He's not big, maybe 5-foot-9, 150 pounds. He isn't leading-man handsome; his face is more like a boxer's. He doesn't have the veneer of Roger Moore, the physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the stony machismo of Sylvester Stallone.
But there's a hardness about his look and a softness about his attitude that make Fred Ward, who plays the title role in "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins," the most interesting action star to emerge from the movies this year.
The question is: Will enough people see his performance to convince Orion Pictures to let the adventure continue?
"It's too early to make a decision (on a sequel)," says Mike Medavoy, head of production for Orion. "We'll have to watch and see how it does for a while."
"Remo Williams," the first in what Orion had hoped would be a series of films based on the "Destroyer" paperback books, opened Friday to hot reviews but cool box-office business. In its first four days, it grossed only $3.4 million in 1,170 theaters.
Ward, who acknowledges early misgivings about playing an action hero, says he came to like Remo Williams during filming in New York and Mexico last winter and hopes he has at least one more chance to expand the character. He has signed for three Remo movies.
"I don't like to intellectualize a role," says the 42-year-old Ward, who brought a string of solid credits to Remo (he was Gus Grissom in "The Right Stuff," Meryl Streep's Indian co-worker in "Silkwood" and the haunted Vietnam veteran in "Uncommon Valor"). "I just think there are a lot of places to go with Remo. His relationship with Chiun has just begun." Chiun is the 80-year-old Korean martial arts master--played by Joel Grey under a four-hour-a-day makeup job--who transforms Remo from a street-brawling Bronx cop into an agile agent-assassin who is able to dodge bullets and race across wet cement with barely a footprint left behind.
Orion has been blunt about its intentions for Remo. The studio, run by the same people who launched James Bond at United Artists, set out to create a red, white and blue-collar Bond, a new American hero who might be trotted out every other year or so to deliver some predictable box-office punch.
English director Guy Hamilton, responsible for some of the earliest and best Bond movies ("Goldfinger," "Live and Let Die"), and former Bond writer Christopher Wood ("Moonraker"), were signed for the first Remo movie, with options for a second.
If Remo ends with "The Adventure Begins," it won't be their fault. Hamilton and Wood, downplaying the violence and uplifting the humor, have delivered a welcome and breezy alternative to the mayhem and genocide of "Rambo" and "Commando."
Playing an action hero in a series of pulp adventures may have been the farthest thing from Ward's mind when he was honing his acting skills doing mime and masque in Italian cabarets, and during years of stage work in San Francisco.
But Ward says there were a couple of things about the role that he found irresistible.
One was the father-son relationship that evolves through the film. Ward's parents were separated when he was 3 and he was raised by his mother. Mentors have filled in for fathers for him before, he says, including one who was actually a Korean karate instructor.
"I do feel that need at times in my life," the soft-spoken Ward says. "Much of the fun of this movie for me was the relationship between Remo and Chiun."
The rest of the fun was in the physical work. Ward, a fitness junkie whose idea of exercise is to get in the ring and flail with kick-boxing experts, got to hang from a log 300 feet above a mountain gorge in central Mexico, cling to the cage of a seat while spinning around the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island and fight for balance atop the wind-swept scaffolding surrounding the face of the Statue of Liberty.
Ward had a stunt double for some of the riskier scenes, but no one on the film crew doubted his ability or willingness to do the work. On his only day off one week in central Mexico, Ward arranged to climb the 17,800-foot Mt. Iztalpopo.
Of the eight men who set out on the seven-hour climb from a base camp at 12,000 feet up an icy wall in snow squalls, only Ward and the guide made it to the top. Among the dropouts was Ward's stunt double.
Why would he spend his day off climbing a mountain?
"I hate to say because it was there," he says. "I'm a whole-hearted believer in everything we do is meaningless anyway. I just wanted to do it, very badly."
Funny things happen to the way your oxygen-starved mind works at 17,000 feet, he adds.
"Near the top, when it was hardest," he says, "I remember thinking to myself, 'You know, my damn dog wouldn't do this.' Now, who's smarter?"
DIET PLAN: A group made up of health-care experts and doctors are protesting the practice of film makers accepting fees for promoting products in their pictures.
The group, representing the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Doctors Ought to Care, wrote to Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti recently to complain that such product placement is deceptive and that film makers ought to either quit doing it or say so in the opening credits.
The doctors and health experts complained about the use of Budweiser beer in "The Electric Horseman" and "Cannonball Run," Coor's Beer and Reese's Pieces in "E.T.," and Clark candy bars and Glenfiddich Scotch in "Grease II."
According to the protesters, there were also 20 references to Marlboro cigarettes in "Superman II" and audiences should know that Marlboro paid a fee to the producers.
So far, no comment from Valenti, not even a Snicker.
BUZZ: Columbia Pictures was back on top of the commissary news this week when it announced that Peter S. Sealey, executive vice president of Columbia Pictures Industries Inc., was taking over the Columbia marketing job vacated by Ashley Boone last summer.
Sources at the studio believe Boone, now president of marketing for Lorimar Pictures, left because he was tired of the interference in his film marketing plans by Columbia Pictures Industries in New York. Specifically, the sources said, the real marketing head at Columbia was Sealey, who once ran the parent Coca-Cola Co.'s worldwide marketing division.
Whether Sealey has been banished to Hollywood by Coca-Cola, or the soft drink giant has just decided to be up front about the way it wants the studio to sell movies, it hardly looks like an upward career move.
It also looks like something of a vacation after all those years at Coca-Cola. Columbia Pictures only puts out about two six-packs a year.
NOTES 'N' QUOTES: The writers, actors and directors guilds have joined Motion Picture and Video Projectionists Local 150 in urging a public boycott of area theaters operated by the Landmark chain. Landmark, a San Francisco-based chain with 23 specialty theaters across the country, runs the Rialto in South Pasadena, the Nuart in West Los Angeles and the new Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas fourplex in the Westside Pavilion. Landmark's 11 Los Angeles projectionists voted to join Local 150 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employes last January and have been striking with the union's support since May 24.
Laemmle Theatres has added the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills to its group of L.A. specialty houses. The Cannes Gold Palm winner, "When Father Was Away on Business," will open the Laemmle era at the Fine Arts Nov. 1.
Some of the few good laughs to be found now in movie theaters come from 20th Century Fox's 90-second trailer for "The Jewel of the Nile," Michael Douglas' sequel to "Romancing the Stone."
In it, Danny DeVito, who plays the Lilliputian Bronx gangster Ralph in both movies, is calling a crony from a phone booth in the desert while a series of wild inserts from the film make it look as if he's about to be trampled.
The trailer was shot in 120-degree temperatures in Palm Springs over the Labor Day Weekend. After surviving the jungles of Mexico for "Romancing the Stone" and the hot sands of Morocco for "Jewel of the Nile," DeVito says he was happy to do it.
"I got the Aztec two-step in Mexico and olive's revenge in Morocco," DeVito says. "In Palm Springs, I got a date shake."