Richard Farnsworth was a stuntman in Hollywood for 30 years before starting his career as an actor. As a stuntman he doubled for such leading actors as Henry Fonda, John Ireland and Kirk Douglas. Farnsworth then enjoyed a successful acting career, garnering numerous award nominations. Farnsworth took his own life in 2000 after a long struggle with terminal cancer.
Actor and stuntman Richard Farnsworth was born on September 1, 1920, in Los Angeles, California. A third-generation Californian, Farnsworth left school at age 15, during the Great Depression, and began working as a stable hand at a local polo barn. In the mid-1930s, he began riding competitively on the Southwestern rodeo circuit; his experience riding broncos allowed him to find work as a stuntman in films, beginning with the 1938 feature The Adventures of Marco Polo, starring Gary Cooper. He later quit the competitive rodeo circuit and focused exclusively on his film career.
Highlights as a Stuntman
In his four decades as a movie stuntman, Farnsworth appeared in over 300 films. Some of his most memorable film gigs included the Howard Hawks-John Wayne classic Red River (1948); the epic Cecil B. DeMille production of The Ten Commandments (1956), in which he drove a chariot; and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), in which he doubled for Kirk Douglas as a sword-fighting gladiator. Besides Douglas and Cooper, he also doubled for such leading actors as Henry Fonda, John Ireland, and Joel McCrea. Farnsworth also appeared in such leading Western television series as Zorro, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock and Bonanza.
A shy and unassuming man, Farnsworth was reluctant to move into speaking parts in films after at least one unsuccessful attempt near the beginning of his career. In 1976, he finally had his first significant speaking role, as a stagecoach driver in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal. Two years later, he nabbed an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Comes a Horseman (1978), directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring James Caan, Jane Fonda, and Jason Robards. Deciding to move away from stunt work and concentrate solely on acting, Farnsworth had supporting roles in several other films, including Resurrection (1980), starring Ellen Burstyn, and Tom Horn (1980), starring Steve McQueen, before landing his first starring role, at age 63, as the real-life bandit Bill Miner in the acclaimed film The Grey Fox (1983), for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination.
A year later, Farnsworth played a baseball coach in the film version of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural (1984), starring Robert Redford. He also appeared in the well-rated PBS miniseries Anne of Green Gables, co-starring Colleen Dewhurst, in 1986. In 1990, the still spry septuagenarian appeared in three major films: Havana, starring Redford; The Two Jakes, starring Jack Nicholson; and Misery, starring Caan and Kathy Bates.
Foray into Television
Farnsworth made several attempts to branch out as a series regular on network television. He made two unsuccessful pilot Westerns in 1981 and the short-lived Boys of Twilight, co-starring Wilford Brimley, in 1992. He found a measure of success with TV movies, including Travis McGee (1983); Wild Horses (1985); Chase (1985), for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe; the miniseries The Fire Next Time (1993); and a leading turn in Best Friends for Life (1998).
After a number of relatively minor roles in largely disappointing films, including Highway to Hell (1992), Lassie (1994) and The Getaway (1994), starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, Farnsworth emerged with his most acclaimed performance yet, in The Straight Story (1999), directed by David Lynch and co-starring Sissy Spacek. For his portrayal of Alvin Straight—an Iowa man who in 1994 drove a lawnmower several hundred miles to visit his estranged, ailing brother—the 79-year-old Farnsworth earned a Golden Globe nod as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, becoming the oldest actor ever to be nominated in that category.
Farnsworth's wife, Margaret, died in 1985 after 38 years of marriage. The couple had a son, Hill, who worked as a top stunt performer in Hollywood, and a daughter, Melissa. He lived on a ranch in Lincoln, New Mexico. On October 6, 2000, Farnsworth took his own life after a long struggle with terminal cancer. He was 80 years old.
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