Film: That Was Me There, Fighting John Wayne ; David Thomson Meets Richard Farnsworth, Who Started out with Howard Hawks and Is Now the Star of David Lynch's `the Straight Story'

By Thomson, David | The Independent (London, England), November 21, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Film: That Was Me There, Fighting John Wayne ; David Thomson Meets Richard Farnsworth, Who Started out with Howard Hawks and Is Now the Star of David Lynch's `the Straight Story'


Thomson, David, The Independent (London, England)


Here's a question for movie buffs: this man was vital to Howard Hawks's Red River; he was also in Fort Apache, by John Ford; The Tin Star, by Anthony Mann; and in Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid. If you are groping, I will throw in appearances in Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din and Spartacus. Yet he goes uncredited in all those pictures. Aha, you say, he is likely one of the stunt doubles the screen requires. Then let me tell you that next spring, when the Oscars are awarded, in what is going to be a very competitive category, he could hobble up on stage on his bad hip to get the Best Actor Oscar.

Richard Farnsworth is 79 now, and very touched by the response to his new film, David Lynch's The Straight Story. But he has been discovered before, and these days he prefers to stay on his ranch in New Mexico, and get himself ready for a new marriage. For he has that true shyness that ladies love. He has 90 acres of sweet grassland, just outside Lincoln, New Mexico, split by the Bonita Creek. He looks out at the land and his horses and he recalls the days of Red River, in the summer of 1946, when they had 2,000 head of cattle and a big crew; but Howard Hawks and the cameraman, Russell Harlan, would wait until the clouds were just right.

"Well, Howard wanted me to take care of Montgomery Clift. He was an Easterner, you see, and he'd told Howard he could ride. But Howard said to me, `I don't think he's done more than ride a horse in Central Park.' So I worked with him. And there were all the other Western things. I helped him wear a hat and roll a cigarette. Got him to stand right. You look at his bowed legs in that picture. And we were both 26 years old, and had similar features. So I rode for him in the long shots, and then at the end when he and John Wayne have their fist fight, some of that was me - like when he charges Wayne against the wagon. But Clift was very professional and a very nice man. He did good."

Which is typical of Farnsworth, his courtesy, and the way he was happy to be useful. "You see, I was born in Los Angeles in 1920. My father was a civil engineer, but he died when I was seven, and then it was the Depression, and our family had hard times. So I quit school when I was 15, and I went to work for a polo barn, cleaning out the stalls, and exercising the horses. That's where I learnt to ride."

Despite the economic slump, Hollywood bosses rode their thoroughbreds to work - back in the 1930s, there were more bridle paths than roads in Los Angeles. Polo was fashionable among stars and studio executives, and Dick Farnsworth made $6 a week as a teenager learning how to ride any kind of horse, schooling it to behave with Tyrone Power or Darryl F Zanuck or Joel McCrea in the saddle.

"Anyway, one day some fellows came up to the stable and they wanted to know if we had any Welsh ponies. Well, we did. And they were thinking of using them as Mongolian ponies in a Gary Cooper film about Marco Polo. And they asked, `Can anyone ride those ponies?' I said, sure, I could, and they offered me three weeks at $7 a day. So I went and asked the boss if he thought it would be all right. And he told me, `Oh, no problem, but you're fired!' "

He never went back to the polo barn. If it wasn't movies - and movies better than The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) - it was rodeo-ing. This was around 1940, when there were a lot of Westerns being made - not just feature films, but serials, too, and all those singing cowboys, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, guys who could really ride. But their films needed stuntmen who would put on Indian feathers and then bring their horse and have it roll over them so that neither horse nor rider was hurt. Most of the time.

The rodeo circuit stretched across the West and into Canada - and Farnsworth picked up the ways of broncs and bulls as he went along. "I found out that I wasn't accident-prone.

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Film: That Was Me There, Fighting John Wayne ; David Thomson Meets Richard Farnsworth, Who Started out with Howard Hawks and Is Now the Star of David Lynch's `the Straight Story'
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