While working as a stable hand at a polo field in Los Angeles, earning $6 a week, the 16-year-old Farnsworth bagged the offer to work as a stuntman. It offered him a better remuneration. He grabbed this opportunity and worked as a stuntman in several films, performing various stunts. He did horse-riding stunts in ‘A Day at the Races’ (1937) and ‘Gunga Din’ (1939). He drove a chariot in ‘Spartacus’ (1960). As a stuntman, he doubled for stars such as Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen, Montgomery Clift, and Roy Rogers.
Meanwhile, he started featuring as an actor in several Western films, initially in uncredited roles. Some of his notable but uncredited film projects, both as an actor and a stuntman, were the 1939 American epic historical romance ‘Gone with the Wind’ (starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh), the 1948 American Western film ‘Red River’ (starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift), the Marlon Brando-starrer 1953 American film ‘The Wild One’, and the Charlton Heston-starrer 1956 American epic religious drama ‘The Ten Commandments.’
Farnsworth also started working on TV, featuring in series such as ‘The Adventures of Kit Carson’ (1951–1954) and ‘Cimarron City’ (1958).
Moving on with credited roles in films and on TV shows, Farnsworth garnered one of the most notable roles of his career, ‘Dodger,’ in the 1978-released American Western drama ‘Comes a Horseman,’ directed by Alan J Pakula. Starring along with Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, and James Caan, Farnsworth not only caught attention for his brilliant performance but also earned several awards and nominations, including an ‘Academy Award’ nomination for the ‘Best Supporting Actor. ‘
Farnsworth’s remarkable performance in ‘Comes a Horseman’ paved his way for starring roles in other films such as ‘Tom Horn’ (1980) and ‘Ruckus’ (1980). His real breakthrough, however, came with the 1982 Canadian biographical Western film ‘The Grey Fox,’ which featured him in the lead role of real-life stagecoach robber Bill Miner. The film won him the ‘London Film Critics' Circle Award’ for the ‘Actor of the Year’ and the ‘Genie Award’ for the ‘Best Performance by a Foreign Actor.’ It also earned him a ‘Golden Globe Award’ nomination for the ‘Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama.’
He featured as baseball coach ‘Red Blow’ in the 1984-released American sports film 'The Natural.’ The blockbuster hit film, based on a 1952 novel of the same name by Bernard Malamud, starred Robert Redford, Glenn Close, and Robert Duvall.
The 1985-released TV movie ‘Chase,’ starring Jennifer O'Neill, Michael Parks, and Robert S Woods, featured Farnsworth as ‘Judge Grand Pettitt.’ The role earned him a ‘Golden Globe Award’ nomination for the ‘Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film.’
He starred in the role of ‘Matthew Cuthbert’ in the Canadian drama miniseries ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ based on a novel of the same name by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery. The film also starred Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst and was released theatrically in Europe, Israel, Iran, and Japan. It aired as a two-part miniseries on ‘CBC Television’ on December 1 and 2 in 1985. It was also aired on ‘PBS’ in the US, on February 17, 1986, as part of the anthology series ‘WonderWorks.’
He furthered his fame, starring as the suspicious sheriff ‘Buster’ in the 1990-released American psychological horror film ‘Misery,’ based on the 1987 novel of the same name by Stephen King. Directed by Rob Reiner and starring James Caan, Kathy Bates, Frances Sternhagen, and Lauren Bacall, the film received generally positive reviews and emerged as a sensational hit.
On August 17, 1992, he received a “star” on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ on 1560 Vine Street, for his contributions to motion pictures. In 1997, he was inducted into the ‘Hall of Great Western Performers’ at the ‘National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’ situated in Oklahoma City.
One of the most memorable portrayals of Farnsworth was that of the real-life character ‘Alvin Straight’ in 1999-released internationally co-produced biographical road drama ‘The Straight Story.’ The film, directed by David Lynch, was a critical success. It won Farnsworth the ‘Independent Spirit Award’ for the ‘Best Male Lead’ and the ‘New York Film Critics Circle Award’ for the ‘Best Actor.’ It also earned him several award nominations, including once each for an ‘Academy Award’ and a ‘Golden Globe.’ At age 79, he became the oldest actor ever to earn an ‘Academy Award’ nomination in the category of ‘Best Actor.’
Family & Personal Life
Farnsworth married Margaret Hill in 1947. They had two children, son Diamond and daughter Missy. Following Margaret’s death on August 7, 1985, Farnsworth lived on a ranch in Lincoln, New Mexico.
He suffered from metastatic prostate cancer for a long time and finally ended his life by shooting himself at his ranch on October 6, 2000. At that time, he was engaged to Jewely Van Valin. He was interred beside his wife, at the ‘Forest Lawn Memorial Park’ located in the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles.