Anthology Film Archives


January 13 – January 22

The world of screen acting became a much poorer place this past summer with the death of Fred Ward. Ward was a textbook example of a character actor who never quite made the leap to leading-man status. But while he was unquestionably talented and charismatic enough to have become a major star, it’s perhaps not entirely unfortunate that mainstream recognition eluded him, since the result was a career spent delivering performances whose shagginess, eccentricity, and adventurousness may not have been possible under the glare of stardom. In any case, Ward’s immeasurable gifts were recognized – and utilized – by some of the period’s finest American filmmakers, including Don Siegel, Robert Altman, Walter Hill, Philip Kaufman, Beth B. and others, and he graced the big and small screens alike with a succession of indelible performances.

Strangely enough, thanks to his time studying acting in Italy, Ward’s earliest screen appearances came in two of Roberto Rossellini’s early-1970s made-for-television “history films” (THE AGE OF THE MEDICI and CARTESIUS). Back in the U.S., he embarked on a career that soon found him landing significant roles in films like Don Siegel’s ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979), Walter Hill’s SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981), Mike Nichols’s SILKWOOD (1983), and Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF (1983). These memorable performances led to his major brush with stardom, when he was chosen to headline what was to be the first film in a new franchise based on the Destroyer series of pulp paperbacks, REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS. The film’s disastrous critical and commercial reception ensured that the rest of Ward’s career was devoted to character roles in a wide variety of films, as well as more prominent roles in a slew of fascinating, relatively under-the-radar works like Philip Kaufman’s HENRY & JUNE (1990), George Armitage’s MIAMI BLUES (1990), and Beth B.’s TWO SMALL BODIES (1993).

Ward’s greatest gift was for fashioning performances that both embodied and parodied (though never in a mean-spirited or condescending way) particularly American mannerisms and forms of masculinity. Whether bringing to life American icons such as astronaut “Gus” Grissom (THE RIGHT STUFF) or writer Henry Miller (HENRY & JUNE), or more ordinary, unexceptional figures like UFORIA’s ultimately well-meaning huckster Sheldon Bart in UFORIA or the long-suffering, repeatedly humiliated cop Hoke Moseley in MIAMI BLUES, Ward demonstrated an unparalleled ability to zero in on both the absurd delusions and the underlying dignity of the characters he played, and to embody these characters in a way that was at once comically exaggerated and yet ultimately authentic.

Special thanks to Chris Chouinard (Park Circus); Jack Durwood (Paramount); Jason Jackowski (Universal); Andrew Lampert; and George Schmalz (Kino Lorber).


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