John Wood – How I Clawed My Way to the Middle

The long awaited autobiography of one of Australia’s best loved actors.

‘Your job is to go out there, grab the audience by the balls, and drag them up on stage with you!’ I was flabbergasted. This I understood. A language that I spoke – had spoken most of my life. It was the best acting note I ever got.

John Wood grew up in working-class Melbourne; when he failed out of high school, an employment officer told him, ‘You have the mind of an artist and the body of a labourer.’ And so John continued to pursue his acting dreams in amateur theatre, sustaining himself by working jobs as a bricklayer, a railway clerk and even in the same abattoir as his father.

When he won a scholarship to NIDA, in Sydney, it moved John into a new and at times baffling world, full of extraordinary characters. It was the start of a decades-long acting career, most famously on shows such as Rafferty’s Rules and Blue Heelers, where his charm made him beloved in households across the country. His popularity was such that he was nominated for a Gold Logie nine times in a row, finally culminating in a win in 2006.

How I Clawed My Way to the Middle is a beguiling memoir from one of Australia’s most cherished actors on both stage and screen. Full of humility, warmth and humour, it tells of the ephemeral nature of theatre, the luminous personalities John encountered along the way, and the perilous reality of life as a professional actor in Australia.

Thanks to the publisher Penguin, TV Flashback caught up with John Wood to discuss his new autobiography.

1) Where did the idea for the book come from?

From life, I guess. I had no intention of writing a book – it had occurred to me, but I’d never taken it seriously. Then my agent, Cathy Baker, a bit over a year ago, said it would be a good idea if you write a memoir, and I said “I don’t know if that’s true.”

She took a little piece of writing I’d done about being at a non-denominational Sunday School, which I thought was not a bad little story, and I said “well you know, if they’re interested in this approach to my life, maybe we’ll have a go.” She gave it to someone at Penguin, and the next thing you know they’d offered an advance and we were away.

So it was all a bit unexpected, really. And now there’s a book you can hold in your hands, and it’s published, and it’s released this week. Which is really extraordinary.

2) Did Covid make an impact on the book?

I had finished writing it. It does get a mention towards the end.

The last show I did was David Williamson’s final play, a play called Crunch Time, which was about a family going through the ageing and illness of the patriarch of the family, whom I play. He decides that when it’s time to go, he wants somebody in the family to inject him so that he doesn’t have to go through the horrible depravations of cancer. So it’s a fairly tough piece. At the moment of course, you know in many states, and in Victoria, assisted dying is actually legal. Except in New South Wales, which is where David has set the play, which is where we were doing it.

I was doing it at the Ensemble at Kirribilli, and that was the first time I’ve ever worked there. What a great place the Ensemble is, old fashioned theatre of the type that I’ve always wanted to perform in as a kid growing up. And it was lovely to do what may be, with the way things are going, my last performance.

3) Can you give us taste of what to expect from the book?

Well, there’s nothing salacious in it. It’s no reveal-all memoir. It’s just basically about how I lived in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, and sort of fell into the world of the theatre and television. It was never my intention to, I’d never had an interest in television and it’s not something I ever thought I’d do. But I’ve spent half my career on television, and achieved some sort of fame and notoriety in the industry. The whole thing is unexpected.

I guess the book, in a way, is about my lack of preparedness for the business of show. When I was growing up, nobody had any idea of how you went about becoming an actor, and nobody had any aspirations to work on TV. I grew up like most people my age, with the most famous person around being Graham Kennedy. There were a few actors, but most people had never heard of actors. They didn’t know what actors were. I think the only names that anybody had ever heard in the area I grew up in were maybe Frank Thring, but you can’t guarantee that. Googie Withers would have been, and maybe Rod Taylor because he went to Hollywood and became famous. Chips Rafferty, of course. But that’s all anybody knew about acting.

I had no expectations. I consider myself extremely lucky to have done what I’ve done in the life I’ve had. I couldn’t have dreamed of it as a child, I couldn’t have dreamed of the way it would go. And you know like I said, Graham Kennedy was the most famous person in the country and I ended up working with him once, which was a great thrill.

4) Do you think young actors feel the same way working with you now?

Well, maybe. I had an experience not that long ago, where Sammy J asked if I’d do a role in a show that he was doing. It was the role of a judge, and I at the time didn’t understand Sammy’s sense of humour, and I said “I can’t play a judge like this, it’s just not truthful.” That goes to show how straight-laced I am. I saw some of the show go to air, and Francis Greenslade played it and played it brilliantly. If I’d known that’s what Sammy wanted, I would have been quite happy to do it. Very happy to do it. I think he’s a bit of a comic genius, actually.

