Fred Ward, a versatile actor with a powerful screen presence who has starred in a long career in roles ranging from the sexually adventurous novelist Henry Miller to the meticulous, taciturn astronaut Gus Grissom, passed away on May 8. He was 79.
His death was announced by his publicist, Ron Hofmann, who said Mr Ward’s family would not specify the cause of death or where he died.
Mr. Ward came out authentic in his virile personality – or as authentic as stereotypes of some of the jobs he held suggest. He worked as a logger and lumberjack in Alaska, boxed as an amateur and spent three years in the Air Force as a radar technician in the cold and often bleak Labrador region of Canada.
Though he never came close to the stardom of macho leaders like Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson – he mostly had supporting roles – he played tough, resilient characters in films like “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (1985), in which he was a James Bond-esque hit man skilled in martial arts on behalf of a secret government agency; “Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann” (1982), in which he portrayed a daring motorcycle racer; “Tremors” (1990), in which he and Kevin Bacon battled crawling worm-like monsters; and the comedy “Naked Gun 33 ⅓” (1994), in which he was cast as a terrorist who made plans to blow up the Academy Awards show.
But his subtler talents as an actor were vividly displayed in “Henry and June” (1990), a steamy account of the Parisian love triangle Miller had with his wife, June (Uma Thurman), and the diarist Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) in the thirties. Not only did the film grab attention because of its subject matter, but it also gained an extra dash of notoriety for being the first to be awarded the Motion Picture Association of America’s NC-17 rating, allowing it to escape penalties — in a lost newspaper and television commercials and unwilling theaters – that would have been the result if it had been rated X.
“My backside seemed to have something to do with it,” Mr Ward said of the endangered X rating, though his backside wasn’t the only rear to be seen.
“Because women were as much the instigators as men in this film, that may have been threatening to some people,” he told The Washington Post in 1990. “Or that could be a cockamamie theory of mine.”
In harmony with Miller’s zest for life and his bawdy humor, Mr. Ward captured his working-class Brooklyn ancestry and accent, as well as the villainous, bohemian joy he experienced in disregarding convention. He shaved his head to resemble Miller’s and studied videotapes of the elderly Miller to imitate his tics.
“He spoke from the corners of his mouth,” Mr Ward said. “He was cross-eyed.”
When reviewing “Henry and June” in The Times, the critic Janet Maslin was not nice to the film – but said of Mr Ward that although he was “asked to give more of an impersonation than a performance,” he “always was attractive.”
Hal Hinson of The Washington Post was much more enthusiastic, both about the film and about Mr. ward. As Miller wrote, “Ward gives a hilarious rendition of burly American bravado, but he balances the character’s vulgarities with his artistic urges.” It was, he said, “a star performance with an actor’s authenticity.”
Frederick Joseph Ward was born on December 30, 1942 in San Diego to an alcoholic father. “My father put a lot of time into it,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1985. “He was in jail when I was born, came out to celebrate the birth and went right back.”
When Fred was 3, his mother left her husband and went to New Orleans to rebuild her life, taking care of his grandmother in Texas. “After a while she called me in,” Mr. Ward told The Tribune. “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 carny. Maybe that’s where my restlessness comes from. I inherited it.”
Three days after graduating from high school, Mr. Ward enlisted in the Air Force because it was his duty to his country, he said. When his shift was over, he took a bus to New York and took acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio, where he made a living by working as a janitor and construction worker.
When classes yielded only one small film role, he left for Florida, where he loaded trucks, and then to New Orleans, where he worked in a barrel factory; Houston, where a potential sailor job has been derailed by a strike; and Yuba City, California, where he found a job as a cook at a bowling alley. In San Francisco, a transit system construction contract funded a trip to Spain, Morocco, France and Italy.
“I had this restless Kerouac pull, the call of the road,” he said in 1985. “I think I wanted to experience that existential feeling of being alone.”
Returning to the United States, he played an uncredited role as a cowboy in the 1975 film “Hearts of the West.” But he didn’t get his first major role until 1979, when he played a convict who joins Clint Eastwood. joins in an attempt to escape prison in ‘Escape From Alcatraz’. Other roles followed, including Mike Nichols’ Silkwood (1983), in which he played a union activist and Meryl Streep’s colleague.
But the first film to get him serious Hollywood attention was “The Right Stuff” (1983), the saga of the Mercury Seven astronauts, based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name. mr. Ward played Virgil “Gus” Grissom. The Hollywood Reporter’s review praised him as “earthy and unpretentious in what is arguably the film’s most demanding role.”
The director of that film was Philip Kaufman, who went on to turn Mr. Ward cast in ‘Henry and June’.
Two years after “The Right Stuff” came a huge career disappointment. The creators of “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” hoped that – as the title suggested – it would be the beginning of a James Bond-esque franchise, and Mr. Ward signed on for two sequels. But it was a blockbuster, and the other films were never made.
Mr. Ward was married three times. His survivors include Marie-France Ward, his wife of 27, and a son, Django, named after the guitarist Django Reinhardt.
In his final decades, Mr. Ward in a motley crew of movies and television shows, but he worked most intensely on developing a talent he felt he had for painting. In that pursuit, he would have followed his inner Henry Miller—Miller, Mr. Ward once said, “trying to experiment with life over and over again.”
“He was a man who knew he had to follow that inner urge, the creativity and the passion,” he said. “Otherwise he would die bitterly.”
Amanda Holpuch reporting contributed.