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Exploring the Dark Side--as a Producer : Actor Fred Ward’s tenacity brings the comically sordid world of ‘Miami Blues’ to the screen

Fred Ward’s lonesome hobo face has turned up in enough films to make him a familiar figure to American moviegoers. He was the shy astronaut, Gus Grissom, in “The Right Stuff,” Meryl Streep’s work mate in “Silkwood” and the title hero of “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.”

Yet, like the great majority of actors this side of Kevin Costner and Robert Redford, Ward has worked primarily in supporting roles and has seldom been in a position where he could name his own tune. A few years ago he decided to do something about that.

After a friend passed Ward a copy of Charles Willeford’s little-known 1985 crime thriller, “Miami Blues,” the actor anted up $4,000 for a two-year option on the book and the chance to lock up a juicy role if he could get it made into a movie. “For some reason, people hadn’t caught on to Charles Willeford yet,” said the 47-year-old Ward, who had never optioned a book before. “Usually these things get scarfed up pretty fast.”

The part he was after was that of Junior Frenger, a larger-than-life psychopath from California who steps off a plane in Willeford’s Miami with a stolen credit card and some major anti-social tendencies that put him on a collision course with a rumpled detective named Hoke Mosely.

“The truth is, I saw Junior for myself and had Gene Hackman interested in doing Hoke,” Ward said, which is of interest now that the movie is coming out with Ward in the latter role as the memorably mangy Hoke, a cop born to the flophouse. It’s an anti-romantic role but perhaps the best one Ward has had in years, and it pairs him with Alec Baldwin, the impassioned young CIA analyst of “The Hunt for Red October,” who was eventually cast as Junior.

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“Miami Blues,” being released by Orion this week, is a movie that got made because of Ward’s tenacity in his maiden voyage as a producer and because of a leap of faith taken by long-lost director-screenwriter George Armitage, who wrote the screenplay on spec, that is, before he knew he would be paid for it. It didn’t hurt that Jonathan Demme, an old buddy of Armitage’s from their days together at Roger Corman’s B movie mill, stepped in as guardian angel and supervising producer.

“I pitched it to Orion, and they passed on it a couple of times,” Ward said, referring to an early outline of the story. “It wasn’t until George wrote a script on spec that they could see what it was. They said, ‘OK, but we need some young blood in it.’ ”

Which is when Ward gave up the idea of playing Junior and began to think of what he might be able to do with the character of Hoke, a middle-age sergeant who takes his teeth out at night and puts them on a bedside table in the empty room where he lives alone. “Most of his paychecks go to alimony,” Ward speculates about Hoke. “He’s looking to get laid constantly. He’s lonely and he eats too much.”

The novel, one of 14 hard-boiled books Willeford wrote before his death in 1988, travels in the vicinity of Elmore Leonard country, where the criminals tend to be ironic. Junior’s facility with homicide is couched in a laughable effort to achieve white-picket-fence domesticity with a young call girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose American dream is to own her own hamburger chain franchise.

“The dark humor really appealed to me,” Ward said. “And this random, abrupt violence.”

Junior’s style is fierce and uncomplicated. When a Hare Krishna follower accosts him at the airport, he reaches out and breaks the man’s finger.

“It can be funny and then sink into this ugly place,” Ward said. “It reflects my view of the world.”

Hoke himself is far from a pretty picture. “He’s the kind of man,” the actor said, “who has to go back in his hotel room every night and look at TV. There are a lot of people like that. If you’re one of those people, you go home at night and close that door and you’re just looking at yourself. This is part of the human condition. It’s funny and sad at the same time.”

Ward originally took the novel to Demme (who directed him in “Swing Shift”) in the hope that Demme might want to direct it. “I loved the book,” Demme said, “and I was dying to work with Fred again, but I felt like I had just been involved with a lot of stuff with violence in it and stuff with an unexpected sense of humor. It wasn’t a problem with the material but with me.”

