Fred Ward, star of ‘The Right Stuff’, ‘Tremors’, dies aged 79

Fred Ward, who starred in films such as ‘Henry and June’, ‘Tremors’, ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘The Player’, died on May 8. Variety† He was 79.

The actor’s persona had a certain retro quality to it that made Ward look more like Humphrey Bogart or John Garfield (though not quite with those actors’ charisma) than his contemporaries, and it didn’t seem tarnished at all. He seemed to be the kind of guy who came from Chicago’s South Side or Hell’s Kitchen, but he was actually from San Diego.

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Ward most recently appeared on the second season of HBO’s “True Detective” as Eddie Velcoro, the retired police father of Colin Farrell’s Det. Ray Velcoro.

He returned on NBC’s “ER” as the father of Maura Tierney’s Abby Lockhart in 2006-2007 and was a guest on such series as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “United States of Tara.”

The actor played President Reagan in the 2009 Cold War spy thriller “Farewell” directed by Christian Carion, and had a supporting role in the 2013 action film “2 Guns” starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.

In Don Siegel’s “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979), Ward and Jack Thibeau played convict brothers who, along with Clint Eastwood’s Frank Morris, devised the clever, daring escape from the Rock. (The bodies of the three men were never found, so it’s unclear if they really escaped or if they simply drowned in San Francisco Bay.) The film was much more interested in the mechanics of the escape than in developing it. of the three prisoners as characters .

Ward brought his trademark edginess to his portrayal of the brave, intelligent astronaut Gus Grissom in 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kaufman’s epic tale of the early space program. Perhaps because Grissom eventually lost his life while enlisted in NASA (he was a command pilot on Apollo 1, but before launch on February 21, 1967, the command module interior caught fire and all three men on board died), the public was particularly sensitive. for the portrayal in “The Right Stuff.” The film tells the story of the Mercury spacecraft incident project where the explosive emergency bolts fired after they crashed and blew the hatch off, causing the ship to flood. A NASA investigation cleared Grissom of guilt in the incident, but the manner in which it was depicted in “The Right Stuff” suggested that Ward’s Grissom had panicked and fired the explosive bolts as a result.

In Ron Underwood’s horror comedy “Tremors,” one of several films that boosted Ward’s career and released in 1990, Ward and Kevin Bacon showed tremendous chemistry as a pair of handy men who eventually save a hard-scrabble Nevada desert community when the city is ravaged. by gigantic underground snakes, not unlike the sandworms of “Dune”. “Tremors” made only $16 million, but it caused huge affection among cable and home video moviegoers and spawned four sequels. The Washington Post said: “As the handymen, Bacon and Ward make a good team. Ward, who didn’t quite do well as superhero Remo Williams, has the shaggy looks and good humor of a friendly desperado, while Bacon moves beyond his glamor boy roots and continues to prove himself as an actor.”

In the quirky but painfully violent Alec Baldwin vehicle ‘Miami Blues’, Ward Sgt. Hoke Moseley, the cop who’s after Baldwin’s sociopathic Fred Frenger. Roger Ebert wrote: “The actors struggle manfully with their roles. Baldwin, who is good at playing intelligence, is not so good at playing an ex-con with a screw loose here. Ward does better with the police sergeant; in movies like this and the underrated ‘UFO’ he sits back and takes it all in and plays the cynic who doesn’t really bother you until you really bother him.”

Later in the year came “Henry & June,” a movie that gave Ward the chance to stretch as an actor in ways he just didn’t have before. In the film, directed by Ward’s “The Right Stuff” director Philip Kaufman and based on Anais Nin’s book, the actor played apostate writer Henry Miller, whose writings pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in exploring sexuality. . The film depicted the intellectual and psychosexual dynamics between Miller, his wife June (played by Uma Thurman) and the erotically engaged French novelist Nin in early 1930s Paris.

Variety stated, “The central performances of Fred Ward, as the cynical, life-loving Miller, and Maria de Medeiros, as the beautiful, insatiable Anais, beautifully fulfill the director’s vision.”

Critics and moviegoers ended 1990 with the feeling that Ward was an engaging actor with more reach than previously suspected.

