The Straight Story was so simple and clear, about an old man in Iowa who fears he could die anytime, 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 journev that way, a few hundred miles by back roads, and it’s the story oI people he meets, plus Alvin and his daughter, who is a little simple (Sissy Spacek), and the brother, who turns out to be 1 lai n 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, but Ins 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, cleaned out and groomed the animals, 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 (39, Victor Fleming); he was in Gunga Din (39, George Stevens) and Fort Apache (48, John Ford). But the best time he ever had was on Red River (48, Howard Hawks), when Hawks cast Montgomery Clift as the young cowboy.
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 lor himself. It worked; Farnsworth liked Clift and had no envy of him. At ten dollars 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 (Robert Mulligan), they decided they needed an extra to read a line or two. The producer, Alan J. Pakula, asked him, and Farnsworth did it for him. Then a whole ten 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—lost 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 (82, Phillip Borsos). 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.
He’s in a number of other pictures—like The Natural (84, Barry Levinson), The Two Jakes (90, Jack Nicholson), Misery (90, Rob Reiner), and the remake of The Getaway (94, Roger Donaldson)—where lie 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.
Well, Clilt 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, Clilt sagged and could hardlv cross the street. Put him on a horse and he was a very insecure young actor.