Ned Beatty died yesterday, at the age of 83.
Ever since I heard the news last night, I’ve been thinking about what an amazing actor Ned Beatty was. He could play it all. He could play a hero, he could play a villain, and he could play the quirky comic relief. He could effortlessly move from the movies to television to the stage and he seemed to instinctively grasp how to modify his style for each medium. Physically, he was instantly recognizable but he still managed to disappear into every role he played. You never thought you were watching Ned Beatty. Instead, you thought you were watching Bobby in Deliverance or Detective Bolander on Homicide or Otis in the first two Superman movies.
It’s amazing that, in his long career, Ned Beatty was only nominated for one Oscar and it wasn’t for his film debut in Deliverance. Playing the Atlanta salesman who is raped by two inbred hillbillies, Beatty gave a fearless performance in a role that a lot of established actors probably would not have had the guts to accept. Beatty wasn’t nominated for Deliverance or for his charming work in the British film, Hear My Song. Instead, he was nominated for his thunderous cameo in Network, in which he told Howard Beale that he had upset the natural order of things and, in a few brief minutes, stole Network from every other member of that film’s legendary cast. The same year that Beatty was in Network, he also appeared as an honest but befuddled investigator in All The President’s Men. Though his screentime was limited in both films, he made a lasting impression.
One of my favorite Beatty performances was as Detective Stanley Bolander on Homicide: Life on the Streets. For the first three seasons of that underappreciated show, Beatty played a veteran detective, the type of man who had dedicated his life to giving a voice to the voiceless. Who can forget him in the pilot, taunting Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch into solving a cold case? Even though Beatty was the best-known actor in the film’s cast, he still blended in effortlessly with the ensemble. Watching Homicide, you didn’t see Ned Beatty. You saw Detective Stanley Bolander, an aging Baltimore detective who had seen the worst but still tried to do the best job that he could. Beatty left the show after three seasons, under circumstances that are still hazy, though everyone seems to agree that blame ultimately rests with the ratings and youth-obsessed executives at NBC, who never appreciated the show while they had it.
(Considering we’ve lost both Yaphet Kotto and Ned Beatty in the same year, I hope at least one streaming service will pick up Homicide so people who missed it the first time can see how great it was. Homicide really laid down the foundation for The Wire.)
Ned Beatty was one of the greats. R.I.P.