Karen is Conrad’s friend from the psychiatric hospital. Conrad tries to reconnect with her after they leave the hospital, but they are no longer close. When Conrad learns she has committed suicide his discovery precipitates a crisis. Exploring his emotions about her death helps Conrad to finally heal the pain from his brother’s tragic death. In the film, Karen is played by Tony Award–winning actress Dinah Manoff, best known for her sitcom roles.
Dr. Tyrone C. Berger
Dr. Berger is Conrad’s therapist. In the novel, he is quirky and eccentric. In the film, Berger is more low-key and focused. Berger teaches Conrad that expressing his feelings is vital to good mental health. He helps Conrad recognize that he is not responsible for his brother Buck’s death and that he needs to forgive himself for both surviving the boating accident and attempting suicide. In the film, Dr. Berger is played by Judd Hirsch, who received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.
Beth Jarrett, Conrad’s mother, is a perfectionist and expects those around her to be perfect as well. She views Conrad’s suicide attempt as punishment directed at her and cannot understand her son’s emotional problems. She resists sharing her feelings and wants life to return to the way it was before Buck’s death. In the end, she distances herself from her husband Calvin, blaming him for becoming depressed about what has happened to their family. Calvin sees that Beth’s perfectionism and practicality function to cover up her fears about losing control. In the novel, Beth’s character is developed through the points of view of her husband and son. In the film, Beth is played by Mary Tyler Moore, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama) and received both an Academy Award nomination and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture for the role.
Buck, Conrad’s, brother, dies in a boating accident before the story begins. Throughout the story, Conrad’s need to be in control and feelings of guilt and responsibility are contrasted with Buck’s easygoing manner. In the film, Buck is played in flashbacks by Scott Doebler.
Calvin, Conrad’s father, battles his grief over his son Buck’s death and his sense of guilt about Conrad’s suicide attempt. Calvin tries to hold the family together, but his overwhelming concern for his son causes a rift between he and his wife. In the end, he becomes closer to Conrad when he realizes he needs to accept his emotions, rather than control them as his wife does. He finally puts his son first. In the novel, Calvin Jarrett provides one of the main points of view. In the film, Calvin is played by Donald Sutherland.
Ordinary People opens after seventeen-year-old Conrad attempts suicide in the wake of his brother Buck’s death in a boating accident. It follows his personal development as he works through his guilt with his therapist, Dr. Berger, over surviving the accident. In the process, he deepens his relationship with his father, Calvin, and learns to accept and forgive himself for his suicide attempt. Much of the novel is told from Conrad’s point of view. In the film, Conrad is played by Timothy Hutton, who won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, as well as a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture for his debut performance.
See Buck Jarrett
Ray is Calvin’s law partner of many years. He tries to advise Calvin on his marital troubles. Calvin feels misunderstood by Ray, who, like Beth, does not understand the depth of his grief over the loss of his son, Buck, and the worry and concern he feels for his troubled son, Conrad. In the film, Ray is played by James B. Sikking, best known for his role as Lieutenant Hunter on the popular 1980s television series Hill Street Blues.
Before Ordinary People begins, Lazenby had been one of Conrad’s best friends; both boys were on the swim team. However, Conrad finds the friendship difficult to sustain after Buck’s death. Their friendship crumbles until Conrad can once again appreciate Lazenby’s genuine concern. In the film, Lazenby is played by Fredric Lehne, whose career spans television, film, and theater.
Jeannine is Conrad’s first serious girlfriend. Both she and Conrad have a personal history of depression and family difficulties. Because Jeannine can relate to Conrad’s personal struggles, she makes him feel less isolated and alone. He is attracted to her compassion and empathy. In the film, Jeannine Pratt is played by Elizabeth McGovern.
Salan coaches the swim team. He is very hard on Conrad when his performance on the team suffers after Buck’s death and his own suicide attempt, even grilling him about his hospitalization. Conrad’s feelings of guilt and shame are triggered by this confrontation and lead him to quit the swim team. In the film, Salan is played by M. Emmet Walsh, who has acted in over one hundred film and television productions.
Stillman is a diver on Conrad’s swim team whose irritating remarks and insensitive behavior lead Conrad into the first fight of his life. In the film, Kevin Stillman is played by Adam Baldwin.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Judith Guest, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010