Fred Ward was basically born too late. If he had been born a generation younger, he would’ve been along with other actors of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, such as Broderick Crawford, Fredric March and Ray Miland. They were actors playing men who had been through a lot in their lives and had the scars to prove it.
But Ward got into acting around when the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, so he was heavily regulated to supporting roles and ensemble movies such as Southern Comfort, Silkwood and Uncommon Valor. Every now and again, the man who was in the Air Force and a boxer as well as a lumberjack, got the lead role usually to take of advantage of his rugged looks. Unfortunately, many of these movies didn’t bode well. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was a bomb and heavily criticized for Joel Grey whitewashing as a Korean. However, now it’s considered more of a cult classic and has its fanbase. Then there was the dark comedy Cast a Deadly Spell, where he seemed perfectly cast as a private detective H. Phillip Lovecraft in the film noir meets dark magic HBO movie.
Remo is available streaming on YouTube. And Deadly Spell is on HBO Max. The latter was a brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit style of horror and fantasy mixed with comedy. Ward with his fedora and cheap suits looked just like a film noir PI and he was able to deliver the dialogue with the deadpan delivery.
But there were roles as Henry Miller in Henry & June and as Earl Bassett in Tremors, he seemed to fit just nicely in. Mainly it was because Henry Miller wasn’t a 1980s actor. And his past work as a janitor and short-order cook along with chopping wood made him perfect as the handyman-for-hire co-starring alongside with Kevin Bacon. Tremors is probably one of his best roles because he showed he had a knack for comedy. Ward and Bacon worked so perfectly off each other as two friends who were like a platonic married couple. Earl thought he was smarter than Bacon’s younger Val but was able to show his own gullible side.
Robert Altman cast him twice in The Player as a security chief at a major production studio where he shared the scene with Oscar winners Tim Robbins and Whoopi Goldberg and then Short Cuts where he goes on a fishing trip with friends, played by Buck Henry and Huey Lewis where they find a dead woman in the water. The ensemble movie in which he shared scenes alongside his Deadly Spell co-star Julianne Moore he and his friends decide to tie the woman up rather than ruin their fishing trip. He also was directed twice by Philip Kaufman, both in Henry & June, and also as Gus Grisom in The Right Stuff, with a subplot focusing on the explosive bolts causing the space module to sink into the ocean. One of his earliest big roles was as Alcatraz inmate John Anglin who escaped along with his brother, Clarence, and Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) from their cells but their bodies were later believed to have drowned in the San Francisco Bay.
In the screwball comedy, Big Business, he played a simpleton who leaves the miniature gold tournament he’s at to chase his fiance played by Lily Tomlin to New York City. And he was the villain in The Naked Gun 33 and 1/3: The Final Insult. And then there was his role as the overbearing father of D.J. Qualls’ character in Road Trip. Most of these roles played off his gruff persona.
An acting resume that was more than 40 years long, he played roles on TV and in movies, directed by Don Siegel, Walter Hill, Mike Nichols as well as Altman and Kaufman. But through those years, he hardly received many awards, except for a Golden Globe Award for the ensemble cast for Short Cuts as the Special Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival also for Short Cuts. This makes his role as a terrorist attempting to blow up the Oscars in third Naked Gun movie more comical.
Ward retired from acting following his role on the HBO show True Detective in 2015. He passed away on May 8 at 79. For many character actors, the goal is to work as much as you can. Sometimes, you don’t get the glory or the lead roles. But if you work long enough and appear in memorable roles and movies, you will also be a star.
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