Fred Ward, the brusque man of action in films including Tremors, The Right Stuff, and Henry & June, died at age 79 as confirmed by his publicist Ron Hofmann. Even in his heyday, he took to the screen as a welcome relic of a bygone era with a level of grit, charm, and tenderness reminiscent of Clark Gable. No cause of death is currently known for the actor.
Ward was one of the few Hollywood tough guys that actually had the credentials to back it up off-screen. Before becoming a movie star, he was a lumberjack, a boxer, and spent three years in the Air Force, instilling him with a grit that naturally translated into his performances. His start in acting didn’t even begin in the U.S., as he started as voice-over actor and a mime in Rome. When he eventually came back to the States, he’d get his first big film break in Escape From Alcatraz before going on to one of his defining roles in The Right Stuff, the 1983 historical epic about the early years of U.S. space flight. He’d also appear alongside Meryl Streep in the 1983 film Silkwood.
What is likely Ward‘s best-known appearance wouldn’t come until 1990, however, with the inception of the Tremors franchise. Ward played the gruff Earl Bassett opposite Kevin Bacon‘s Valentine McKee in the beloved horror-comedy. It was partly his chemistry with Bacon that made the film a classic, from their penchant for plans and a general desire to do anything else but be handymen. He’d go on to do the second film without Bacon, this time chumming it up with newcomer Grady (Christopher Gartin) and beloved side character turned franchise star Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) in a surprisingly competent direct-to-video sequel.
Beyond Tremors, Ward also picked up a Golden Globe along with the rest of the cast of Short Cuts and took the lead role in the ill-fated Remo Williams franchise, which only received one film. Ward was also part of a piece of film history alongside Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros in Henry & June. That film, which revolved around Henry Miller’s ménage a trois with his wife and a writer he met in Paris, became the first film in theaters with an NC-17 rating.
Hofmann released a statement on Ward‘s passing that looked back on his varied and honestly unpredictable career:
The unique thing about Fred Ward is that you never knew where he was going to pop up, so unpredictable were his career choices. He could play such diverse characters as Remo Williams, a cop trained by Chiun, Master of Sinanju (Joel Grey) to become an unstoppable assassin in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, or Earl Bass, who, alongside Kevin Bacon, battle giant, worm-like monsters hungry for human flesh in ‘cult’ horror/comedy film, Tremors (1990), or a detective in the indie film Two Small Bodies (1993) directed by underground filmmaker Beth B., or a terrorist planning to blow up the Academy Awards in The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994), or the father of the lead character in Jennifer Lopez’s revenge thriller Enough (2002).
Ward was your classic gritty Hollywood tough guy, but he frequently took on varied performances and added a lot of heart to his characters. Our condolences go out to Ward‘s family and friends.