This story is part one in a two part series by John Chadwell on the Ward Brothers and their commitment to their hometown of Hollister. Brother Kip Ward is currently the principal of Ladd Lane Middle School, in Hollister. Each gives back to the community.
There’s a 1967 Carl Perkins song with the lyrics, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” which rings true for Hollister hometown son, Kirk Ward. When Ward graduated from San Benito High School in 1989, he had the distinction of being the class president and captain of the Haybalers football team. Back then, he only had a glimmer of a dream of being in entertainment. Today, he has achieved the trifecta of a Hollywood power broker as a screenwriter, producer and actor.
By any standard of success, Ward has managed to parlay a clandestine visit to a San Jose comedy club that whet his appetite for stand-up performing into a more than 20-year career that took him from the performing at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista to acting in movies, with his first being “Forrest Gump.” Along the way, he began writing his own material and eventually formed a partnership in producing films and television programming.
His most recent project is a television pilot, “Skyward,” for Amazon, a science fiction story that Ward describes as “X-Files meets Goonies.” He hopes that his many friends in Hollister will take a look while it is showing free for a month, vote on it and write comments. If the pilot generates enough hits and votes, he has the opportunity to launch it as a series. If they do watch it they may spot familiar names. Ward said as he was writing Skyward with his partner he was always thinking about Hollister and named a character after a high school teacher and also used Lone Tree Road as a location.
What sets Ward apart from probably many in Hollywood is that he has never forgotten his roots in his hometown. He still has family here and a wide circle of friends going back to his school days. He is so proud of his Hollister heritage that he often wears a red and white ball cap with a huge letter “H.” When his entertainment friends ask him if the H stands for Harvard, he proudly tells them it stands for Hollister. Inevitably, he says, they assume the clothing company, but he quickly educates them about the history of the farming community founded in 1868, and now famous for the annual motorcycle rally.
BenitoLink caught up with Ward on Sept. 1, while he was home over the Labor Day weekend. Besides spending time with family, he made an appearance, of sorts, at Ladd Lane Elementary School where his brother, Kip, who is the principal, had asked him to speak to the student body on leadership, as part of the “Turning Learners into Leaders” program. He was also in town to be part of a surprise retirement party for his mother, Patricia Ward, after shuttering her business, San Juan Antiques and Collectables.
When Ward spoke recently to the Ladd Lane students on leadership, his message to them was “never quite.” He’s open about not being particularly scholarly while in high school and said it came down to a drive to succeed that quickly moved him from standup comedy to films and beyond. He told the students that many of the extremely successful people he has worked with in Hollywood weren’t necessarily the smartest people, but he said they never give up.
Ward’s climb to the top began before he graduated from high school when his older brother snuck him into a comedy club in San Jose.
“My brother always recognized my sense of humor and I looked up to him,” Ward said about Kip taking him to the comedy club. After watching a comedian, Kirk turned to Kip and said, “I can do that.' And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I know.’”
His first step was to enroll in Gavilan College, where he took a theater class. He wrote a monologue for the class that he performed. His teacher, Marilyn Abahd-Cardinalli, who is now executive producer of the college educational channel, told him back then that El Teatro Campesino was doing a comedy cabaret night and suggested he try his material there.
Incidentally, while he was still in high school, he had seen Culture Clash, a comedy trio, there. He said he was mesmerized by their act, which ignited the first spark of interest in performing. After one performance, Phil Esparza asked Ward to come back the next week and offered him $50. Ward said he still has a copy of that first check to perform.
“I really crushed that night and my world changed,” he said. “The lights on face, the reaction from the crowd, my words making people laugh and thinking, ‘that was it,’ I was on my way. In a way, I’m still chasing the feeling that I got that night on stage.”
He continued to work nights at doing standup and then Luis Valdez cast him in a movie called “La Pastorela: The Shepherd's Tale.”
“I played a growling diablo opposite legendary comedian Paul Rodriguez,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening. I formed with a comedy troupe called The Alter Boys, and we wrote a play called ‘Praying for laughter” that was sold out for three months. Luis became a mentor of mine, someone I respect and admire. Recently, he wanted me to be in ‘Zoot Suit’ at the Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but I was doing ‘Skyward.’”
