Fred Ward’s Impressive Body of Work

By David Raether

Fred Ward didn’t look like a movie star.

He looked more like the guy you’re sitting next to in a truck stop off Interstate 10 in El Paso, Texas. Denim shirt, weathered and intelligent face, his straw cowboy hat resting on the counter while he is eating his breakfast of poached eggs and a piece of toast. Maybe he’s reading the paper, but more likely, he’s just sitting there quietly pondering the haul he has to make that day — all the way to the Port of Los Angeles / Long Beach harbor terminal. You sit down next to him and he politely greets you and then turns back to himself. He finishes breakfast, stands up, leaves some money on the counter, and saunters out, humming a Bob Dylan song like It Ain’t Me Babe or maybe Forever Young.

At one point in his life, Fred Ward might have been that man sitting next to you at the counter. But through his life Ward followed a trajectory that took him from hardscrabble jobs to experimental theater in New York to be a genuine movie star.

He was not, however, a leading man type of star. He was durable, reliable, and distinctive. Ward was ruggedly handsome, emphasis on ruggedly. He was also deeply respected and admired by his co-stars. Ward’s death on May 8, 2022, brought out a flood of praises from actors with whom he had worked: Kevin Bacon, Kate Mulgrew, Reese Witherspoon, et al. Probably the most telling was this from the comic actor Diedrich Bader:

“Fred Ward was seemingly incapable of being inauthentic. His characters felt like they lived a full life and we’re only seeing a part of it and that’s a magic trick done right in front of you and very luckily captured in light forever. “

Freddie Joe Ward was born on Dec. 30, 1942, in San Diego, CA His father was an alcoholic and a frequent visitor to various jailhouses. When Ward was three, his father skipped town for good. Ward’s mother decided to go to New Orleans to make a life for herself and her son. She got a job as a bartender, but things were hardly stable. Ward and his mother lived in five different places for five years.

She finally met someone, an itinerant carnival worker and it was back on the road again for them.

“Maybe that’s where I get my restlessness from,” Ward said once. “It was inherited.”

After finishing high school, Ward continued to lead a vagabond sort of life. He worked as a short-order cook, a lumberjack in Alaska, a janitor, an airman in the US Air Force, and a boxer — with that last one resulting in three broken noses. Landing back in New York City, he decided to become an actor. He studied acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio, a studio that has produced an enormous number of successful actors over the years and is widely regarded as one of the best acting studios in the country.

Ward then ended up in Rome. How is a little unclear, but he did. While there, he found voice work dubbing American English into Italian films. He appeared in two films by the neorealist Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini was married for a time Ingrid Bergmanand is the father of Isabella Rossellini. Ward also spent some time as a street mime in Rome! (I bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?)

Ward returned to the US in the early 1970s and settled in New York. He acted in a lot of experimental theater, which was a thing back then. Experimental theater “opposes bourgeois theater. It tries to introduce a different use of language and the body to change the mode of perception and to create a new, more active relationship with the audience. ”

You can just feel a headache coming on right about now, can’t you?

I went to a lot of experimental theater in the 1970s. Meh. I remember one production about the myth of Hercules that featured screechy, atonal music, a bare stage, and flimsy, gauzy costumes. There was also some modern dance in there as well. I remember thinking, “These actors are only doing this to meet other actors they can date. They can’t possibly be taking this seriously. ” I should point out, I did like the flimsy, gauzy costumes. So there’s that.

His first appearance in an American film was a minor role in the 1975 comedy Hearts of the West, which starred Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkinand Blythe Danner. This led to his first major role, co-starring with Clint Eastwood in the 1979 prison drama Escape From Alcatraz. I’ve always had a fondness for this movie because I saw it in a movie theater in Durango, Mexico. (How I ended up there we can get into later.) The movie had been dubbed into Spanish and I was pretty much able to follow along. I flattered myself that my Spanish was getting pretty good, but I later figured out that you can pretty much follow any Clint Eastwood movie without bothering to pay much attention to the dialogue.

The 1980s was a decade of triumphs and setbacks for Ward. 1983 was particularly big for him with roles in three major motion pictures: The Right Stuff, Uncommon Valorand Silkwood. And then the movie that was supposed to really put him on the map—Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985). I am a fan of this movie. It’s a very charming action / comedy. But it was a bit of a bomb.

After the Remo Williams disappointment, Ward’s career as a leading man went poof, and he settled into a long career as a supporting actor / character actor. The 1990s were a busy period in his career. He appeared in 25 films, including such notable films as Tremors (1990), Henry & June (1990), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Chain Reaction (1996). His best-known film in recent years was a supporting role as Reese Witherspoon’s eccentric father in Sweet Home Alabama (2002).

Ward was married three times. His only child is a son named Django, named for the Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. (If you are bored with the music you’ve been listening to lately, I highly recommend you try out some Django Reinhardt. He’s a virtuoso on the guitar, and it is happy and lively music.)

Fred Ward left behind an impressive body of work. There is a remarkable consistency to his work; all of it is very good, and some of it is great and unforgettable. He didn’t make it seem like any of his parts were beneath him. He never conveys any sense of judgment on the characters he played. I get the sense that his childhood gave him an awareness of what the bottom was like. Ward played his characters straight, real, and complex.

Here are six of my favorite Fred Ward movies. Note: I did not include Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985). I like the movie a lot and it’s quite charming, but it has too many problems. Not the least of which was the casting of a white actor (Joel Gray) in the role of an Asian martial arts expert.

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