The Face With No Name

Remembering the late actor Fred Ward, Bosque Film Society holds memorial tribute for Hollywood actor with Bosque County roots by hosting free double feature at the historic Cliftex Theatre

CLIFTON – When acclaimed actor Fred Ward passed away earlier this year at the age of 79, tributes poured in from throughout the entertainment industry. Ward had worked with the biggest names in Hollywood and appeared in box office hits and award-winning films for more than three decades. But for several local residents, Ward’s passing was a more personal loss. It is not widely known, but during the 1950s Bosque County was home to Ward while he was a student at Valley Mills High School.

Once again Ward’s name shone bright on the marquee of Clifton’s historic Cliftex Theatre on Dec. 27. The Bosque Film Society highlighted that local connection with a free Fred Ward Memorial Tribute with a double feature of two of Ward’s most iconic movies: the 1989 cult monster flick “Tremors,” and the 1983 Oscar-winning drama detailing the early years of the United States space program “The Right Stuff.”

During the Memorial Tribute which fell in the week Ward would have celebrated his 80th birthday, information regarding Ward’s career was offered by BFS historian Bryan Davis, who also presented the introduction of the movies.

“Freddie Joe’s path was a rocky one that led him to family just down the road in Valley Mills,” Davis said. “He spent time watching movies right here, maybe where you’re seated now, hoping he’d be up there the big screen one day. Tonight, his life comes full circle – in the movies, the place where dreams really do come true.”

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 was aware of Ward’s career as he was reaching mainstream success and was acquainted with the aunt and uncle who had raised the orphaned Ward after his mother died when he was 13.

As one of the sponsors for the free movie presentations at the Cliftex along with Davis, Clifton CPA Richard Lundberg also grew up in Valley Mills and attended school with Ward. Over the years, he often discussed Ward’s career with Davis, wanting to pay tribute to their illustrious town resident. To help make that happen, they both generously sponsored the free admission event Dec. 27 at the Cliftex, which 50 people attended.

“I can’t help but think Fred Ward would be surprised, and hopefully proud, by the attention and the respect shown for his work,” Davis said. “We wish he were here with us, for his success is a story like the things movies are made of. His life could’ve gone in such a different direction. But the love family and friends here in Bosque County equipped him the “the right stuff” to make his dreams come true. Enjoy the film, and the collective pride we each hold for Fred Ward, his name once more on the Cliftex marque outside. Happy birthday, Freddie Joe.”

While “Tremors” was shown at the Cliftex in 1990 when it was released, it was the first time for the epic “The Right Stuff” was shown on the Clifton big screen, 40 years after its release.

Before the screening of “The Right Stuff,” Davis recognized three of Ward’s former classmates in the theater that night thanking them for their help and participation in the BFS documentary in production focusing on Ward’s life in Valley Mills – Rick Lundberg, Class of 1962, played football with Fred; Dorothy Heath Lightsey, Class of 1961 in Valley Mills and Ann Hillin Thiele, who graduated with Fred Ward in the Valley Mills Class of 1960. Davis also thanked Ward’s cousin, Melanie Gloff for her cooperation and for sharing family photos of friend from the time he was a baby through his early years as an actor.

Early in Ward’s career, with movies like “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Southern Comfort,” and “The Right Stuff” under his belt, he seemed destined for drama. “Escape from Alcatraz” brought Ward great reviews and predictions of stardom. Most every former classmate and family member Davis spoke with called “Escape from Alcatraz” their favorite Ward film, but “The Right Stuff” remains his most acclaimed. When the movie was shown in the Cliftex in September 1979 – with great fanfare – the Clifton Record wrote, “Bosque County boy coming home for a week starting September 6th, but not in person.”

Ward also starred in erotic period drama “Henry and June” – which was so steamy it got the very first NC-17 rating – and as action hero lead in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” Ever the chameleon, his comic talents helped transition him into mainstream hits like “Big Business,” “Naked Gun 33 & 1/3,”  “Joe Dirt,” and Reese Witherspoon’s crazy dad in “Sweet Home Alabama.”

But for the most part, Ward was the co-star in ensemble films. When he passed away in May 2022, one film critic headlined their tribute “He Made Everything Better.” No matter what film he appeared in, even if it wasn’t a great movie, Ward always shined, and was most often the best thing about the movie. When he was on the screen, he commanded your attention.” 

