A true man of the West, Richard Farnsworth died as he had lived, with courage and stoicism. The Oscar-nominated star of 1999’s The Straight Story had been suffering from bone cancer for five years but only admitted to having hip trouble.
“He didn’t want any sympathy votes,” says his fiancée Jewel Van Valin, 46, a flight attendant who lived with Farnsworth on the Lincoln, N.Mex., ranch where he took comfort in tending to his animals—a mule, a longhorn steer and a donkey, Sammy. “If he was going to be recognized for his acting, he wanted it to be on its own merits.”
Neighbors in Lincoln (pop. roughly 65) were stunned by the news that Farnsworth, 80 years old and in terrible pain, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Oct. 6. But many felt that it was in keeping with his nature. Says Straight director David Lynch: “He didn’t want to be a burden.” A polite but private man, Farnsworth opened up to Van Valin and to his children, Diamond, 51, and Melissa, 52, by his wife of 38 years, Maggie, who died in 1985. “I loved my dad very much,” says Diamond, a stunt coordinator. “He was one of the last cowboys.”
Born and raised near Hollywood, Farnsworth was tending stables at age 15 when he left to appear as one of hundreds of Mongolian horsemen in 1938’s The Adventures of Marco Polo. He worked as a stuntman (doubling for Henry Fonda in 1957’s The Tin Star) on more than 300 films and TV westerns before his first major role in (and his first Oscar nomination for) Comes a Horseman in 1978. Though ill while shooting Straight (the story of a man who drives a lawn mower some 250 miles to see his dying brother), he never complained. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do,” he said last year. “If I cash in now? I’m the winner.”