He scaled the Statue of Liberty, went into outer space and had his choppers swiped by Alec Baldwin.
And he just turned 70 years old.
Welcome to the world of Fred Ward, a top notch character actor-turned-leading man-candidate-turned-back-into-top-notch character actor.
He’s got craggy good looks and the essence of honesty about him. You don’t think of him as an actor, but a real flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional person—the sign of being a great actor.
He’s been on screen since the early 1970s after stints in the Air Force, as a boxer, and as a lumberjack in Alaska. No wonder Ward has always been viewed as a man’s man, whether playing a hard-nosed cop, an understanding father to a teenage daughter, or Henry Miller, the gregarious writer of controversial erotic stories in Henry and June—the world’s first NC-17 movie.
Ward studied acting in Rome, where he dubbed films and worked as a mime. Fred Ward as Marcel Marceau? We don’t think so, either.
Back in the States, Ward got bit parts in movies and TV shows. When given bigger opportunities, he made strong impressions: the National Guardsman battling ragin’ Cajuns in Walter Hill’s macho actioner Southern Comfort (1981); a convict fleeing a high security prison with Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz (1979) ; and the titular time-travelling motorcycle racer in the Michael Nesmith-produced Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann (1982).
One of Ward’s best early career roles was in the little-seen sci-fi spoof euphoria called UFO-ria, produced in 1981 and released (barely) in 1985. He played a booze-swilling slacker who befriends a con artist preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and gets romantically involved with a tabloid-reading small-town woman (Cindy Williams) who’s obsessed with flying saucers. This winning, low key affair is a delight from beginning to end, with Ward declaring Waylon Jennings as his role model and taking, quite seriously, the mantra of his “God-given right to believe in nothin’.”
It was his part as real-life Mercury 7 astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom, however, that really added some fuel to his career. As the crew-cutted Air Force captain, Ward’s Grissom offered one of the best lines in Philip Kaufman’s superb 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff. At a press conference, fellow air force captain Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) addresses a group of NASA scientists. “You boys know what makes this bird go up?,” he asks. “FUNDING makes this bird go up.”
“He’s right,” responds Grissom, also in attendance. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Ward also snagged high profile roles in Silkwood (1983), playing a caring fellow employee to Meryl Streep’s whistle-blower; a former platoon mate of Gene Hackman who joins him on a dangerous mission in Laos to rescue his long-missing son in Uncommon Valor (1983); and boyfriend to wartime airplane manufacturer worker Christine Lahti in Jonathan Demme’s ill-fated Swing Shift (1984).
Ward’s steady work got him the lead part in the high-profile 1985 adventure film Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…, based on the popular Destroyer paperback series. Directed by James Bond veteran Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever) and produced by Dick Clark, the film posits Ward as a cop indoctrinated into a secret government agency to serve as an assassin, and taught lethal martial arts skills by a Korean master (Joel Grey). While it featured some terrific New York City locations (Coney Island, the Statue of Liberty), and winning interplay between the world-weary yet heroic Ward and the all-knowing Grey, the film failed to click…and the adventure never continued.
While the failure of Remo Williams never got Ward the notoriety he may have deserved, it did showcase his versatility, which has continued to impress audiences and critics over the years. He’s apparently comfortable in big or small roles, and in Hollywood films or indie productions. Genre, obviously, doesn’t matter, either.
Tremors (1990), in which he shared the screen with Kevin Bacon, Michael J. Gross and some killer worms, became a bona fide cult hit thanks to its appreciation on home video after a so-so theatrical run. In a spirited throwback to 1950s sci-fi/horror efforts with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Ward played a handyman out to halt the creepy crawlers terrorizing the small town in Nevada. He reprised the role in the film’s 1996 direct-to-video follow-up.
Ward was equally at home in two starring roles in films with strong followings that never clicked at the box-office.
