With the first annual Fred Ward Memorial Tribute free double feature at The Cliftex Theatre in Clifton Dec. 27, the Bosque Film Society spotlights the life and career of the actor known as Freddie Joe Ward to Valley Mills High School's Class of 1960
For more than three decades, actor Fred Ward worked with the biggest names in Hollywood and appeared in box office hits and award-winning films. When he passed away earlier this year at the age of 79, tributes poured in from throughout the entertainment industry and around the world.
But as well-known as his face became during his Hollywood career, few seem to remember his name. Additionally, lack of historical background made it seem like the actor came out of nowhere. In fact, Freddie Joe Ward established a strong connection to Bosque County in his youth that has remained mostly hidden from the public eye, until now.
For several local residents, Ward’s passing became a personal loss connected through friendships from years ago. Though not widely known, Freddie Joe Ward lived in Bosque County in the 1950s and graduated from Valley Mills High School in the Class of 1960.
Because of that local connection, the Bosque Film Society will be presenting the first annual Fred Ward Memorial Tribute at the historic Cliftex Theatre in Clifton. The free admission event features two of Ward’s most iconic movies – the 1989 cult monster flick, “Tremors” with Kevin Bacon, and the 1983 Oscar-winning drama detailing the early years of the United States space program, “The Right Stuff” featuring an all-star cast. With free admission on a first-come, first-serve basis, the box office will open at 5 p.m., and the Cliftex Theatre concessions will be open and available at regular prices.
“Fred Ward’s contribution to film merits local celebration and honor,” said Bosque Film Society founding board president Brett Voss, adding that the BFS plans to make the Ward Tribute an annual event. “Long before I moved to Bosque County, I was a fan of Fred Ward and the films he was in. He was a man’s man, and so were the characters he played.”
During the memorial tribute, Bosque Film Society historian and founding board member Bryan Davis along with Voss will present information regarding Ward’s career. Besides an introduction of the movies, the BFS will share information on a documentary being developed in association with DigiWerke Media and Southern Cross Creative. Entitled “Out of Nowhere: The Untold Story of Freddie Joe Ward,” the documentary includes the little-known fact that acclaimed actor spent his formative years growing up in Valley Mills with an aunt and uncle.
The Bosque Film Society first began exploring ways to honor Ward two years ago, hoping to bring the actor – still living at the time – back home to Bosque County. At that time, Davis – who also grew up in Valley Mills and knew of Ward’s background – spoke to fellow board members about Ward’s local roots. While board members admired Ward’s film work – like so many others – they had no idea he once called Bosque County home.
With that began the attempt to honor the local celebrity by producing a documentary about his years growing up in Valley Mills with hopes of Ward possibly being present for a retrospective of his film career. Those plans changed in May when Ward died in Los Angeles. But the BFS decided to move forward with their documentary plans.
Davis spent several months researching and writing the script for the documentary on Ward’s career, completing it in October. Filming interviews with six of Ward’s former Valley Mills school mates conducted by Voss, Davis and fellow BFS founding board member and filmmaker-in-residence Will Godby commenced shortly after. The trio expect to complete the documentary sometime in 2023.
“We wanted to do this right,” said Voss. “We want this to be something Fred’s family and old friends will be proud of in the way it honors his memory. It would have been great to have it ready to present at the first memorial tribute double feature. But there are still some very key and special moving parts we did not want to sacrifice for the sake of completing it now.”
Like Ward, Davis grew up in Valley Mills and would return home to serve as editor of the local newspaper for two years in the early 1980s. He became aware of Ward’s career as it reached mainstream success, and Davis personally knew the aunt and uncle who raised the 13-year-old Ward after his mother died.
“His aunt was very proud of Fred and his career,” Davis said. “Everyone knows Fred Ward’s face, but not so much the name – even around here.”
Over the years, Davis and friend Richard Lundberg, a certified public accountant in Clifton, often discussed Ward’s career as Lundberg also grew up in Valley Mills and attended school with Ward. In fact, Lundberg and Davis will be sponsoring the showings of the Dec. 27 films at the Cliftex. Lundberg, along with former Valley Mills classmates Mary Sue Crawson, Kathy Finstad, Ginger Albrecht, Jimmy Graves and Kenneth Crawson, will also be featured in the documentary.
