The classic 1982 western currently can be seen in a 4K restoration.
Now available in online “virtual theaters” for your viewing pleasure: A 4K restoration of The Grey Fox, director Phillip Borsos’ acclaimed 1982 fact-based drama about legendary train robber Bill Miner. Richard Farnsworth, every inch the courtly but crusty old gentleman, stars to perfection as Miner, the real-life American stagecoach bandit who became something of a folk hero in British Columbia in the early 1900s.
In the world according to The Grey Fox: After the 1901 conclusion of his lengthy incarceration at San Quentin State Prison, Miner quickly realizes there are no more stagecoaches to rob. But he eventually has an inspiration while watching a silent movie called The Great Train Robbery. What those actors did for fun, Miner figures, he could do for real.
Of course, no career change is ever easy, as Miner learns the hard way during an early holdup. But he sticks to his guns — “A professional always specializes!” — and slowly earns the respect of common folk in British Columbia who distrust the big railroad companies. While lying low under an alias in a small provincial town, he even earns the respect — and the indirect assistance — of the local lawman, Sergeant Fernie (Timothy Webber). And he captures the heart of another free spirit, Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs), a spinsterish photographer who has fled the social restraints of turn-of-the-century Chicago.
Be forewarned: This is not an action-packed, rapid-fire adventure story replete with blazing guns and stampeding horses. Rather, it’s more of a melancholy character study, sympathetically examining a man who knows full well he’s making one last, graceful toss of the dice. Farnworth’s craggy charm and rough-hewn elegance as Miner is one of the main reasons why The Grey Fox is so consistently captivating. (Two other reasons: The strong supporting cast — Burroughs has the dry wit of a young Maggie Smith, and the appealing spunkiness of a younger Katharine Hepburn — and Frank Tidy’s stunningly beautiful cinematography.) The happy-sad Irish melodies on the soundtrack, though not necessarily appropriate for the film’s setting, evoke just the right mood. And the ending, a nifty upending of expectations, is absolutely perfect.
“I wasn’t what you’d call a gung-ho stunt man,” Farnsworth, then 64, told me in Marfa. “I did things they’d been doing for years. I was a good horseman, and I knew what my capabilities were with livestock. That’s all I did: Outdoor movies. Westerns.”
In 1978, however, Farnsworth galloped out of obscurity and into the spotlight with his moving portrayal of an aging saddletramp in director Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman. He earned an Oscar nomination and a National Film Critics Society award for his deeply felt performance, and kicked off a new career at an age when most men retire.
The year before we spoke in Marfa, Farnsworth received a Genie Award — the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar — and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Bill Miner, a character he described in an interview as “a character who can be tough, but only when he has to.” In that same interview, according to Canada’s National Post, he revealed that he had been loaned Miner’s old gun, a .41 Colt Bisley, for use in close-ups during The Grey Fox. “The action was just perfect,” he said. “It probably hadn’t been used since 1906.”
Prior to his death in 2000, Farnsworth slyly stole scenes from Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton in Rhinestone (1984), earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), and appeared in several other films and TV dramas. He received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 1992, and was inducted into the was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboys & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1997. When we spoke in Marfa, however, he sounded very much like a man who really didn’t know how long his winning streak would last — but was determined to enjoy the ride for as long as possible.
“Well, gosh, you can just go so far,” Farnsworth told me. “I think roles for me, that I think I can do well — there are not too many of them for a man my age. I think I’ve done just about as much as I could do.
“I get offers all the time, for roles in pictures. They think they’re right for me — but they’re not. I’ve got a closet full of scripts. But I’ve gone too far to get involved with something that won’t fit me. Even though it might be lucrative.
“I’ll tell you a picture I did, though. Recently. It was for John Landis, called Into the Night. I play a billionaire tycoon who’s dying. I never get out of bed. When I first heard about that, I was shocked. I didn’t think I’d be right for that at all. But my agent said, ‘They think you’re right for the part. And there’s a lot of money involved. Why don’t you talk to them?’
“They said they’d give me $75,000 for three days. I thought, ‘Well, Christ, that’s not too bad for lying in bed.’ So I did it. And it turned out fine. Michelle Pfeiffer, she’s my mistress. And Vera Miles played my wife. I laid on the bed, with glucose pumping into me.
“I guess that’s work.”