erik lundegaard

Wednesday June 16, 2021

Ned Beatty (1937-2021)

He played idiots and geniuses, subservients and dictators, along with painfully ordinary men. 

Ned Beatty was in everything when I was growing up. Everything.

Turn on “M*A*S*H,” and there he was playing Col. Hollister, a regular army priest admonishing Father Mulcahey for his kindly passivity. Go see “Silver Streak,” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and he was playing a randy salesman on the make who—wait!—was actually an undercover FBI agent. He was a country music singer-songwriter in Burt Reynolds' “W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings” and reprised his role as Sheriff J.C. Connors in Burt Reynolds' “Gator.” He guest-starred in episodes of “Rockford Files,” “Petrocelli,” “Lucas Tanner,” and “The Rookies.” In “All the President's Men,” he was Mr. Dardis, a Florida politician who you think is giving Carl Bernstein the runaround but is actually just a busy man, and whose evidence—a $25,000 check deposted in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars—leads W&B to Kenneth Dahlberg, Midwest finance chair for Nixon's re-election campaign, who says he got the check from Maurice Stans, the chair for CREEP, thus tying the burglars to the White House for the first time. (Yes, I've watched “All the President's Men” too much.) And he played Arthur Jensen, whose five-minute sermon to Howard Beale on the cosmology of corporations—“The world is a business, Mr. Beale”—garnered Beatty his only Oscar nomination. 

He was all of those things. And every one of those performances came out in 1975/1976, when I was 13/14. And that list doesn't even take into account “The Big Bus,” “Mikey and Nickey” and “Nashville,” which were also released during those years. That's a career, right there, packed into two years.

Of course, from there, he went on to play Otis, would-be ruler of Otisburg, the candy-bar-eating, sweet-natured stooge to Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in Richard Donner's seminal 1978 movie “Superman.” I can still quote half his lines. “It's a little bitty place.” “Are we going to Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?” “He's serving notice to you...,” and in tandem with Hackman, “What more could anyone ask?” (Yes, I've watched “Superman” too much.) Back in 2013, I wrote “Most people go their entire lives without having the kind of chemistry with another person that Gene Hackman had with Ned Beatty.”

And I still remember Beatty from a 1979 TV movie, “Friendly Fire,” as the father of a soldier killed in Vietnam, who, with wife Carol Burnett, search to find out why. I remember him working in the front yard when a military officer and a priest show up, and the straightforward, heartbreaking way he said, “Is my boy dead?” 

I think I thought Ned Beatty had been doing this forever but 1973's “Deliverance,” which I still can't bring myself to watch, was his first screen role. I think I thought he would keep doing it forever, too. All the best movies and TV shows would have Ned Beatty in them. Alas, that was the sweet spot. It was also the sweet spot for American movies, and for my ability to take in things and remember them easily. And Ned Beatty was there, playing everything. Probably why I have such a sweet spot for him.

He died Sunday, in Los Angeles, age 83. Here's to Otisburg.

Posted at 09:03 AM on Wednesday June 16, 2021 in category Movies  
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