Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Grey Fox (1920-2000)

Like probably a lot of people, I first became aware of Richard Farnsworth in 1982. That was when he played the title role in The Grey Fox, a strangely haunting and romantic Canadian film about Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who, after a long hiatus in jail, decides to adapt to modern technology and spend his golden years robbing those new-fangled trains. The scene where he gets his big inspiration (while watching the 1903 eleven-minute film The Great Train Robbery) is lovely and speaks volumes about the power of movies.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Farnsworth had already appeared in literally hundreds of movies, often without credit in bit parts or as a stuntman. In a career dating back to the 1930s, he had doubled for the likes of Roy Rogers and Gary Cooper. He had screen appearances in everything from The Wild One to Spartacus to The Outlaw Josie Wales. He had even been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Jane Fonda’s right-hand man in the gloomy 1978 western Comes a Horseman. He was simply one of those reliable Hollywood character actors who always served ably, no matter how big or how small the part. And, when he got the chance to carry a movie, he did so with grace and talent.

In one of those weird coincidences that seem to occur so often, on the very day (October 6) that Farnsworth took his own life at the age of 80, I sent an email to a friend describing my somewhat eccentric father-in-law’s slow but steady 200-mile solo journey down the west coast of Ireland in an old Peugeot van (without a functioning alternator) to attend his granddaughter’s christening. I compared his adventure to David Lynch’s lovely movie The Straight Story, about an elderly Iowa man who spent six weeks journeying on a lawnmower to Wisconsin to see his dying estranged brother. The heart of that film was, of course, Richard Farnsworth’s touching performance as the proud and determined Alvin Straight, and it earned him a well deserved second Oscar nomination. With Farnsworth’s passing, I am all the more disappointed that he didn’t actually get the Best Actor award. I don’t say this for sentimental reasons but because I think he truly deserved it.

I have mixed feelings about suicide. My libertarian impulse is to say that a person has a right to do what he wants with his own life, even if it is to end it. But, like most people, I have observed the devastation that a suicide’s survivors endure and so can’t call it a victimless act. But when the person in question is 80 years old and dying of cancer, the right or wrong of it is less clear.

But, moral issues aside, the way Farnsworth chose to make his exit fits in perfectly with the screen persona he evolved over the years. He was usually the rugged individualist who had outlived his time but refused to bow down. In The Grey Fox and The Straight Story, he was a self-reliant man who insisted on living life on his own terms all the more passionately even as his days were growing shorter. He was always in charge of his own life and he wasn’t about to stop making his own choices just because of old age and infirmity. As sad as his death is, at least it doesn’t have the total meaningless of a younger star’s self-destruction, like that of, say, Freddie Prinze.

Wherever you are, Richard Farnsworth, thanks for the beautiful celluloid memories, and God rest you.

-S.L., 12 October 2000

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