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RICHARD FARNSWORTH: THE MAN WHO TALKED STRAIGHT

When I interviewed Richard Farnsworth for The New York Daily News a few days before the U.S. premiere of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” in 2000, he was still basking in the warmth of the reception he had received when the film was shown at the Cannes Festival. Months after the interview, he won an Oscar nomination for Best Actor of the year for his mesmerizing performance. But, in October of 2000, Farnsworth, depressed by a diagnosis of terminal bone cancer, shot himself to death at his home in New Mexico. It was a sad ending to the inspiring story of a wise, gentle man who, after years of struggle, was on the verge of major stardom. --GUY FLATLEY

 

His sun-parched face, his failing body and short supply of worldly goods bear witness to a harsh life, to 73 years spent mostly in poverty, sorrow and pain.

That’s Alvin Straight, a widower from Iowa who ignores pleas from his grown daughter, climbs on his John Deere lawnmower and embarks on a 600-mile, two-lane blacktop trip to Wisconsin, where he hopes to make peace with his long-estranged, dying brother.

But that’s not Richard Farnsworth, the 79-year-old actor who plays Straight in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story, “ opening Friday.
Not that there aren’t similarities between Straight and Farnsworth – perhaps best remembered for his Oscar-nominated performance as Jane Fonda’s ranch hand in “Comes a Horseman.”

Like Straight, Farnsworth didn’t scrape through the Great Depression without getting bruised. “They didn’t have welfare then, they didn’t have food stamps,” he recalls on a recent morning at his 60-acre ranch in Lincoln, N.M. In person, Farnsworth is much the same as he is in “The Straight Story” – the same silver mustache, piercing blue eyes and white cowboy hat. And he has the same mannerly way of speaking and earthy way of laughing.

“My father died when I was 7 years old, so my mom, my aunt, my grandma and my two sisters all lived together in downtown Los Angeles. I was 15 when I dropped out of school and left home.”
By the time he was 18, Farnsworth was a stuntman, although his first movie gig was as an extra in a Gary Cooper dud, “The Adventures of Marco Polo.”

“They needed 200 Mongolians to ride in the background. It was the middle of a hot summer, and the heavy bear rug I wore weighed more than I did. But it was $7 and a box lunch, and that wasn’t bad for those days.”

He was doing better by 1946, the year he was hired to double for the fragile Montgomery Clift in “Red River.” “Howard Hawks put me on salary two weeks before we started the film in Arizona. Monty was an Eastern boy, you know, so part of my job was to teach him how to ride and roll a cigarette. I thought he looked pretty good, didn’t you?”

That same year Farnsworth got married and remained so until his wife died in 1985. He has two sons, both in their 50’s – one of whom is a stuntman.

“I’m not married now,” Farnsworth says, “but I do have a fiancee, and that helps me a lot. I met her at the bridle trails, and we got to ridin’ together. She’s 41, and I’m almost 80. That’s not too bad, is it?”

He and his fiancee don’t take in the latest flicks. “But I do like to watch the old movies on TV. I get to see so many friends who are long gone – people like Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Bobby Steele, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry. Recently, I ran into a friend and we got to reminiscing about our days as stuntmen. There were 40 of us in ‘Gunga Din’ back in 1939, and now he and I are the only two alive.”

Which brings us to a major concern of “The Straight Story” – staying alive long enough to put one’s life in order, to make amends for our sins. But if Farnsworth is looking for absolution, he isn’t looking in church.

“My religion’s the big outdoors, seeing things that I like to see, doing things I like to do,” he says. “And if there turns out to be a hereafter, I don’t think I’ve done anything to be ashamed of or to be punished for.

“Let’s put it this way: I’ve been a gambler all my life, and if I cash in now, I win.”