Fred Ward Would Have Been 80 Today

A little tribute to the late actor Fred Ward, who passed away in May, and would have been 80 years old today. A cause of death was not given out publicly but commentators have chosen to read meaning into the fact that he asked for memorial gifts to be given to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. Traumatic Encephalopathy results from blows to the head. Ward had been a boxer in his youth, an activity which also explains the state of his nose.

Ward was an actor I liked in everything I saw him in, and who happened to be in some of my favorite contemporary movies. Learning about his background makes me like him more, seems to explain my instinctive liking, for he expressed his life with his personality. He was part Cherokee. His biological father was a drunk and a jailbird; his stepfather worked at a carnival. Ward served in the air force, then studied at Herbert Bergdorf Studios and did experimental theatre in New York. He also lived in Rome for a time, where he studied mime, and broke into films. This background and training I think explains a lot about his career. He seemed like the kind of guy who was ready to try anything, and often seemed like he was having a great deal of fun onscreen. Did he ever play a rodeo clown? He would have been the perfect guy to play a rodeo clown.

Ward’s first American film was Ginger in the Morning (1974), by Mark Miller, who also passed away this year. Around the same time he had a small role in the western-themed Jeff Bridges comedy Hearts of the West (1975) and was in episodes of Quincy and The Incredible Hulk. A key role in Escape from Alcatraz (1979) with Clint Eastwood began to elevate his status. He returned to his midway roots in Carny (1980) with Jody Foster, Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson of The Band. Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) was one of those “favorite films” I mentioned; I wrote about it here when Powers Booth passed away. Another is Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), which I’ve surely watched about ten times, in which Ward played the ill-fated astronaut Gus Grissom. A few years later, Kaufman cast Ward as Henry Miller in Henry and June (1990) opposite Uma Thurman; I’ve always regarded it as his high water mark artistically. In 1982 Ward landed a starring part in a movie co-written, produced and scored by Michael Nesmith of The Monkees, and directed by William Dear, the un-even but interesting Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann. Other early and more critically acclaimed films included Mike Nichols’ Silkwood (1983) and Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift (1984) with Goldie Hawn.

Ward was also a key member of the ensembles of the Robert Altman films The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993), and Tim Robbins’ Altmanesque Bob Roberts (1992). Around this same time he was in Michael Apted’s Thunderheart (1993), about the 1973 Wounded Knee Massacre. I am also a huge fan of the campy horror ensemble comedy Tremors (1990). In his prime, Ward was also something of an action star (often a tongue-in-cheek one), though I can’t pretend to speak to that stuff with any authority. Some later movies I’ve enjoyed him in include the David Spade comedy Joe Dirt (2001), Sweet Home Alabama (2002) with Reese Witherspoon, Bob Dylan’s Masked and Anonymous (2003), the disaster film 10.5. (2004), and episodes of tv shows like ER and True Detective. The latter work was in 2015, and constituted his last confirmed screen credits.

When Ward passed, we learned from his Tremors co-star Kevin Bacon that he was a Django Reinhardt fan. Can’t say why but that absolutely makes sense.