Remembering Ned Beatty

Born to be a character actor, Ned Beatty carved out a remarkable career in television and film. Early in his career, Beatty played character types: cops, rural sheriffs, hardscrabble characters and obnoxious rascals. Just because he played a “type”, based in part on his husky appearance, one might think he would play a generic version of the character. Not so. Beatty seemed to savior playing flawed characters.

Beatty was short, overweight, a double chin, curly hair and tended to talk out of the side of his mouth. His early career was spent on stage, including singing roles. You might not have guessed that he sang, but he was full of surprises. Comedy, yes he played that too. I wondered why a serious, intense dramatic actor would be so effective in comedies. The answer came to me as a watched him in such a role. He played the character as he would a dramatic role and it worked.

As stage actor, Beatty brought to his television and film roles, the ability to be noticed in a scene. An notice, you did.

I picked a few memorable Ned Beatty roles:

Footsteps (1972) – A TV film about a football coach that can only find work at a small, no name college. Beatty plays a supporting character in this very good film.

Deliverance (1972) – This is the film that put him on the map. His first significant film role as one of the four businessmen canoeing down a rural river that are at the mercy of sadistic mountain men. Beatty has the most memorable scene when he is tied to a tree and must squeal like a pig before being raped. Beatty’s character is not very sympathetic, he’s obnoxious, yet you certainly feel his pain in this predicament.

White Lightning (1973) – His first role as a corrupt small town sheriff and he is quite good in the part. This is a role that could have been just a stock character, but Beatty plays him as it he thinks his illegal activity is for the good. He worked with Burt Reynolds on numerous films.

Nashville (1975) – Another gem for Beatty playing a less than reputable character, the husband/manager of Lily Tomlin’s character in Robert Altman’s wonderful ensemble film.

MASH (1975) – On television, Beatty play an army chaplain who pressures Father Mulcahy into prematurely writing to a wounded soldiers’ parents. Beatty could be very intense without being intense.

All the President’s Men (1976) – A small, but critical role of an investigator for the Miami state attorney Dardin, who had copies of illegal campaign checks. Follow the money.

Network (1976) – An Academy Award nominated role for Beatty. He has only a couple of minutes of screen time but it is enough to provide a riveting performance as the CEO of a conglomerate that owns a network. His speech is powerful, like an overwrought preacher. Network is a satire, but Beatty’s role is quite believable in this character.

Silver Streak (1976) – Beatty was having fun with bumbling, sleazy characters who think quite highly of themselves. Here he is the obnoxious character on the make, who is actually an undercover FBI agent.

The Rockford Files (1974, 1976) – Beatty guested twice on Garner’s television series playing less than honorable, small-time hustlers. How could you tell these characters were lying? Every time they spoke.

Superman (1978) – Otis is the bumbling sidekick of Lex Luther. Again showing that he could play comedy, Beatty turns in a fine performance in Superman and its sequel.

Szysznyk (1977-1978) – The first obstacle was the name of the television series. A name with no vowels. Beatty tried his hand at a series playing a retired Marine who manages an inner city community center.

Friendly Fire (1979) – Beatty plays a WWII veteran who’s son is killed in Vietnam. Carol Burnett co-stars as his wife who pushes for the truth that their son was actually killed by friendly fire. An award-winning film.

Wise Blood (1979) – Beatty is part of the ensemble cast of this John Huston film. Beatty’s character wants to manage a fake preacher. A black comedy about the commercialization of religion.

1941 (1979) – Steven Spielberg’s comedy about an invasion of Southern California by the Japanese. Beatty plays a mild-mannered homeowner who’s house is used to place a large gun to revel invaders. Seeing a submarine off the coast, he tries to blow up the sub, but really manages to destroy his house.

Hopscotch (1980) – Perhaps his best comedic role, it is so over-the-top that it is hilarious. He plays a CIA section chief who has a rouge agent (Walter Matthau) who he must stop before divulging secrets. Matthau’s character turns the table on the section chief. This forgotten gem is worth finding.

Robert Kennedy and His Times (1985) – Based on the Schlesinger book. Beatty plays J. Edgar Hoover.

The Big Easy (1986) – Beatty is a police captain who is involved in a murder and taking payoffs. He is a friend of the main character who uncovers the truth.

The Fourth Protocol (1987) – Beatty tries his hand at a Russian accent, playing a high level KGB general who becomes suspicious of activities within the KGB. It is a small role, but is able to humanize this character.

Hear My Song (1991) – Beatty gets a chance to sing in the comedy. He plays a famous, elusive tenor, who is hoped will save a failing business. This little film was well-received and Beatty was nominated for several awards.

Rudy (1993) – Beatty plays the working class father of Rudy, who bleeds Notre Dame football. His character has to learn to believe in his son, and does at the very end, feeling what strangers around him have already learned. A well-meaning father who overlooks the quiet journey of his son.

Roseanne (1989-1994) – Beatty played Dan Connor’s father, an absentee player in his son’s life. A traveling salesman, he was never there for his family, and now tries to patch over the hurt. He was featured in six episodes.

Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1995) – For three seasons he played a homicide detective. Loosely based on a real detective, his character was gruff and saddled by personal issues.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) – Beatty played Rep. Doc Long, chair of the House committee funding Wilson’s efforts in Afghanistan. A small role, but nice to see Beatty in a distinguished role late in his career.


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