Gary Farmer | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Gary Farmer

Gary Dale Farmer, actor, publisher, musician, filmmaker, broadcaster, activist (born 12 June 1953 at Ohsweken, Six Nations Reserve, ON). Versatile character actor Gary Farmer has appeared in more than 120 film and television productions. He is perhaps best known for his role as the mysterious mystic Nobody in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). Farmer has also been active in theatre and radio and is a pioneer in the development of Indigenous peoples’ media. He has received two Best Actor awards at the American Indian Film Festival and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native American Film + Video Festival.

Farmer, Gary

Early Years

A member of the Cayuga nation, Gary Farmer was born at old Lady Willingdon hospital in Ohsweken, Six Nations of the Grand River. His father’s career as a US Army engineer led the family to briefly relocate to Texas before settling in Buffalo, New York, where Farmer grew up.

Education and Theatre Career

Farmer studied at Syracuse University in New York and at Ryerson Polytechnic University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) in Toronto. While at the latter, he developed a passion for photography and the performing arts and majored in photography and film production. He also became involved with Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA), a Toronto theatre company where Indigenous artists made collective creations. In 1985, Farmer co-starred in NEPA’s Trickster Cabaret, for which he and the other performers developed their own trickster character.

Farmer has described theatre as his first love. “It’s a lot more work,” he told the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal in 2017, “but it’s a lot more rewarding. It has the most pay-off.” His extensive stage career has included a 1983 production of Of Mice and Men and a 2017 production of Drew Hayden Taylor’s Crees in the Caribbean (both at Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay).

Career Highlights

Gary Farmer made his first television appearance in an episode of The Littlest Hobo in 1983. He continued to work steadily in theatre while occasionally landing small parts in such movies as Police Academy (1984) and The Believers (1987) and such TV series as Spirit Bay (1984) and Miami Vice (1988).

Farmer had a breakthrough year in 1989. He was nominated for a Dora Award for best actor for his performance in Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing; and he won the award for best actor at the American Indian Film Festival for his performance as the affable, insightful Philbert Bono in the American cult hit Powwow Highway. That film made an impression on American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, “In that movie, Gary played this selfless, sweet, emotional human who isn’t complicated by ego or driven by the normal things that drive people in such annoying and often insidious ways. I just fell in love with that human being — and Gary is that guy to a large degree.”

Jarmusch wrote the part of Nobody — a mysterious mystic who quotes William Blake as he leads a wounded soul (John Depp) through the wilderness — in the metaphysical Western Dead Man (1995) specifically for Farmer. Farmer’s performance earned rave reviews, as well as a FAITA Award for best actor and a best supporting actor nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Farmer also played Chief Tom on the CBC series The Rez (1996–98) and co-starred in Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1998), the first full-length feature film produced, written, directed by and starring First Nations talent (including Tantoo Cardinal and Adam Beach). Farmer’s performance earned him a third Independent Spirit Award nomination. He reprised his role as Nobody in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and guest-starred in an episode of The West Wing (2001). He played Robert DeNiro's henchman in the heist drama The Score (1999), which was shot and set in Montreal and featured Marlon Brando’s final screen performance. Farmer reunited with Smoke Signals director Eyre for the crime drama Skins (2002), co-starring Graham Greene and Eric Schweig. He also appeared in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019).

Farmer’s Canadian film appearances include Henry and Verlin (1994; Genie Award nomination for best actor);John Greyson's Lilies (1996); Heater (1999); Deepa Mehta's The Republic of Love (2003); Jacob Tierney's Twist (2004; Genie nomination for best supporting actor) and Good Neighbours (2011); Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles (2006); and Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019). He has also appeared in such TV series as This is Wonderland (2004–05), Moose TV (2007), Rutherford Falls (2021), Reservation Dogs (2021) and Resident Alien (2021–22).

Farmer narrated the 2022 Heritage Minute about legendary Onondaga runner Tom Longboat and had a cameo appearance in the feature film Run Woman Run (2021), about a woman who is inspired to run a marathon by the spirit of Longboat. Farmer has also directed several films, three of which — The Hero (1995), The Gift (1999) and What the Eagle Hears (2000) — were screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

First Nations Media Pioneer

Gary Farmer has been a tireless promoter of Indigenous peoples’ cultures. In 1993 he launched Aboriginal Voices, an Indigenous arts and culture magazine that was published until 1999. In 1998, concerned about the decline in First Nations language usage, Farmer (with Tomson Highway, Alanis Obomsawin and Jennifer Podemski) helped launch the Aboriginal Voices Radio Network (CKAV) to create FM radio stations on reserves across North America. It first went on air from Toronto in 2002 and later added broadcasts from Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa before its licence was revoked by the CRTC in 2015. Farmer also spearheaded the Aboriginal Voices Festival, held in Toronto from 1998 to 2000, and was executive producer of Buffalo Tracks, the first Indigenous variety television show, which was hosted by Lorne Cardinal and aired on the Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) from 2001 to 2003.

Other Activities

Gary Farmer is an in-demand public speaker and advocate for Indigenous representation and has delivered numerous lectures at colleges and universities across North America. He also taught two courses in dramatic arts at Brock University in 2011 and has run youth acting camps at Six Nations of the Grand River. He has also performed and recording for many years with his blues band Gary and the Troublemakers, in which he sings and plays harmonica.

Farmer has lived primarily in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for many years and is active in the city’s thriving arts scene. From 2006 to 2008, he ran the Gary Farmer Gallery of Contemporary Art, which specialized in contemporary Indigenous art. He also helped establish the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Despite being a fixture in the American Southwest, Farmer told an interviewer in 2021 that “Ohsweken is my home and I visit it as often as possible.”

Honours and Awards

  • Best Actor (Powwow Highway), American Indian Film Festival (1989)
  • Best Actor (Dead Man), American Indian Film Festival (1997)
  • Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Film (Lead) (Dead Man), First Americans in the Arts Awards (1997)
  • Taos Mountain Award for Lifetime Achievement, Taos Talking Picture Festival (2001)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Native American Film + Video Festival (2011)
  • Honorary Bachelor’s Degree, Fort Lewis College (2022)