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Middle English, leading sheep of a flock, leader, from belle bell + wether; from the practice of belling the leader of a flock: one that takes the lead or initiative : LEADER; also : an indicator of trends


John O'Brien

TUNBRIDGE, Vt. Aug, 27 – When Hollywood scores a hit, it invariably comes out with a sequel: “Jurassic Park III,” “American Pie 2,” “Dr. Dolittle 2.” A lot of people in Vermont think the smart thing for John O’Brien to do would be to make “Man With a Plan 2.”

The 1996 original, about a retired dairy farmer from Tunbridge who runs for Congress, is a cult movie in New England.

Its star, a puckish 82-year-old named Fred Tuttle, has become a Vermont icon, right up there with Calvin Coolidge and Ben and Jerry.
But Mr. O’Brien, 38, who lives up the hill from Mr. Tuttle, would like to move on. “I’m sick of the whole Fred thing,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Fred and I are both worn out by six years of self-promotion.” Mr. O’Brien has recently finished the rough cut of “Nosey Parker,” a low-budget film about a local tax assessor’s relationship with a well-to-do psychiatrist and his wife, who move to Tunbridge from Connecticut. In “Nosey Parker,” Mr. O’Brien downgraded Mr. Tuttle to a supporting role.

He cast another retired dairy farmer, George Lyford, as the lead. “George was a natural,” Mr. O’Brien said. Mr. Lyford did not, however, share Mr. Tuttle’s single-mindedness. Wanting to take advantage of the foliage, Mr. O’Brien did much of the filming in the fall.

“I’d be paying a bunch of actors $100 a day,” the director said. “I’d call up George and say, ‘Can we come down and film today,’ and he’d say, ‘I have to get the hay in first.’ I had to be patient.

George Lyford

Mr. O’Brien, who also raises sheep, was talking over lunch at Eaton’s Sugar House in Royalton. The director has been finding it difficult to escape his star. The restaurant was selling framed photographs of Mr. Tuttle by Peter Miller, a Vermont photographer, for $75. (None of the money goes to Mr. O’Brien or his star.) It was also selling videotapes of “Man With a Plan,” otherwise known as the Fred video, for $19.95. Mr. O’Brien has sold close to 40,000 of the videos, most of them in Vermont.
Artistically, he wants to branch out, but the Fred thing, he concedes, pays the bills. “I’m living off Fred,” he said.
People tend to recognize Mr. Tuttle wherever he goes. As usual, however, no one recognized the star’s director. Mr. Tuttle, whom Mr. O’Brien visited after lunch, said: “John did all the work, and I get all the attention. It’s a pretty good deal.”
When it comes to publicity, Hollywood has nothing on Mr. O’Brien. As a marketing ploy for “Man With a Plan,” he talked Mr. Tuttle into running for the United States Senate on the Republican ticket in 1998. With a budget of roughly $200, Mr. Tuttle upset the favorite, Jack McMullen, a businessman originally from Massachusetts who spent more than $500, 000, in the primary.
While the Democratic incumbent, Patrick J. Leahy, won the election, Mr. Tuttle’s candidacy catapulted him onto the “Tonight show,” and BBC.

Jay Leno & Fred Tuttle


Lately, though, there have been signs in Tunbridge of a Fred backlash. Mr. O’Brien says it cost him the 1998 election for Tunbridge justice of the peace, a voluntary post he had held for two terms. “People thought Fred and I had gotten too big for our britches,” he said. The Fred thing is especially pervasive here. The general store is stocked with Fred CD’s – an hour of Fred talking – and Fred videos, and it displays Vermont posters that feature Mr. Tuttle with a milk mustache.

“People come to town, and they stop at the post office and ask, ‘Where does Fred Tuttle live?’” said Barbara Khon, who works on one of the town’s few remaining dairy farms and, along with 49 other people in town, has a bit part in Mr. O’Brien’s new movie. “People feel enough’s enough already.”
Despite what Mr. O’Brien may say, Mr. Tuttle is hardly the reclusive movie star. He has never been known to turn down an interview. (He told one Vermont reporter that one of the reasons it was so much fun to work with Mr. O’Brien was that the director didn’t know what he was doing any more than Mr. Tuttle did.) He says he is looking forward to the Tunbridge World’s Fair this month, an annual event at which he gets mobbed for autographs.
“Nosey Parker” is the third in Mr. O’Brien’s Tunbridge trilogy, which he calls “anthropological comedies” about a vanishing small-town Vermont that feature his neighbors. (The first in the series was “Vermont Is for Lovers.”)
“I wanted to capture everything about these old people before they die – their sense of humor, their accents, their stories, their sense of community,” said Mr. O’Brien, who grew up on the same farm in Tunbridge where he now lives.
In “Nosey Parker,” the aging tax assessor and the psychiatrist’s young wife develop a friendship that links the old and new Vermonts. Mr. O’Brien says he expects the film to be released within the next couple of years. He is still raising money and working on the editing. And his filmmaking is constantly interrupted by his other career as a sheep farmer.
Working with a group of elderly actors, Mr. O’Brien has had to face certain realities: the talent is dying off. Mr. Lyford died before Mr. O’Brien finished filming “Nosey Parker.”
“I may have to turn to Fred for help in marketing the film” Mr. O’Brien said.
Mr. Tuttle, naturally, is ready.

SARA RIMER
The New York Times
Monday, Sept 3, 2001

 

All photographic images
on this page by Jack Rowell


 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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