Snakkle: Since you started out in theater at such a young age—working both onstage and behind the scenes—did you want to transition to TV and movies as an actor, or did you feel that your calling was more behind the scenes?
Kelly Ward: Being surrounded by it as a kid and being encouraged to perform as a kid, you always kind of do what your parents would rather you not do. Or you yearn to do the thing that’s not encouraged. So as a young child I was always auditioning for and doing an operetta or plays that required kids, like Peter Pan or Oliver or The Music Man. And when I got to be about 12 or 13, I decided I don’t want to do that anymore. But it was still the thing that the family was doing, so I kind of transitioned behind the scenes then.
Snakkle: Do you remember the moment you felt that you had made it, or that acting was really going to work out for you?
Ward: The thing that kind of flipped a switch for me was I came to Los Angeles to go to college. I was 17. I went to USC. They’ve got a great film school. And I wound up doing a play that got the attention of a graduate student in the film school named Terry Cahalan. Terry was a real bright light as a student filmmaker at USC, following not too long after George Lucas and Randal Kleiser, and John Milius. Terry cast me in his graduate student film. He wrote the script as well. And it wound up winning an Academy Award.
Snakkle: Really? Your first movie?
Ward: Yeah. So that kind of hooked me—Groucho Marx presented the award to Terry for best student filmmaking of 1975.
Snakkle: How does it feel to be a part of Grease, which is such an iconic movie and institution?
Ward: It’s a great thing to be a part of that phenomenon. It’s oft repeated, but none of us really had any idea that it would be as successful and pervasive as it is. So it’s always a delight and a surprise when it seems to keep going eternally. But the real source of joy for those of us who did it is the fact that we keep in relatively regular contact. It’s an extended family. We give each other a lot of support. Of course, we’ve lost a few.
Snakkle: Who did you bond with most in the cast while you were filming?
Ward: I bonded with everybody. Actually it wasn’t the cast so much as our creative visionaries, Pat Birch and Randal Kleiser. They both gave us incredible freedom to work within a set structure: a choreographic structure in the case of Pat, and a directorial structure in the case of Randal. But then we were allowed to improvise entire scenes. Working with the script and then setting the script aside and discovering behaviors and interactions that were character specific—that was very freeing. We had two weeks of rehearsal on the songs and the dance numbers before we ever rolled cameras, so that was fun.
Snakkle: What are your specific memories of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John?
Ward: John was very playful on the set. In fact, we found that we were both very blessed as people in the business to have been born into families that were encouraging about the indie arts. We found that to be a common bond, and from time to time we would do little soft-shoe kind of steps and tap-dance when there was free time, and that was always fun. And I was head over heels for her. I had the most profound crush on her. She is one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever met, bar none. Graceful, elegant, gentle, never had an unkind word, and she was—God bless her—she was very flirty, though even at the time I knew she was just being kind.
Snakkle: What about the late Jeff Conaway?
Ward: Gosh, I have so many memories of Jeff. He was just playful and naughty, and that’s making it sound really nice. He was just wicked. We had a boys’ night out on the town that Jeff instigated I think for John’s birthday. And we went out and painted the town red one night. Even though he was kind of second in command of our movie group, in real life he was a take-charge kind of guy in terms of ‘Hey let’s go.’ ‘Let’s go here to get a meal’ or ‘Let’s go here to do such and such.’ He was pure theatrical animal, Jeff Conaway.
Snakkle: Let’s talk about your career now. You became a writer working on dozens of projects in the animation world, and then also became a vocal/dialogue director. How did that happen?
Ward: I began to see an alarming decrease in the amount of jobs I was booking as an actor, and as the number of children was growing at home, I got a great opportunity to get a job at Hanna-Barbera. At the end of six years there, I had gotten pretty friendly with Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. I used the leverage of [one of my] scripts to get an opportunity to voice-direct as well, because I thought it would be fun and I was interested in doing that. So I voice-directed that and did a couple other voice-directing things before leaving Hanna-Barbera.
Snakkle: But you still write, too…
Ward: I’ve been writing Jake and the Never Land Pirates and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. They very generously allow me to pitch stories and write for them whenever I desire. And that’s a blessing. It’s really lovely. And it’s an advantage to be so intimately acquainted with the voices and the actors that do the voices.
Snakkle: I know there is a very fun holiday special premiering December 2. Any other scoop you can share on what to expect this season on Jake and the Never Land Pirates?
Ward: Well, I think that you can look forward to periodic visits from Peter Pan. He might just pop up…
Don’t forget to watch Jake and the Never Land Pirates holiday episodes “It’s a Winter Never Land!/Hook on Ice” December 2 at 8:30 a.m. ET/PT on the Disney Channel.