Fred Ward, actor in ‘Remo Williams’, ‘Henry & June’ and ‘Tremors’, dies aged 79

Fred Ward, the former lumberjack who was known for playing no-nonsense men of action in movies like Remo Williams: The Adventure Beginsvibrations and the good stuff, has passed away. He was 79.

Ward died Sunday, his publicist Ron Hoffman announced. No cause of death or place of death was disclosed in accordance with the family’s wishes.

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The San Diego native brought an authentic vigor and gruff manner to his work. Part Cherokee, he drew on his heritage as a union activist and colleague of Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood (1983) and for his turn in Errol Morris’ The dark wind (1991) and that of Michael Apted thunderheart (1992).

Ward also portrayed a motorcycle racer in Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann (1982), a former Vietnam War tunnel rat in Ted Kotcheff’s Sometimes Valor (1983) and a crumpled cop who fights a psychotic criminal (Alec Baldwin) and loses his dentures in George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990).

“Ward has played many heroes, each with a subtlety that removed them from the cardboard cut-out figures they could have been,” says the Chicago TribuneJulia Cameron wrote in a 1985 profile of the actor. “In many ways his work, like Robert Duvall’s, can be seen as a meditation on America’s notions of masculinity.”

Ward also starred as the hard-drinking expatriate author Henry Miller, who has a ménage a trois in Paris in 1931 with his wife (Uma Thurman) and another writer (Maria de Medeiros), in Philip Kaufman’s Hendrik & Juni (1990), the first NC-17 film to hit theaters.

“My backside seemed to have something to do with” [that rating]’ he said in an interview with The Washington Post

Before Robert Altman, Ward was the head of studio security in The player (1992) and shared Golden Globe and Venice Film Festival ensemble awards for his performance in Shortcuts (1993).

His best shot at being a superstar came when he was cast as the title character in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985).

The release of Orion Pictures, based on the popular the destroyer novels, was designed to start a franchise centered on an American version of James Bond. (It was directed by Guy Hamilton and written by 007 movie veterans Christopher Wood, and Ward has signed on for three) Remo Williams terms.)

Ward’s Remo was a New York police officer who learns martial arts skills from a Korean master (Joel Grey) while becoming a hit man for a secret government agency. However, despite a neat action sequence atop scaffolding covering the Statue of Liberty, the film fared poorly at the box office, and the adventure sadly ended just as it began.

However, Ward got two chances to play Earl Bass, the resilient Nevada handyman who fights creepy crawlers, first in vibrations (1990) and then in a 1996 direct-to-video sequel.

And as astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom in Kaufman’s the good stuff (1983), Ward was “earthy and unpretentious in what is arguably the film’s most demanding role”, THR wrote in his review.

Frederick Joseph Ward was born on December 30, 1942 in San Diego. As a child, he moved a lot, with his father often in violation of the law.

“My father did a lot of time,” he told the… Stand† “He was in jail when I was born, got out for a moment to celebrate the birth and then went straight back. He was just the kind of guy who got into trouble. Alcohol was the real problem, among the rest.

“When I was three, my mother left my father. She left me with her mother in Texas while she went to New Orleans to build a life for us. After a while she let me come. She supported us by working in bars. In five years we have lived in five different places. Then she married my stepfather, who was at the carnie. Maybe that’s where my restlessness comes from. I inherited it.”

Ward spent three years with the United States Air Force as an airborne radar technician in Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada. After the service, he ventured to New York and in 1964 studied acting at Herbert Berghof’s studio for six months.

The 5-foot-9 Ward was then doing some amateur boxing, was a lumberjack and lumberjack in Alaska and landed parts in early plays written by his future Right stuff co-star, Sam Shepard, in San Francisco.

From left to right: Fred Ward, Kevin Bacon and Finn Carter in 1990's 'Tremors' - Credit: MCA/Universal Pictures/Photofest

From left: Fred Ward, Kevin Bacon and Finn Carter in ’90s ‘Tremors’ – Credit: MCA/Universal Pictures/Photofest

MCA/Universal Pictures/Photofest

A job building the San Francisco transit system funded a trip to Europe, and in Rome he dubbed movies, acted as a mime, and starred in Roberto Rossellini television movies.

Back in the US, Ward appeared uncredited as a cowboy in Tony Bill’s Hearts of the West (1975), then landed his first major role as a con artist trying to break up with Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

During the making of the good stuffKaufman said Ward “nearly died in the water” in Half Moon Bay during a scene where Grissom jumps out of his capsule.

“I was wearing a wet suit under my flight suit, in pretty cold water,” Ward recalls. “And then they picked me up, dangling from a rescue loop. It’s a tragic scene. There you see Gus Grissom hanging: almost completely defeated, like a dead fish at the end of a line.”

Ward also played a terrorist plan to blow up the Academy Awards in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) and appeared in other films including: Southern comfort (1981), swing shift (1984), UFOria (1985), Secret admirer (1985), The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988), Bob Roberts (1992), tour (2000), Joe Dirt (2001), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), The wild stallion (2009) and 2 guns (2013).

In his only foray as a producer, Ward paid $4,000 for Charles Willeford’s 1985 book Miami Blues and had Jonathan Demme produce the film and Armitage to write and direct.

Ward was married three times. Survivors include his wife of 27, Marie-France Ward, and his son, Django, named after Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Donations in his memory can be made to the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

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