Fred Ward, who has died aged 79, was a dependable character actor who achieved familiarity, if not quite stardom, during the golden age of home video. Born of Scots Irish and Cherokee descent, he only found regular employment in his forties, after two decades of real-world slog, including spells as a cook, a lumberjack and a tomato picker. “My career has been a bit strange,” he admitted to one journalist. “I don’t think it took the normal route.”
Yet experience gave his work a grounded, lived-in quality to which audiences warmed. His specialty was grizzled, frowning, blue-collar types, men’s-men who peered at the modern world through sceptical eyes, but who invariably had the goods to save the day as the final credits neared.
Ironically, in his breakthrough role – Virgil “Gus” Grissom in Philip Kaufman’s stirring astronaut saga The Right Stuff (1983) – Ward was seen to come up short in the heroism stakes, which drew criticism from Grissom’s real-life NASA contemporaries. (Wally Schirra described the film’s Grissom as “a bungling sort of coward”.) Yet the crumpled machismo Ward evoked outside his spacesuit formed its own tribute to those left behind as the space-race heated up.
By complete contrast, there was Tremors (1990), a likable, enduring monster movie about a small Nevadan town (called Perfection) that finds itself undermined by giant killer worms. Kevin Bacon took top billing, but his joshing, affectionate relationship with Ward as fellow handyman Earl Bassett gave the film its heart. Upon learning of Ward’s passing, Bacon paid his co-star the fondest of farewells: “When it came to battling underground worms, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”
He was born Freddie Joe Ward on December 30, 1942 in San Diego, California to Fred Frazier Ward and his wife Juanita (née Flemister). It was an itinerant childhood: after his mother’s death, the teenage Fred was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans. He served in the Air Force, during which he boxed at amateur level – breaking his nose four times – and eventually had a revelation about the life he wanted to lead.
“I was going [out] with a stripper in San Antonio, hanging out with some bizarre fringe people who considered themselves ‘show people’, including this 250-pound transvestite who designed costumes for strip joints, and a few gangsters… They weren’t role models in a strict sense, more like the old freaks in the freak show. When I was younger, I always felt like an outsider, and they said it was all right to be ‘the other’. They had a nice little society, a little culture, and they dealt with life.”
He headed for New York, studying acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio, while supporting himself with janitorial and construction jobs. Six months later, Ward departed for Europe, drawn by the new opportunities available to American performers. In Rome, he dubbed spaghetti Westerns into English before landing minor roles in Roberto Rossellini’s miniseries The Age of the Medici (1973) and Cartesius (1974).
Upon returning to the US, Ward dabbled in experimental theatre before landing more typical work as a trucker in hitchhiking drama Ginger in the Morning (1974). One-off episodes of Quincy (in 1978) and The Incredible Hulk (in 1979) followed before his first significant role as John Anglin, one of Clint Eastwood’s fellow escapees in Escape from Alcatraz (1979).
He met a sticky end in Walter Hill’s taut Southern Comfort (1981) and was often cast in tough, meaty, dramatic roles: The Right Stuff, Silkwood (1983), Uncommon Valour (1983), a suavely brutish club owner in Swing Shift (1984). But several of his choices revealed a wry comic streak. Few fortysomethings would have committed as hard as Ward did to Timerider (1982), a genuine curio (co-written by Monkee Mike Nesmith) about a time-travelling biker.
He beat out the then-unknown Bruce Willis to land the title role in Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous (1985), the first of a planned trilogy of action films. But despite multiple magazine covers positioning Ward as a new, blue-collar James Bond and a memorable Statue of Liberty climax, the film nosedived commercially, recouping only $14m of its $40m budget.
Tremors steadied him, however, and two other 1990 parts demonstrated Ward’s range: careworn shamus Hoke Moseley in the blackly comic thriller Miami Blues and Henry Miller in Kaufman’s elegant period love triangle Henry & June, a role for which Ward shaved his head, adopted blue contact lenses and gamely watched Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros compete for his attentions.
One more notable lead role followed, as P.I. Harry Philip Lovecraft in made-for-cable horror-noir Cast a Deadly Spell (1991). Thereafter, Ward resumed supporting gigs, boosting the Robert Altman comeback (The Player, 1992; Short Cuts, 1994), threatening to blow up the Oscars (in Naked Gun 33⅓, 1994), and even slotting between Brian Conley and Christopher Biggins (dire Britpic Circus, 2000).
He paused acting in the early Noughties, returning only for guest spots: on e.r. (2006-07) and True Detective (2015), as Ronald Reagan in retro potboiler Farewell (2009). Mostly, he devoted himself to painting, perhaps feeling the entertainment landscape shifting beneath his feet. His final credit remains unseen: a cameo in a Tremors spin-off, cancelled by the Syfy network before its 2017 pilot even aired.
In 1990, Ward was asked what he found most compelling about Henry Miller: “People are burdened by their futures, their jobs, their accumulating. Everyone says, ‘I wish I could do that, just take off, experiment with life’… [Miller] was 40 when he took that big leap. Most people are digging themselves deeper into their structures. He was a man who knew he had to follow that inner urge, the creativity and the passion. Or he would die bitter."
He is survived by his third wife Marie-France Ward (née Boisselle) and a son, Django, by second wife Silvia Ward; his first marriage, to Carla Stewart, lasted a year.
Fred Ward, born December 30, 1942, died May 8, 2022.