March 15 is the birthday of stage and screen actor Richard Ward (1915-79), perhaps best remembered by modern audiences for playing Navin Johnson’s father in Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979), his penultimate role.
Originally from Glenside, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philly, Ward started out at age 11 in a vaudeville act with his sisters called “Dot, Flo and Dick”. He grew into a physically imposing adult, which served him well in his first career as a prizefighter, and later as a detective for ten years in New York. During World War II, he served with the Army Signals Corps in the South Pacific.
Ward studied at the Actors Studio. His theatre credits included Anna Lucasta at the American Negro Theatre; Ceremonies in Dark Old Men with the Negro Ensemble Company, and an all-black production of Death of a Salesman, at Baltimore Centerstage, in which he played Willy Loman. Ward’s gravely voice, large size, and obvious intelligence often got him cast as authority figures and elders. His 40 screen credits begin starting in the mid ’50s. In films he appeared in a string of Civil Rights Era classics, including Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1963), Black Like Me (1964), Nothing But a Man (1964, with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln), Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (1969), Brother John (1971, with Sidney Poitier), the blaxploitation film Across 110th Street (1972, with Yaphet Kotto) and Mandingo (1975). TV work included appearances on Roll Out, Petrocelli, Baretta, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, and Starsky and Hutch. he had a memorable recurring part on Good Times as the father of James (John Amos). His last movie was the prison reform film Brubaker (1980), with Kotto, Robert Redford, and Morgan Freeman. Ward was only 64 when he was felled by a heart attack prior to that film’s release.
To learn more about vaudeville and show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.