Fred Ward, Star of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Henry and June,’ Dies at 79

Fred Ward, a versatile actor with a forceful onscreen presence who in a long career played roles that ranged from the sexually adventurous novelist Henry Miller to the meticulous, taciturn astronaut Gus Grissom, died on May 8. He was 79.

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

Mr. Ward came by his virile persona authentically—or as authentically as stereotypes of some of the jobs he held might suggest. He worked as a logger and a lumberjack in Alaska, boxed as an amateur and spent three years in the Air Force as a radar technician in the cold and often bleak Labrador region of Canada.

While he never came close to matching the stardom of macho leading men like Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson — he usually had supporting roles — he played tough, resilient characters in films like “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (1985), in which he was a James Bond-like assassin skilled in martial arts 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 wormlike monsters; and the comedy “Naked Gun 33 ⅓” (1994), in which he was cast as a terrorist plotting to blow up the Academy Awards show.

But his more subtle talents as an actor were on vivid display in “Henry and June” (1990), a steamy account of the Parisian love triangle that Miller had with his wife, June (Uma Thurman), and the diarist Anaïs Nin (Maria of Medeiros) in the 1930s. In addition to drawing attention for its subject matter, the film received an extra smidgen of notoriety because it was the first to be blessed with the Motion Picture Association of America’s NC-17 rating, which allowed it to escape the penalties — in lost newspaper and television advertising and reluctant theaters — that would have resulted if it had been rated X.

“My rear end seemed to have something to do with it,” Mr. Ward said of the threatened X rating, though his was not the only rear end on display.

“Because women were the instigators as much as men in this film, that may have been threatening to some people,” he told The Washington Post in 1990. “Or that may be a cockamamie theory of mine.”

In harmony with Miller’s appetite for living and his bawdy humor, Mr. Ward captured his working-class Brooklyn origins and accent, as well as the rascally, bohemian joy he took in blurting convention. He shaved his head to resemble Miller’s and studied videotapes of the aged Miller to imitate his tics.

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

Reviewing “Henry and June” in The Times, the critic Janet Maslin was not kind to the film — but said of Mr. Ward that although he had been “asked to give more of an impersonation than a performance,” he was “always appealing .”

Hal Hinson of The Washington Post was far more enthusiastic, about both the movie and Mr. Ward’s performance. As Miller, he wrote, “Ward gives a hilarious rendition of burly American bravado, but he keeps the character’s vulgarities in balance with his artistic drives.” It was, he said, “a star performance with a character actor’s authenticity.”

Frederick Joseph Ward was born on Dec. 30, 1942, in San Diego to an alcoholic father. “My father did a lot of time,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1985. “He was in jail when I was born, got out briefly to celebrate the birth and went right back.”

When Fred was 3, his mother left her husband and went to New Orleans to rebuild her life, putting Fred in his grandmother’s care in Texas. “After a while she feels 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 with the carny. Maybe that’s where my restlessness comes from. I inherited it.”

Three days after graduating from high school, Mr. Ward enrolled in the Air Force, because, he said, it was his duty to his country. Once his service was finished, he took a bus to New York and enrolled in acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio, supporting himself by working as a janitor and construction worker.

When the classes yielded only one small movie role, he took off to Florida, where he loaded trucks, and then to New Orleans, where he worked in a barrel factory; Houston, where a possible job as a seaman was derailed by a strike; and Yuba City, Calif., where he found a job as short-order cook in a bowling alley. In San Francisco, a construction job in the transit system financed a trip to Spain, Morocco, France and Italy.

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

Returning to the United States, he took an uncredited part as a cowboy in the 1975 film “Hearts of the West.” But he did not land his first significant role until 1979, when he played a convict who joined Clint Eastwood in an attempt to break out of prison in “Escape From Alcatraz.” Other roles followed, including Mike Nichols’s “Silkwood” (1983), in which he played a union activist and Meryl Streep’s colleague.

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

The director of that film was Philip Kaufman, who went on to cast Mr. Ward in “Henry and June.”

Two years after “The Right Stuff” came a huge career letdown. The makers of “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” hoped that — as the title suggested — it would be the beginning of a James Bond-like franchise, and Mr. Ward signed on for two sequels. But it was a box-office bust, and the other films were never made.

Mr. Ward was married three times. His survivors include Marie-France Ward, his wife of 27 years, and a son, Django, named after the guitarist Django Reinhardt.

In his last decades, Mr. Ward appeared in a motley assortment of films and television shows, but he worked most intensely on developing a talent he felt he had for painting. In that pursuit, he might have been following 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, the creativity and the passion,” he said. “Or he would die bitter.”

Amanda Holpuch contributed reporting.

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