Fred Ward, the erstwhile lumberjack known for playing no-nonsense men of action in such films as Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Tremors and The Right Stuff, has died. He was 79.
Ward died Sunday, his publicist Ron Hoffman announced. No cause or place of death was disclosed per the family’s wishes.
The San Diego native brought an authentic strength and gruff manner to his work. Part Cherokee, he tapped into his heritage as a union activist and Meryl Streep’s workmate in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood (1983) and for his turns in Errol Morris’ The Dark Wind (1991) and Michael Apted’s Thunderheart (1992).
Ward also portrayed a motorcycle racer in Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann (1982), a former Vietnam War tunnel rat in Ted Kotcheff’s Uncommon Valor (1983) and a rumpled cop who battles a psychotic criminal (Alec Baldwin) and loses his dentures in George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990).
“Ward has played many heroes, each with a subtlety that removed them from the cardboard cutout figures that they could have been,” the Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Cameron wrote in a 1985 profile of the actor. “In many ways, his work, like that of Robert Duvall, can be viewed as a meditation on America’s notions of masculinity.”
Ward also starred as hard-drinking expatriate author Henry Miller, who has a ménage a trois in Paris in 1931 with his wife (Uma Thurman) and another writer (Maria de Medeiros), in Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990), the first NC-17 film to play in theaters.
“My rear end seemed to have something to do with [that rating],” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
For Robert Altman, Ward was the head of studio security in The Player (1992) and shared Golden Globe and Venice Film Festival ensemble prizes for his performance in Short Cuts (1993).
His best chance at superstardom came when he was cast as the title character in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985).
The Orion Pictures release, based on the popular The Destroyer novels, was designed to kick off a franchise centering on an American version of James Bond. (It was directed by Guy Hamilton and written by Christopher Wood, veterans of 007 movies, and Ward signed on for three Remo Williams installments.)
Ward’s Remo was a New York cop who is taught martial arts skills by a Korean master (Joel Grey) as he becomes an assassin for a secret government agency. However, despite a neat action sequence atop scaffolding covering the Statue of Liberty, the film did poorly at the box office, and the adventure, alas, ended just as it was getting started.
Ward, however, did get two chances to play Earl Bass, the resilient Nevada handyman who fights off creepy crawlers, first in Tremors (1990) and then in a 1996 direct-to-video sequel.
And as astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom in Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), Ward was “earthy and unpretentious in what is perhaps the film’s most demanding role,” THR wrote in its review.
Frederick Joseph Ward was born in San Diego on Dec. 30, 1942. He moved around a lot as a youngster, with his dad often at odds with the law.
“My father did a lot of time,” he told the Tribune. “He was in jail when I was born, got out briefly to celebrate the birth and then went right back. He was just the kind of man who got into trouble. Alcohol was the real trouble, underneath all the rest.
“When I was 3, my mother left my father. She left me with her mother in Texas while she went to New Orleans to set up a life for us. After a while, she sent for me. She supported us by working in bars. In five years, we lived in five different places. Then she married my stepfather, who was with the carnie. Maybe that’s where my restlessness comes from. I inherited it.”
Ward spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, serving as an airborne radar technician in Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada. After the service, he ventured to New York and studied acting at Herbert Berghof’s studio for six months in 1964.
The 5-foot-9 Ward then did some amateur boxing, was a logger and lumberjack in Alaska and landed parts in early plays written by his future Right Stuff co-star, Sam Shepard, in San Francisco.
A job in construction on San Francisco’s transit system funded a trip to Europe, and in Rome, he dubbed films, performed as a mime and acted in Roberto Rossellini telefilms.
Back in the U.S., Ward appeared uncredited as a cowboy in Tony Bill’s Hearts of the West (1975), then got his first major role as a con who attempts a breakout with Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979).
During the making of The Right Stuff, Kaufman said Ward “almost died in the water” in Half Moon Bay during a scene in which Grissom bails from his capsule.
“I had a wet suit on under my flight suit, in pretty cold water,” Ward recalled. “And then they picked me up, dangling by a rescue noose. It’s a tragic scene. You see Gus Grissom hanging there: almost totally defeated, like a dead fish on the end of a line.”
Ward also played a terrorist planning to blow up the Academy Awards in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) and appeared in other films including Southern Comfort (1981), Swing Shift (1984), UFOria (1985), Secret Admirer (1985), The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988), Bob Roberts (1992), Road Trip (2000), Joe Dirt (2001), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), The Wild Stallion (2009) and 2 Guns (2013).
In his lone foray as a producer, Ward paid $4,000 to option Charles Willeford’s 1985 book Miami Blues and got Jonathan Demme to produce the movie and Armitage to write and direct.
Ward was married three times. Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Marie-France Ward, and his son, Django, named for Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Donations in his memory can be made to the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.