Ned Beatty, who died on Sunday at 83, was the quintessential character actor. He looked like a regular guy, not a movie star, so he didn’t play leading roles — he played supporting characters, best friends, background figures and bureaucrats. He did so in 165 films and television shows before retiring quietly in 2013, and he always understood the assignment; some projects were great, others less so, but Beatty always shone Here are a few of his highlights, and where you can watch them.
Beatty, who cut his teeth on the stage, made his film debut in John Boorman’s adaptation of James Dickey’s novel of the same name. As one of four Atlanta businessmen on a camping trip in the Georgia backwoods, Beatty deftly conveys the discomfort of a man deeply out of his element with his outdoorsy pals. He’s then singled out for the most excruciating humiliation by the locals, who make sport of harassing and assaulting the out-of-towners: he’s raped at gunpoint and forced to “squeal like a pig,” in one of the most disturbing scenes of its era. This was a tough, demanding role, but Beatty was up to the task, playing the character’s considerable trauma and regret with gut-wrenching depth.
Robert Altman’s critically acclaimed mosaic of America just before the Bicentennial deployed a stacked cast of characters — 24 of them, including several country music performers who demand the attention and focus of everyone around them. Rather than try to compete, Beatty leans back. His character, Del Reese, is a power broker — the lawyer for a Nashville star and an organizer for an enigmatic presidential candidate — and Beatty, as in many of his best performances, is not afraid to underplay, speaking softly and wielding his (minimal) power only when necessary. But he makes every moment count: A brief scene of strained interaction with his wife and children tells us everything we need to know about how much he’s prioritized his work over his family.
‘All the President’s Men’
In dramatizing how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of the Watergate burglary and its cover-up, the director Alan J. Pakula and the screenwriter William Goldman had to juggle a dizzying array of names, faces and relationships. Wisely, they filled many of these roles with distinctive character actors who could make an impression, even in the briefest of appearances, and Beatty certainly fit that bill. As Martin Dardis, an investigator for a Florida state’s attorney, he helps Bernstein connect the Committee to Re-Elect the President to one of the Watergate burglars. But Beatty doesn’t play the scene like a whistle-blower; he focuses on the character’s packed schedule, memorably treating Bernstein less as a fellow truth-seeker than an interloper and an inconvenience.
Beatty’s teddy bear physique and palpable affability made him a go-to guy for genial characters throughout his long career — and thus, some of his most compelling performances turn that perception upside down. Such is the case with his work in Elaine May’s combination of crime movie and character study, most of which plays as a two-hander between the stars Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, both in top form. But Beatty is every bit their equal as the hit man hot on Cassavetes’s trail, a role that could have easily been written and played as a bumbling buffoon. Yet Beatty imbues the character with a quiet sense of professionalism and menace, raising the stakes of his pursuit considerably (to the picture’s great benefit).
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Beatty had a big year in 1976, which not only saw the release of “All the President’s Men” and “Mikey and Nicky” (as well as “Silver Streak,” “Gator” and “The Big Bus”), but also of this scathing media satire by Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky. Beatty received his one and only Oscar nomination for this role. He appears in just one scene, as Arthur Jensen, chairman of the media conglomerate that owns the television network at the story’s center. But he makes a meal of that one scene, with an electrifying monologue of corporate fealty and capitalism as evangelism that sounds less and less like satire with every passing year.
Beatty didn’t play too many out-and-out villains, but when he did, he didn’t pull any punches. As G.P. Myerson, the C.I.A. director, Beatty deploys inventive profanity and wormy authoritarianism, and worst of all, he makes an enemy of Walter Matthau’s Miles Kendig — who then spends the rest of the movie using his spycraft to humiliate his former boss. To Beatty’s credit, none of his residual good will hobbles the picture or our rooting interest in its hero, Kendig; his Myerson is a louse through and through, and there’s real satisfaction in watching him get his comeuppance.
Like many of his peers, Beatty embraced TV in his later years, with a memorable two-season turn on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and an Emmy-nominated role in the TV movie “Last Train Home.” But his most widely seen television work came via a handful of appearances on the sitcom smash “Roseanne” — in which he played Ed Conner, father to John Goodman’s Dan. It was a particularly inspired bit of casting, almost a passing of the baton, as Goodman would spend the ensuing years honing a similar style of affecting (yet often underappreciated) character acting.
Stream on Amazon Prime Video.
In the hands of a lesser actor, the character of Daniel Ruettiger (Beatty), father to the football-obsessed Rudy (Sean Astin), could come off as obstructive or even villainous. But Beatty plays the role with such grace and sensitivity, his intentions are always clear: he loves his son and believes in him, but just doesn’t want him to get hurt (emotionally or physically). Yet when Rudy’s moment of small triumph arrives, no one cheers louder than dear old Dad. “Rudy” is rightly described as the ultimate sports weepie, and it’s Beatty who helps deliver the emotional wallop of its conclusion.
‘Toy Story 3’
Stream on Disney+.
One of Beatty’s final roles was also one of his trickiest, even though it was a voice-only performance in a Pixar sequel. As Lotso, the cuddly teddy bear who welcomes the film’s gang of toys to Sunnyside Daycare, Beatty at first projects a welcoming, wholesome warmth — qualities later revealed as a false front for the bitter, nasty vindictiveness at the character’s center. It serves as a nice reminder, even late in his career and within a family franchise, of the kind of complexity and nuance Beatty brought to every role.