John Friedrich in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), The Wanderers (1979) and The Final Terror (1983)

With idiosyncratic roles in sub-iconic fare like The Boy In the Plastic Bubble (1976), The Death of Richie (1977), In the Matter of Karen Ann Quinlan (1977), Thank God It’s Friday (1978), The Wanderers (1979) and The Final Terror (1983) - John Friedrich spent most of his career on screen playing characters that you naturally assumed would have developed a thick skin and tough exterior because of their prickly life situation - but for some reason hadn’t. His portrayals were often brassy and smart aleck-y in vain, and became uniquely endearing. Because of his somewhat kooky physical persona and the unmistakably barmy look in his eyes, he often played the oddball even within an ensemble cast of oddballs. His face was child-like, with smiling eyes that seemed to front a mischievous, unruly brain. Watching him was like observing a child that, upon reflection, you suddenly realize might one day grow up to be a criminal. His undeniably handsome visage had an alluring, weird warp right through the center - a combination of elements that pin-pointed your attention whenever he was on screen (the mix of gawk and lust is a very rare but potent screen presence). Friedrich never afforded starring roles, even though he obviously possessed the skill, intuition and range to pull one off. Even at a film’s center, he existed within a “sidekick” capacity. When playing a self-reliant solo flyer, he was often typecast “attached” as someone’s googly-eyed younger brother, accident-prone boyfriend, or adorable gamin. His characters would often spend the first half of the story swinging between comic physical acting and heartfelt frustrations, which would build to an emotional “reveal” two-thirds of the way through, proving his character had more depth than what was portrayed before that moment, and letting the other characters in on what was already obvious to the viewer.

Friedrich had a large handful of screen roles from the mid-1970’s to the early 80’s, in which his career made the gradual arc from American network television shows, to feature films.

His first real role was the incest-y, Lana Turner vehicle Bittersweet Love (1976), playing one of the protagonist’s camera-happy younger brothers, who accidentally snaps the backs of wedding guest’s heads with a polaroid camera during a lengthy ceremony.

In 1976, Friedrich landed the role of Roy Slater in the highly viewed and devotedly recollected TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which starred John Travolta as Tod Lubitch. The film has survived in reputation largely because of it’s camp qualities, but much of it is surprisingly effective and touching when viewed today. Friedrich’s character appears in one large scene, bunking right next to Travolta in an identical air-tight hospital room while undergoing chemotherapy treatment (sans the hair loss) for a brain tumor, which weakens his immunities much like Lubitch’s. It is the only time in the picture another character who shares Lubitch’s condition is portrayed. Friedrich initially plays it as casually desperate, then switches gears into a goofy, high-voiced alternative to Travolta’s thick-lipped brood. While riding exercise bikes next to each other on opposite sides of a plexiglass wall, Travolta eventually opens up about his frustrations with girls as Friedrich won’t shut up about his pullulating sex drive. And in a notorious scene (for 1970’s network television at least), he admits to Travolta with a shit-eating grin that he masturbates “…all the time!” Much like one or two of the leads in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Friedrich is able to flesh out a believable character amongst all the cardboard surroundings, but he’s also able to do it with only about 12 lines and five minutes.

Friedrich continued as a teenager in television, with character parts on episodes of established 70’s fare like Baretta (in one prison bus hijacking episode, he played a character named Cornflakes) and The Streets of San Francisco.

TV movies based on true stories seemed to be a specialty for Friedrich in the beginning; who soon appeared in the wacked-out drug scare propaganda movie The Death of Richie (1977), and later played the brother of a girl who had lapsed into coma in In the Matter of Karen Ann Quinlan (1977). He also appeared as a repressed, maladroit drama club hopeful in the Judy Blume-sourced TV movie Forever (1978). That same year, Friedrich landed a costarring role on the big screen in the underrated “identity-crisis-in-never-never-land” school election drama Almost Summer (1978). All of these films are very much under the radar in today’s retro-crazed, past-plundering entertainment markets (sans Boy in the Bubble), and I would recommend any of them for lovers of fun, off-perimeter 70’s stuff (particularly the luridly tragic and psychedelic Death of Richie). Appropriately, Friedrich then appeared again on the big screen as one half of a twenty-thumbed, nearsighted, rhythmically challenged duo who comically stumble around a disco in the fad-tastic Thank God It’s Friday (1978).

