Film: That was me there, fighting John Wayne

David Thomson meets Richard Farnsworth, who started out with Howard Hawks and is now the star of David Lynch's `The Straight Story'
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Here's a question for movie buffs: this man was vital to Howard Hawks's Red River; he was also in Fort Apache, by John Ford; The Tin Star, by Anthony Mann; and in Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid. If you are groping, I will throw in appearances in Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din and Spartacus. Yet he goes uncredited in all those pictures. Aha, you say, he is likely one of the stunt doubles the screen requires. Then let me tell you that next spring, when the Oscars are awarded, in what is going to be a very competitive category, he could hobble up on stage on his bad hip to get the Best Actor Oscar.

Richard Farnsworth is 79 now, and very touched by the response to his new film, David Lynch's The Straight Story. But he has been discovered before, and these days he prefers to stay on his ranch in New Mexico, and get himself ready for a new marriage. For he has that true shyness that ladies love. He has 90 acres of sweet grassland, just outside Lincoln, New Mexico, split by the Bonita Creek. He looks out at the land and his horses and he recalls the days of Red River, in the summer of 1946, when they had 2,000 head of cattle and a big crew; but Howard Hawks and the cameraman, Russell Harlan, would wait until the clouds were just right.

"Well, Howard wanted me to take care of Montgomery Clift. He was an Easterner, you see, and he'd told Howard he could ride. But Howard said to me, `I don't think he's done more than ride a horse in Central Park.' So I worked with him. And there were all the other Western things. I helped him wear a hat and roll a cigarette. Got him to stand right. You look at his bowed legs in that picture. And we were both 26 years old, and had similar features. So I rode for him in the long shots, and then at the end when he and John Wayne have their fist fight, some of that was me - like when he charges Wayne against the wagon. But Clift was very professional and a very nice man. He did good."

Which is typical of Farnsworth, his courtesy, and the way he was happy to be useful. "You see, I was born in Los Angeles in 1920. My father was a civil engineer, but he died when I was seven, and then it was the Depression, and our family had hard times. So I quit school when I was 15, and I went to work for a polo barn, cleaning out the stalls, and exercising the horses. That's where I learnt to ride."

Despite the economic slump, Hollywood bosses rode their thoroughbreds to work - back in the 1930s, there were more bridle paths than roads in Los Angeles. Polo was fashionable among stars and studio executives, and Dick Farnsworth made $6 a week as a teenager learning how to ride any kind of horse, schooling it to behave with Tyrone Power or Darryl F Zanuck or Joel McCrea in the saddle.

"Anyway, one day some fellows came up to the stable and they wanted to know if we had any Welsh ponies. Well, we did. And they were thinking of using them as Mongolian ponies in a Gary Cooper film about Marco Polo. And they asked, `Can anyone ride those ponies?' I said, sure, I could, and they offered me three weeks at $7 a day. So I went and asked the boss if he thought it would be all right. And he told me, `Oh, no problem, but you're fired!' "

He never went back to the polo barn. If it wasn't movies - and movies better than The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) - it was rodeo-ing. This was around 1940, when there were a lot of Westerns being made - not just feature films, but serials, too, and all those singing cowboys, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, guys who could really ride. But their films needed stuntmen who would put on Indian feathers and then bring their horse and have it roll over them so that neither horse nor rider was hurt. Most of the time.

The rodeo circuit stretched across the West and into Canada - and Farnsworth picked up the ways of broncs and bulls as he went along. "I found out that I wasn't accident-prone. I could hit the ground and get up and walk away. Some guys, they fall, they snap a bone. I hardly ever did, and it was a darn good living."

The war intervened, and he wanted to go, but they tested him and they found that the rodeo rider who often slept in a tent was 4F - "They said there were a couple of spots on my lung." So the only thing he did for a while was train horses for the cavalry - the war that ended with the atom bomb still had dreams of cavalry at the outset. But a lot of guys he knew went off and never came back, and it's not a thing he's ever liked to talk about - until David Lynch put a scene in The Straight Story in which he and another old-timer talk about the war. And then, all of a sudden, the guy past 75 found that he could act, just like Montgomery Clift.

In Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, real Western veterans rubbed shoulders with the make-believe of the movies. Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929, having a year before assisted on a romantic biography of himself. The movie scenarios were far from honest, but a Western code was passed on - all the things Farnsworth had taught Clift. In the late 1940s, John Ford picked out one rider - Ben Johnson, an Oklahoman cowboy - and gave him lines. In 1971, on The Last Picture Show, Johnson won the supporting actor Oscar. He made plenty of big movies, such as Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, but he always went back to his ranch between chores.

Farnsworth and Johnson were friends. But Farnsworth was more modest and never dreamt of getting lines, of acting, getting his name on a picture. But then in 1968 he was on The Stalking Moon, a Gregory Peck picture, directed by Robert Mulligan and produced by Alan J Pakula. "And I was just riding in it, but they needed a line, and out on location they didn't have anyone. So I read the line, and it was OK, I guess; and then a few years later - like 10 years - Alan Pakula was doing Comes a Horseman, and there was the role of an old-timer who worked for Jane Fonda. And he thought of that cowboy from Stalking Moon. He showed me the script and said "What do you think?" I went home and read it, and I reckoned it was beyond me. It was 10 weeks' work. But my wife read it too, and she said, `We can do this', and she helped me. First day, I did a couple of lines and Pakula said, `That's it. Don't change a thing.' "

He was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar but lost to Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. But people noticed, and he was offered more speaking parts. In Canada, a young director named Phillip Borsos thought of him for the role of Bill Miner in The Grey Fox, the based-on-fact story of a gentle, polite train robber who had a way with the ladies. This was a starring part, and in 1982 The Grey Fox was a sensation.

He did other things - The Natural and The Two Jakes, and the old guy who rescues Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in the remake of The Getaway. But he had moved to New Mexico and he was running longhorn cattle on his land, near Lincoln, the town where Billy the Kid killed deputies Bell and Ollinger and went on the run the last time before Pat Garrett nailed him in Fort Sumner. This is rolling prairie land, with mesas, canyon and rivers - gorgeous land.

And Farnsworth didn't much like to fly. He was nervous in a plane. Which may account for his recent engagement to Jewel Van Halin, a Delta Airlines stewardess. He's the sort of moist-eyed old-timer a younger woman can feel for. And he would grin wryly if you put it that way.

You might have thought that his life had had its share of wonders. But then along came David Lynch, who said he had a simple story to film - how a man called how Alvin Straight of Iowa drove on a John Deere lawn tractor to Wisconsin to see his brother one last time. That's all The Straight Story is, that and the people Alvin meets along the way, and how he talks to his daughter, Sissy Spacek, and meets his brother, Harry Dean Stanton.

Farnsworth went to Cannes last spring with this startlingly innocent picture, and got a six-minute ovation. At the Oscars next March, he'll have tough riders to keep up with: Kevin Spacey in American Beauty; Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley; Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon; Denzel Washington in The Hurricane; Russell Crowe in The Insider; Tom Hanks in The Green Mile; Al Pacino in Any Sunday.

With Farnsworth, that's eight strong contenders for Best Actor already, and you could argue that The Straight Story is old-fashioned and simplistic. And so it might have been - without the gravity of Richard Farnsworth. It's as if Montgomery Clift had lived to play old men - or as if Farnsworth had been touched by Clift's greatness in Red River.

`The Straight Story' (U) opens 3 Dec