Richard Farnsworth has a rule. ”Never take a job I can’t walk away from,” says the 79-year-old stuntman-turned-actor. ”That’s the reason I’m still around.” His first job — as a horseback-riding Mongol in The Adventures of Marco Polo in 1937 — was a cinch for a stable boy who’d been riding since he was a teenager. So was playing a jockey in the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races. ”Big dough, too,” he smiles. ”$75 some days.” But donning blackface and scrambling up a tree for pre-PC comedian Stepin Fetchit for a whopping $200? Not after he decided to check out ”Jackie,” the allegedly de-clawed lion he had to elude — and spied claw marks on the tree’s trunk. ”Jackie wasn’t feeling good that day,” chuckles Farnsworth, who learned that two frisky, razor-taloned felines had taken the cat’s place. ”I gave back the check and walked away.”
So when David Lynch, best known for the perverse noir of Blue Velvet and TV’s Twin Peaks, asked him to star as The Straight Story’s 73-year-old Alvin Straight — who in 1994 traveled hundreds of miles of Midwestern highway on a cranky 1966 John Deere lawn tractor to visit his ailing brother — Farnsworth said, No problem. Then he hopped on the tractor at his New Mexico ranch and his decrepit hip began to scream. Using a cane and needing a hip replacement, he tried to back out — but Lynch persisted. Farnsworth finally reconsidered when told that the real Alvin Straight used two canes. ”Gosh,” he thought. ”I don’t see why I couldn’t do that.”
Not only could he do it, but he’s done it exceptionally well. Farnsworth’s deeply felt performance as the sweetly stubborn Straight has critics calling for a Best Actor nomination. ”He was born to play this role,” says Sissy Spacek, who plays Straight’s haunted daughter. ”He’s a man of great humanity, this Richard Farnsworth. You just don’t meet people like that. If they hadn’t even put film in the camera, we would have had a great time.”
A pioneering stuntman and hardworking Hollywood yeoman, Farnsworth didn’t dare take a major speaking part till his mid-50s, in Alan J. Pakula’s 1978 film Comes a Horseman. Farnsworth loves telling stories, and one of his favorites is how he blew his first stab at speaking in a 1940s Roy Rogers Western, flubbing the line ”This is more than I bargained for, Slate.” ”For 30 years,” says Farnsworth, ”I didn’t open my mouth.”
There was also his dyslexia, a serious factor in his initial refusal of Pakula, for whom Farnsworth had worked in 1968’s The Stalking Moon. This time, his wife (who died in ’85) talked him into it. ”Margaret said, ‘You can do this, Dick. We’ll practice.’ ” It made perfect: Farnsworth won a Best Supporting Actor nod.
Moving into talkies rejuvenated Farnsworth, who says he would have retired if not for Horseman. 1983’s The Grey Fox earned him a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar, while the 1986 miniseries Anne of Green Gables minted him as the archetypal Hollywood grandpa. But dyslexia continued to discourage him. So did four-letter words: Five years after doing the remake of The Getaway, he’s still embarrassed by its profanity. So the G-rated Straight Story was a perfect fit: ”David said, ‘Dick, it’s gotta be family-oriented. You don’t say ‘son of a b,’ you say ‘son of a gun.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s great. Because that’s the way I’ve always been.”’