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A quiet man, a fishing icon

‘A River Runs Through It’ brought fame to Arnold Richardson when he least expected it

HELENA – Arnold Richardson was not the best-known Montanan to appear in a Hollywood movie, but his solitary bit part – as the elderly Norman Maclean in “A River Runs Through It” – remains one of the most iconic cinematic images of the state, partly responsible, for better or worse, for the explosion in the popularity of fly fishing in the 1990s.

For Richardson, who retired to Townsend and died Dec. 6 at 96, the response to a casting call in a Livingston newspaper led to an enjoyable brush with fame and a well-paying job one autumn. It was also a fitting highlight in a lifetime of love for Montana’s fish and streams and wild places.

“He could spend literally days on a river,” his stepson, Norman Spencer, said by telephone from his home in Florida. “The whole concept was almost transcendent. … It’s almost like he was transformed when he got on a river.”

“Hours would go by,” Spencer said. “I’d be ready to go home. He’d still be there fishing and have no concept of what time it was. He would just really get lost in it.”

It’s been said, Spencer noted, that trout don’t live in ugly places.

“They live in some of the most beautiful, serene areas, the mountains, in cold, clean water,” he said. “It’s always very picturesque types of locations, where the water is always pristine. Because the fish need to have ice cold water to live.”

Richardson was born in Maine in 1914 and worked with his father in construction endeavors. After he finished high school, they moved to Washington state, where the elder Richardson created a company making wooden blinds.

Arnold became a bricklayer and spent much of World War II as a civilian on government projects throughout Alaska, before moving back to Maine.

But the life of a bricklayer involved lots of travel, and some of that brought him to Montana, where he learned to fly fish in the late 1940s, Spencer said.

A big moment in his fishing life came around 1948 outside Mack’s Inn, on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho, where he caught so many fish, in such spectacular fashion, that it earned him a free T-bone steak.

“The chef told me his customers seated at the window went wild over my fishing,” Richardson told the Independent Record in 2005. “He said that any time I wanted to come and fish outside the restaurant, he’d give me a free meal.”

He also got work as a fishing guide, which paid more than bricklaying. He kept on guiding, and his reputation grew, into the 1950s, Spencer said.

A construction accident – an electrocution – sent him back to Maine, where he met and married Frances, Spencer’s mother, in the mid-1960s. Construction work kept the family traveling, and finally they settled in Livingston in the mid-1970s, by Spencer’s estimation.

There, they ran the Sherwood Inn, a senior living center, for about 15 years.

In 1991, actor and filmmaker Robert Redford and crew arrived in Montana, and Spencer persuaded his father to respond to a small ad, seeking men in their 70s. “Must be excellent fly casters,” the notice read.

“I was the one that kind of pushed him into it,” Spencer said.

According to an account by John Dietsch, in charge of what he called the “casting casting call,” for the role of the elderly Maclean in the film’s final scene, he narrowed the field down to two men with beautiful casting ability: a younger one, who tied his knot in his line smoothly and with finesse, and an older man, who struggled and shook, mentioned that his eyes weren’t so good, and spent a good five minutes trying to tie his knot – a Turle knot.

Dietsch recounts the episode in his and Gary Hubbell’s book, “Shadow Casting: An Introduction to the Art of Fly Fishing.” Dietsch reported back to Redford that the younger man might be the best choice, that the older man’s hands shook, and he might take an awful long time trying to tie a knot on cameras.

Redford asked to meet the older man – Richardson – and eventually hired him.

“The shaking hands struggling to tie a knot at the end of the film are a trademark of the movie, and tell a story in themselves,” Dietsch wrote. “Looking back at it, in my haste to ‘succeed,’ I had lost my sense of compassion while working on the film, and in doing I had missed the magic that unfolded right in front of my eyes. I missed the message on the backs of the old man’s veined, transparent, and leathered hands – the yearning that any man his age, feeling this passage of time, would have for his younger days – the gentle acceptance that indeed those days were gone forever.”

Richardson enjoyed working on the film, although like any, it involved a lot of standing around waiting. He worked with Redford and with Brad Pitt and was paid well, Spencer said.

He had never read the novel – which elevated fly fishing to near-religious status – until he got the part.

In time, the couple retired and chose Townsend because of the fishing in Canyon Ferry Lake, said Spencer. Richardson switched from wading directly in streams to fishing from boats, of which he owned a few at different times.

Beth Ihle and her husband, Kevin McDonnell, who lived next door to the Richardsons for several years in Townsend, bought Arnold Richardson’s last boat. And they inherited the couple’s cat.

“He was well into his 80s,” Ihle said. “Frances was worried about him because he would stay out all day.”

The boat included a 1970s-era outboard motor, Ihle said.

“He showed us how to run it, since it wasn’t that apparent,” she said.

“They were just great people as neighbors,” said McDonnell. Frances in particular had a great relationship with Ihle’s and McDonnell’s four children, they said. “She knew more about what was going on in our house than I did,” McDonnell said of Frances.

The couple loved seafood, including lobster and shrimp, which they would buy in large quantities – a legacy of their Maine heritage.

In the tradition of Maine fishermen, Arnold didn’t brag about his movie stardom, although he did have a promotional poster of the movie signed by Redford.

“I didn’t put two and two together,” Ihle said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I was in the movie.’ ”

Arnold Richardson shared some of his casting ability, along with his prestige from the movie, with local students. John O’Dell teaches “A River Runs Through It” each year to his 10th-grade English class at Broadwater High School. One year, Richardson came and spoke about the movie and demonstrated fly casting to the students.

“He talked about Montana, how important it was to him, and fishing,” he said. “He kind of lit up. … You could definitely see the youth and vitality come out when he was speaking.”

Speaking just before Christmas break, O’Dell said the students had just finished studying the book and had viewed the movie, including the famous final scene.

“I was thinking today, how skilled he was,” he said. “His rhythm was beautiful.”

The love of fishing was passed to Norman Spencer, who said he’s fished just about every stream in the state, from the Kootenai River to the Bighorn and everywhere in between.

“He often said, jokingly, that he was one of the main reasons that fly fishing became as popular as it did, and maybe in a way he was right,” Spencer said. “The movie generated – I won’t say a storm – but it created a keen interest in the sport.”

That’s meant more and more pressure on the blue-ribbon streams, with a nearly continuous flow of boats and rafts on some rivers during peak season. On the other hand, more and more people enjoy it and it’s created an economic bounty in the state from fly shops to guides to motels and more.

“He often said, maybe he created too much of a monster,” Spencer said.

The Richardsons moved into Broadwater Health Center about five years ago after some ups and downs with health, say neighbors, and over the last few years Spencer made several visits from Florida, where he recently retired from a career in the shipping industry. Frances stayed relatively sharp, but Arnold’s mental faculties declined the last few years.

Frances died Nov. 23; Arnold followed Dec. 6.

“The last thing he said was, he was looking for Frances,” Ihle said.