Ward was born Freddie Joe Ward in San Diego, California. He is of part Cherokee descent. Before acting, Ward spent three years in the United States Air Force. He was also a boxer (breaking his nose three times) and worked as a lumberjack in Alaska, janitor, and short-order cook. He studied acting at New York's Herbert Berghof Studio after serving in the U.S. Air Force. While living in Rome, he dubbed Italian films into English and appeared in films by neorealist director Roberto Rossellini.
Ward became an actor after studying at Herbert Berghof Studio and in Rome. While in Italy, he dubbed Italian movies and worked as a mime until he made his debut in two Roberto Rossellini films. Upon returning stateside in the early 1970s, Ward spent time working in experimental theatre and doing some television work. He made his first American film appearance playing a cowboy in Hearts of the West (1975). His first major role came in the Clint Eastwood vehicle Escape from Alcatraz (1979) as fellow escapee John Anglin. He was also notable as a violent National Guardsman in Walter Hill's Southern Comfort (1981).
His first starring role in a motion picture was Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982). He then starred as astronaut Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff, in the action movie Uncommon Valor with Gene Hackman and in the drama Silkwood (all 1983).
After co-starring roles in Swing Shift (1984) and Secret Admirer (1985) he played the title hero in the action movie Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, which was directed by ex-James Bond-director Guy Hamilton. The film was supposed to be the first of a series based on The Destroyer series of novels. Though the movie was well-promoted, with Ward appearing on the cover of several movie magazines, it only grossed $15,000,000. He confirmed that he did most of the dangerous stunts by himself.
Ward played in a few low-budget productions until he returned to major cinema in 1988 as a cop in Off Limits, as Roone Dimmick in Big Business, and the father of Keanu Reeves' character in The Prince of Pennsylvania.
In 1990 he starred as Earl Bassett in the monster movie Tremors as the American erotic writer Henry Miller in Henry & June (with Uma Thurman) and as cop Hoke Moseley, whose gun, badge and dentures are stolen, in Ward's own-produced motion picture Miami Blues (with Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh).
After playing private detective H.P. Lovecraft in the 1991 HBO film Cast a Deadly Spell alongside Julianne Moore, Ward co-starred in the thriller Thunderheart, the Hollywood satire The Player, the mystery-drama Equinox and the TV western-comedy Four Eyes and Six Guns, for which he won a Cable ACE Award. He also did a cameo in Bob Roberts, starring Tim Robbins.
Notable leading roles include Lt. Brann in the two-character-thriller Two Small Bodies, fisherman Stuart Kane in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts (for which the whole ensemble won a Golden Globe) (both 1993), a dangerous criminal in the comedy Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994), the sailor in the French-avant-garde-drama The Blue Villa (1995), plus his reprised role in Tremors II: Aftershocks and the Special Agent in Chain Reaction (both 1996). He also appeared as Sheriff Bud Phillips in Best Men, as Dave Reimüller in ...First Do No Harm with Meryl Streep (both 1997) and as Domenico Venier in Dangerous Beauty (1998).
In the new millennium Ward was seen in many motion pictures, but also in productions made for TV and video. In 2000 he starred in the action-thriller The Chaos Factor and co-starred in the gangster-movie Circus, the teen-movie Road Trip and as the Captain in the horror-sequel The Crow: Salvation.
In 2001 he was nominated for Video Premiere Award as the best male for the direct-to-video-production Full Disclosure. He also co-starred in Joe Dirt, Summer Catch, Wild Iris, the mini-TV-series Dice and the comedic Corky Romano.
In 2002 he co-starred in Sweet Home Alabama, Enough and Abandon. He had the starring role in Birdseye and signed in for the TV pilot for the drama Georgetown with Helen Mirren, but the series was never made. So, after roles in The Last Ride, 10.5 and Coast to Coast (all 2004) he took a short break from acting and returned as a guest in the TV series Grey's Anatomy and ER (2006 and 2007).
He then starred in the ensemble drama Feast of Love, in the brutal action-filled thriller Exit Speed, Management with Jennifer Aniston, The Wild Stallion and as the boss Ashcroft in Armored.
He starred as Ronald Reagan in the French political-thriller L'affaire Farewell (2009). He appeared in 30 Minutes or Less, guest starred in the TV series United States of Tara, In Plain Sight and Leverage in 2012. In 2013 he had a guest role in 2 Guns starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.
Ward lives in Venice, California. He married Silvia Ward and had a son, Django Ward. After they divorced, he married Marie-France Boisselle in 1995 and she filed for divorce in August, 2013, but they reconciled later that year.1993: Special Volpi Cup – Short Cuts
1993: Golden Globe Award – Short Cuts
1994: CableACE Award – Four Eyes and Six Guns (nominated)
2001: Video Premiere Award – Full Disclosure (nominated)