Fred Ward, who has died aged 79, was more than just a talented character actor whose ability to imbue lesser characters quietly with depth endeared him to a number of directors who worked with ensemble casts, including Philip Kaufman, Walter Hill and Robert Altman. He was also what used to be called a “second lead”, a likable co-star with leading man qualities who could support the top billed star.
He played this part to perfection in what was his best-known role, as Earl Bassett in the 1990 cult B movie Tremors. His understatement is a major part of the horror thriller’s comic relief, while his steadiness anchors the wilder performance of Kevin Bacon. “When it came to battling underground worms, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner,” Bacon said.
That should have been Ward’s year. He had been so strong as Gus Grissom, the most down-to-earth of the astronauts in The Right Stuff (1983), that Kaufman chose him to star as the writer Henry Miller, alongside Uma Thurman as his wife June and Maria de Medeiros as the writer Anaïs Nin, in Henry and June. His third movie in 1990 was Miami Blues.
Ward bought the rights to Charles Willeford’s novel intending to play the flashy villain, while seeing Gene Hackman as the police detective Hoke Moseley, who spends much of the film searching for his stolen dentures. But the producer Jonathan Demme felt they needed a younger star, so Alec Baldwin came in and Ward, inevitably, played Moseley. It was his third fine performance in his third fine movie that year, but none of them was a box-office hit.
His first role the next year was as Henry Phillip Lovecraft in an HBO television film Cast a Deadly Spell, as a detective called HP Lovecraft in a 1940s Los Angeles where nearly everyone uses black magic. Called Phil, in homage to Chandler’s Marlowe, Ward carried this offbeat mix of genres alongside Julianne Moore and David Warner. Then he again played a sidekick, calling on his own Cherokee ancestry to play Joe Leaphorn, the older Navaho detective aiding Lou Diamond Phillips as Jim Chee in The Dark Wind, based on the Tony Hillerman novels.
This seemed typical of Ward’s peripatetic career, which saw him best described as “underused and underrated”. He described his own “restless Kerouac streak, the call of the road”, which he learned early. He was born in San Diego, California. His father, Fred Frazier Ward, was an alcoholic who was in jail when his son was born (“he got out to celebrate his baby and soon went back in”). His mother, Juanita (nee Lown), divorced her husband and moved to New Orleans, working in bars while young Fred stayed with his grandmother in Texas. When he was three Juanita remarried; his stepfather was a fairground worker, and Fred spent much of his childhood on the move. He thought “the need for acceptance from my childhood ... gave me the drive that an actor has to have”.
After high school, he joined the US air force, serving as a radar technician, mostly in Labrador, Canada. After his discharge, he went to New York and studied acting at Herbert Bergdorf Studio, but when no jobs materialised he moved across the US, taking a series of jobs ranging from short order cook to logger, and boxing, which broke his nose three times, helping his eventual lived-in everyman look. He saved money and travelled to Europe, winding up in Italy where he found work dubbing Italian films into English, and made his screen debut in two Roberto Rossellini productions for television, Age of the Medici (1973) in which he actually played a dandy, and Cartesius (1974).
Returning to the US, he played a truck driver in Ginger in the Morning (1974) and had an unbilled part as a cowboy stunt man in the excellent Hearts of the West (1975). His first notice came in Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979) in which he is one of the two brothers plotting with Clint Eastwood, and then he played one of the lost National Guardsmen in Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981).
His first starring role came as a motorcycle racer transported back to the old west in Timerider (1982). He sandwiched parts as male support for strong women in Silkwood (1983) and Swing Shift (1984) around being third-billed under Hackman in Uncommon Valor (1983), then starred in Remo Williams (1985), in what was supposed to be a series based on the popular Destroyer novels. But the film flopped, through no fault of Ward’s performance, and the sequels were never made.
In the early 1990s he was busy, giving fine performances. In 1992 he was a studio security chief in Altman’s The Player, an anchorman in Bob Roberts, and Mr Paris in Alan Rudolph’s Equinox. He also played Wyatt Earp in the comedy western Four Eyes and Six Guns, which attempted to turn Judge Reinhold into Bob Hope in The Paleface. In 1994 he was back with Altman in Short Cuts and very funny in Naked Gun 33 1/3, playing a terrorist who wants to blow up the Oscar ceremony.
Ward reprised his role as Earl Bassett in a sequel, Tremors II: Aftershock (1996). There have been five more sequels, starring Michael Gross reprising his Burt Gummer character, and a 2003 TV series, but all without Ward or Bacon. Ward did a great deal of episodic TV, most notably as Maura Tierney’s father in ER. He played Ronald Reagan in a French spy thriller, Farewell (2009). His final part came in two episodes of HBO’s True Detective in 2015, playing Colin Farrell’s father.
He was divorced twice, and is survived by his third wife, Marie-France (nee Boisselle), whom he married in 1995, and his son, Django, from his second marriage, to Silvia.
• Fred (Freddie Joe) Ward, actor, born 30 December 1942; died 8 May 2022