Actor extraordinaire Ned Beatty passed away yesterday in the City of Angels, Los Angeles. He was 83 years old.
Growing up and watching director John Boorman’s classic outward bound cautionary tale Deliverance, I would imagine myself as stoic, sensible Jon Voight or Daniel Boone throwback Burt Reynolds. Or, if the mood struck me just so, I could even envision myself as lovable, musically-inclined Ronny Cox. I could picture myself as any of these three actors and the characters they played in that 1972 thriller because they all had qualities that I aspired to – humor, wisdom, brawn and ingenuity. Not spoken out loud by my youthful self yet lurking just off camera of my psyche was the knowledge that, much as I admired that triumvirate of awesomeness, in reality my true character more closely aligned with the man who made that tight little trio of adventuresome souls into a full-fledged quartet: actor Ned Beatty, who famously (or perhaps infamously) turned and entire generation off of the virtues of an overnight stay in the wilderness. His character of put upon businessman Bobby Trippe in the film was a showstopper if ever there was one: More than a little brash and loud, Beatty’s Bobby was the sort of character that shows up at a raging party…and quite quickly and effectively kills it. Yeah, he was that guy. And, whether I could admit it to myself or not early on (I couldn’t), I had a lot more in common with Bobby Trippe than his camping buddies. And that was the beauty of Ned Beatty; he took the most dubious and questionable of characters and, whether you liked it or not, dammit, made you empathize with them, drawing out qualities that were universal in our human nature and that we all recognize in ourselves when staring in the harsh light of our bathroom mirror.
Ned Beatty was born on July 6, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky and, just a couple years after World War II, had begun crooning away in both gospel and a barbershop quartets. How good was a young Ned Beatty when it came to harmonizing and carrying a tune? Good enough that he actually scored a full-fledged scholarship to sing in the a cappella choir at Transylvania University in his hometown.
Acting eventually nudged aside any plans Beatty may have made to begin a career in music: By 1956 at the tender age of 19, the budding thespian had made his stage debut in something called Wilderness Road. This was received well enough that, for the next decade, Beatty plied his acting craft on the stage before packing up to make his film debut in ’72 with John Boorman’s Deliverance. From there, it was on to memorable roles in films such as Richard Donner’s Superman and Network. Beatty worked steadily and prolifically for the remainder of his life, following and adding to the blueprint of what it takes and what it means to be a solid and reliable character actor.
But it all goes back to 1972 and Deliverance, doesn’t it? In that film, Beatty brilliantly essayed the fly in Burt Reynold’s ointment and spoke for most of us when, in a rare moment of reflection for good ol’ Bobby Trippe, he intoned what might not just be his own epitaph, but an epitaph for all of who could be a little less than heroic yet possessed of a good heart and soul, nevertheless: “That’s my ’51 Dodge. No, that’s my car! That’s my car! Whooee! All my youth and passion…spent in that back seat. It’s all gone, you see? It’s all gone – rust and dust.”
Those of us that know good film and quality actors will always remember our own spokesman, Ned Beatty. Rest easy, Mr. Beatty.