' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Fred Ward

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

In Memoriam: Fred Ward

Fred Ward was born on December 30, 1942, in San Diego, California as Freddie Joe Ward, a name that sounds like a pugilist. As it happens, Ward was an amateur boxer for a time, leading to three or four broken noses depending on which source you consult, and evocative of a future actor who in no way took a conventional route to Hollywood. It’s apropos, really, that in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player” (1992) Ward played not some Tinseltown studio bigwig but a studio security chief, more befitting of a man who despite briefly taking acting lessons in New York got his true start in the pictures working in the 20th Century-Fox mail room in 1965, just as it was appropriate that he would portray author Henry Miller in 1990’s “Henry & June” given his self-described restlessness yielding a real-life sojourn from the Air Force to New Orleans to California to Alaska to Europe, working in construction and as a logger and in TV movies with Roberto Rossellini. That restlessness is why Ward’s movie career essentially did not start until his late 30s, early 40s, in movies like “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Silkwood,” and as Gus Grissom in “The Right Stuff,” having already “aged into a persona,” to quote Steven Hyden writing about Gene Hackman in 2015, Ward’s been around twice countenance innately readymade for such roles.

Ward could simply walk onscreen and project authority, as he did in “Chain Reaction,” and summon a backstory just in his air, as he did in “Tremors.” It was the work of a character actor, I suppose, rather than a star. Even when Ward optioned the rights to the book that became George Armitage’s gnarly 1990 cult classic “Miami Blues,” installing himself as executive producer and putting himself on the inside track to the tantalizing lead role of sociopath Frederick J. Frenger, Ward knew he had to acquiesce when the studio indicated they wanted younger blood for the part. That paved the way for Ward to play second banana to an admittedly excellent Alec Baldwin. Still, as a paunchy detective with dentures, Ward was his more youthful co-star’s equal. “How many Hollywood leading men are sufficiently divested of vanity that they would not only play a character who gets his dentures stolen,” Glenn Kenny asked on Decider of Ward’s work, “but then subsequently spend a good portion of their screen time gumming it up trying to retrieve them?” And though Baldwin’s character is technically from California, the scene in which the two men have pork chops and quite a few beers is like a Florida Man Algonquin Roundtable, with Ward not playing so stupid that he doesn’t know what’s going on but so stupid that he doesn’t much care. 

Ward’s one real shot at a starmaking role was in 1985’s “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” the title of Guy Hamilton’s adaptation of The Destroyer novel series by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, betraying its intent to make more of them. But the movie flopped, and though Ward still earned some leading parts, in the aforementioned “Henry & June” and the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “Cast a Deadly Spell,” his oeuvre was predominantly the in support kind. Not that this was something to be grieved. Supporting turns can sometimes make or break a movie and no movie Ward was in ever splintered apart because he failed to deliver. It’s why when I read that Ward died last week at the age of 79...well, first I thought of him losing his dentures in “Miami Blues.” But then I thought of “Corky Romano.” That Chris Kattan-led 2001 comedy was terrible, so terrible I don’t remember a thing about it other than Ward’s requisite bad guy getting into a lawn light fixture duel with Kattan’s eponymous character at movie’s end. What you’re watching, though, is less the movie’s hero vanquishing the villain than the actor playing the villain heroically holding up his end of the bargain. 

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