While the general public didn’t necessarily know his Ward’s name, they sure loved his work. One of his old friends from Valley Mills, who ended up living in Fort Worth, said whenever he told people he went to school with Fred Ward, they’d always say, “Never heard of him.” And he would say, “You know the guy from Tremors?” And they would invariably respond, “Oh, like Kevin Bacon.” “No, not him, the other guy.” And then they’d say something along these lines of… “You mean the cool dude?” “I love him,” “I love him in everything he’s done.” 

Wikipedia settles the debate regarding the category “Tremors” falls under – thriller, drama, or comedy – by calling the movie “A classic American monster horror comedy.” Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward play a pair of modern-day cowboys, working as handymen set in the fictitious town Perfection, Nevada. And originally “Beneath Perfection” was considered to be what the film would be called. The somewhat down-and-out duo stumble upon underground killer worms called Graboids, and ultimately become heroes when they save the townspeople by killing the monsters. 

“While it may not be Fred Ward’s most acclaimed work, it’s probably the film he’s best known for,” Davis said. “And in the 33 years since it was filmed, “Tremors” has evolved into the “cult classic” stratosphere. It also perfectly showcased Fred Ward’s gifts for comedy, his charisma, and his athleticism – he was a good athlete in high school, he boxed while serving in the Air Force, and one of his many jobs he worked prior to making it as an actor was as a lumberjack."

While Ward had already achieved great success by this time, he wasn’t the first choice to play the iconic role of Earl Bassett. Producers had hoped for Oscar winner John Voight or even Jack Palance. But director Ron Underwood knew Ward would be perfect for the role, having loved him in 1984’s “UFOria.” Despite already being a major star, Bacon also wasn’t the first choice for his role. Bill Paxton, Ray Liotta, and Bruce Campbell were sought but showed no interest. Bacon only accepted because he’d been in a string of box office bombs, had recently married and his wife was pregnant. In short, he needed the $500,000 producers offered him for the role, but he told his wife “I can’t believe I’m doing a movie about underground worms. I’ll never work again.”

The friendship between the giant worm conquering duo on screen was replicated in life during the shoot on location in the remote, isolated California desert midway between Bakersfield and Death Valley. There were no distractions typically experienced by movie crews on location, which led to a very close-knit set. Bacon, who made his movie debut in “Animal House” at the age of 19, described the “Tremors” shoot as “the single most fun I’ve ever had making a movie in my entire career.”

“Tremors” had a budget of $10 million and ended up grossing $16.5 million at the domestic box office, which made it profitable, but not nearly what producers had expected. Reviews praised the humor and performances, especially the chemistry between Bacon and Ward. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert gave it a Thumbs Up and called the film a “goofy, dumb, fun movie.” The special effects were pre-CGI were also singled out for praise. But not all reviews were good. The New York Times said the movie was “clearly a lot more fun to make than it is to watch.” 

There were several retrospectives done on the 30th anniversary of the film in 2020. And most credit the enduring appeal to the great chemistry between Bacon and Ward. Some have called the movie the “best buddy bromance comedy ever.” The very personal tweet from Bacon on Ward’s death confirmed their tight friendship.

“When it came to battling underground worms, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner,” Bacon tweeted. “I will always remember nights spent chatting about his love for Django Reinhardt and jazz guitar during those long hot days in the desert. Rest in Peace, Fred.”

Other cast members include Country Western icon Reba McEntire in her very first acting role. The director wasn’t looking for a singer, but McEntire’s audition was so natural he cast her and she received a Saturn Award nomination for best supporting actress. Michael Gross, who playsMcEntire’s husband, is known for playing Michael J. Fox’s dad in the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.” Gross returned for all the “Tremor” sequels through the years as the only original recurring character. A young Ariana Richards is best known for her role a few years later as the granddaughter chased by dinosaurs in the Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.”

Originally, “Tremors” was set for a November 1989 release by Universal Pictures, but there was so much profanity in the film it was given an R rating. There were more than 20 “F-bombs” alone, but all but two were edited out, or redubbed. This editing moved the film back to a January 1990 release, but it did change the rating to PG-13. Test audiences also wanted a romance resolution, so the director caved and added a kiss between Bacon and seismologist co-star Rhonda, played by Finn Carter. This made the movie more family-friendly and is credited with much of the runaway success when it went to video rental in the spring of 1990.

The film was the first installment of the Tremors franchise. Six more films would follow, including the prequel, "Tremors 2: Aftershocks,” which starred Ward and Gross, but without Bacon or McEntire The rest were direct-to-video releases from 2001 to 2020. Cheryll Lundberg has all seven “Tremors” movies, and claimed the movie was much more impactful on the big screen than on her television screen at home.

