One of the most talented and memorable character actors of his generation has died. According to a statement from his publicist, Fred Ward passed away on Sunday, May 8. No cause of death was given; Ward was 79 years old.
Movie lovers might remember him best from Tremors, the offbeat but very entertaining horror comedy about underground monsters terrorizing a town in the deserts of Nevada. The movie became a cult hit and spawned a long-running franchise; Ward returned for the first sequel, Tremors 2: Aftershocks. In the series, he plays Earl, a guy who, along with his buddy Val (Kevin Bacon), discover the existence of these tunneling “graboid” monsters.
Born in California in 1942, Ward spent early parts of his life in the Air Force and as a boxer, before getting his breaks in show business with Italian director Roberto Rossellini while he was living for a time in Rome. Returning to the Untied States, be began picking up work in theater and television, and then co-starred in Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz opposite Clint Eastwood.
While Ward played a lot of heavies and villains, he also starred in the action adventure Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, based on a popular series of novels. The film was intended to launch a franchise, but it didn’t fare well enough at the box office to ever get a sequel.
Another career highlight came in 1983, when Ward played Mercury Seven astronaut Gus Grissom in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff about the earliest days of the American space program.
Besides Tremors, my personal favorite Fred Ward performance is probably his very funny turn as a mad terrorist in Naked Gun 33 1/3, where he spoofed many of the tough-guy roles he’d played through the years.
In the email announcing Ward’s death, his publicist, Ron Hofmann, had this to say about Ward’s special talents:
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).
That is actually a fine tribute to Ward, a versatile and memorable actor who was always a welcome presence onscreen. He will be missed.
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