Farnsworth, Richard


Farnsworth, Richard
(September 1, 1920–October 6, 2000)
   With his weathered face, lanky frame, sweeping mustache, and folksy manner, Richard Farnsworth looked and sounded like the archetypal man of the wide open spaces, but he was born in Los Angeles, the son of a civil engineer. He did grow up loving horses, and by the age of 17 he was making a meager living as a rodeo competitor throughout the Southwest. In 1937, while working at a Hollywood stable that rented horses to the movie industry, Farnsworth answered a casting call for horsemen and subsequently made his screen debut as a stunt rider, playing one of 500 Mongolians in the Gary Cooper picture The Adventures of Marco Polo. Farnsworth later recalled, “I would saddle up ten horses in the morning, ride all day as this crazy Mongolian, and then unsaddle the horses at midnight. ”
   Continuing on the rodeo circuit through the 1930s and ’40s, Farnsworth eventually turned exclusively to stunt work in 1946 with Red River, the Howard Hawks western that established Montgomery Clift as a star. He recalled in 1999, “Monty was an Eastern boy, you know, so part of my job was to teach him how to ride and wear a cowboy hat and roll a cigarette. ” During his 40 years as a stuntman, Farnsworth worked with such notable directors as Cecil B. DeMille—driving chariots through the parting of the Red Sea—John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and Sam Peckinpah. He also worked with Ronald Reagan in Stallion Road (1947), took a tumble for Henry Fonda in The Tin Star (1957), and raced motorcycles with Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1954). On SPARTACUS, Farnsworth performed stunts and also helped teach KIRK DOUGLAS and others how to fight like gladiators. He also appeared, uncredited, as various gladiators and members of Spartacus’s slave army. “For sixteen months I wore this short little skirt with my bony knees knockin’ on the back lot of Universal,” he recalled. “I looked about as much like a gladiator as my granddaughter, but I held my own. What could I do? Not handsome enough for a leading man, not mean enough for a heavy. ”
   Farnsworth also rode and performed stunts in films like Angel and the Badman (1947), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Major Dundee (1965), Cat Ballou (1965), and Paint Your Wagon (1969), as well as countless television westerns in the 1950s and ’60s, including Bonanza and High Chaparral. Incredibly, through all of this, Farnsworth never broke a bone. “I wasn’t what you’d call a gung-ho stuntman,” he said in 1985. “Horses and wagons—that was my specialty . . . I never did a stunt I couldn’t walk away from. If it looked too tough, I’d tell them to put the clothes on someone else. ”
   As an actor, Farnsworth made his speaking debut in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976) as a stagecoach driver, followed by Claude Lelouch’s Another Man,Another Chance (1977) and a role as Jane Fonda’s faithful old cowhand, Dodger, in Comes A Horseman (1978). In addition to an Oscar nomination, the part garnered Farnsworth the National Film Critics Award for best supporting actor, as well as a brand new career at an age when many begin to consider retirement. He went on to appear in Tom Horn (1979), starring Steve McQueen, and Resurrection (1980), with Ellen Burstyn. For his portrayal of the legendary “gentleman bandit” Bill Miner in 1983’s The Grey Fox, Farnsworth won Canada’s equivalent of the Academy Award. More starring roles followed, such as John Foster, a hard-headed, soft-hearted old cowboy in Tim Hunter’s Sylvester (1985). Richard Farnsworth’s final, triumphant role came in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), in which he plays Alvin Straight, a Midwestern widower who sets out across the country on a John Deere tractor to reunite with his estranged brother. Upon finishing The Straight Story, Farnsworth offered these eerily prescient words:“I’ve been a gambler all my life, and if I cash in now, I win. ” Tragically, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, at age 80 Farnsworth ended his own life in October 2000 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
   References
   ■ Flatley, Guy, “Straight from the Heartland,” Daily News, October 13, 1999, p. 36;
   ■ Maychick, Diana, “Stuntman for the Stars Gets a Shot at Stardom,” New York Post, July 12, 1983, p. 34;
   ■ “Richard Farnsworth: Feature/Biography,” Sylvester press book, Columbia Pictures, 1985.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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