Released in 1983, “The Right Stuff” really poised Ward for superstardom that eventually never quite came his way. Based upon the 1979 best-selling book of the same name by Tom Wolfe, the film chronicles the early years of the military test pilots which would lead to the birth of the American space program and the race with Russia to conquer space. It specifically details the Mercury Seven astronauts chosen to man the first United States human space flights.

The film was written and directed by Phillip Kaufman, and stars an amazing ensemble cast with Sam Shepard as ultimate test pilot Chuck Yeager – who was not one of the Mercury Seven astronauts – Ed Harris as John Glenn, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper and Fred Ward as Gus Grissom. All actors were pretty much unknown at the time.

Everyone has their moments to shine, and Fred Ward gained the best reviews of his career, though elements of his character are the most controversial of the film. The movie suggests Grissom panicked and blew the hatch on the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on splashdown, nearly drowning and sinking the vessel. He was vindicated by the space program early but died tragically, burned to death with two other astronauts during a routine test for the Apollo 1 mission in January 1967. Grissom was 40 years old, the same age as Fred Ward when he played him in “The Right Stuff.”

There was speculation that any number of the cast would be nominated for Academy Awards, but only Sam Sheppard made the cut in his role as Chuck Yeager. Sheppard is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who occasionally acted in film.

Composer Bill Conti came on board when John Barry could not grasp the director Philip Kaufman’s vision for the ideal music score – “sounding like you're walking in the desert and you see a cactus, and you put your foot on it, but it just starts growing up through your foot.", and created the beautiful sounds which won the Academy Award for Best Musical Score. He had won the Oscar a few years earlier for the “Rocky” score.

Film Critic Roger Ebert called “The Right Stuff” the best film of 1983 and would crown it the second best film of the 1980s, behind “Raging Bull.” Gene Siskel also named it best film of the year, and third best of the decade behind “Raging Bull” and “Shoah.”  Despite universal rave reviews for the cast and the technical aspects of the movie, the film was a box-office bomb, grossing $21 million against a $27 million budget. However, widespread critical acclaim led to eight Oscar nominations, including best picture. The film won four Oscars in 1984 – Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. Only “Terms of Endearment” won more awards, five total, including best picture.

Writer Thom Wolfe declined to write the screenplay, but was not happy the dramatic licenses in the film based upon his novel and how historical details were altered. The real astronauts were also not as kind in their reviews either, especially in the depiction of Ward’s character, Gus Grissom. Alan Sheppard never forgave the director and filmmakers for portraying Grissom as a "bungling coward."

Kaufman’s script was very damning in its depiction of the press corps and their coverage of the space program. To emphasize this disdain for the media, whenever the press is seen converging on the astronauts or their families, there is the constant, nagging sounds of locusts in the background.

The character of Florence “Pancho” Barnes, played by Kim Stanley, is a fascinating one. A true aviation pioneer, Barnes earned her pilot’s license in 1928, flew solo, crashed a plane, took the women's world speed record from Amelia Earhart, and was an early stunt pilot in Hollywood silent films before any of the Mercury 7 astronauts were even born. Her "Happy Bottom Riding Club,” features as the favorite hangout of the test pilots in the 1940s. Chuck Yeager himself appears in the film in a cameo as Fred, the old bartender at Pancho's. Yeager said this was appropriate because, “I reckon I spent more time in her bar than in a cockpit."

The film was a huge success on the home video market. In 2013, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Two years ago, Davis 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. And so began the attempt to honor Ward 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. When Ward died in Los Angeles in May 2022, the BFS decided to still move forward with their documentary plans. Completion of the documentary is expected sometime in 2023.

“Fred Ward’s face everyone knows, but not so much the name,” said Davis, the inspired and driving force behind an upcoming documentary on Ward’s life. Davis spent several months researching and writing the script for the BFS short film on Ward’s career and the untold story of Freddie Joe’s years in Valley Mills. Fred Ward was an amazing actor highly regarded by directors and fellow actors. I’ve always enjoyed his work even if we didn’t share the same hometown. His had great range. 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 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.”

Bosque Film Society founding board president Brett Voss said the BFS may plans to make the Ward Tribute an annual event. Voss pledged the BFS will honor Ward and work to ensure his memory be kept alive through the documentary film project and future plans to introduce and reacquaint audiences to Ward’s talents through his memorable film roles.

“Fred Ward’s contribution to film merits local celebration and honor,” Voss said. “We are proud to recognize Freddie Joe as one of Bosque County’s best.”


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