Fred Ward, rugged character actor from ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Tremors,’ dies

A man in loose clothing and bare feet stands on a beach with rocks behind him
Actor Fred Ward died Sunday at 79, according to his family.
(© Michael Grecco )
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Fred Ward, the rough-hewn character actor known for his work in “The Right Stuff” and “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” died Sunday at age 79.

Publicist Ron Hofmann confirmed the news Friday, giving no further details about the Golden Globe winner’s death.

Ward’s career choices were anything but predictable. After battling flesh-eating subterranean monsters alongside Kevin Bacon in the cult-favorite flick “Tremors” (1990), he played erotic novelist Henry Miller in “Henry & June” that same year. Roles in “The Player” and “Short Cuts” followed, with the latter film earning him a piece of a special-recognition Golden Globe award in 1994.


Ward was born on Dec. 30, 1942, in San Diego. His father was in jail the day he was born, according to the actor. Ward moved around a lot as a child, including to Louisiana and Texas.

“You carry the baggage of your childhood with you until you can step into a Zen space and objectify it,” Ward told The Times in 1990. “There are certain elements of need — the need for acceptance — from my childhood that gave me the drive that an actor has to have.”

As he matured, he worked as a short-order cook, a construction worker, a boxer and a lumberjack in Alaska. He spent three years in the U.S. Air Force as well, then made his way into acting in New York in the early 1970s. Early roles included small parts on TV as well as roles in productions of two of Sam Shepard’s early plays in San Francisco.

A woman in sunglasses stands with a smiling man at a movie premiere
Fred Ward and his wife, Marie-France Ward, attend the premiere of the film “30 Minutes or Less” in Hollywood in 2011.
(Eric Charbonneau / Invision / Associated Press)

“Fred Ward was seemingly incapable of being inauthentic. His characters felt like they lived a full life and we’re only seeing a part of it and that’s a magic trick done right in front of you and very luckily captured in light forever,” tweeted fellow actor Diedrich Bader.

His former co-star Kate Mulgrew also paid tribute Friday.

“I mourn the loss of Fred Ward, who was so kind to me when we worked together on Remo Williams,” Mulgrew tweeted. “Decent and modest and utterly professional, he disarmed with a smile that was at once warm and mischievous.”

Ward’s first major film role was in the 1979 movie “Escape From Alcatraz,” starring Clint Eastwood. And Ward would go on to star alongside Shepard in 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” where he played astronaut Gus Grissom in the adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller. That film, which won four Oscars off of its eight nominations, gave Ward’s career a big boost.

When “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” came out in 1985, Times film critic Jack Mathews called Ward “the most interesting action star to emerge from the movies this year.” The actor had signed on for three “Remo Williams” movies but made only the one.


Fred Ward’s lonesome hobo face has turned up in enough films to make him a familiar figure to American moviegoers.

April 15, 1990

Not long after that, Ward had a small but memorable role in the 1988 comedy “Big Business,” playing Roone, the hunky country-bumpkin love interest of Lily Tomlin’s characters.

Ward also executive-produced a film, “Miami Blues,” released in 1990. He had bought the rights to the source material, Charles Willeford’s book of the same name, a few years earlier. The movie, which starred Ward alongside a young Alec Baldwin, finally got made after director-screenwriter George Armitage wrote the script on spec and Jonathan Demme came onboard as supervising producer and guardian angel.

“The dark humor really appealed to me. And this random, abrupt violence,” Ward told The Times when the “Miami Blues” was released.

“It can be funny and then sink into this ugly place,” he added. “It reflects my view of the world.”

Ward’s résumé also included a number of TV appearances on shows including “True Detective,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “ER.” In his later years, with more than 80 film and TV credits under his belt, Ward explored painting, a hobby his publicist called the actor’s “second favorite art form.”

“Devastated to learn about the passing of my friend, Fred Ward,” tweeted actor Matthew Modine. “I had the absolute pleasure of working with this wonderful man in Robert Altman’s Shortcuts and Alan Rudolph’s Equinox. A tough facade covering emotions as deep as a the Pacific Ocean. Godspeed amigo.”


Ward is survived by his wife of 27 years, Marie-France Ward, and his son, Django Ward.