The Straight Story
Academy Award nominated actor Richard Farnsworth (born in 1920, died in 2000) worked as a stuntman from 1937 to 1977 before making a successful transformation to acting. He picked up his first Oscar nomination for his scene stealing role in Alan J. Pakula's “Comes a Horseman” (1978), from which he also won a National Broad of Review Award and a National Society of Film Critics Award. He received another Academy nomination 21 years later starring in David Lynch's based-on-fact “The Straight Story” (1999). Playing Alvin Straight, he was handed an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. Farnsworth was also memorable for playing stagecoach robber Bill Miner in the Canadian film “The Grey Fox” (1982), where he earned a Genie Award, a London Critics Circle Film Award and a Golden Globe nomination. Other film credits include “The Natural” (1984), “The Two Jakes” (1990), “Misery” (1990) and “The Gateway” (1994). For his television work, Farnsworth received a Golden Globe nomination for the TV film “Chase” (1985) and a Gemini Award for the miniseries “Anne of Green Gables” (1985).
Sometimes credited as Dick Farnsworth and Bill Farnsworth, Farnsworth was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992 thanks to his film work. He was also honored with a Golden Boot Award in 1987 and became an inductee of the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Farnsworth was married to Margaret Hill from 1947 until her death in 1985. They had two children together. After losing his wife, he lived on a ranch in Lincoln, New Mexico, where he was active in his community. He became the spokesperson for the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium and served in the Last Great Cattle Drive of This Millennium in 1999. Not long before his death, he was given an award from the Governor of New Mexico for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts.
Childhood and Family:
In Los Angeles, California, Richard W. Farnsworth was born on September 20, 1920, to an engineer father and a homemaker mother. His father died when he was seven years old and he lived with his mom, two sisters and an aunt in downtown Los Angeles. Richard dropped out of high school at age 15 and began working as a stable hand at a local polo barn. At age 16, he began riding competitively on the rodeo circuit. It was his capability of riding broncos that opened the way to show business.
Richard married Margaret Hill in 1947 and they stayed together until she died on August 7, 1985. The couple shared two children, a son named Diamond Farnsworth (a stuntman, born on October 7, 1949) and a daughter named Missy. After the death of his wife, he moved to Lincoln, New Mexico, where he had a 60 acre ranch and was engaged to Jewly Van Valin, a stewardess 35 years his junior whom he met on the bridle trail.
In the early 1990s, Richard was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent treatment. In 1999, he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, but remained active and attended film festivals, awards ceremonies and even the National Cowboy Symposium. On October 6, 2000, at age 80, he committed suicide at his New Mexico home by shooting himself. He was survived by his fiancé and buried with his wife in California.
The Grey Fox
Richard Farnsworth was working as a stable hand when he was hired as a stuntman and extra for the MGM hit comedy “A Day at the Races” (1937), which starred the Marx Brothers. More work as a stuntman followed and he worked in “The Californian” (1937), “Wells Fargo” (1937), “The Adventures of Marco Polo” (1938, starred Gary Cooper), “Under Western Stars” (1938), “The Outlaw” (1943), “Five Graves to Cairo” (1943), “Utah” (1945), “Duel in the Sun” (1946), “Over the Santa Fe Trail” (1947) and “Stallion Road” (1947), among other films. He also worked as a stuntman and extra in the films “Gunga Din” (1939), “Gone with the Wind (1939) and “This Is the Army” (1943). A proficient horseman, Farnsworth continued riding competitively on rodeos circuits and did not decide to fully focus on films until 1948. The Howard Hawks directed Western film “Red River” (1948) marked his first film as a full time stuntman. He would go on to perform stunts or serve as a stunt coordinator in over 300 films and television projects. Among his more famed exploits were changing horses on the run in “The Pony Express” (1953), driving a chariot in Cecil B DeMille's remake of “The Ten Commandments” (1956, starred Charlton Heston), doubling for Henry Fonda in Anthony Mann's “The Tin Star” (1957) and riding and combating as a gladiator in Stanley Kubrick's “Spartacus” (1960).
In 1961, Farnsworth co-founded the Stuntman's Association, a group dedicated to protecting the rights and working conditions of its constituents. He would continue to work as a stuntman until 1977 when he retired to concentrate on acting.
Getting his first acting credit in 1963, Farnsworth eventually landed his first important speaking role in the George Segal/Goldie Hawn comedy “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox.” At the time, he was billed as Dick Farnsworth, a moniker he began to use in the 1950s. In 1977, the Los Angeles native appeared as a slave catcher in the ABC acclaimed miniseries “Roots” and in an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” called “Quarantine.” He also appeared in the movie “Un autre homme, une autre chance” (1977), which starred James Caan. It was not until he was cast as Dodger in director Alan J. Pakula's “Comes a Horseman” (1978) that he began attracting attention with his acting ability. Delivering a good performance, he was nominated for a 1979 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and won a National Broad of Review (NBR) Award and a National Society of Film Critics Award in the same category.
