Fred Ward was one of the great "that guy who was in that thing" actors in movie history. Even if you didn't know his name, you'd recognize that chiseled face whenever he showed up on screen and remember him from some other movie. Ward died May 8 at the age of 79.
After a tumultuous childhood that included an alcoholic father and time spent in his grandmother's care while his mom got her life together, Ward enlisted in the Air Force upon graduation from high school and served as an airman first class at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and as a radar technician in Labrador, Canada.
After his service, Ward took acting classes but got his real-life education by working as a janitor and construction worker. The acting career didn't work at first, so he roamed the country and worked jobs like loading trucks, building barrels in a factory, as a short-order cook in a bowling alley and construction. After a trip to Europe, he gave acting another shot.
Ward is one of those guys who grew into his looks, and his career didn't take off until he was almost 40 years old. When it did happen for him, he gave some memorable movie performances. Here are eight of the best.
1. Gus Grissom in "The Right Stuff" (1983)
This Oscar-winning drama about the early days of the NASA space program put Ward in good acting company alongside Dennis Quaid, Marine veteran Scott Glenn, Ed Harris and Sam Shepard. Grissom, who is now remembered as one of the three astronauts who perished in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, was the astronaut who suffered a hatch misfire on the Mercury-Redstone 4 flight. Ward gets a great scene where the rescue helicopter makes it clear that it's going to try to save the capsule before it saves Grissom from drowning.
2. Cpl. Lonnie Reece in "Southern Comfort" (1981)
Louisiana National Guardsmen go on weekend maneuvers and stumble into a part of Cajun country that the locals consider off limits. After some automatic weapons horseplay from our weekend warriors, the locals decide to declare war on the intruders.
Ward got his first high-profile part as one of the Guardsmen, and he's part of a stellar ensemble that includes Powers Boothe ("Red Dawn"), Peter Coyote ("E.T."), Keith Carradine ("Nashville"), T.K. Carter ("The Thing"), Lewis Smith ("The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension"), Alan Autry ("In the Heat of the Night" television series) and Franklyn Seales ("Silver Spoons").
"Southern Comfort" wasn't a box office hit upon release, but found an audience on home video and has since been recognized as one of director Walter Hill's finest films, part of an incredible run that included "The Warriors" (1979), "The Long Riders" (1980) and "48 Hrs." (1982).
3. Earl Bassett in "Tremors" (1990) and "Tremors 2: Aftershocks" (1996)
Ward and Kevin Bacon ("National Lampoon's Animal House") made for a winning team as handymen who fight underground monster worms in a remote Nevada town in the horror comedy "Tremors." The movie did OK in theaters but became a huge hit on cable and home video. Eventually, the studio commissioned "Tremors 2: Aftershocks," a straight-to-video sequel with Ward but not Bacon that was a far better movie than you'd expect for something that was never released in theaters. There are five more "Tremors" sequels, but Ward had the good sense to stay away from those.
4. Wilkes in "Uncommon Valor" (1983)
Director Ted Kotcheff's follow-up to "Rambo: First Blood" (1982) was this action picture about retired Marine Col. Jason Rhodes, who decides to put together a private military team to locate and rescue his son, who's been M.I.A. in Southeast Asia for a decade. Actual Marine veteran Gene Hackman starred as Rhodes.
Ward plays Wilkes, a Vietnam War tunnel rat who's struggling with PTSD. He has the best operator skills in the group, and he's the one tasked with bringing the rest of the motley crew up to combat standard. "Uncommon Valor" was a huge hit in spite of its terrible score.
5. Remo Williams in "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins" (1985)
Orion Pictures hoped that Fred Ward could be the "blue-collar James Bond" in what was supposed to be the first movie in a series based on the pulp "Destroyer" novels series. They hired one of the best Bond directors in Guy Hamilton ("Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever," "Live and Let Die") in hopes he'd bring the perfect mix of action and wry humor to the screen.
The tone wasn't right, and the movie is also burdened with Joel Grey in makeup meant to make him look to be of Asian descent as Chiun, the martial arts wizard who teaches Remo his otherworldly combat skills. With a bit more action and fewer bad jokes, "Remo Williams" could've been the beginning of something great for Ward and movie audiences.
6. Rocco Dillon in "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult" (1994)
Ward displayed his comedy skills as villain Rocco Dillon in the final "Naked Gun" movie in 1994. As the nemesis of Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), Ward managed to keep a straight face as Nielsen delivered his trademark idiot responses in every possible situation.
For those keeping track of the dates, "Naked Gun 33 1/3" was released three months before Det. Fred Nordberg actor O.J. Simpson fled the LAPD in a slow-speed Ford Bronco freeway chase after the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman.
7. Earl Smooter in "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002)
Younger audiences know Ward from his role as Reese Witherspoon's father in the hit romantic comedy that claims that small-town folks who run off to New York City might just be happier if they moved back home. Ward's Earl Smooter is a Civil War reenactor who misses his daughter. Will she go back to the big city or stay home with her parents?
8. Henry Miller in "Henry & June" (1990)
Not many actors can claim that one of their movies was responsible for a new moving rating, but that's exactly what happened to Ward when he starred alongside Uma Thurman ("Pulp Fiction") and Maria de Medeiros ("Pulp Fiction") in a movie based on the lives of novelist Henry Miller, his wife June and the writer Anaïs Nin.
Universal didn't want to release a studio movie with an "X" rating, but director Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff") had delivered a movie that was impossible to trim for a "R" rating and still make sense. In the end, the industry banded together and created the "NC-17" rating, which was just like an "X" but without the sleazy porno connotation.
The idea that studios could release movies with more adult content via the "NC-17" was a flop. The last mainstream movie to try was "Showgirls" in 1995. Not only was "Henry & June" a box office flop, it's not available to buy on Blu-ray or DVD or to purchase or rent digitally.
"Henry & June" got one Oscar nomination for cinematography, but its notoriety kept the movie from reaching a wide audience and probably prevented Ward from a shot at the kind of prestigious dramatic roles he would have been so good at.
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