Richard Farnsworth

Active - 1939 - 2000  |   Born - Sep 1, 1920 in Los Angeles, California, United States  |   Died - Oct 6, 2000   |   Genres - Western, Drama, Romance, Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

No one can accuse Richard Farnsworth of taking the easy road to film stardom: by the time he finally got name-above-the-title billing, he was 61 years old, and had been in films for 34 of those years. A veteran Hollywood stunt man, he eventually became a respected actor in his own right, and earned widespread adulation for two outstanding lead performances, first as the veteran train robber released into a changed world in 1982's The Grey Fox and then as the dedicated Alvin Straight in 1999's The Straight Story.

Born in Los Angeles on September 1, 1920, Farnsworth was a high-school dropout who became a rodeo rider at the age of 16. When the call went out from MGM for expert horsemen to appear in the Marx Brothers comedy A Day at the Races (1937), Farnsworth was hired as a combination stunt man/extra. The stint was the beginning of a decades-long Hollywood career, over the course of which he did stunt work for many a cowboy star and swashbuckler. For nearly a decade, he was exclusive stunt man/stand-in for Roy Rogers, accepting such occasional outside assignments as Guy Madison's riding double on the 1950s TV Western Wild Bill Hickok (three decades later, Farnsworth would himself impersonate Hickok in the theatrical feature The Legend of the Lone Ranger). Farnsworth's studio years were fairly lucrative; in addition to working with directors ranging from Cecil B. De Mille and Sam Peckinpah, it was not unusual for the stunt man to receive a bigger paycheck than the actors for whom he doubled. In the 1960s, the performer used his considerable clout in his field to co-create the Stuntman's Association, a group which would fight to safeguard the rights and working conditions of the men and women who risked life and limb for Hollywood.

As he grew older, Farnsworth thought it wise to cut back on the athletics and to seek out speaking roles. By 1976, he was working as a full-time actor, his weather-beaten countenance and self-assuredness enlivening many an otherwise "flat" scene. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting appearance as Dodger in Comes a Horseman (1978); the star of that film was Jane Fonda, whose father, Henry, had been doubled by Farnsworth in The Tin Star (1957). In 1982, Farnsworth won Canada's Genie Award for his starring role as an elderly, elegant bank robber in The Grey Fox. On two occasions -- the 1984 baseball flick The Natural and the 1992 TV series Boys of Twilight -- the actor co-starred with another venerable stunt man-cum-character actor, Wilford Brimley. Farnsworth continued to craft a career not unlike Brimley's, making small but memorable supporting appearances in many A-list Hollywood productions, including Misery and Havana (both 1990).

Farnsworth had been living in semi-retirement on his New Mexico ranch for most of the 1990s when he received a call from director David Lynch to star in The Straight Story, the real-life tale of an elderly widower who drives a tractor from his Iowa home to the Wisconsin bedside of his estranged, gravely ill brother (Harry Dean Stanton). The film received a warm reception, much of which was directed at the septuagenarian's understated, plainspoken performance. Honored with a Golden Globe nomination and an Independent Spirit Award for his work, Farnsworth would also receive a Best Actor nod at the 2000 Academy Awards -- becoming the oldest person to be nominated for the award. Though stricken with terminal bone cancer, Farnsworth continued to make public appearances -- at film festivals, award ceremonies, and even the National Cowboy Symposium -- until the debilitating disease caused him to take his own life at his New Mexico home in October 2000. The actor's namesake, Richard "Diamond" Farnsworth, continued his father's legacy by becoming a Hollywood stunt man.

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  • Quit school at 15 during the Depression to work as a stable boy on a farm; he left in 1937 to take a job as a horse-riding extra in The Adventures of Marco Polo.
  • Competed on the rodeo circuit from 1938 to 1950.
  • Was the riding double for Guy Madison in the 1950s TV Western Wild Bill Hickok and went on to play Hickok in 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger.
  • Drove a chariot in 1956's The Ten Commandments and 1959's Ben-Hur.
  • Was made an honorary Texas Ranger in 1961.
  • Co-founded the Stuntmen's Association in 1961, a group formed to safeguard the rights and working conditions of stuntpeople, and has an award named after him.
  • In 1997, was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
  • At the time of his Best Actor nomination for his performance in 1999's The Straight Story, he was 79 and the oldest actor ever up for that award.
  • Was known to have a dislike for foul language and was proud of the fact that in more than 60 film roles he never cursed.