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He Made Everything Better: Fred Ward (1942-2022)

Upon hearing the sad and unexpected news about the passing of actor Fred Ward, who died on May 8 at the age of 79, I, like so many of you, took a look back at the films he made during his career and came to two immediate conclusions. The first was that even though he had the craggy looks and gruff demeanor of an old school character actor who might have seemed perfectly at home in B-movies, he was also versatile enough to convincingly play everything from broad action to low comedy to serious historical drama. The second is that no matter how dire the project in question might have been (I’m looking at you, “Joe Dirt” and “Corky Romano”), his strong, sure presence alone was enough to improve whatever he happened to be in, even if it happened to only be during his scenes. Luckily, Ward left behind a large and largely wonderful body of work, including a number of films ripe for rediscovery, that will give both his fans and those somehow unfamiliar with his work a real sense of both his talent and range.

Ward was born in San Diego on December 30th, 1942 and spent his pre-acting years doing the kinds of things that you would expect the characters that he played to have in their backgrounds—three years in the Air Force and employment as a boxer, short-order cook and lumberjack in Alaska. After his stretch in the Air Force, he studied acting in New York and then relocated to Italy, where he found work dubbing Italian films into English and made his first appearances in a couple of films directed for television by no less of a figure than Roberto Rossellini. After returning to America, Ward had small roles in the fairly obscure Sissy Spacek comedy-drama “Ginger in the Morning” (1974) and the delightful cult comedy “Heart of the West” (1975). He had his big breakthrough as John Anglin, one of the three men who attempted to do the seemingly impossible in Don Siegel’s “Escape from Alcatraz.” Now, considering the fact that one of the other two men was played by Clint Eastwood at the absolute apex of his stardom, a lesser presence might have all but faded into the background but Ward more than held his own against his infinitely better-known co-stars. Audiences and critics alike both took notice of this new presence.

Over the next couple of years, he turned up in supporting roles in films like the Brooke Shields pinball epic “Tilt” (1979), the seedy carnival drama “Carny” (1980), the horror film “Cardiac Arrest” (1980), and the TV movie “Belle Starr” (1980). In 1981, he had another scene-stealing turn in Walter Hill’s intense cult favorite “Southern Comfort” playing one of a group of Louisiana Army National Guard soldiers who get lost on weekend maneuvers in a bayou and run afoul of a group of Cajuns who begin picking them off one by one. The next year, Ward got his first genuine lead role in “Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann,” a charming and undeservedly obscure sci-fi/Western hybrid (co-written by Michael Nesmith and director William Dear) in which he plays a celebrated motocross racer who accidentally stumbles into a time-travel experiment being conducted in the desert and is zapped back to 1877. In the hopes that the news of Ward’s passing will inspire some of you who have never seen the film to seek it out, I will preserve its surprises. But I will note that it's one of those movies with a premise so loopy it could have gone off the rails in any number of ways but stays steady throughout, in no small part due to Ward’s strong and laconic presence at its center.

1983 proved to be a big year for Ward with roles in three high-profile films. In Mike Nichols' “Silkwood,” he played opposite Meryl Streep as one of the co-workers of Karen Silkwood, the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant employee who died mysteriously while trying to expose unsafe conditions at the plant. In Ted Kotcheff's “Uncommon Valor,” he portrayed a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD recruited by a Marine colonel (Gene Hackman) as part of an ad-hoc platoon that goes off to Laos to rescue American solders that are still being kept as prisoners of war. 

The biggest of the bunch by far was “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kaufman’s exhilarating adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the early days of the American space program in which he played Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. At the time of the film's release, most of the attention revolved around Ed Harris’ portrayal of John Glenn and the possibility that it might help the real-life Glenn in his quest to become President. (Spoiler Alert—it didn’t.) However, the film's most significant dramatic moments revolved around Grissom, whose otherwise perfect orbital flight in 1961 ended in near-tragedy when his capsule’s hatch blew open after landing in the ocean, resulting in the loss of the craft and the widespread suggestion that he panicked and blew the hatch door too early despite his insistence that it happened on its own. The scenes in which Grissom finds what should have been his heroic moment transformed into a series of nightmarish humiliations are wrenching to behold and are one of the many reasons why the movie, which sadly failed to originally catch on with audiences, is now regarded as one of the true great American films of the 1980s.

After supporting turns in Jonathan Demme’s WWII homefront comedy-drama “Swing Shift” (1984) and the innocuous teen farce “Secret Admirer” (1985), Ward landed a couple of lead roles in films that failed to catch on with the public. The one you've probably heard of is “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (1985), which was meant to launch a new franchise based on the Destroyer pulp novel series co-created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Ward plays the lead, a tough Brooklyn cop recruited by a clandestine US organization, renamed Remo Williams, and trained in the deadly arts by Korean martial arts master Chiun, played by, of all people, Joel Grey. Okay, so perhaps certain aspects of the film have not aged particularly well over the years but the film, directed by one-time James Bond helmer Guy Hamilton, was still a sturdy action movie (the sequence set atop the Statue of Liberty is a standout) and Ward does a good job of handling both the straightforward action stuff and the lighter byplay between Remo and Chiun. Alas, for whatever reason, "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins" did not catch on with the general public, though it went on to develop a cult following over the years thanks to repeated airings on cable television.