I think he’s extremely clever and I’d love the opportunity to work with him now, but I’d probably burnt my boats [laughs].

5) Do you have a point in your career that you look back to and think, “that was the turning point, that’s where my career took off”?

There was a point where I didn’t want to do it anymore, and I settled into a life of writing television drama. I worked at Crawfords, mainly Crawfords. I was writing Cop Shop, and Prisoner, and The Sullivans, and basically had given up on acting. The sort of roles I was playing in new shows like Cop Shop, where I’d be a small time crim and I’d do something naughty, and John Orcsik would bash me up and arrest me, and I thought this is not what I wanted to be an actor for. I wanted to be in a situation where I’d made some sort of social commentary on the society in which I lived. I sort of stopped, and the writing stuff, there was a level of anonymity about it, where if you’re an actor on screen and people see you… I thought, this is not how I want to be remembered. So I thought if I write it, nobody will know who I am, and nobody will remember me.

It was not until about 1980 that I got a phone call from an old theatre mate called Nick Enwright, who’s now unfortunately passed away, and he said that he’d been talking to Jim [Sharman], and Jim would like to work with me. I’d met Jim back in the late ’60s, and I thought we had nothing in common. Jim was an absolute hippy and a great showman, and I thought “we’ve got nothing in common, why would Jim want to talk to me.”

I got in contact with him, and he asked me to come to Adelaide to do a play called Lulu with Judy Davis. I don’t think it was a massive hit, but it was okay. It was great to work with somebody of Judy Davis’ calibre, and the other people who were in the cast. While we were doing it, Jim said “I’m forming a company over here next year called Lighthouse. It’s going to be an ensemble, would you like to be in it?” I said, without any hesitation, yes I’d love it.

I ended up going to Adelaide for what became two years working with the same group of people. Geoffrey Rush of course, Kerry Walker, Martin Vaughan, Gillian Jones. All of whom were wonderful people to work with. At the end of that two years, we took a couple of shows back to Sydney, which culminated in playing Alan Bond in one case, and Michael Rafferty in another.

That basically changed the entire course of my career.

6) What have been some of your career highlights? The big events?

The really big event in my life was back in the early ’70s. I was asked to do Power Without Glory for the ABC, based on Frank Hardy’s book of the same name. It had been a very notorious book, based on the life of John West, who was a bit of a go-getter around Melbourne from the turn of the century right through to the ’50s. He was much involved with Collingwood, which in the book and TV show is Carringbush. I played a character called Sugar Renfrey, who aged during the course of the series.

We did 26 episodes over a period of 18 months, and my character aged from 18 to 72. At the time I was 24, maybe 28. It was a massive hit. It was the first big historical series made by the ABC, or by anybody in Australia, and it had an amazing cast. Martin Vaughan as John West, and Ros Speirs as his wife. Myself, Michael Aitkens, Wendy Hughes, John Hargreaves. Everybody who was anybody, and people who were nobody, were all in it. I met people whom I’ve worked with in the Crawfords days, like George Mallaby and Terry Donovan. I remember Terry used to bring his son for rehearsals. His son was Jason, who was this 3-4 year old boy who was always hanging around the rehearsal room because that’s where his dad was.

That was the big event in my career. At the time I was working for the Melbourne Theatre Company, and the artistic director, John Sumner, now that I’d become a TV actor he refused to employ me [laughs] so I had to go further afield.

It was a massive change in my fortunes. One door had opened, and a door on a whole new range of activities, but seemingly closed the door on a whole lot of others. I ended up working on stage again, but I ended up spending half my career on television, which was never my intention. I always had the view that I would always – and only – work in the theatre.

It’s interesting. When I was young, everyone sort of thought of television as this poor cousin. There was the potential of Hollywood style movies, which I never got into. Not that I didn’t want to, I would have jumped at the chance had it offered itself. I used to think theatre’s what’s important. The reason I like theatre so much is because of the spontaneity of it. The response you get from the audience. You tell a joke, and the audience erupts in laughter. There’s nothing more thrilling for an actor than to have an audience laugh at your jokes. Or, conversely, cry along with you at the tragedy. So the thing I love about theatre is that spontaneity, but I’d learned how to find that in television as well.

I certainly wouldn’t have ended up doing Blue Heelers for as long as I did if I didn’t love the medium as well.

Special thanks to John and Penguin for this interview, we have more interviews with John coming up. To learn more about his career, make sure you purchase a copy of John’s Book.