Actor John Howard takes an ISO selfie as he reads one of his poems.
Actor John Howard takes an ISO selfie as he reads one of his poems.

Renaissance man Howard brushes off the blues

IT'S ironic: the industry we are relying so heavily on to keep us occupied as we stay at home during the COVID-19 crisis is largely being ignored when it comes to financial handouts.

"It seems the spirit of our society is not considered essential,'' actor John Howard says.

"That's what we do: we tell stories about our society. Apparently, according to this Government, that's not essential, yet it seems in lockdown people find it extremely essential.''

Most of the industry participants who have brought us films, plays, operas, TV shows and music live on casual employment; day to day, contract to contract.

Add age into the mix and the immediate future is dire.

Howard, 67, a Silver Logie winner, star of many iconic Australian movies, plays and TV shows such as SeaChange and Packed to the Rafters can't qualify for JobKeeper, is too old to receive JobSeeker and is far from ready to retire, so the pension isn't the answer either.

There is no reason for him to stop working; he knows he can keep going until he drops, as long as there are acting roles for him.

On March 15 and in the throes of delivering a stellar performance in Melbourne as part of the national tour of the comedy show Senior Moments, Howard found himself unemployed and on a plane home to Sydney.

The upside of that experience? He discovered he has a "beautiful" singing voice. Delivering Puccini's Nessun Dorma in a mock opera during the show, Howard was quite surprised he could do it, and well. Could he add this to his long list of talents? Yes, he declares.

John Howard's side-kick, Colin the Cafe Kelpie.
John Howard's side-kick, Colin the Cafe Kelpie.


During this social isolation around Howard, many of his colleagues are continuing to develop acting material, but with a reduction in arts industry government grants and the restrictions around social gathering, several have turned to Woolworths, working stacking shelves. Howard holds some hope that his writer colleagues will remember to include roles for older actors.

"Normally (when a job finishes), you go and get a job somewhere to keep some cash coming through,'' Howard says. "Over the 45 years I have been working, sometimes I have been working and sometimes I haven't. This is unusual as there aren't options.''

Back in his apartment at the seaside suburb of Manly, the past few months have been a time of reflection for Howard as he struggles with no income.

Reinvention is currently the most obvious option for him. Howard is keeping himself amused by writing poems, or "Pome'', as he calls them - because he doesn't like to take himself too seriously - and painting. He posts his work to his Facebook #JohnHoward and Instagram #JohnHoward ActorOfficial accounts.

Encouraged to share his work, unruly-haired Howard dons the iso poet's dark glasses and launches into reading his favourite Pome, called Grace.

"And now a gentleness comes to us.

In the eye of our storm of desire and fear.

A quietness my love.

Out of our talking, into our listening.


The most beautiful word I know my love comes to us.

And we can be truly happy."


Actor John Howard's painting of Scamp.
Actor John Howard's painting of Scamp.


There's not much money in poems, Howard admits, but his newly discovered painting talent is another thing. Last year he "invaded" the studio of artist and friend Sophie Gralton.

While cleaning her brushes, he found the inspiration to try painting a parrot.

"Some months later I put it on Facebook to see what would happen," Howard says. "Someone bought it. I thought, hello! So, I painted a few more birds, then I got a run on ibises and from there it went to 'Can you paint my dog?'."

When the mood takes him and the artistic side of his brain gets juiced up, he will spend 20 minutes or up to eight hours a day painting. Howard has also taken on painting people, but those efforts are not for showing yet.

The idea of an exhibition is brewing in his brain but that will happen sometime in the future as he develops more material and skills and waits for the world to return to normal.

"I am really enjoying it, so I am looking to be as good as I can."

Facebook has become an important tool for Howard to remind his many followers "I am still around; I haven't shuffled off to Buffalo".

He's also accepted an advocacy role with the Queensland organisation Designer Life, which offers career transition for mature-age job seekers.

"It's about retraining people over 40. There's going to be a lot of that going on," Howard says.

"The reason I am doing this is I think it's a very worthwhile thing for people to be considering.

"The longer this goes on, I am thinking I am going to have to reinvent myself.

"A lot of us are having to reinvent what we are doing, who we are and how we are going to make a living."


Another of John Howard's paintings.
Another of John Howard's paintings.