Remembering Richard Farnsworth -- The ''Straight Story'' actor and Oscar nominee passed away this month

By Jeff Jensen
Updated October 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Remembering Richard Farnsworth

Here is a generation of men quickly fading from Hollywood’s midst, men who remember the days before Madonna, The Matrix, and MTV were dreamed into existence, men who first knew the likes of Walt Disney and Groucho Marx as actual flesh and bone, not cultural institutions. Richard Farnsworth was such a man: a true show business pioneer and two-time Oscar nominee, most recently for 1999’s The Straight Story. But he too is now gone, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 80 years old.

While stumping for Story last year, the sweet-natured actor spoke of a bum hip that hobbled him while shooting the David Lynch film. What he didn’t talk about was the prostate cancer that had been ravaging his lanky frame for years. After months of mounting agony, Farnsworth finally ended his life with a .38 revolver at his ranch house in Lincoln, N.M., on Oct. 6. Farnsworth’s body was found by his fiancée, flight attendant Jewely Van Valin, 45. ”The last few days he had been bedridden in tremendous pain,” says Sheriff Tom Sullivan, who was called to the scene. Adds Lynch, ”I don’t think he wanted to be a burden to anybody. He was a cowboy, and this was the way he wanted to go.”

Farnsworth broke into show business on the back of a horse. In 1937, he was a high school dropout working at an L.A. polo barn when agents came looking for people to ride horses. Farnsworth saddled up for the Gary Cooper epic The Adventures of Marco Polo and never looked back. He was a trailblazing stuntman, who for more than 40 years toiled on about 300 films and TV shows, taking falls for Roy Rogers and Montgomery Clift. He also worked the rodeo circuit, fought in WWII, and raised two children, Richard Jr. and Melissa — now 50 and 51 — with wife Margaret, who died in 1985.

It was Margaret who talked her bashful husband into giving speaking parts a bona fide try. For his first major role, in 1978’s Jane Fonda-starring Western Comes a Horseman, Farnsworth nabbed a best supporting actor nod and a new career. His soulful eyes and plainspoken delivery imbued each part with graceful gravitas, be it the gentlemanly stagecoach robber of 1982’s The Grey Fox or the genial grandfather of 1986’s TV series Anne of Green Gables. ”His face was a marvelous map of emotions,” says Gables director Kevin Sullivan.

With Story came a career-capping role: Alvin Straight was a real-life codger saddled with bad hips, who in 1994 rode a John Deere lawn tractor hundreds of miles to reconcile with his ailing brother. ”Richard was a simple man who embodied a feeling of truth, and that role embodied everything he believed in,” says Peter Schneider, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, the film’s distributors. Farnsworth told EW last year that Straight ”just flowed out of me. I’m pretty limited in a lot of ways. But if I feel the character, it’s just so damn easy.”

Yet the film wasn’t easy for Farnsworth physically — a fact he’d never admit to the crew. As producer Dan Paulson (Horseman) explains, ”He kept things to himself. He was from that macho school, but in a sensitive, soft way.”

Farnsworth’s cancer worsened after Story finished, but he still showed at the Oscars. ”He was walking with a cane, but his spark was there,” remembers Chad Lowe, his costar in 1992’s Highway to Hell. And Farnsworth kept that spark till the very last days. Though confined to a wheelchair, he visited the local racetrack. The week before he died, he went to Santa Fe to accept an award from the New Mexico governor. And in early October he was even talking to his agent about taking a role in a Charlton Heston movie about World War II vets.

Perhaps the final scene of The Straight Story offers a fitting coda for Farnsworth’s storied life. It finds him gazing at the star-filled heavens; he has no final words, just a deep, heartbreaking sigh. ”Richard was one of these guys who personified the tradition of the old American West,” says Lynch. ”When people saw him on screen, they got a feeling for what that really was. He sums up an era gone by. And it’s lost to us now.”

Additional reporting by Allyssa Lee and Erin Podolsky