It’s amazing how you can know someone for years and basically know nothing about their career. The more so, I suppose, when so much of their early work was as a stuntman. My feelings about a prospective Oscar for Best Stuntman are too long to get into here, but undoubtedly the whole point of stuntwork is to not recognize the stuntman. So if a man had minor roles mostly doing stunts in Gone With the Wind, How the West Was Won, and (my mom’s favourite Wayne) Angel and the Badman, well, not too surprising. Especially if your formative experiences of him are from the ’80s, when he was an old man.
For decades, Richard Farnsworth was best known in field of Westerns. From 1937 to 1975, he was a stuntman in 84 movies. 58 of them were Westerns. He was also in a few dozen Westerns, both movies and TV shows, as an actor. He’s in the Hall of Great Western Performers, which is a thing, at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, which is also a thing. For nearly fifty years of his life, it would have been not merely possible but easy to know him not just best but exclusively for his work on Westerns.
But for women my age, we first got to know him for a character who lived nearly as far east as you could get and still be on the North American continent—considerably farther east than how far west most Westerns are set, in fact. I don’t know how he came to be cast as Matthew Cuthbert, but one of the reasons I haven’t been able to get into other versions is that, after him, no Matthew quite measures up. He was quiet and kindly and loving, someone who had been too shy his whole life to give the amount of love he had in him until Anne came along. The perfect Matthew.
Conversely, he was a Midwesterner in probably his most critically acclaimed role, as Alvin in The Straight Story. It remains to my mind possibly the least David Lynch movie David Lynch has ever done, and it simply would not have worked at all, much less as well as it did, without a quality actor in that role. Really, many of the same qualities that sold him as Matthew Cuthbert were at work here. That he lost the Best Actor Oscar to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty was situationally unfortunate before, given Farnsworth was battling cancer and would choose to end his suffering by the year’s end; now, it is heartbreaking.
Mind, I don’t know how much the general lack of accolades really bothered Farnsworth himself. He almost certainly could have parlayed his Oscar nomination for Comes a Horseman (which I haven’t seen, but he lost to Christopher Walken for The Deer Hunter) into more substantive roles, if that had been his goal. After by that point four decades in Hollywood, there must have been someone he knew who would have cast him in serious roles likely to win awards. Surely, though, “better in the role than Martin Sheen” is an accolade of its own.