Died: June 13, 2021.
NED Beatty, who has died aged 83, was an actor who more often than not played the perennial sidekick and subservient foil to the more handsome tough-guy leads, even as he talked big. Swithering between affable befuddlement and pugnacious pomposity, he could appear both ridiculous and vulnerable.
This was the case in an array of supporting roles in some of the key films of the 1970s. These ranged from the hot-shot lawyer unable to connect emotionally with his deaf children in Robert Altman’s sprawling ensemble piece, Nashville (1975), to a turn as the investigator tipped off about the Watergate scandal in All The President’s Men (1976).
He hammed it up as Otis, the dullard whipping boy of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in Superman the Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). Much more recently, his voice was heard in Toy Story 3 (2010) as Lotso, the pink teddy bear who runs the nursery with an infinitely less cutesy approach than his appearance suggests.
Arguably Beatty’s bravest moment came during his film debut in Deliverance (1972), which saw him appear in what at the time was considered to be one of the most shocking scenes of US cinema.
Director John Boorman’s Oscar-nominated film saw Beatty play one of four city businessmen on a canoeing trip in the Georgia wilderness. With Burt Reynolds’ de facto leader Lewis getting on the wrong side of some local mountain men, Beatty’s character, Bobby, and Jon Voight’s Ed are captured in the woods, with Bobby humiliated after being forced to strip before being raped and told to “squeal like a pig”.
The line, and Bobby’s subsequent terrified submission to the ordeal, became a key moment of the dark heart of early 1970s cinema. Boorman himself recalled in 2017: “Wherever poor Ned Beatty went, people would say ‘Squeal like a pig!’. It went on for years.”
Beatty took the upper hand with showboating largesse in Network (1976), Sidney Lumet’s Paddy Chayefsky-scripted satire on the all-encroaching power of television.
As Peter Finch’s crazed anchorman Howard Beale goes off script to bite the hand that feeds him, Beatty’s initially avuncular corporate fat-cat, Arthur Jensen, escorts him to the boardroom, where he thunders out some home truths to devastating effect. “The world is a business,” he tells Beale in his monologue. “It has been since man crawled out of the slime.” Beatty was only in the film for five minutes, but the sheer power of his performance saw him Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Beatty also appeared in Restless Natives (1985), director Michael Hoffman and writer Ninian Dunnett’s Edinburgh-set comedy about a pair of frustrated 20-somethings who become latter-day Robin Hoods by holding up tourist coaches and handing out their takings to the people.
Beatty played holidaying CIA agent Fritz Bender, who joins in the chase to apprehend the latter-day Caledonian outlaws.
Ned Thomas Beatty was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the youngest of two children to Margaret (née Fortney) and Charles Beatty. As a child, he began singing in gospel and barbershop quartets at his local church, and received a scholarship to sing in the choir at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky. He attended but did not graduate.
He made his stage debut in 1956, when he appeared in an outdoor historical pageant, Wilderness Road. Aged 21, he played Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. It was a role he would return to more than 40 years later, when he was the same age as his character.
He spent a decade in rep in Virginia, and in 1966 played Willy Loman in a production of Arthur Miller’s play Death Of A Salesman. He made his Broadway debut in 1968 in The Great White Hope.
Once Deliverance opened him up to the film world, Beatty became a big-screen fixture. He was in John Huston’s The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and acted alongside his Deliverance co-star Burt Reynolds in six more films: White Lightning (1973); WW and the Dixie Dancekings (1975); Gator (1976); Stroker Ace (1983); Switching Channels (1988); and Physical Evidence (1989). He also reunited with Boorman for
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).
He appeared in an adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood (1979), and played an FBI agent alongside Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson in the spy caper, Hopscotch (1980). He was a corrupt cop in The Big Easy (1986), and had his singing voice dubbed when he played Irish tenor Josef Locke in Hear My Song (1991).
The latter saw him nominated for a Golden Globe.
On television, he made numerous guest spots in the likes of The Waltons (1973), The Rockford Files (1974), and the pilot episode of Kojak (1974). He also appeared in an episode of M*A*S*H* (1975).
Later, there were occasional guest appearances in Roseanne (1989-1994) and he played a recurring role in Homicide: Life On The Street (1993-1995). In 2001, Beatty returned to the stage as Big Daddy in a West End production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, repeating the role two years later on Broadway. Numerous film roles followed, with his final big screen appearance coming in Baggage Claim (2013) prior to his retirement.
He is survived by his fourth wife, Sandra Johnson, and eight children: Douglas, Charles, Lennis and Walter, to his first wife, Walta Chandler; John and Blossom, to his second wife, Belinda Rowley; and Thomas and Dorothy, to his third wife, Dorothy Lindsay.