Standing recently in the barn at the end of morning milking wearing pants that were almost as much holes as fabric, George Woodard did not look like the award-winning movie director/writer and actor that he is.
Farmers often juggle lots of different kinds of work, but George Woodard is the only Cabot farmer with a biography on the internet movie database IMDB.
As his hired helper Eythan Thurston pulled the machine off the last of the farm’s 26 milking cows, George shared how he landed on his own unique career blend.
George and his three siblings grew up on the Waterbury Center farm that their grandfather bought in 1912, but his father sold the cows when George was nine. His best friend, though, lived a hill over and George helped out there haying and cleaning gutters, “scraping them by hand,” he noted. The faster his friend finished his chores, the faster they could go off and have adventures in the woods, George recalled with a smile.
School was not so much his thing, George admitted, and his mother suggested he think about getting the dairy running again. “She knew I was pretty good at tinkering, fixing things, making things,” he said. “I’ve always had a pretty good sense of how things are put together.”
So in 1975, George started the dairy up again with 20 calves he’d brought in and raised over the preceding two years. Although he took the lead on the farm, he had help from family to rebuild the dairy. “They didn’t call them family farms back then,” George noted, referring to the fact that every farm at that time was a family farm.
His brother, Bernard, helped with construction like adding to the barn George said, showing where the newer and older pieces met. Like most, the structure is a patchwork of eras. The age of a barn, he explained, “depends on what part you’re looking at.”
Their mother had encouraged another brother, Steve, to pursue college and then veterinary school. Sadly, Steve passed away in 2011 but not before establishing a reputation for including homeopathic practices into veterinary approaches and helping George develop strong herd genetics and management practices.
The farm was chugging along just fine into the early ‘80s when George felt the call to explore another area of interest. He had done theater in high school and then lots of community theater. “I wondered what it’d be like to go try to be in movies,” he said matter-of-factly.
Performance skills and an appreciation for the arts did run in the family, George said. His maternal grandmother had played piano for traveling minstrel shows that came through the local opera house. In a family diary from 1927, he found an entry that reads, “We finished spreading manure and then we all went to see ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”
In 1984, after building a house for a hired man who would take care of the daily farm needs, George said, “I jumped in a van and took off.”
The young aspiring actor landed a job as a movie extra after his very first audition, but soon decided that working for no-budget, non-union projects would be more rewarding in all ways but financial. He supported himself by doing carpentry as he built a rich diversity of experiences in front of and behind the camera.
“The whole thing was a great learning experience,” he said, until about four years in when he felt the reverse pull to return home. “The cows were calling,” he said seriously. “We had put a lot of work into the farm. It didn’t seem right to bail. I figured I could do anything here that I could do out there. It’s just cameras, pictures and actors. You put them all together.”
Another reason he came back was to honor the Woodards who came before him. “I think a lot of it has to do with my family’s history here. That’s important to me, to keep it going,” George said. “They were amazing people with amazing stories.”
Back on the farm, he returned to milking and to community theater. “They do amazing stuff here,” he said. “It’s people working together, having a good time and putting on a decent production. It’s family, too.”
Ironically, he also earned his first significant role in a major movie, “Ethan Frome,” (1993) alongside stars Liam Neeson, Joan Allen and Patricia Arquette that was being filmed in Vermont. When George got the call that he’d been selected for the largest locally cast role, he recalled he said, “Can I call you back? I’ve got to see if I can find somebody to milk for me.”
Even as he focused on farming, George also continued thinking about films and stories. He’d come up with ideas while in the barn and write them down on whatever he could find. “I had a huge pile of paper towels,” he said. In 2004, a film based on some of those paper towel scribblings came to life. “The Summer of Walter Hacks,” a coming-of-age movie starring George’s own son, Henry, along with a talented local cast, won recognition from the Vermont International Film Festival and Maverick Movie Awards.
George has since continued to juggle farming with his film and performance projects. “It’s the creativeness of the whole thing,” he said. “I think I have more fun than anyone else.” His engaging silent short, “Bad Robbers,” was featured on Vermont PBS’s Made Here series and he is currently working on a full-length feature titled, “The Farm Boy,” loosely based on his parents’ story. He supports his film habit, in part, through a live vaudeville-style show called The Ground Hog Opry. The next performance will be in the Waterbury area in March. He doesn’t take it too far from home, he said, because, “I have to come back and milk in the morning.”
“It’s a nice little farm. The cows do really well here,” George said, looking out the barn window at a beautiful view of Ricker Mountain and Camel’s Hump. The cows go outside every day, and although it is unclear if they enjoy the view, George is pretty sure they do appreciate the fresh air and the chance to mingle. “This cow over there, number 16,” he said, nodding at one at the end of a row and then the other end, “she doesn’t get to talk to that one down there.”
The farmer himself definitely appreciates the fresh air in Vermont. Plus, he added, unlike in Hollywood, “You don’t have to hustle here. There’s something to do all the time. You don’t have to find the next thing to do…Sure, you’re dirty and covered in manure, but it’s kind of the best thing there is.”
Farmer-movie maven George Woodard’s 14-minute short silent film, “Bad Robbers,” was featured recently on Vermont PBS’s Made Here series. “It’s kind of fun in its ridiculousness,” George says. You can watch it here.