When people think of the term “character actor” many turn to one of the greats, Ned Beatty, as a prime example. A veteran of over 160 films Ned Beatty had quite a career spanning nearly five decades and containing numerous iconic features where he may not have been the main character, but he was one of the most memorable. Starting his career on stage and eventually working up to the big and small screen Beatty would go on to become one of the most notable names of his generation even if his star rarely shined as bright as the megastars he worked alongside. With his death on June 13, 2021 at the age of 83 Beatty leaves behind a legacy as the definitive character actor, a supporting performer who usually contrasted the main character with his eccentricities and uniqueness. So today in his honor let’s dive into the legacy of the man himself and remember the life and career of Ned Beatty.
Beatty didn’t start out as an actor. Rather he actually started as a singer living in Louisville and St. Matthews, Kentucky where he joined several music groups including his church choir. His transition to acting didn’t take place until 1956 at the age of 19 where he made his stage debut in the historical pageant “Wilderness Road”. He eventually ended up in Virginia working at the Barter Theater but by the mid-60s had made his way back to Kentucky. Beatty’s big-screen debut was more iconic than many in Hollywood as he would appear as Bobby Trippe in “Deliverance”, the victim of the iconic mountain men rape scene that today remains one of the most iconic pieces of 70s cinema. Beatty instantly took to Hollywood appearing in “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” the same year as well as “The Last Action Hero” and “White Lightning” in 1973.
The 70s would become Beatty’s most notable decade. Nearly every film Beatty appeared in during his first decade of big-screen work was memorable from “All the President’s Men” to “Nashville”, “Exorcist II”, and “Silver Streak”. Aside from his appearance in “Deliverance”, two of Beatty’s most well known features of the decade were the 1978 “Superman” movie and “Network” in 1976 which earned the actor his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His speech as Arthur Jensen remains an iconic monologue to this day. His television career also flourished in this decade starting with the television film “Footsteps” in 1972 and going on to include appearances on “The Waltons”, “M*A*S*H”, “Gunsmoke”, “Hawaii Five-O” and more. He earned his first of several Emmy nominations for his appearance in “Friendly Fire” in 1979 and concluded the decade in the often-forgotten Steven Spielberg film “1941”.
Beatty didn’t slow down in the 80s although his most iconic decade was clearly behind him. In addition to returning in “Superman II” in 1980 he also appeared in “Hopscotch” and “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” a year later. He would go on to appear in at least one film every year of the decade except for 1984. His highlights include “Stoker Ace”, “The Big Easy”, “The Toy” and a starring role in “Shadows in the Storm”. He became increasingly more prominent in television as well appearing in numerous TV films and miniseries while also becoming a recurring character on the hit show “Rosanne” for several episodes. Throughout the 70s and 80s Beatty worked several times with Christopher Reeve and Burt Reynolds establishing an interesting trend of pairing up with the same actors on unrelated projects.
The 90s started with Beatty’s second Emmy nomination for his performance in “Last Train Home” but it would prove to be one of the actor’s slowest decades to date for the small screen. While he appeared in several series and TV films like ‘The Tragedy of Flight 103” and one of his most successful series “Homicide: Life on the Street”, he took a long break from the small screen before one more TV movie in 1999. His film career continued to thrive though as he appeared in at least one movie a year that decade except for 1996. Among those movies were “Rudy”, “Just Cause”, “Prelude to a Kiss”, the obscure 1990 “Captain America” movie, and 1991’s “Hear My Song” which earned him his only Golden Globe Nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Moving into his final full decade of screen work Beatty only appeared in a few more TV films and miniseries in the 2000s as well as episodes of “CSI” and “Law & Order” closing out his small screen appearances in 2013 in an episode of “Go On”. The 2000s were also a slower decade for his films, however even in his later years the actor added some pretty notable movies to his credit including “Charlie Wilson’s War” and playing the villainous Lotso in Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” as well as the movie tie-in video game. His final film roles were the animated film “Rango” and the box office bomb “Rampart” in 2011 and “The Big Ask” and “Baggage Claim” in 2013 before he left the screen behind.
Ned Beatty may have made a career as a character actor overshadowed by bigger stars, and he wasn’t even the most famous Beatty as he was not related to the superstar Warren Beatty who he joked was his “illegitimate uncle” from time to time, but Ned carved out quite a career spanning decades and including some of the most memorable films of the time. While he will most likely be known for more mainstream films like “Superman” and “Toy Story 3” or his original cinematic role in “Deliverance”, many see him as the quintessential character actor who set the bar high for others in his field. He was and will always be proof that it doesn’t take popularity as much as talent and charisma to find a niche in Hollywood. Thank you Ned Beatty for all you contributions to a medium you loved so much.