He's not big, maybe 5-foot-9, 150 pounds. He isn't leading-man handsome; his face is more like a boxer's. He doesn't have the veneer of Roger Moore, the physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the stony machismo of Sylvester Stallone.
But there's a hardness about his look and a softness about his attitude that make Fred Ward, who plays the title role in "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins," the most interesting action star to emerge from the movies this year.
The question is: Will enough people see his performance to convince Orion Pictures to let the adventure continue?
"It's too early to make a decision (on a sequel)," says Mike Medavoy, head of production for Orion. "We'll have to watch and see how it does for a while."
"Remo Williams," the first in what Orion had hoped would be a series of films based on the "Destroyer" paperback books, opened Friday to hot reviews but cool box-office business. In its first four days, it grossed only $3.4 million in 1,170 theaters.
Ward, who acknowledges early misgivings about playing an action hero, says he came to like Remo Williams during filming in New York and Mexico last winter and hopes he has at least one more chance to expand the character. He has signed for three Remo movies.
"I don't like to intellectualize a role," says the 42-year-old Ward, who brought a string of solid credits to Remo (he was Gus Grissom in "The Right Stuff," Meryl Streep's Indian co-worker in "Silkwood" and the haunted Vietnam veteran in "Uncommon Valor"). "I just think there are a lot of places to go with Remo. His relationship with Chiun has just begun." Chiun is the 80-year-old Korean martial arts master--played by Joel Grey under a four-hour-a-day makeup job--who transforms Remo from a street-brawling Bronx cop into an agile agent-assassin who is able to dodge bullets and race across wet cement with barely a footprint left behind.
Orion has been blunt about its intentions for Remo. The studio, run by the same people who launched James Bond at United Artists, set out to create a red, white and blue-collar Bond, a new American hero who might be trotted out every other year or so to deliver some predictable box-office punch.
English director Guy Hamilton, responsible for some of the earliest and best Bond movies ("Goldfinger," "Live and Let Die"), and former Bond writer Christopher Wood ("Moonraker"), were signed for the first Remo movie, with options for a second.
If Remo ends with "The Adventure Begins," it won't be their fault. Hamilton and Wood, downplaying the violence and uplifting the humor, have delivered a welcome and breezy alternative to the mayhem and genocide of "Rambo" and "Commando."
Playing an action hero in a series of pulp adventures may have been the farthest thing from Ward's mind when he was honing his acting skills doing mime and masque in Italian cabarets, and during years of stage work in San Francisco.
But Ward says there were a couple of things about the role that he found irresistible.
One was the father-son relationship that evolves through the film. Ward's parents were separated when he was 3 and he was raised by his mother. Mentors have filled in for fathers for him before, he says, including one who was actually a Korean karate instructor.
"I do feel that need at times in my life," the soft-spoken Ward says. "Much of the fun of this movie for me was the relationship between Remo and Chiun."
The rest of the fun was in the physical work. Ward, a fitness junkie whose idea of exercise is to get in the ring and flail with kick-boxing experts, got to hang from a log 300 feet above a mountain gorge in central Mexico, cling to the cage of a seat while spinning around the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island and fight for balance atop the wind-swept scaffolding surrounding the face of the Statue of Liberty.
Ward had a stunt double for some of the riskier scenes, but no one on the film crew doubted his ability or willingness to do the work. On his only day off one week in central Mexico, Ward arranged to climb the 17,800-foot Mt. Iztalpopo.
Of the eight men who set out on the seven-hour climb from a base camp at 12,000 feet up an icy wall in snow squalls, only Ward and the guide made it to the top. Among the dropouts was Ward's stunt double.
Why would he spend his day off climbing a mountain?
"I hate to say because it was there," he says. "I'm a whole-hearted believer in everything we do is meaningless anyway. I just wanted to do it, very badly."
Funny things happen to the way your oxygen-starved mind works at 17,000 feet, he adds.
"Near the top, when it was hardest," he says, "I remember thinking to myself, 'You know, my damn dog wouldn't do this.' Now, who's smarter?"
DIET PLAN: A group made up of health-care experts and doctors are protesting the practice of film makers accepting fees for promoting products in their pictures.