Jerry Ballew stands near a treasured saddle—one of many pieces of cowboy paraphernalia he acquired during his lively film career.
Ballew (left) on the set with director Robert Redford in the filming of A River Runs Through It
“Lucy” Ball and Ballew goofing around during the filming of Mame
Director John McTiernan (left) with Ballew in the filming of The Hunt for Red October
Behind the lens: the life and career of Jerry Ballew
Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Sean Connery, Marlon Brando—all of these names have become synonymous with talent, great success, and fame. Jerry Ballew may not be a household name like these superstars of Hollywood—with whom he has worked at various points in his career—but Ballew has played an instrumental role in making dozens of critically acclaimed, award-winning films.
When a great painting or sculpture is admired, it is the painter or sculptor who receives the accolades. But when applauding a great film, paying tribute where tribute is due is not so simple. Films are predicated on collaboration, and the collective talents of many different people. So, is film art? Says Ballew, “I speculated about this idea of is film art in the first place, and I would have to say that, just like with a novel or a great play, it can be. You have all these creative endeavors coming together... You go out and film and you make the pieces of the puzzle, but post-production is where a lot of the film is made. Once you have the pieces in a collaborative art, and if all the pieces work, then suddenly we call it art.”
Ballew spent much of his career working as a first assistant director, but as a youth, he wanted to be an actor or, more specifically, Laurence Olivier. Ballew was born in Santa Fe and spent much of his childhood in Tesuque. During his formative years, his family felt the effects of a big financial recession sweeping America. His father was an automobile dealer who eventually lost his dealership and moved the family to Albuquerque. Before moving, Ballew had wanted to try his hand at acting, but held back due to peer pressure to be something else. Says Ballew, “I had always wanted to act... but I wouldn’t do it because I was a cowboy and my peer pressure was too strong—I just couldn’t do it.” Once in Albuquerque at Highland High School—the city’s only college prep school at the time—Ballew took up acting, and turned out to be quite good at it. Eddie Snap, a director at UNM, was impressed by Ballew’s performance in a play at Highland, and recruited him to play a lead role in a show at UNM. Ballew’s acting teacher at Highland played a pivotal role in his development as an actor, not only offering him support and encouragement, but also getting him a screen test at 20th Century Fox and a scholarship at Goodman Theater in Chicago.
After years of schooling and auditions, Ballew realized that his acting career wasn’t progressing. He was working as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles while trying to further his career as an actor, and decided that it was time to get a job. Soon after, he started the Directors Guild of America training program, and learned that directing and producing suited his personality better than acting. Says Ballew, “I realized that I didn’t really fit in with the lifestyle (of acting). I just didn’t feel comfortable being in the fast lane. I was a country boy.”
Ballew’s decision to leave acting for directing—in which he holds a Masters degree—proved to be a good one. He worked as first assistant director or in production management on such films as A River Runs Through It, Down Periscope, Don Juan DeMarco, The Thing Called Love, City Slickers and The Hunt for Red October. Ballew says that working in the production department concerns getting the film made, physically. “It’s more like being a stage manager in the theater—dealing with logistics, running everything. The voice that’s heard on set is that of the first assistant director.” Ballew feels that he could have been a successful director as well but, “strangely enough, did not have a desire to direct.” He is a self-proclaimed right-brained person, who “ended up in a left-brained job.” Still, his creativity and artistic impulses were fundamental in his career. Says Ballew, “You get creative thinking about how, for example, you can make the background come alive. There’s a lot that goes on that you have to manipulate, in addition to which are all the daily calls.”
Ballew has worked closely with many Hollywood greats throughout his career, but a few stood out to him for reasons other than fame and fortune. He was impressed, for example, by Robert Redford’s candor and sincerity. Having worked with Redford on such films as A River Runs Through It and The Great Waldo Pepper, Ballew found Redford to be “a man of impeccable behavior and discretion, just a class guy.” Marlon Brando’s attentiveness toward others was also memorable for Ballew. Working alongside him on Don Juan DeMarco, starring both Brando and Johnny Depp, Ballew noticed that Brando was “totally other-directed—a true observer of people and genuinely interested in people.”
New Mexico has been home for Ballew for most of his life. Since jobs took him to various filming locations, he didn’t need to maintain a permanent home in Los Angeles. His career enabled him to live the rural life he desired, while going on location as needed. In addition to a farm in Taos, where Ballew and his family lived for thirty years, he has lived in Boulder Creek, CA and Lake Sherwood, CA. Says Ballew, “I just kept moving further and further until I got back home.” He’s been retired for twelve years, and has called Placitas home for the past six.
Films can be a lot of things—entertaining, moving, inspirational, beautiful. Some people consider filmmaking an art, others consider it a craft, and still others regard it as a skill. But there is no disputing the fact that films can have all the qualities of an artistic masterpiece, and when they do, it is because many people, with varying ideas and abilities, came together to make something whole. For over forty years, Ballew poured his drive, training and vision into dozens of projects which, now finished, can be called films—or even art, if they strike that certain chord within the viewer.