Demme passed it on to Armitage, his friend from the days when they were both turning out product for America’s drive-in theaters at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Armitage’s portfolio at New World included “Private Duty Nurses” and “Nightcall Nurses.” His last movie was “Vigilante Force,” a flop released by United Artists in 1976. “It’s a near-cult film,” Armitage jokes about “Vigilante Force,” which starred Kris Kristofferson as a twisted Vietnam vet who takes over a small California town. “I’m fighting for full cult status.”

“I’ve always been a big believer in Armitage and thought he was one of the best directors around,” Demme said. “It was just a matter of him getting the right opportunity.” More specifically, he said, “I was impressed by the freshness of the casting and the dynamics of the camera work in his films for Corman. I thought he was a filmmaker who was a cut above the rest of us who were working there at the time. He was an inspiration to me.”

But while Demme went on to direct “Melvin and Howard,” “Stop Making Sense,” “Married to the Mob” and other major movies, Armitage spent the last 14 years sinking out of sight. His problems had something to do with the fact, as Demme said, that “George is not a schmoozer, he probably would have been busier if he had been a schmoozer” and that he was uncompromising in his insistence to write and direct original scripts considered esoteric by Hollywood standards. One of them was titled “Synergy Warp.”

“There’ve been a number of development deals that didn’t go through,” said Armitage, who, like Ward, is 47. He estimates that he’s written 50 scripts since beginning his Hollywood career in the mail room at 20th Century-Fox in 1965. “It was a difficult period, but it was great too. I learned that I really wanted to do it, I really wanted to make films. I’m glad I stuck it out.”

Armitage warmed quickly to the Willeford book. “I thought it was hysterical, but at the same time you couldn’t quite laugh,” he said. “It’s a kind of hyper-realism. I got a glow reading it, and thought it would make a great picture. I liked the characters--all these throw-away characters who he treated like they had a soul.”

The director found the novel’s unusual mixture of violence and black humor to be one of its selling points but also potentially difficult to reproduce on screen. “The novel is actually darker and more violent than the film,” he said. “He (Junior) is particularly nasty to the girl. We kept that as part of the subtext, that at any moment he might do something terrible to her. . . . I tried to maintain the tone of the book, and his (Willeford’s) wife tells me we did.

“What interests me about violence is the shock value of it,” the director said. “If you’ve ever encountered violence in the real world, it’s sudden, and that’s what I wanted to convey in the film. That’s the feeling that I want the audience to remember.”

Armitage acknowledges that Orion executives, including departed chairman Mike Medavoy, had some reservations about his directing “Miami Blues"--even at the budget-conscious figure of $8 million--since some of them were working at United Artists when it released “Vigilante Force.”

But Demme, in effect, guaranteed his work by serving as one of the film’s producers.

“I participated in the re-write conferences and the casting,” Demme said. “I was in that blurry land between consulting and approval.”

As one of the film’s executive producers, Ward also sat in on casting and production meetings and “put in my two cents’ worth,” he said.

In return, he got a role that required him to learn to speak with a prosthetic device in his mouth that covered his teeth (to give him the appearance of toothlessness) for those scenes when Hoke removes his dentures. “I felt playing Hoke was a risk. Not being believable was a terror. It always is.”

Ward, who will also be seen come October as writer Henry Miller in director Philip Kaufman’s “Henry and June,” has led a life that has taken him, he admits, into neighborhoods where Hoke might have felt at home. His father often ran afoul of the law and, in fact, was in jail the day Ward was born. He moved around a lot as a boy growing up in towns scattered across Louisiana and Texas. He stayed on the move as a young man, working as an itinerant short-order cook, field hand, construction worker and lumberjack before venturing into acting in New York and eventually finding his way into productions of two of Sam Shepard’s early plays in San Francisco.

“You carry the baggage of your childhood with you until you can step into a Zen space and objectify it,” Ward said dreamily. “There are certain elements of need--the need for acceptance--from my childhood that gave me the drive that an actor has to have.”

In “Miami Blues” he found the sort of role that at least gives an actor a chance to have that drive rewarded. “It was a great experience, and I’d like to do it again,” he said about producing. Not that it was easy. “There were times when things would stop and no one could move it any further. It took patience. Sometimes you wonder how films get made. But they do.”


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