I play schnooks,” observes Ned Beatty. “That bothers me.” It’s also true that the sensitive but meaty-faced character actor may be Hollywood’s first significant contribution to redneck power. Among his cornpone roles are such good (and bad) ole boys as the blubbering victim of a sodomy attack in Deliverance, Lily Tomlin’s hustler husband in Nashville and the slippery Miami DA in All the President’s Men.
Despite his recent string of successes, Beatty, 39, also seems bent on shedding his Southern Rim stereotype. In Network he plays a hard-nosed, pompous conglomerate bigwig. He is on camera barely six minutes but delivers a mesmerizing oration that is making him the odds-on favorite for best supporting actor at the Academy Awards. Yet even he concedes, “If I’d been casting that role, I’d have been the last person I’d have thought of. Basically I look like a used-car dealer.”
Just three years ago Ned (unrelated to actor Warren Beatty) passed a hard-scrabble 12 months on six weeks’ pay in an $85-a-month cabin in the hills behind Malibu. He and his family used an outhouse, raised chickens and turkeys, and chopped wood for their Franklin stove. Even now the unassuming Beatty pads around his modest North Hollywood house in Hush Puppies, rumpled and sockless. “I’d rather be a good ole boy than anything,” he says.
Ned was born in Louisville, Ky., the son of a traveling salesman who died when he was 15. (Beatty later found playing Willy Loman onstage painfully “close to home.”) Early on, he yearned to be a jazz trombonist, and his basso profundo voice won him a music scholarship to Transylvania College, a Disciples of Christ school in Lexington, Ky. Beatty flirted briefly with the ministry but “finked out” to sing folk music at Berea (Ky.) College. He finally switched to theater, reasoning that “most preachers are frustrated actors, and most actors are frustrated preachers.”
The roly-poly Beatty labored nine seasons at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., playing everyone from Big Daddy to Uncle Vanya. (“Being heavy made me look older.”) After that he was divorced from his first wife, an actress, who still lives in Virginia with four children from their eight-year marriage. “The pain of separation,” Beatty remembers, “was inhuman, incorrect and ridiculous.”
Fortunately, while performing at the Arena Stage in Washington, Ned was cast opposite a slim, curly-haired blonde, actress Belinha Rowley. “At the time I wasn’t feeling too swift about my ability to please a lady,” Ned recalls. But he evidently did. Six months later Belinha was swelling with their first child, and Ned and she married. “Ned did all he could for the theater,” cracks the 30-year-old Belinha, “when he took me off the stage.”
Of Ned’s recycled grits ‘n’ hicks parts—the ornery sheriff in White Lightning, the debauched salesman in Silver Streak—the most indelible remains his first as Deliverance’s brutally violated canoeist. Strangers still provoke him with vulgar remarks about it. “I held onto that role for a long time,” Beatty says, “probably because I had probed into more aspects of myself than in any other part.”
Now he has “more money than I ever dreamed of” and the leisure “to be at home and goof off.” A part-time carnivore who grinds his own hamburger, the 5’9″, 215-lb. Beatty fights a constant battle with his weight—he recently pared off 30 pounds with daily gym workouts. For all his aw-shucks manner, he is a closet intellectual who writes lyrics (“pure doggerel”), reads C.G. Jung, listens to chamber music and decompresses by playing the dulcimer. He also likes to bake his own bread. “Slapping that dough,” he says, “is a great way to relieve frustration.”
Ahead is a possible six-part CBS summer miniseries, Szysznyk, about a Polish-American ex-Marine. Both he and Belinha have parts in the unreleased Exorcist II. Yet Ned unconventionally rejects leading roles. “They’re more trouble than they’re worth,” he says, and adds: “I couldn’t have dreamed up a better career. I feel sorry for people in a star position—it’s unnatural.”