Ned Beatty displayed incredible range with roles in numerous films

If there’s one role that legendary character actor Ned Beatty wasn’t suited to play, it’s that of the Hollywood glamor boy.

Beatty wasn’t tall and dashing like many of his co-stars. With a “dad body” physique, he looked like someone who would more likely spend much of his life working in a NAPA Auto Parts store than on the silver screen.

But that was Beatty’s genius in films and on television. He had an “every man” quality that made him a brilliant actor.

Beatty died June 13 at age 83 at his home in Los Angeles. He appeared in more than 160 film and TV productions. He also was well known for his frequent work on stage.

A native of Kentucky, Beatty initially wanted to embark on a career in musical theater. He had an excellent basso profundo singing voice.

“He said his voice broke when he was 10, and he sung in barbershop quartets and at Baptist revivals and weddings as a teenager,” according to a story published June 13 by The Hollywood Reporter.

Beatty won a scholarship to Transylvania University in Lexington to sing in the school a cappella choir. He loved acting and performing and found himself on a stage more often than in the classroom. The university did not extend his scholarship, and his collegiate experience was short lived.

“He spent 10 summers at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., and eight years at the Arena Stage Company in Washington, D.C.,” The Associated Press reported June 13. “At the Arena Stage, he appeared in Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ and starred in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman.’”

Beatty didn’t begin appearing in movies until his mid-30s. But in his debut film performance, he made an indelible impression.

Ned Beatty (second from left) made his film debut in 1972’s Deliverance with Ronny Cox (from left), Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt. Warner Brothers (Photo taken from the website of USA Today

Director John Boorman cast him as Bobby Trippe in the 1972 movie Deliverance alongside Burt Reynolds, Jon Voigt and Ronny Cox. The film centers on four friends who find themselves terrorized by rural residents during a canoe trip in Georgia.

Trippe is forced to strip down to his underwear and told to “Squeal like a pig” before being sexually assaulted by his captors. Nearly two decades later, he reflected on how this role affected his perspective.

“Fate is kind. Most men don’t have to live with the fear of being raped. My experience tells me we couldn’t do it very well. I appeared in the movie version of James Dickey’s book ‘Deliverance’ 17 years ago. My character, Bobby, was forced to squeal like a pig as he was being raped. ‘Squeal like a pig.’ How many times has that been shouted, said or whispered to me since then?” Beatty wrote in his column titled “Suppose Men Feared Rape,” published May 16, 1989, by The New York Times. “It was my first film and my best. So it hurts my pride when some jerk hollers ‘Squeal like a pig’ at me. I get mad — real mad.

“Somewhere between their shouts and my threats lies a kernel of truth about how men feel about rape. My guess is, we want to be distanced from it,” Beatty wrote in his essay. “Our last choice would be to identify with the victim. If we felt we could truly be victims of rape, that fear would be a better deterrent than the death penalty. Let’s suppose men were being raped in great numbers. How would we know? Would men who are raped be apt to report the crime? ‘Pillaging’ is still allowable in sports, the stock market, the movies. Adolescents take their cues. ‘Pillaging’ becomes ‘wilding,’ and rape tags along because it was never buried that deeply in the unconscious anyway.”

Beatty made a major impact in another film despite his role being a minor one. He earned his only nomination for an Academy Award for portraying television executive Arthur Jensen in the 1976 film Network, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall.

Beatty’s character appeared in the film for just six minutes. But the angry lecture he delivered to Howard Beale (Finch), the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” riveted audiences.

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that clear?” Jensen yells at Beale. Having fallen under Jensen’s spell concerning the need for compliance to corporate demands, Beale responds: “I have seen the face of God.”

Ned Beatty received his only Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Arthur Jensen, a corporate executive, in 1976’s Network. TCD/Prod.DB, via Alamy Stock Photo (Photo taken from the website of The New York Times) 

Beatty’s commanding presence as a business executive in Network contrasted sharply with his role as Otis in Superman (1978), the dim-witted toady of Lex Luthor. The differences in acting style also can be seen in his character Delbert Reese, an unscrupulous lawyer/political activist in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), and as Daniel Ruetigger Sr., the working-class father in Rudy (1993). Visiting the hallowed ground of the University of Notre Dame’s football stadium for the first time, Beatty’s character expresses a long-held sentiments of the team’s many devoted fans: “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen!”

In 1977, Beatty discussed his range of on-screen personalities during an interview with the Associated Press.

“Stars never want to throw the audience a curveball, but my great joy is throwing curveballs,” Beatty said. “Being a star cuts down on your effectiveness as an actor because you become an identifiable part of a product and somewhat predictable. You have to mind your P’s and Q’s and nurture your fans. But I like to surprise the audience, to do the unexpected.”

Beatty took parts big and small in numerous movies. He appeared in White Lightning (1973), All the President’s Men (1976), The Big Bus (1976), Silver Streak (1976), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), The Great Bank Hoax (1978), Wise Blood (1979), Hopscotch (1980), Stroker Ace (1983), The Big Easy (1986), Switching Channels (1988), Prelude to a Kiss (1992), Radioland Murders (1994), Cookie’s Fortune (1999), This Beautiful Life (2002), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Rampart (2011). His final film role was in 2013’s Baggage Claim.

Drawing on his previous experiences in music, Beatty starred in 1975’s W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings as singer/songwriter Country Bull Jenkins. He also portrayed Irish tenor Josef Locke in Hear My Song (1991).

In addition, he provided the voices for Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear in Toy Story 3 (2010) and Tortoise John in Rango (2011). His theatrical work on Broadway included The Great White Hope (1968) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2003).

Beatty had many roles on television as well. He portrayed a chaplain in NBC’s The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), appearing with Martin Sheen, and as Gene Mullen in ABC’s Friendly Fire, a 1979 drama starring Carol Burnett about an Iowa farm couple’s struggle to learn more information from the government about the death of their son in Vietnam. For three seasons, Beatty played Det. Stanley Bolander in NBC’s acclaimed police series Homicide: Life on the Street (1993 to 1995).

This list just scratches the surface of Beatty’s body of work. Daily Variety once described him as the “busiest actor in Hollywood …”

His death leaves a void for people wishing to see Average Joes portrayed in a sympathetic light. But while they may lost their champion, Ned Beatty has given all of us a lifetime of memorable roles to watch and enjoy.

Ned Beatty portrayed Irish tenor Josef Locke in 1991’s Hear My Song. Channel Four Films/Allstar (Photo taken from the website of The Guardian)