Download: The Wonderful and Rascally Fred Ward
Fred Ward was one of those actors like Charles Durning or JT Walsh – the kind that may not have gotten you out of your chair and into the theater, but when they showed up onscreen, you knew whatever you were watching was about to get better.
Ward first gained notice as a convict who lost his nerve in Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz in 1979. That film began a fifteen-year run of high profile projects for Ward. Over the next five years, he turned up in films like Walter Hill’s deeply underrated Vietnam parable Southern Comfort, as Gus Grissom in Philip Kaufmann’s masterpiece The Right Stuff, again in another true-to-life drama Silkwood for Mike Nichols, and in Jonathan Demme’s studio-butchered Swing Shift in 1984.
Ward was given a shot at leading man stardom with Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, a 1985 film that failed at the box office, ending the adventure just as it was getting started. That being said, the Remo Williams cult, however small, is as mighty as the Buckaroo Banzai following (which is to say mighty, if few). If you ever run into someone who has seen Remo Williams, odds are, they will speak of it in hushed tones, and with a tinge of sadness at what could have been.
Ward was largely relegated to the disparaging term of “character actor” after Remo went bust, but what are actors if not characters? And what are characters played by Fred Ward? Eminently watchable, I would say. Ward found another cult following with 1989’s Tremors (a film that one might find silly on the surface, but those who love it swear by it like a rosary). Whatever the case, every word out of Ward’s mouth was comic gold in that film. Ward scored again in the vastly underseen Miami Blues, a pretty gonzo pic that found Ward as a police sergeant chasing after Alec Baldwin’s ex-con under the sweaty Miami sun, and once again, stealing scenes with ease.
In 1990, Ward reteamed with his The Right Stuff director, Philip Kauffman to play a lead. This time in a biopic as the ribald and rascally, “dirty old man” of an author Henry Miller in Henry and June. While Ward was more than up to the part, the film received modest notice and never took flight. After the critical and commercial disappointment of Henry and June, Ward had a number of successes as a supporting actor during the remainder of the decade. In 1992 he was in the underseen but well regarded Thunderheart, gave a brilliant performance in Robert Altman’s classic Hollywood satire, The Player, and in 1993, he was seen in Tim Robbins’ terrific Altman-esque directorial debut, Bob Roberts. Altman’s masterpiece Short Cuts followed, also in 1993, as well as a hilarious turn in Naked Gun 33 1/3 the next year.
Then, strangely, the quality of Ward’s options simply dried up over the final quarter century of his career. There were no more cult classics, or supporting turns in high-profile productions. What a miss those 25 years were on the part of casting directors in Hollywood. Fred Ward was a wonderful talent, and for fifteen years he was a go-to when filmmakers were looking for a flinty actor who could fit into any kind of film with ease. Why he didn’t have the same career as Ed Harris (his co-star in The Right Stuff) is a bit of mystery to me, but being Fred Ward was plenty good in and of itself.
Fred Ward died today. He was 79 years old.