Several recall Ward wanting to be an actor one day, and most had little doubt his dreams would come true. In addition to former school mates and family, the actor’s son Django Ward and actor Kevin Bacon have been approached to participate in the documentary.
Born in California on Dec. 30, 1942, Freddie Joe’s mother, the former Juanita Flemister, was from Texas, while his father, Fred Frazier Ward was from Tennessee. The two were married in Texas in 1947, but Ward’s father was troubled, and the couple split when their son was three. Ward spent time with his Texas family while his mother found work and remarried in Louisiana. The couple returned to California with Ward and added a daughter to the family.
In 1955, Ward’s mother died at the age of 36 leaving him an orphan at 13. His mother’s sister and family, Jack and Oleta Martin of Valley Mills, took in their nephew to raise him with their own two children, Perry and Sherry. In Valley Mills, Ward was known for being handsome and well-dressed, a good athlete, hard-working and popular with his classmates.
When Ward graduated from Valley Mills Highs School in 1960, he enlisted with the U.S. Air Force, where he spent three years before landing a variety of jobs around the country from cook to lumberjack. He attended acting school in New York City and eventually ended up in Italy, where he dubbed Italian films into English. Ward wound up in Hollywood in the early 1970s and began landing small roles in film, married and had his son before his breakout role co-starring with Clint Eastwood in the 1979 hit, “Escape from Alcatraz.”
Following that major release feature film, Ward’s career took off with supporting roles in a series of high profile, big budget films alongside Hollywood’s biggest stars. He would be at the top of his professional game throughout the 1980s and mid-1990s.
In 1983, Ward appeared in the ensemble film that remains one of his most acclaimed performances, that of doomed astronaut Gus Grissom in “The Right Stuff.” Grissom was one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts in the first days of the US space program. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four Oscars.
That same year, Ward played opposite Meryl Streep in “Silkwood.” In 1984, he had a co-starring role in the World War II drama “Swing Shift,” with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
Ward was next poised for major stardom of his own when he took on his first lead role in the 1985 action movie, “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” It was styled as an American version of James Bond with Ward signed for three pictures. But the movie failed at the box office and the sequels never materialized.
Still, Ward’s career kept flourishing, and he was featured in several big films, including the 1988 comedy “Big Business” starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler. Then in 1990, Ward landed the role for which is perhaps most recognized, Earl Bassett, in the cult classic monster horror comedy, “Tremors,” co-starring Kevin Bacon and Country Music star Reba McEntire.
Next up for Ward would be his starring turn as the writer Henry Miller in the controversial 1990 film, “Henry and June,” co-starring Uma Thurman. The movie was the first to be given the NC-17 rating, or no one under 17 admitted.
Over the next decade, Ward appeared in several popular big-budget films including “Bob Roberts” and “The Player” in 1992, “Short Cuts” in 1993, “Naked Gun 33 1/3” in 1994, “Joe Dirt” and “Corky Romano” in 2001,” and his last big screen success, “Sweet Home Alabama” playing Reese Witherspoon’s father. Most of Ward’s work during the last two decades of his life was in television. His last big screen credit came in the 2013 cop buddy movie "2 Guns," starring Denzel Washington and Mark Walberg.
“Fred Ward was an amazing actor highly regarded by directors and fellow actors,” said Davis. “I’ve always enjoyed his work even if we didn’t share the same hometown. He had such great range as an actor, playing comedy, drama and leading man action hero equally well.
“But for me, the story I love most is how Fred survived a tough childhood to find a loving home with his Texas family. It was those Valley Mills roots, I believe, that set Fred Ward on the right path to stability and success in Hollywood.”
The Bosque Film Society will continue to honor Ward and work to ensure his memory, his face and above all his name remains alive and remembered through the documentary film project and future plans to introduce and reacquaint audiences to Ward’s talents through his memorable film roles.
“I’m sorry that we didn’t get started sooner making Fred Ward’s local connections known,” said Davis of the documentary project. “I wish he were here to see how his friends back home remember him and were proud of his career and success.”
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