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Cowboy plays it `Straight'

I wonder if Richard Farnsworth would mind if I called him a geezer. Maybe not if I provided my definition of a geezer: Anyone who can sing "I'm An Old Cowhand" and make you believe it. He wears jeans and a cowboy hat like working clothes, and although he's appeared in hundreds of movies and even been nominated for an Oscar, he describes himself as a rancher. You talk to him and sense he'd choke before he told a fib or uttered a four-letter word.

We're having lunch in the Floradora Saloon on Main Street in Telluride, Colo. He's joined by his fiancee, Jewel Van Valin, whose hair and clothes make her look like a pretty schoolmarm in an old Western - not just for today, she says, but because that's how she always dresses.

Farnsworth's new movie "The Straight Story" played the night before in the Telluride Film Festival. Now everybody wants his autograph and tells him he'll be nominated for an Oscar. This all happened before, in 1978. when he was nominated for his supporting performance (as an old cowhand) in "Comes a Horseman," and in 1982, when he starred in "The Grey Fox" as a stagecoach robber who gets out of jail after 33 years and switches to robbing trains.

When he made those pictures he was around 60, looking older. Now he's 79, looking exactly the same age. "The Straight Story" (which opens Friday) is based on the true story of Alvin Straight, an Iowa man who wanted to pay one last visit to his dying brother in Wisconsin. His eyes weren't good enough to get a driver's license, so he hitched up a wagon to a lawn tractor and putt-putted all the way there, depending on the kindness of strangers.

This is a good-hearted G-rated picture by David Lynch, who usually makes bizarre R-rated extravaganzas ("Wild at Heart," "Twin Peaks," "Blue Velvet"). Why such a sweet movie from the master of the weird? Maybe because the screenplay is by Mary Sweeney, Lynch's partner, who like everyone else feels in love with the notion of the geezer on his tractor, defying everybody.

It was an easy role for him to identify with, Farnsworth told me, after we settled in at the Floradora.

"I've been around a lot. I've been a farmer, drove a tractor. I identified with him in quite a few things. I liked it because the dialogue wasn't so smooth; nothing was hard, you know. Some scripts, you know, you wanna change the dialogue so you can pronounce it. It just reads peculiar.

"But all the same, I was gonna turn it down because I had to have a hip replacement. But Dave assured me that he'd make a special seat on the tractor that would mold to me and wouldn't hurt me. The seat was designed by Jack Fiske. That's Sissy Spacek's husband, He was the production designer. Dave told me, `Jack has come up with a seat that's got silicone in it, and it moves to the body, takes the shock off.' So I said, OK. I'm so glad I did. I'd hate to have got out there and not be able to finish it."

That was purely you on the tractor, in all of those shots?

"I did it, mile after mile after mile. Day after day. Dave's awful patient, though. You know, he could tell I was gettin' tired, and he'd say, `That's it for today.' And he'd probably gone much farther with somebody else."

Our drinks arrived. Farnsworth's was a martini.

"Well, here's to you," he said, raising his glass. He sipped. "I have one before lunch. At the ranch, I'll make one for myself. It just gives me a little more appetite. But I don't drink any more than that. This'll be it for me."

Most people are happy to get one role of a lifetime, and you've had three, I said. How do you figure that?

He smiled and his face crinkled.

"Well, it's not because I pursued it, you know. I've always been a rancher. I was a stuntman for 35 years before I did `Comes a Horseman.' They wanted an old guy that could rope and ride. I'd done that plenty as a stunt man. But I don't know why they thought about me as an actor because I had never acted in the movies. So when they called me over they showed me the script, God, there was so much in it that I didn't think I could handle. Alan Pakula, who was directing it, said, `You'll have 10 weeks to shoot it. We don't shoot these in one day, you know. You might go for days and not even work.' So I took the script and practiced. It seemed to go pretty good. I went back and I read a few lines with Jane Fonda, and Pakula says, `You do it just like that. You got the job'."

Working as a stuntman, you had a chance to watch a lot of actors working.

"I was as close as you can get to Hank Fonda. He was kind of a loner, but I doubled Hank by size. I did some work with him and Joel McCrea. I really admired their style."

Farnsworth's cheeseburger arrived, and he spread ketchup on it as if caulking a leak. I asked him how he got into the stunt business in the first place. "I roped and rodeoed, and in 1937, Paramount put an ad in the paper that they wanted 200 riders for `The Adventures of Marco Polo.' It was $7 a day to ride, and the wrangling was about $12 a day. I'd been working at a barn for $5 a week. I worked on it for five weeks and made enough money to buy a car, and that's it. I stayed and did `Gunga Din' the next year. That got me started. I did `A Day at the Races' with the Marx Brothers. I was a steeplechase rider."

One thing I like about "The Straight Story," I said, is the simplicity of the story and the performance. You decide exactly what you have to do. Your brother is dying, your daughter (played by Sissy Spacek) can't drive either, and so you just use logic and get on the lawn tractor.

"I got to meet Alvin Straight's family. That was a way of getting to know him. He was independent. He was legally blind, and both hips were bad, and he was gonna drive himself. He didn't want any help. He drove himself across the country in his new John Deere mower, and he was really like that. People we met that put him up said, `Boy, we had a heck of a time even gettin' him to come into the house.' He wanted to stay out in his little trailer and eat his hot dogs."

I was thinking John Ford could have directed this picture.

"He could have. I worked with John a lot as a stuntman, but I never worked as an actor because he'd get a little bit hostile with actors."

He was supposed to be cantankerous.

"He was opinionated, I'll say that. But they all loved him. I couldn't stand somebody shoutin.' "

Would Ford even be tough to people like John Wayne and Henry Fonda?

"He could say anything he wanted to Wayne. He got Wayne his first break, you know, and with the Duke, it was `Mr. Ford' to the day the man died."

You knew all the movie cowboys?

"TV, too. I worked on them all. `Gunsmoke' was probably the best. I did a few `Rawhides' with Clint Eastwood. I told somebody - `You know, I don't believe he can make it. His expression don't change.' Well, how wrong could you be? I've worked with Clint a lot as a director and as an actor."

Some people are saying you might get another Oscar nomination for "The Straight Story."

"Wouldn't that be something. Of course, there's lots of competition. I'm a member of the academy, and we got sent 110 tapes last year. That was a lot of film. I sent 'em all to my daughter. Oh, we watched a few of 'em, the better ones, so people said."

You're only getting films that somebody thinks are pretty good.

Farnsworth grinned.

"Some of 'em were pretty bad. I can't believe that they take the time to even make videos of some of 'em."

He mopped up the last of his ketchup with a french fry.

"But you know, I've almost been out of this business for 15 years. Just ranching. The last film I did was pretty rowdy. It was called `The Getaway.' I come in at the last. But I didn't have to use any four-letter words. I've never had to curse in a movie, and I'm not about to start in now."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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