1990’s Miami Blues, produced by Jonathan Demme, directed by George Armitage (Grosse Point Blank) and based on a pulp fiction novel by Charles Wiliford, showcased Ward as Hoke Mosely, a veteran Miami detective trying to corral brutish but slick ex-con Junior Frenger (Alex Baldwin), who, along with support from a college student hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) looking for a storybook life, begins holding up bank robbers in the process of robbing banks. Junior gets the best of Hoke—lifting lifting his badge, gun, and dentures—which makes the subsequent pursuit as amped up (and unpredictable) as a Road Runner-Wile E Coyote cartoon.
Wrote Rita Kempley in her review in the Washington Post: “Ward looks like a junkyard dog, a veteran of losing battles, toothless from chewing on bullets. He’s taken a page or three from Columbo’s notebook, but there’s a distinctive down and out to this rumpled shamus, so unlike his rival’s crew-cut ruthlessness.”
That same year, Henry and June—from Right Stuff filmmaker Philip Kaufman—offered Ward as a character completely different from anything he’d played before: A figure of eroticism. In a role that ironically was once set to feature Miami Blues co-lead Alec Baldwin, Ward plays gruff, chain-smoking, hard-drinking author Henry Miller, who journeys to Paris in 1931 to finish his book Tropic of Cancer. There he experiments with sexuality by way of a ménage-a-trois involving wife and muse June (Uma Thurman) and writer Anais Nin (Maria De Maderios).
Lushly photographed and leisurely paced, Henry and June’s subject matter and sensual couplings, with the imprimatur of a large studio production (Universal) with name actors and an Oscar-nominated director, led to the creation of the NC-17 rating. The hopes were that the film would not be ghettoized with the “X” rating; it ultimately drew $12 million in somewhat limited distribution amidst reviews that more often pointed out Kaufman’s audaciousness than the film’s success (or lack of it).
Observed Ward in an interview: “As an actor, it’s fun to play guys who aren’t just locked into a male pattern, but a lot of guys you’re asked to play are fairly macho and have a certain rigid standard they’re living by.”
Moving for-Ward, the actor joined forces with Robert Altman and friends for a number of roles, including a movie studio security chief in The Player (1992), a gangster in Alan Rudolph’s Equinox (1992), a TV news anchor in Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (1992), one of three friends who find a corpse while fishing in Short Cuts (1993), and as a newspaper reporter investigating his uncle’s death in “Uncle John,” an episode of the Altman-produced overlooked TV series “Gun” (1997).
Ward—who is partly of Cherokee ancestry—managed to explore his Native American roots in two films. He was policeman Lou Diamond Phillips’ superior officer in Errol Morris’ screen version of Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind (1991), about a murder on a reservation. In Thunderheart (1992), he essayed the role of an unscrupulous head of an Indian council during an FBI investigation into a killing on the Ogala Sioux reservation in South Dakota.
In fact, the funny thing about Fred Ward is that you never know where he’s going to pop up, so unpredictable are his career choices. He can play a detective in a made-on-pennies indie film like Two Small Bodies (1993) directed by underground filmmaker Beth B.; a terrorist planning to blow up the Academy Awards in The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994); the put-upon father of the lead character in the over-the-top J. Lo revenge thriller Enough (2002); or “The Major,” the overbearing lottery-winning ex-Marine father to pizza delivery guy Danny McBride in 30 Minutes or Less (2011).
Over the last few years, in addition to appearances in a wide range of films (he just finished a part in a new Denzel Washington-Mark Wahlberg comic book-based actioner called 2 Guns), Ward has done a sizable amount of work on TV, including spots on In Plain Sight, The United States of Tara, Grey’s Anatomy and Leverage.
At 70, Ward seems to be fine with the way things have gone. Now married for a second time, he has a son and lives comfortably in Venice, California.
He has admitted his employment pattern has been far from typical. “My career has been a bit strange. I don’t think it took the normal route,” he said in an interview.
“Trying different things is very important to me. I see people and want to wear their clothes and drive in their cars for a while. That’s probably one reason I became an actor.”