The one you most likely haven’t heard of is 1984's “UFOria” and if I can hope for this article to do but just one thing, it would be to help point more people in the direction of this absolute charmer. (You can currently find it on YouTube, for example.) Written and directed by John Binder, the film features Ward as small-time con man Sheldon Bart and as the story opens, he has reunited with an old friend and fellow con man, Brother Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who now poses as a faith healer but also seems to have genuinely developed the power to heal. While helping Bud, he meets and falls in love with Arlene (Cindy Williams), a religious grocery clerk with a genuine belief in aliens who is convinced they will soon be visited by a UFO. While Bud tries to exploit her belief in order to inspire a money-making cult, Sheldon tries to protect her while also coming to terms with both his life and the possibility that there is indeed life outside of our planet. 

Now doesn’t that sound like a fairly intriguing premise for a movie to you. Hell, I would submit that just the existence of a film top-lining the likes of Ward, Stanton, and Williams would make it worth seeking out regardless of what it was about. Happily, the film proved to be an absolute delight with a lot of offbeat humor, some thoughtful moments to boot, and spirited performances from the three leads—if you liked the films of Jonathan Demme like “Melvin and Howard” and “Citizens Band,” this one is right up your alley. Unhappily, Universal, who produced the film in 1981, lost faith in it and put it on a shelf until a good reception at a 1984 film festival inspired them to give it a brief release the next year, albeit without any ad support. Despite glowing reviews, it quickly disappeared and, save for a brief VHS release in 1987, has remained maddeningly obscure, at least in part because of the expense of licensing the songs featured on the soundtrack. However, if you ever get a chance to see the film—again, I want to stress that it's on YouTube—you must take it and you can thank me later.

As the '90s came around, Ward became an increasingly familiar face on movie screen and in 1990 had no less than three lead roles in major films. The best know of the three is probably “Tremors,” the cheerfully goofy monster movie in which he and Kevin Bacon played a couple of repairmen who find themselves stuck in the middle of the Nevada desert, battling a bunch of giant flesh-eating worm-like creatures hellbent on snacking on whatever people they can find. Although not a major hit in theaters, this was another film that proved to be a big hit on cable and inspired a string of direct-to-video sequels, one of which, “Tremors 2: Aftershock” (1996), featured Ward. “Miami Blues” was an attempt to bring Hoke Moseley, the central character in a series of crime novels by Charles Willeford, to the big screen. With its mixture of dark humor, sometimes startling violence, and offbeat characters, the film was an exceptional adaptation. Ward, who actually optioned the book himself, was especially impressive as Moseley as he pursues a psychopath played by Alec Baldwin, whose character not only assaults him but steals his gun, badge, and dentures in the process. Alas, once again, it inexplicably failed to catch on with audiences and is yet another little-seen modern classic ripe for rediscovery.

1990 also saw him reunite with Philip Kaufman to make “Henry & June,” the controversial adaptation of Anaïs Nin’s book recounting the love triangle of sorts that developed in Paris in the '30s between Nin (Maria de Mederios), celebrated author Henry Miller (Ward), and Miller’s wife June (Uma Thurman). The film became instantly notorious as the first to bear the NC-17 rating and the huffing and puffing it inspired in many circles did not translate in tickets sold. Nevertheless, "Henry & June" proved to be a wonderful, fascinating, and complex meditation on art, love, sex and all the other great topics in life. One of the great things about the movie is Ward’s performance as Miller, a turn that embraces both the coarseness and tenderness that made Miller's writing so fascinating to so many people. In fact, there's one scene that finds him tearing up during the ending of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” that just might be one of the best things he ever did in a film. Again, this movie has largely slipped through the cracks—it has yet to even receive a Blu-ray release—but if the opportunity arises to see it for yourself, take it.

From there, he played Detective Harry Philip Lovecraft in the mystery-horror-fantasy hybrid “Cast a Deadly Spell” (1990), turned in inspired supporting turns for Robert Altman in 1992's “The Player” (where he played the studio head of security) and 1993's “Short Cuts” (where he was one of the guys who wasn’t going to let a little thing like the discovery of a dead body get in the way of a fishing weekend). He also worked for Altman proteges Alan Rudolph and Tim Robbins in, respectively, 1992's “Equinox” and “Bob Roberts” and went up against no less a foe than Leslie Nielsen as the bad guy in the immortal “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” (1994). As the decade went on, Ward began appearing more on television and direct-to-video features but still turned up in welcome film appearances from time to time, most notably and unexpectedly in the 1998 period bodice-ripper “Dangerous Beauty.”

As the 2000s came around, Ward began appearing in a number of films aimed as younger audiences, usually as some sort of cranky parent or authority figure. For the most part, these movies—“Summer Catch” (2001), “Road Trip” (2000), “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002) and the aforementioned 2001 films “Joe Dirt” and “Corky Romano”—were undistinguished at best (and rarely even hit that level) but he still gave these films his all. Indeed, what little entertainment value they have comes almost entirely from Ward. In recent years, he began working less in general and more in television, but when he did pop up from time to time in films like “Feast of Love” (2007), “Armored” (2009), “30 Minutes or Less” (2011) and “2 Guns” (2013), Ward continued to give much-needed jolts of energy. His last performances came in 2015, when he appeared in a couple of episodes of the second season of “True Detective.”

Fred Ward was one of those actors who simply did their job with no muss or fuss—he was not the kind who would either declaim in pretentious detail about his “process” or indulge in the kind of behavior that would make him a tabloid fixture. And yet, Ward could be as mesmerizing a performer as anyone and did so in a way that grounded the characters that he played, even in the sillier movies, in a simple and recognizable reality that made them stand out. That is an increasingly rare quality in movies today and it is just one more thing that makes his passing such a loss for film fans. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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