Heard was born on March 7, 1945 in Washington, D.C.; he was the son of Helen (Sperling), who was involved in the arts and appeared in community theatre, and John Henry Heard, who worked for the office of the Secretary of Defense. Heard was raised as a Catholic.
Heard attended Gonzaga College High School, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. He grew up with two sisters, one of whom, Cordis, is also an actress, and a brother, Matthew, who died in 1975.
In the 1970s, Heard appeared on the stage and in television and film. He appeared off-Broadway in 1974 in Mark Medoff's play The Wager and in 1975 as Guildenstern in HAMLET at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, where he also understudied Sam Waterston as Hamlet. That fall, the production moved to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Heard appeared at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in 1977 in a series of new plays. Heard won Obie Awards for his performances in Othello and Split in 1979–80. He was the male lead in the 1979 film Head Over Heels (which was renamed and re-released as Chilly Scenes of Winter in 1982).
In 1981, he had the starring role of Alex Cutter in the film Cutter's Way. He played the lover of Nastassja Kinski, one of the main characters, in the remake of Cat People (1982). He co-starred as photographer George Cooper in C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, 1984) alongside future Home Alone co-star Daniel Stern and in The Trip to Bountiful (1985). In Heaven Help Us (aka, Catholic Boys, 1985), Heard played as a monk named Brother Timothy in the comedy-drama film. In After Hours (also 1985), Heard was bartender Tom Schorr.
He was seen in the film The Milagro Beanfield War and had a significant role playing Paul, Tom Hanks's adult corporate competitor and jilted boyfriend of Elizabeth Perkins, in Big (both 1988). He co-starred with Bette Midler in Beaches (also 1988), starred in Deceived (1991), with Goldie Hawn, playing Jack Saunders, and had a supporting role in Gladiator (1992), with Cuba Gooding Jr.
In 1990 Heard starred in the philosophical film Mindwalk, in which three characters from different socialitical and poetical backgrounds express their opinions on the human experience, and around the same time, he was in Awakenings alongside Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. He played Daugherty in the film Radio Flyer (1992) and FBI agent Gavin Vereek in The Pelican Brief (1993). He starred with Samuel L. Jackson in 1997's One Eight Seven and was featured in the 2000 miniseries Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.
In 1990, Heard starred in arguably his most memorable mainstream role as Peter McCallister in the comedy hit Home Alone. He played the part of Kevin's father who unwittingly leaves his son at home when making a Christmas trip to France. Heard chose to characterize the role with a combination of concerned dramatic acting of a father missing his son along with more classical comedic tropes. The film was one of the biggest hits of 1990, and Heard reprised the role of McCallister in the sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
Heard featured in a television production of The Scarlet Letter (1979) as Arthur Dimmesdale. He played real-life Ku Klux Klan leader D. C. Stephenson in the TV miniseries Cross of Fire (1989) and played the part of David Manning in the ABC miniseries adaptation of Shirley MacLaine's Out on a Limb, a memoir of her journey toward acceptance of spiritual and extraterrestrial realities. Heard also had roles on The Sopranos as the troubled corrupt detective Vin Makazian for which he received an Emmy nomination as outstanding guest actor, and later on Battlestar Galactica as Commander Barry Garner.
He had recurring roles on CSI: Miami (as Kenwall Duquesne, father of Calleigh Duquesne) and Prison Break (as Frank Tancredi, governor of Illinois and father of Sara Tancredi). Among other film and television roles in the 2000s and 2010s, he played the mayor of Chicago on two episodes of the Fox series The Chicago Code.
In 2008, Heard was asked about his career and he replied,
Heard married actress Margot Kidder in 1979, but they separated after only six days.
In 1987, he had a son, John Matthew "Jack" Heard III, with ex-girlfriend Melissa Leo. Heard was arrested in 1991 and charged with third-degree assault for allegedly slapping Leo. In 1997, he was found guilty of trespassing at Leo's home in Baltimore, Maryland's Fell's Point neighborhood, but was acquitted of charges of trespassing at their son's school.
In addition to Kidder, he was also married to Sharon Heard and Lana Pritchard. Sharon and Heard had two children together, a son Max (who died on December 6, 2016 at the age of 22) and daughter Annika. Heard and Pritchard married on May 24, 2010, in Los Angeles, and divorced about seven months later.
Heard died of a heart attack on July 21, 2017. His body was found by staff in a Palo Alto, California hotel, where he was reportedly recovering after minor back surgery at Stanford University Hospital. His back surgery did not play a role in his death. His death was confirmed by the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's office. He was buried in Old South Cemetery in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Source unless otherwise noted:1977 Theatre World Award for his performance in G.R. Point
1976–77 Obie Award, Best Performance, G.R. Point
1979–80 Obie Award, Best Performance, Othello and Split
1999 Emmy Award nomination, Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series (1999)
In 2003, he was inducted into the Gonzaga College High School Theatre Hall of Fame.
John Heard has appeared in 105 films and 67 television series over an almost 40 year career.