WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2007-11 > 1194089124
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [WORLD-OBITS] FARNSWORTH: Richard Farnsworth
Date: Sat, 3 Nov 2007 11:25:24 -0000
Last Updated: 10:28pm BST 23/08/2001
Former stuntman who at his life's end starred as an old man driving a
lawnmower 300 miles across the Mid-West
RICHARD FARNSWORTH, who has died aged 80, won universal praise as the star
of The Straight Story (1999).
The film was based on the real-life odyssey of Alvin Straight, a
septuagenarian who in 1994 travelled nearly 300 miles on a lawnmower from
his home in Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin in order to see his sick
and estranged brother.
A more unlikely subject for a popular film could scarcely be conceived. But
the director, David Lynch, created a compelling experience from the vast
panoramas of corn-covered land, and from Alvin Straight's casual encounters
with various oddballs along the way - a pregnant girl, a driver who keeps
running into deer, mechanics who are twins, and so on.
Above all, though, it was Richard Farnsworth, at once funny, melancholy,
dignified and wise, who made the film unforgettable. He said: "The minute I
read the script, I identified with this old character, and I fell in love
with his story."
By chronicling small kindnesses, and recording simple and undemonstrative
acts of goodness, The Straight Story became a celebration of the fundamental
decency of ordinary Americans in the Mid-West. The moral message was
entirely in accord with Farnsworth's own philosophy.
"I tell you," he insisted, "I'm really disappointed in what the people seem
to want nowadays - action, sex, violence, four-letter words. I've turned
down quite a bit of work because there's too many four-letter words." Yet
for nearly 40 years on screen he had hardly been required to speak at all,
having worked as a stuntman.
Richard Farnsworth was born in Los Angeles on September 1 1920, and left
school at 15 to take up a job looking after horses which the leading actors
used for polo. Within two years, he was landing jobs as a stuntman in films,
making his debut as a jockey in the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races
(1937), and then appearing as a Mongolian horseman in The Adventures of
Marco Polo (1938).
Over the next three decades he did stunts in countless films, including Red
River (1948), The Wild One (1954) and The Tin Star (1957). He doubled for
(among many others) Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper, while his prowess as a
swordsman earned him an 11-month stint performing fights for Kirk Douglas in
Spartacus (1960). "I didn't really look like a gladiator," he admitted, in
reference to his spindly legs. "In that short skirt I looked like a crane."
By the 1970s Farnsworth was finding the job of stuntman tougher and tougher:
"The ground started getting really hard." Occasionally he had been given a
line or two in films, but it was not until he played a stagecoach driver in
The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), with Goldie Hawn and George Segal,
that he graduated to sentences.
So many years' experience in films meant that Farnsworth was totally at ease
in front of the camera, and in 1977 his performance in Alan J Pakula's Comes
a Horseman gained him a nomination for an Oscar as best supporting actor.
He had his first starring role in The Grey Fox (1982), a haunting film about
Bill Miner, a former stagecoach robber (said in real life to have been the
first bandit to use the phrase "Hands Up") who emerges from a long prison
sentence and begins to apply his talents to holding up trains in the
Farnsworth superbly conveyed the sense of waste and sadness in the story of
an inherently noble man whose life has gone wrong, but who remains far more
sympathetic than the lawmen who pursue him. Farnsworth's growing reputation
brought him a number of parts on television, including the role of Matthew
Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables (1985).
On the big screen, he was in The Natural (1984); co-ordinated the stunts in
Rambo: First Blood Part Two (1985); and played a county sheriff obliged to
tangle with the deranged Kathy Bates in Misery (1990), from Stephen King's
novel. He was also in The Getaway (1994).
By the time Farnsworth was offered the part of Alvin Straight he knew he was
suffering from cancer, even though he preferred to talk of having a bad hip
as a result of his years as a stuntman. He needed all his courage to finish
the film, and found himself sustained by meetings with people who remembered
the real Alvin Straight coming through their territory a few years before.
He was rewarded with a nomination for an Oscar, but the prize went to Kevin
Spacey for his portrayal of a frustrated suburban father in American Beauty.
"As long as there are old geezer roles that I'm suited to, I'll keep
working," Farnsworth promised. But the shadows were now closing in. When the
pain became intolerable he put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Richard Farnsworth's wife Maggie died in 1985 after 38 years of marriage.
They had a son, who has followed his father in becoming a Hollywood
stuntman, and a daughter.
|[WORLD-OBITS] FARNSWORTH: Richard Farnsworth by "Peter McCrae" <>|