Remembering one of the great character actors, who died Sunday at age 83
Over the weekend, my sister-in-law shared a meme featuring a checkerboard of character actors that everyone recognizes but nobody knows their names. Ned Beatty was not on it.
Because Ned Beatty wasn’t just another character actor. No, this talented man, who died less than a month shy of his 84th birthday this past Sunday, set the template for the consummate method man across nearly a half century on celluloid. He’s appeared in over 160 films (namely such early HBO favorites as Silver Streak, The Incredible Shrinking Woman and The Toy), and countless cameos on some of your grandparents’ favorite television programs like Kojak, M*A*S*H, Highway to Heaven, Murder She Wrote and CSI, to name a few.
It’s also quite unfortunate that we predominantly know Beatty, a proud son of Louisville, Kentucky, for his film debut as the victim of a brutal hillbilly rape in the 1972 thriller Deliverance. Yet whether he was on the receiving end of one of the most horrific sexual assaults depicted in film history, or playing the skepitcal dad of a Notre Dame dreamer, or lending his deep, earthy voice to a teddy bear with a chip on his shoulder, he always provided an unforgettable performance.
As someone whose entire lifespan has essentially followed the arc of Ned Beatty’s career, it was both an impossibly easy yet uniquely arduous task for me to pick just few films out of the countless movies in which this incredible auteur appeared. But the next time someone asks me who their favorite character actor of all time is and why, I’m gonna tell them its Ned Beatty, and cite this quintet of cinematic classics as to why he means so much to so many of us who love classic late 20th century cinema.
White Lightning (1973)
Five years before he became a household name for his portrayal of playboy bootlegger Bo “Bandit” Darville in the 1977 action comedy Smokey and The Bandit, Burt Reynolds played another bad boy with a fast car as playboy moonshiner Robert “Gator” McKlusky. Only White Lightning found him in contention with a far more wicked adversary than Burford T. Justice in Beatty’s murderous, racist Arkansas Sheriff J.C. Connors. “I bet this machine could outrun just about anything, wouldn’t it?” Connors asks McKlusky upon the characters’ on screen meet-cute, with Beatty as ornery as you’ve ever seen him.
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!”
Undoubtedly the most iconic scene from 1976’s Network is when Peter Finch’s Howard Beale cuts an epic promo on live television after discovering his TV station is getting bought out by a Saudi media conglomerate. But Paddy Chayefsky saved the best fire and brimstone from his masterful script for Beatty, whose depiction of corporate chairman Arthur Jensen reaches its crescendo of madness when he reveals to his shell-shocked subordinate the truth about globalism.
“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale,” Beatty bellows from across a comically long conference table. “The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality–one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”
It was normally seen as heresy to incorporate a brand new character into an age-old comic book like DC’s Superman. But in 1978, screenwriter Mario Puzo introduced us to Otis, the bumbling henchman of Gene Hackman’s brilliant Lex Luthor nobody asked for but everyone was grateful for in the end. As Otis, Beatty played completely against type as an antithesis of sorts to the kind of smarmy dudes he had been playing throughout the 70s. And though he was technically a bad guy, there was a sense of endearment you felt about Otis in the hands of Beatty, who seamlessly helped a character that could have been the Jar Jar Binks of Richard Donner’s Superman franchise become as indispensable to the movie as Hackman himself.
Back To School (1986)
Few supporting actors had the kind of natural chemistry with the inimitable Rodney Dangerfield like Ned Beatty, who portrayed Dean Martin in the 1986 comedy masterpiece Back To School. As the easily assuaged dean of the fictional Grand Lakes University, Beatty was pure gold as the straight man to perhaps Rodney’s greatest character in big-and-tall haberdasher Thornton Melon, who bribes himself into the school in order to reconnect with his son, played by Keith Gordon.
Though his turn as top villain Lotso in Toy Story 3 is regarded as his last major screen role, Beatty followed it up a year later in Gore Verbinski’s 2011 animated western Rango, where he played Tortoise John, the wheelchair-bound old desert tortoise who serves as the mayor of the town where Johnny Depp’s wayward chameleon rolls into on his quest to get back home to his tank. And while Tortoise John might not be as directly cantankerous as Lotso, he is certainly just as wicked and calculating, played to the hilt by Beatty with the same veneer of evil he gave JP Connors in White Lightning.
“Water, Mr. Rango, water. Without it, there’s nothing but dust and decay. But with water, there’s life…That’s the immutable law of the desert. You control the water, and you control everything. But I don’t have to tell you that, being a true man of the West as you are.”