He would have ridden to the Oscars, if his old hip had been better

Richard Farnsworth, the star of David Lynch's 'The Straight Story', died recently. But stardom came late to the last of Hollywood's gentleman cowboys
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Film Studies

Film Studies

Only six months ago, one saw Richard Farnsworth at the Academy Awards. He wore an old-fashioned white choker, like a cowboy come to town from Lincoln, New Mexico, and he grinned sourly when Kevin Spacey won the Oscar for American Beauty. It was an obvious award for a film that had been a hit, whereas no one knew how to sell The Straight Story without seeming sentimental. Hollywood has so little experience with 79-year-olds.

I had talked to Farnsworth earlier on the phone, and he was sweetly polite about having a chance at the Oscars, and he said, oh yes, he would surely be in Los Angeles for the night. Which meant a two-day drive, because he was spooked by flying. He might have ridden, but he wasn't riding any more - not until he got a new hip. But it turns out now he had cancer, too, had had it a couple of years. The pain was so bad he had spoken about it to his young fiancée Jewel - they were on his ranch, 90 acres, outside Lincoln, on Bonita Creek. The next day he shot himself. I'd say maybe it could have been an accident, but Farnsworth was no more of a fool with guns than he was with horses.

The Straight Story was a David Lynch film, so simple and clear, about an old man in Iowa who fears he could die any time so maybe he ought to visit his brother in Wisconsin. But Alvin Straight (a real person) had no horse - just a John Deere tractor. So he makes his journey that way, a few hundred miles by back roads, and it's the story of the people he meets, plus Alvin and his daughter (Sissy Spacek), who is a little simple, and the brother, who turns out to be Harry Dean Stanton.

Once upon a time, the Academy would have given the Oscar to Richard Farnsworth out of respect for kindness, and feeling a whole life spread out like a picnic on the grass. He was born in Los Angeles in 1920, but his father died when he was young, and Richard got a job at a local polo stable. It was a place where stars kept their horses. He groomed them and cleaned out, so that's where he learned to ride. Within a few years he was offered stunt roles in pictures. He was never credited, but he'd ride in galloping chases, where actors might fall off and get hurt. From that he got promoted to stand-in work, and stunting for fights.

He was a soldier in Gone With The Wind; he was in Gunga Din and Fort Apache. But the best time he ever had was on Red River, when Howard Hawks cast Montgomery Clift as the young cowboy. Well, Clift was a hell of an actor, but he didn't know the West from Central Park West. When they told him to put on a pair of six-guns, Clift sagged and could hardly cross the street. Put him on a horse and he was a very insecure young actor. So Hawks asked Farnsworth to hang out with Clift; help him pick out a hat, teach him to walk, make sure he could stay on a horse and read lines, and roll a cigarette for himself. It worked; Farnsworth liked Clift and had no envy of him. At $10 a day, Farnsworth was getting more than he could from anything else, and the anything else would have been work.

There was a community of stunt riders, rodeo people and wranglers from movies, and Farnsworth was one of them. He kept his own horses and hired them out to the movies, too. It was fun for a while, until the world lost the habit for Westerns. So he ranched a little. But then in 1968, on a picture called The Stalking Moon, they decided they needed an extra to read it. The producer, Alan J Pakula, asked him, and Farnsworth did it for him. Then, a whole 10 years later, on Comes a Horseman, with Pakula directing, there was this real part - the old-timer who helps Jane Fonda work her ranch. They had no one for it, and Pakula saw Richard, and remembered him, and said, "Maybe you'd like to do that?" The cowboy asked his wife, and she promised she'd help him. He got a best supporting actor nomination for that, losing to Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. No complaining about that.

Then, for a decade or so, Farnsworth really acted. He had one lead role, as Bill Miner, the gentleman train robber in a Canadian picture called The Grey Fox. It's the best thing he ever did. See what a soft-spoken, tender, wry man he could be, and ask yourself whether it was acting or whether he just had a way about him that the camera liked.

Farnsworth's in a number of other pictures - like The Natural and the remake of The Getaway - where he does fine work. Probably everyone on those pictures knew the story of how he'd been a rodeo man and a stunt rider, and just been noticed. And it charmed them. But what happened in New Mexico tells you how strong he was. He'd been classified 4F at the time of the Second World War - he had spots on his lung - but I don't think he'd been in hospital a night in his life, and he didn't plan on it. So, long before he became an embarrassment, or less than a hard rider, Farnsworth took the decision his own way.