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Fred Ward and the Role That Endeared Him to Me
"Tremors" may not have been the late actor's proudest film, but he stole the show in it.
Last week, actor Fred Ward passed it away at the age of 79. It occurred to me, as I was reading his list of acting credits, just how few of his movies I’ve actually seen (including some pretty notable ones). Believe it or not, I’ve never checked out The Right Stuff or Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (in which he played the title character).
Yet, there was one role in one movie he starred in that instilled my great affection for the actor. I’m talking about his performance as Earl Bass in what might just be the most entertaining horror-comedy film of all time, 1990’s Tremors.
I can’t fully express just how much I love the film. I view it as nearly perfect, and I say that while fully aware that it falls well short of perfection (coincidentally the name of the fictional Nevada desert town where it takes place) by many traditional cinematic standards.
As I’ve mentioned in past newsletters, I’ve long enjoyed stories that force a group of people from different backgrounds and with very different personalities into a situation where the have to fight together to stay alive. The creators of Tremors (Ron Underwood, Brent Maddock, and S. S. Wilson) approached this formula in a interesting way, using a decent-sized budget to infuse elements of old monster movies and westerns with humorous characters, situations, and dialogue.
The challenge with such a story is to keep it grounded in a genuine sense of peril that keeps the audience engaged, and doesn’t drift off into full comedy mode. This is much easier said than done, especially when dealing with the premise of giant, fast-moving, man-eating, underground worms… where the key to survival is similar to the “floor is lava” game many of us played as children.
Yet, they pulled it off masterfully, injecting just the right amount of seriousness and credibility into the storytelling.
Though the film was profitable at the box office, it fell well short of Universal’s expectations. Many blamed this on poor marketing, and I tend to agree. When I finally got around to seeing the movie, I enjoyed it immensely. But the trailers and commercials were so corny (blasting Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On” over the action scenes) that I was never inclined to check it out in the theater.
Tremors went on to a achieve a cult following, and a lot of credit for the film’s eventual success and appreciation (which spawned several subpar straight-to-video sequels) goes to the cast. Kevin Bacon was great as redneck playboy Valentine McKee, and Family Ties’ Michael Gross was a hoot as survivalist and gun-enthusiast, Burt Gummer. Reba McEntire, who played Gross’s wife, surprised a lot of people at the time with her comedic acting chops, and Víctor Wong was fantastic as enterprising general-store owner, Walter Chang.
But my favorite character was Earl Bass. Ward’s good-old-boy portrayal of the square-jawed, morally-mindful hired hand (with dreams of something better) stole scene after scene. His western grit, plain-spoken charm, and brilliant comedic timing (especially in those reaction shots) really pulled the film together.
I still laugh out loud at his contentious scenes with Melvin, the movie’s smart-ass teenager (played by Bobby Jacoby).
Some who knew Ward, including Kevin Bacon, have been paying Tribute to him in recent days.
I didn’t know Ward, and like I said at the top, I’ve seen relatively little of his work (maybe five of his movies in total, and most of those parts were fairly minor). But some actors are so compelling and memorable in certain roles that you feel like you actually know the character they played. And that was certainly the case with Earl Bass.
Thank you, Fred Ward, for bringing him to life. RIP.
Have a favorite Fred Ward film? Let me know what it is in an email or in the comment section below.
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Yeah, this one’s pretty weird (which is why I bought it). It’s actor Leonard Nimoy’s debut album from 1967. (Believe it or not, he went on to record four more albums over the next three years.)
As his iconic Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, Nimoy sings show tunes and provides science-fiction-themed, spoken-word narration. There’s also music from the Star Trek television show, outer-space sound effects, and a strange take on the Mission: Impossible theme.
Like I said, it’s weird… but I suppose a notable tribute to the pop-culture silliness of the era.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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