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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ewart, John Reford (1928–1994)

by Jennie Lees

This article was published online in 2020

John Reford Ewart (1928–1994), actor, was born on 26 February 1928 in Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Alfred Adam Ewart, insurance agent, and his wife Jennie Grace Lois Madge, née Macaulay. Encouraged by his mother, he established himself as an actor at an early age and never wanted to be anything else. Johnny played ‘Dopey’ in a 3XY radio production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, aged four. He attended Scotch College, Melbourne, for three years (1942–44) but often missed classes due to his freelance radio broadcast work. His first success on stage came in 1944 when he was praised in a review in the Argus for his supporting role in the New Theatre’s production of Tomorrow the World. He made his film debut in Charles Chauvel’s feature film Sons of Matthew (1949). The film, in which he played a leading role, proved popular with Australian audiences and was later adapted for release in Britain and the United States of America as The Rugged O’Riordans.

On 15 May 1951 at Littlejohn Memorial Chapel, Scotch College, Ewart married Lorraine Marie Croker, a beauty consultant from Sydney. The couple moved to Sydney and later divorced. From 1954 until 1972 Ewart co-hosted the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) radio show the Children’s Hour as ‘Jimmy’ or ‘Little Jimmy Hawkins’; he was also the voice of ‘Argo 29,’ the ‘Muddle-Headed Wombat,’ and other characters. In 1965 and 1966 he starred in the Phillip Theatre’s comedy revue A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down. The show was so popular that it ran for a full year and was performed over 250 times. Ewart rarely took a break. On 17 April 1966, he married Susan Mary Newton, a broadcasting presentation assistant, at Scots Kirk, Mosman. The marriage ended in divorce.

Ewart acted in numerous Australian television movies and series during the 1960s and 1970s, including Bellbird, Division 4, Homicide, and Matlock Police. Fulfilling his desire to return to film acting, in 1974 he was cast as ‘Peter’ in Peterson, a box office success directed by Tim Burstall. From then until 1992 he appeared in more than twenty Australian films, including Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Caddie (1976), Newsfront (1978), and Bush Christmas (1983). In 1976 he received two supporting actor nominations from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts for Let the Balloon Go and The Picture Show Man, winning the award for his role as ‘Freddie’ in the latter film.

Sturdy in build and short in stature, with wavy hair and a wide grin, Ewart was no matinee idol. He joked that he usually played ‘short, fat, curly haired idiots’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1994, 2). His larrikin charm, optimism, and good-natured likeability endeared him to others both on screen and off. On 24 December 1978 at the Wayside Chapel of the Cross, Potts Point, he married Patricia de Heer, a thirty-four-year-old divorcee who worked in public relations, but the marriage did not last. Ewart’s fourth significant relationship was with Jane Fennell. Known for her role as ‘Miss Jane’ (1976–86) on the ABC’s long-running television series Mr Squiggle, she was the daughter of the comedian Willie Fennell, an old friend of Ewart’s. They planned to marry in 1991, but the wedding was postponed when Ewart was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. After thirty months of treatment, when doctors told his family that his death was imminent, a marriage celebrant was called to his bedside. On 3 March 1994 at Greenwich Hospital he and Fennell married. Survived by his wife, the two sons from his first marriage, and the two daughters from his second, he died in the hospital five days later and was cremated.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘“Tomorrow the World.”’ 4 December 1944, 6
  • Craig, Michael. ‘Michael Craig Remembers John Ewart.’ Filmnews (Sydney), 1 April 1994, 13
  • Pate, Michael. ‘Picture Show Man of Irrepressible Comic Appeal.’ Australian, 11 March 1994, 17
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Actor Ewart Weds on His Deathbed.’ 15 March 1994, 2

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jennie Lees, 'Ewart, John Reford (1928–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/ewart-john-reford-27916/text35666, published online 2020, accessed online 27 October 2020.

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