Longtime character actor and stuntman Richard Farnsworth, who received best actor Oscar and Golden Globes nominations this year for his role in director David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” shot himself to death at his home near Lincoln, N.M., on Friday night. Farnsworth, who had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, was 80.
At 79, Farnsworth was the oldest best actor nominee in Academy history. He won the nom for his portrayal of Alvin Straight, an elderly man who drove his lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his dying brother.
The “Straight” role also earned him the New York Film Critics award for best actor and the Independent Spirit Award for best male lead.
Police said Farnsworth was found dead at the residence he shared with his fiancee, Jewel Van Valin.
“This was an obvious self-inflicted gunshot,” Sheriff Tom Sullivan said.
Stuntman for Rogers
Farnsworth spent four decades as a stuntman, doubling for Roy Rogers much of the time.
His weathered face and crystal blue eyes earned him roles in some of Hollywood’s most popular movies, but Farnsworth did not land his first significant speaking role, as the stagecoach driver in “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” (1976), starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal, until his mid-50s.
Farnsworth, who enjoyed a six- decade career in the motion picture business, essayed roles in “Tom Horn” (1980), “The Natural” (1984), “Havana” (1990), “Misery” (1990) and “The Getaway” (1994).
He received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his role in 1978’s “Comes a Horseman” and won a Genie Award, Canada’s equivalent to the Oscar, as best foreign actor for his role in the 1982 film “The Grey Fox.”
Recently, Farnsworth received a special award from the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, Texas.
The actor attended the 1999 Telluride Film Festival in support of “The Straight Story.” Though using a cane, he was tolerating the 9,000 foot altitude better than many of his younger colleagues.
Farnsworth was born on Sept. 1, 1920, in Los Angeles. He learned to ride a horse at the age of 10 and dropped out of high school at 15, taking a job as a stable boy at a polo barn.
In 1937, two Paramount employees ventured into the stable looking for ponies and told Farnsworth the studio was looking for someone who could ride horses.
Farnsworth took the job. His feature debut came in 1938 as a stunt rider costumed as one of the Mongolian hordes in the Gary Cooper starrer “The Adventures of Marco Polo.” During the next 30 years, he doubled for Roy Rogers and other Western stars; appeared in the John Wayne classic “Red River” in 1948; drove a chariot in “The Ten Commandments”; and did an 11-month gig as Kirk Douglas’ double on “Spartacus.”
A cowboy off-screen as well as on, Farnsworth remained active in rodeo competition until 1946.
In 1961, Farnsworth co-founded the Stuntman’s Assn., which lobbied for better working conditions. He had been a stuntman and stunt coordinator on over 300 films and television programs by the time he retired from stuntwork in 1977. At that point, he said, “The ground started getting really hard.”
By the 1960s, he had graduated to character roles and a decade later was acting on a regular basis.
Farnsworth’s wife of 38 years, Maggie, died in 1985. He is survived by a daughter, Missy, and a son, Richard “Diamond” Farnsworth, who followed in his footsteps as a stuntman.
Farnsworth will be buried in Hollywood, though funeral services have not yet been planned.