Fred Ward, a versatile actor with a strong screen presence who over a long career played roles ranging from sexually adventurous novelist Henry Miller to meticulous and taciturn astronaut Gus Grissom, died on May 8. He was 79 years old.
His death was announced by his publicist, Ron Hofmann, who said Mr Ward’s family would not specify the cause of death or say where he died.
Mr. Ward came through his manly personality authentically – or as authentically as the stereotypes of some of the jobs he held might 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 dreary Labrador region of Canada.
Although he never lived up to the stardom of macho men like Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson – he usually had supporting roles – he played tough, tough characters in films like “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (1985), in which he was a James Bond-like assassin skilled in martial arts on a mission for a secret government agency; “Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann” (1982), in which he portrayed a daredevil 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 plotting to blow up the Academy Awards.
But his more subtle acting skills were on full display in “Henry and June” (1990), a steamy account of the Parisian love triangle Miller had with his wife, June (Uma Thurman), and columnist Anaïs Nin. (Maria de Medeiros) in the 1930s. As well as bringing attention to its subject matter, the film received a bit of extra notoriety as it was the first to be blessed with the Motion Picture’s NC-17 rating Association of America, which allowed it to evade sanctions – in a lost newspaper and reluctant television advertising and cinemas – it would have been if it had been X-rated.
“My rear seemed to have something to do with it,” Mr Ward said of the threatened X-rating, although his was not the only rear exposed.
“Because the women were as much the instigators of this movie as the men, maybe that was a threat to some people,” he told the Washington Post in 1990. “Or maybe it’s a theory on my part.”
In keeping with Miller’s lust for life and bawdy humor, Mr. Ward captured his working-class Brooklyn background and accent, as well as the cheeky, bohemian joy he took in flouting convention. He shaved his head to resemble Miller’s and studied old Miller’s videotapes to mimic his mannerisms.
“He spoke out of the corner of his mouth,” Mr Ward said. “He had a strabismus.”
Reviewing ‘Henry and June’ in The Times, critic Janet Maslin was not kind to the film – but said of Mr Ward that although he was ‘asked to give more identity than ‘a performance’, he was ‘always attractive.
Hal Hinson of The Washington Post was much more enthusiastic, both for the film and for Mr. Ward’s performance. Like Miller, he wrote, “Ward gives a hilarious take on beefy American bravado, yet he keeps the character’s vulgarities balanced with his artistic impulses.” It was, he said, “a star performance with the authenticity of a character actor”.
Frederick Joseph Ward was born on December 30, 1942 in San Diego to an alcoholic father. “My dad spent a lot of time,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “He was in jail when I was born, got out briefly to celebrate the birth, and left right away.”
When Fred was 3, his mother left her husband and went to New Orleans to rebuild her life, leaving Fred in the care of his grandmother in Texas. “After a while she sent for me,” 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 with the showman. Maybe that’s where my restlessness comes from. I inherited it.”
Three days after graduating from high school, Mr. Ward signed up for the Air Force because, he said, it was his duty to his country. When his service ended, he took a bus to New York and enrolled in acting classes at the Herbert Berghof studio, supporting himself by working as a janitor and construction worker.
When classes gave him only one small film role, he flew to Florida, where he loaded trucks, then to New Orleans, where he worked in a barrel factory; Houston, where a potential seaman job was derailed by a strike; and Yuba City, Calif., where he found short-term work as a cook at a bowling alley. In San Francisco, construction work in the public transit system funded a trip to Spain, Morocco, France and Italy.
“I had a restless Kerouac streak, the call of the road,” he said in 1985. “I guess I wanted to experience this existential thing of being alone.”
Back in the United States, he played an uncredited role as a cowboy in the 1975 film “Hearts of the West”. But he didn’t land his first major role until 1979, when he played a convict who joins Clint Eastwood in an attempt to escape from prison in “Escape From Alcatraz.” Other roles followed, including Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” (1983), in which he played a labor activist and colleague of Meryl Streep.
But the first movie to get serious Hollywood attention was “The Right Stuff” (1983), the Mercury astronauts saga, based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name. Mr. Ward portrayed Virgil “Gus” Grissom. The Hollywood Reporter reviewer called him “earthy and unassuming in what is perhaps the film’s most demanding role”.
The director of this film was Philip Kaufman, who then cast Mr. Ward in “Henry and June”.
Two years after “The Right Stuff”, a huge professional disappointment took place. The creators of ‘Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins’ hoped that – as the title suggested – it would be the start of a James Bond-like franchise, and Mr Ward signed on for two sequels. But it was a box office failure and the other films were never made.
Mr. Ward has been married three times. His survivors include Marie-France Ward, his wife of 27 years, and a son, Django, named after guitarist Django Reinhardt.
During his later decades, Mr. Ward appeared in a motley assortment of films and television shows, but he worked harder to develop a talent he felt he had for painting. In that pursuit he might have followed his inner Henry Miller – Miller, Mr. Ward once said, tried “to experience life again and again”.
“He was a man who knew he had to follow that inner urge, creativity and passion,” he said. “Or he would die bitter.”
Amanda Holpuch contributed report.
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