It’s almost Oscar time! I can’t help getting excited about it. It’s that wonderful night when I get to sit at home in my jammies and mentally critique evening gowns. Throw in some popcorn and you have my recipe for a great evening! It doesn’t matter that I haven’t seen all of the nominated films. That has never stopped me from having an opinion. However, all of that red carpet glamour is a far cry from the topics that we typically discuss around our virtual campfire. And even though the Oscars take place on the West coast, it’s still not what you would call, “Western.” So, I’ve found a way to incorporate my love of the Oscars with my love of the West.
In honor of the 87th Academy Awards, I am dedicating this edition of the Campfire Chronicle to one of my all-time favorite Oscar nominees and a fine Western stuntman. You might not recognize his name, but you’ve probably seen some of his work. I’m talking about the late Richard Farnsworth.
California Born and Bred
Richard Farnsworth was born in September 1920, in Los Angeles, California. That was a little less than nine years before the first Academy Awards ceremony. Young Richard’s father died when he was just seven-years-old. (If you’re doing the math, it was roughly two years before the first Oscar ceremony!) Growing up in a single parent household during the Great Depression meant that higher education was a luxury. And it was a luxury Farnsworth didn’t have. Plus, he wasn’t much of a scholar, anyway.
Poor Richard had a Knack
At the age of fifteen, poor Richard began the business of making his way in the world. He got a job working as a stable hand at a Los Angeles polo barn. He was pulling in a whopping six dollars a week, when the hand of providence tapped him on the shoulder. When you’re only making six dollars a week, you’re more than a little eager to see what providence has to offer. For Richard, it meant that he had the opportunity to work as a genuine Hollywood stuntman. When Paramount scouts showed up at the polo stables in search of horses to use in the movie Marco Polo, Farnsworth perked up when they mentioned that they needed extras to play Mongolian warriors.
For the chance to earn seven dollars a day, plus a boxed lunch, Farnsworth decided he could easily become a Mongolian warrior! He shook that providential hand and never looked back. He had a knack for stunt work and the jobs kept coming. While still a teenager, Farnsworth played a jockey in a Marx Brothers’ film, an unnamed bit part in Gunga Din, and a soldier in Gone with the Wind. Wow! All that and a boxed lunch, too!
His ability as a horseman helped Farnsworth transition into work as a stunt double. He regularly served as a double for the likes of Roy Rogers, Montgomery Clift, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. Super duper!
Credit Where Credit was Due
Farnsworth’s IMDb page lists him as having seventy-six stunt credits. Ironically, seventy-four of those were uncredited. His uncredited credits are pretty darned credible! He did stunts for The Caine Mutiny, How the West Was Won and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When the Red Sea parted in The Ten Commandments, Richard Farnsworth was there on horseback. And, for eleven long months, he drove a chariot around the set of Spartacus, and did sword fighting, while doubling for Kirk Douglas.
No, Richard Farnsworth wasn’t in the business for the purpose of seeing his name scrolling down the big screen. But his name eventually got there anyway.
An Actor and a Gentleman
Soft-spoken, modest men don’t generally seek the spotlight, and Farnsworth was a soft-spoken, modest man. The transition into acting happened gradually. He had some bit parts—mainly in television Westerns. But his first larger speaking part didn’t come around until 1976, when he played a stagecoach driver in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox.
If you missed that role (and I’m going to guess that most people reading this did miss it!), perhaps you saw his work in the 1978 movie, Comes a Horseman. For that one, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Of course, everyone talked about his overnight success. That overnight success was only forty-one years in the making!
He had roles in such notable films as The Natural, and Misery. Yet, out of all of the roles Richard Farnsworth ever played, my favorite was his portrayal of Matthew Cuthbert in the 1985 Canadian miniseries (also airing on PBS), Anne of Green Gables. He won a Gemini Award for that. I won a good, old-fashioned, ugly cry!
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Farnsworth’s Hollywood career was that what you saw was what you got. He despised the use of profanity. In a movie and television career that spanned more than six decades, he never once uttered a swear word on film. I’m guessing he didn’t utter many off-screen, either!
He was a Golden Age in Hollywood
Farnsworth was enjoying a semi-retirement when director David Lynch offered him the role of a lifetime. It wasn’t for a bit part. It was for the lead in The Straight Story, a biographical drama about a WWII veteran who hops on a thirty-year-old John Deere Lawn Tractor and sets off on a 240-mile journey to make amends with his estranged brother. The fact that the brother is dying only adds to the angst of watching an old man puttering down the road at 5 mph. For that role, Farnsworth became the oldest person to receive a Best Actor Oscar Nomination. He was 79-yrs-old at the time.
During that 72nd Academy Awards Show, host Billy Crystal made a point of mentioning Richard Farnsworth from stage. One year later, at the 73rd Academy Awards Show, the Academy honored Farnsworth for a final time, in its In Memoriam tribute. Suffering from a painful, terminal cancer, Farnsworth ended his life with a gunshot in October 2000. He was 80-yrs-old.
Richard Farnsworth, the actor whose name you might not have known, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was also inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
So, in case you also have plans to spend an evening in jammies, mentally critiquing evening gowns on the red carpet, you might want to take a moment to remember the life of one of the finest actors to ride across the silver screen. I know I will.