In one of his most-seen roles, Friedrich then costarred in Philip Kaufman’s highly anticipated film adaptation of the gritty Richard Prince novel The Wanderers (1979). He played the character Joey; a wide-eyed, artistically inclined gang member with an accentuated street vernacular who acts as little brother type to another member of the gang (if not all of them). Joey is constantly trying to prove himself, often to comical effect - and obviously searching amongst the streets as he repeatedly becomes the brunt of the other gang member’s pranks, or getting teased for appearing wandering-eyed around a female who’s present at a game of strip poker. Despite the subject matter, many aspects of The Wanderers are even more cartoonish than The Warriors (if that’s possible), a film which it is often compared to. The feel of the picture is “50’s concrete jungle,” but often overly surreal. Friedrich, exhibiting his usual screen characteristics, is costumed here in super-tight jeans and an angular D.A. hairstyle - at times resembles Howdy Doody in Sha Na Na drag. His portrayal of the streetwise, slapstick (and clearly heterosexual) Joey is almost effeminate - especially when he’s laying on the floor in his living room, painting a homemade football mural with obsessive flair and his gorilla-like father shoots a disapproving glare. Joey rides off at the end with one of the other gang members, to spend their lives together in California (the book contained a fair amount of clouded homosexual sub-content, which was toned down in the film).

Friedrich then had a large part in the Harvard-esque, 60’s radical ménage-à-trios teaser A Small Circle of Friends (1980), playing nearly three separate personas. His character, Haddox, begins the film as a bumbling, Klark Kent-style Texan newbie during his freshman year at college. He eventually grows a lot of hair as he transforms completely, into a viciously uncompromising political activist. By film’s end he’s cloistered in the guncotton hideaway of a Weather Underground-type terrorist organization, ranked as the group’s ghoulishly up-beat leader (and his last line in the film is a clincher).

One of his most famous roles, at least popularity-wise, was that of Frank Cleary in the universally obsessed-over and widely seen 1983 TV miniseries/novel adaptation of The Thorn Birds.

Almost immediately after, in what would be his last film performance, Friedrich played the motley character Zorich in the Samuel Arkoff-produced 80’s slasher film The Final Terror (1983). Zorich was an inordinately macho, military-minded, forest survivalist-type with a backwoods accent and a penchant for psychedelic drugs. Friedrich’s menacing/goofball portrayal is weirdly one of his most serious roles, and stands out from the rest of the cast, who were reduced to cookie-cutter performances as per usual for horror films of that time (although many in the cast went on to have broader careers; Rachal Ward, Daryl Hannah, Adrian Zmed). The film is categorically “bad” but indeed very interesting, and Friedrich’s mysterious performance is undoubtedly one of the factors that drags it over that edge. More timberland atmosphere than splattering gore (and only one gratuitous sex scene!), The Final Terror has developed a small cult following amongst fans of 70’s and 80’s horror flicks for it’s unique qualities within the genre (a victim of multi-regional marketing, the film also ended up with a pick-a-card roster of official and unofficial titles: A Bump In the Night, Campsite Massacre, Carnivore, The Creeper, Forest Primeval). The movie has a really odd ending, in which the entire cast is saved from the killer (who’s some kind of mossy forest hag with a twisted Oedipus complex) by one of Zorich’s elaborate, psychedelic mushroom-inspired survivalist killer “traps” made out of trees and rope - which he had been working on in private while they had been packing mud on their faces and sticking branches in their hair in a comically vain attempt to fool the murderer.

After The Final Terror, Friedrich seemed to drop out of acting, and into thin air. All filmographies for him list The Final Terror as his last project, and no information seems to exist about what he has done in the entertainment industry since (or even before his career began). Small pockets of discussion on the internet, at film listing websites and message boards, occasionally discuss his whereabouts with the usual transitory hearsay and gossip that the internet specializes in. Theories range from the practical (he became a surgeon) to the bizarre (he became Ken Wahl’s live-in gardener). There is a notorious and long-since dead Australian criminal also named John Friedrich, that at least one official actor listing site (Answers.com) has confused him with (when I first saw this, I popped my eyes back in my head as soon as I realized it was a digital goof). It’s almost shocking that the consummate John Friedrich stopped working in film. Whatever happened to this magnetic thespian individualist? Why did his filmography evaporate at the 1983 marker point? What halted the momentum? As it stands now, he becomes his own answer to the phrase “…what ever happened to?”

UPDATE: John Friedrich has been found. See here, here and the current comments section on his page at imdb.com.

(John Friedrich at imdb.com)

H.

This is part two of my “Actors Who Have Fallen Off The Face Of The Earth? series, where I write about un-discussed actors who have had relatively hidden careers in cinema (ranging from very brief to just one film) and have then literally vanished, for whatever reason - untraceable by imdb.com, Google, etc.