He then played as Det. Harry Philip Lovecraft in the intriguing HBO film ‘Cast a Deadly Spell’, set in a dark 1940s Los Angeles where supernatural abilities are ubiquitous. David Warner and Julianne Moore also starred in the film, which the Chicago Tribune called “extremely successful,” stating that “screenwriter Joseph Dougherty has concocted a menacingly charming setting.”

In Robert Altman’s 1992 Hollywood satire “The Player,” Roger Ebert said the director surrounds Tim Robbins’ Griffin “with the kind of eccentric characters who seem to roll into Los Angeles, like the continent is on a slope: Whoopi Goldberg as a Pasadena police detective who finds Griffin hilarious, Fred Ward as a studio security chief who has seen too many old ‘Dragnet’ episodes, Sydney Pollack as a lawyer who does for the law what Griffin does for the cinema, Lyle Lovett as a sinister figure who lies in wait the edge of many meetings.”

Also in 1992, Ward appeared in Alan Rudolph’s “Equinox”.

In 1993’s “Two Small Bodies,” a two-hander directed by Beth B. and based on a play, the entire film relied on the performances of Ward and Suzy Amis. The New York Times said, “’Two Small Bodies’ is a sharply focused, intense drama about a woman whose young son and daughter go missing, and the detective who believes she killed them. Not many actors can carry a two character movie, but Suzy Amis and Fred Ward are one of the few who can. Eileen Maloney and Lieutenant Brann engage in a stylized dance that is antagonistic, sexual and disturbing as it reveals the dark impulses beneath their apparent social roles. The best part of the movie is watching Ms. Amis and Mr. Ward, who are endlessly fascinating as they discover the emotional and psychological disturbances beneath the calm surface of their characters.”

In director Altman’s 1993 film “Short Cuts,” based on short stories by Raymond Carver, Ward was one of the men whose fishing trip is interrupted when they discover a corpse in the river.

Ward then played a terrorist intent to blow up the Academy Awards in “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” (1994).

Freddie Joe Ward was born in San Diego. He spent three years in the Air Force, after which he developed an interest in acting and studied at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York. Ward then went to Europe where he helped dubbing Italian films into English.

He made his film debut in the 1973 miniseries ‘The Age of the Medici’, directed by Roberto Rossellini. He had a small role in the feature film “Ginger in the Morning” (1974), starring Monte Markham, Susan Oliver and Sissy Spacek. After a small role in “Tilt” (1979), starring Brooke Shields, Ward attempted his first substantial film role in “Escape From Alcatraz” that same year.

Ward co-starred with Powers Boothe and Keith Carradine in Walter Hill’s “Southern Comfort” (1981), in which a group of arrogant National Guardsmen whose guns are stuffed with blanks are taken to the bayous of Louisiana, where they annoy the Cajuns, who know the area through and through. † Despite the all-too-obvious metaphor for Vietnam, it was an effective thriller.

The following year, he had his first starring role in the cult classic “Timerider,” in which he played Lyle Swann, an off-road motorcycle racer (in a bright red leather motorcycle suit) who was accidentally sent back through a science experiment to an Old West filled with thugs and females. distraction. The film didn’t do much for Ward’s career, as the fan only discovered it later via cable and home video.

Patrick Naugle reviewed the 1982 film for DVD Verdict in 2001, writing: “’Timerider’ is full of colorful and funny performances. Fred Ward is an underused and underrated actor, a man who can deliver dialogue with a fresh twist that works for many of his characters. Here, Ward Swann plays as a relaxed racer, a man who just wants to go home with as little impact as possible from his surroundings.”

After “The Right Stuff” he had a supporting role in “Silkwood” as a deadpan Indian “who likes to tell humiliating Indian jokes”, in the words of critic Glenn Erickson, and in the Goldie Hawn WWII homefront movie “Swing Shift”, in which he played the seedy nightclub owner with whom Christine Lahti’s character has an affair.

Ward also appeared in the movie “Off Limits”, starring Willem Defoe and Gregory Hines as military detectives in Saigon during the Vietnam War in search of a sadomasochistic killer. Variety said: “Fred Ward is particularly good as the superior of the partners, Master Sgt. dix.”

“Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (1985), which came after “The Right Stuff”, was an attempt to make Ward an action star, but it was heavily criticized and the film’s domestic gross was only $14 million. But while he never became an action star, many of his best roles were still ahead of him.

Ward was married twice, to Silvia Ward and Marie-France Ward. He is survived by a son, Django, from his first marriage.

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