Farnsworth next played John C. Coble in William Wiard's “Tom Horn” (1980), which starred Steve McQueen, supported Ellen Burstyn and Sam Shepard in “Resurrection” (1980), a drama directed by Daniel Petrie, worked with Dirk Benedict and Linda Blair in Max Kleven's thriller “Ruckus” (1981), portrayed Wild Bill Hickok in “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” (1981), which was directed by William A. Fraker, and costarred with Anne Archer, Terry Jastrow, Noah Beery Jr. and Mary Kay Place in the independent film “Waltz Across Texas” (1982). He then graduated to a lead role in the Canadian biopic “The Grey Fox” (1982), which was based on the true story of Bill Miner, an American stagecoach robber who staged Canada's first train robbery on September 10, 1904. Helmed by Phillip Borsos and written by John Hunter, the film received positive reviews from critics and was nominated for 13 Genie Awards (Canadian equivalent of the Oscar) and won 7, including Best Motion Picture, Best Screenplay, Original, and Best Performance by a Foreign Actor (Farnsworth). The film also received Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama. Farnsworth also picked up an ALFS for Actor of the Year from the 1986 London Critics Circle Film Awards for his performance.
After appearing in director Robert Mandel's “Independence Day” (1983), which starred Kathleen Quinlan and David Keith, Farnsworth teamed up with Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Barbara Hershey, Darren McGavin and Wilford Brimley for the baseball movie “The Natural” (1984), adapted from Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel of the same name. Directed by Barry Levinson and co-scripted by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, the film earned four Oscar nominations and is regarded as one of the most loved sports movies of all time. He then portrayed the father of Dolly Parton in the musical comedy “Rhinestone” (1984), which starred Sylvester Stallone and the country music star, was featured with Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer in John Landis' “Into the Night” (1985) and starred in the Tim Hunter directed drama “Sylvester” (1985, with Melissa Gilbert). He also worked with Michael Paré in the science fiction film “Space Rage” (1985) and Ryan Francis in “Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood” (1988).
Farnsworth also worked on a number of television projects during the 1980s.Some of his TV film credits included “The Texas Rangers” (1981), “The Cherokee Trail” (1981), “Travis McGee” (1983), “Ghost Dancing” (1983), “Wild Horses” (1985), “Red Earth, White Earth” (1989) and “Desperado: The Outlaw Wars” (1989). He also made guest appearances in the TV shows “Disneyland” (1981) and “Highway to Heaven” (1987) and played Carl in the “CBS Summer Playhouse” episode “Travelin' Man” (1987). His career gained a boost in the mid 1980s with his scene stealing portrayals of Judge Grand Pettitt in the CBS TV film “Chase” (1985), from which he nabbed his second Golden Globe nomination, and Matthew Cuthbert in the Emmy Award winning Canadian miniseries “Anne of Green Gables” (1985, aired as part of PBS' “Wonderwork”), where he won a Gemini Award.
Farnsworth worked with Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly and Madeleine Stowe in the mystery film “The Two Jakes” (1990), a sequel to the 1974 film “Chinatown,” was reunited with James Caan for the thriller film “Misery” (1990), an adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name that was directed by Rob Reiner, and supported Robert Redford, Lena Olin, Raúl Juliá and Alan Arkin in “Havana” (1990), an independent drama helmed by Sydney Pollack. After portraying Sam in “Highway to Hell” (1991), starring Chad Lowe and Kristy Swanson, he returned to the small screen to play Cody McPherson in the brief lived series “The Boys of Twilight” (1992). He also played Frank Morgan in the CBS apocalyptic miniseries “The Fire Next Time” (1993), which was directed by Tom McLoughlin and written by James S. Henerson.
In 1994, Farnsworth received the noted supporting role of Slim in “The Gateway,” a thriller and remake of the 1972 film of the same name. The film was directed by Roger Donaldson and starred Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, James Woods, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jennifer Tilly. The same year, he also played the supporting role of Len Collins in Daniel Petrie's family film “Lassie.” The prostate cancer diagnosed actor resurfaced four years later in the TV film adaptation of “Best Friends for Life” (1998), opposite Gena Rowlands and Linda Lavin. Before committing suicide, Farnsworth gained victory with his portrayal of Alvin Straight, a man who rode a tractor over 250 miles in order to reconcile with his alienated brother, in “The Straight Story” (1999), which was directed by David Lynch and co-written by John E. Roach and Mary Sweeney. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. For his performance, Farnsworth took home an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead. He also received a Jury Award for Best Actor at the 1999 Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.
Independent Spirit: Best Male Lead, “The Straight Story,” 2000
Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival: Jury Award, Best Actor, “The Straight Story,” 1999
New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC): Best Actor, “The Straight Story,” 1999
Golden Boot: 1987
London Critics Circle Film: ALFS Award, Actor of the Year, “The Grey Fox,” 1986
Gemini: Best Performance by a Supporting Actor, “Anne of Green Gables,” 1986
Genie: Best Performance by a Foreign Actor, “The Grey Fox,” 1983
National Society of Film Critics (NSFC): Best Supporting Actor, “Comes a Horseman,” 1979
National Board of Review (NBR): Best Supporting Actor, “Comes a Horseman,” 1978