His writing began with a one-man show, “Three Stories Tall,” which was about growing up in Hollister, trying to leave and then coming back, where he was reunited with his father, who he had thought was dead for 10 years. He moved to San Francisco, where he worked for three years. He said he received his education in entertainment while there working with and meeting poets, artists, writers and performance artists, who exposed him to new and exciting creative works and books that he had never experienced while growing up in Hollister.
At first, he was daunted by the writing process. Then Culture Clash called him one day and asked him to come to Los Angeles to be part of a play they were doing.
“I said, ‘yes,’ and they said, ‘great, can you bring five bales of hay,’” he said and laughed at the memory of that day. “I packed up, came to Hollister, and went to Donny Marcus’ ranch out on Lone Tree Road, and I said ‘I’m moving to Los Angeles, can I have five bales of hay?’ And this is what I love about people from Hollister, he said ‘yup.’ I was just out there yesterday with my kids riding horses.”
He said he made his way to L.A., slept in his truck and when he met with Culture Clash, they realized he didn’t have a place to stay. Rick Salinas, one of the members, told Ward he could stay at his place.
“That play that we did in a 50-seat theater became a sketch comedy show on Fox Television three months later,” he said. “This is unthinkable, that this happened. I thought that’s how it worked. Suddenly, I was a writer and performer in this television show and I had a dressing room with my name on the door.”
After 30 episodes, he got his first audition for a movie, which was “Forrest Gump.” He was in just one scene with Tom Hanks, but it was enough to keep him going. While his career was not a straight trajectory upward to success, he never stopped writing. Along the way, he managed to join actor Tim Robbins’ Actor’s Gang workshop and was fortunate enough to be cast into a play as the lead character. As part of the group, he was involved in dozens of plays, some that he wrote, and others that he acted in. All the while, he was building his writing and acting skills. While he and his partner continue to rush around Hollywood pitching new projects, he continues to act on occasion.
Today, he describes himself as a writer who occasionally acts. While writing is the core skill, he says he often writes while thinking as an actor.
“Writing gives me access to expressing myself, so more doors will open,” he said. “When my writing partner, Greg Coolidge, and I go into a studio to pitch an idea, we’re performing.” He laughed and added, “Sometimes people will say, ‘you should think about acting.’ What happens a lot with me is people will say, ‘you look familiar,’ because I’ve been doing it for so long.”
“When we first sat down with Amazon for Skyward, he said the head of production commented, ‘you look familiar,’” Ward said. “I had started a pilot for Amazon three years ago called ‘Zombieland,’ that he was overseeing the production, but I shrugged it off because I didn’t want to put it in his head that ‘I’m about to give this guy x-amount of money who’s an actor,’ and I wanted him to think of me as a producer.”
Nickelodeon and Amazon both wanted to do it Skyward.
“We chose Amazon because they allowed us to do two things; the tone of it where we wanted a little bit of Goonies for some comedy, but it’s also a sci-fi thriller,” he said. “The other thing was you get to see your pilot. A lot of times you write something, develop it and it either goes on a shelf as a script or you shoot it and no one ever sees it.”
He said he and his partner will most likely know around October if Skyward will move forward into production as a series. But not to let any grass grow beneath his feet, they have just set up another project on YouTube Red, working with the producers of “Dead Pool” and “Invasion Iowa,” that he starred in with William Shatner, as well as “Zombieland.”
“That was originally a TV pilot they wrote for me years ago, then it became a movie with Woody Harrelson, and then a TV show again, which I ended up doing as a pilot,” he said. “Now we’re collaborating on a project that I can’t talk about because it hasn’t been officially announced.”
In discussing Skyward, he said he is not only proud of having produced it, but he’s also proud of the content he created for children, particularly his own two children.
“Stuff for kids are either dumbed down or too extreme and kids shouldn’t be viewing it because of inappropriate storylines and overtones,” he said. “We wanted to create something that kids could engage in and be excited about.”
For those who want to see the trailer for Skyward go to Amazon. And don’t forget to vote, preferably five stars, Ward joked, and add a comment.
Promo for Amazon pilots, including Skyward. Ward and his partner, Greg Coolidge, are also involved in a workshop for people trying to break into the film business. Go to their Tap into Hollywood site for details.