Fred Ward, star of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Henry and June’, dies aged 79

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Fred Ward, a multifaceted actor with a powerful screen presence who has played roles ranging from the sexually adventurous writer Henry Miller to the meticulous, taciturn astronaut Gus Grissom over his long career, died May 8. He was 79 years old.

His death was announced by his publicist Ron Hofmann, who said Mr Ward’s family would not give the cause of death or say where he died.

Mr. Ward was authentically expressed through his masculine persona – or as authentically as stereotypes of some of the jobs he held might suggest. He worked as a lumberjack and lumberjack in Alaska, boxed as an amateur and spent three years in the Air Force as a radar technician in the cold and often barren Labrador region of Canada.

Though he never came close to the fame of macho leads like Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson — he usually had supporting roles — he starred in films like Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), in which he was tough, resilient characters a James Bond-like assassin who was skilled in martial arts and was on assignment for a secret government agency; Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann (1982), in which he portrayed a daredevil motorcycle racer; Tremors (1990), in which he and Kevin Bacon battled crawling worm-like monsters; and the comedy Naked Gun 33 ⅓ (1994), in which he was cast as a terrorist plotting to blow up the Academy Awards.

But his more subtle acting talents were showcased in Henry and June (1990), a steamy account of the Parisian love triangle Miller formed with his wife June (Uma Thurman) and diarist Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) in the 1930s. The film not only drew attention to its subject matter, but received an added dash of notoriety for being the first to be blessed with the Motion Picture Association of America’s NC-17 rating, allowing it to avoid penalties — in lost papers and TV ads and reluctant theaters – that would have been the result if it had been rated X.

“My rump seemed to have something to do with it,” Mr Ward said of the threatened X-rating, though his rump wasn’t the only one on display.

“Because women, like men, were the instigators of this film, it might have been a threat to some people,” he told the Washington Post in 1990. “Or that could be a silly theory of mine.”

In keeping with Miller’s joie de vivre and rough humor, Mr. Ward has captured his origins and working-class Brooklyn accent, as well as the villainous, unconventional joy he found in flouting convention. He shaved his head to resemble Miller’s and studied old Miller’s videotapes to mimic his tics.

“He was talking out of the corner of his mouth,” said Mr. Ward. “He had a squint.”

Critic Janet Maslin, who reviewed ‘Henry and June’ in The Times, was not kind to the film – but said of Mr Ward that although he was ‘asked to do more of an impersonation than a performance’, he “was always appealing.”

The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was much more enthusiastic, both about the film and about Mr. Ward’s performance. As Miller wrote, “Ward delivers a hilarious rendition of burly American bravado, but he balances the character’s vulgarities with his artistic urges.” It is, he said, “a star performance with the authenticity of a character actor.”

Frederick Joseph Ward was born in San Diego on December 30, 1942 to an alcoholic father. “My dad took his time,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “He was in prison when I was born, came out to celebrate the birth and went right back.”

When Fred was 3 years old, his mother left her husband and went to New Orleans to rebuild her life, leaving Fred in the care of his grandmother in Texas. “After a while she sent for me,” Mr Ward told The Tribune. “She supported us by working in bars. In five years we lived in five different places. Then she married my stepfather, who was a showman. Maybe that’s where my anxiety comes from. I inherited it.”

Three days after high school, Mr. Ward enlisted in the Air Force because, as he said, it was his duty to his country. After completing his service, he took a bus to New York and enrolled in acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio, earning a living as a janitor and construction worker.

When the classes yielded only a small roll of film, he went to Florida, where he loaded trucks, and then to New Orleans, where he worked in a keg factory; Houston, where a potential seaman job was derailed by a strike; and Yuba City, California, where he found a job as a quick cook at a bowling alley. In San Francisco, a transit system construction job funded a trip to Spain, Morocco, France and Italy.

“I had a restless Kerouac, the call of the road streak,” he said in 1985. “I think I wanted to experience that existential thing of being alone.”

Returning to the United States, he played an uncredited role as a cowboy in the 1975 film Hearts of the West. However, he didn’t get his first significant role until 1979, when he played a convict who joins Clint Eastwood in his attempt to break out of prison in Escape From Alcatraz. Other roles followed, including Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” (1983), in which he played a labor activist and fellow Meryl Streep.

But the first film to earn him serious Hollywood attention was The Right Stuff (1983), the saga of the Mercury astronauts based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name. Mr. Ward portrayed Virgil “Gus” Grissom. The Hollywood Reporter’s review hailed him as “down to earth and unpretentious in what is perhaps the film’s most challenging role.”

This film was directed by Philip Kaufman, who cast Mr. Ward in Henry and June.

Two years after “The Right Stuff” came a major career disappointment. The creators of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins hoped that, as the title would suggest, it would be the start of a James Bond-esque franchise, and Mr. Ward signed two sequels. But it was a box office hit and the other films never got made.

Mr Ward has been married three times. His survivors include Marie-France Ward, his wife with whom he was 27, and a son, Django, named after guitarist Django Reinhardt.

In his final decades, Mr. Ward appeared in a motley mix of films and television shows, but he worked hardest to develop a talent he thought he had for painting. In this quest he may have followed his inner Henry Miller – Miller, Mr Ward once said, “tried to experiment with life over and over again”.

“He was a man who knew he had to follow that inner urge, creativity and passion,” he said. “Otherwise he would die bitterly.”

Amanda Holpuch contributed reporting.

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