Vermonters, filmgoers and politicians remember Tuttle

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(Host) When 84-year old Fred Tuttle died last Friday, Vermont lost a well-known figure and a symbol of a disappearing breed.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this remembrance:

(Zind) Fred Tuttle’s life had a second act. Except for wartime service, Tuttle spent his first 70 years working his family’s Tunbridge hill Farm. Then at 3, Tuttle found a new calling in the film “Man With a Plan.”

(Sound from “Man With a Plan”) “I’m Fred Tuttle, running for the Regressive Party in Washington and I hope I get it.”

(Zind) The 1996 film was directed by Tuttle’s Tunbridge neighbor John O’Brien. It featured Tuttle as a down-on-his-luck farmer who runs for Congress. O’Brien says he came up with the film’s story line with Tuttle in mind. Tuttle simply played himself.

(O’Brien) “Fred could only play one character and that was Fred. I always joke when I introduce “Man With a Plan” that Fred Tuttle is America’s greatest Method actor because he’s been in character for over seven decades.”

(Zind) In his overalls and Mister Magoo glasses, Tuttle barely cracks a smile as he wanders through the film’s barnyard sight gags and mock campaign appearances.

(Sound from “Man with a Plan”) “I want to see Vermont have better bridges. The bridges are all caved in, it ain’t even safe to lead a tomcat across them.”

(Zind) Tuttle’s alternately bemused and bewildered expressions and his quick wit endeared him to audiences.

(Sound from “Man with A Plan”)
(Interviewer) “You sound like you’re promising a chicken in every pot?”
(Tuttle) “Oh, a chicken in every egg is right!”

(Zind) O’Brien has sold more than 40,000 videos of “Man With A Plan.” He says the strength of the film is Tuttle’s natural comic talent.

(O’Brien) “It seems like he walked off a vaudeville stage and into Tunbridge, Vermont somehow. His face and his body language have great comic potential.”

(Zind) If Tuttle’s fictitious candidacy seemed unlikely, the truth was stranger. In 1998, a down country political newcomer entered the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. In Jack McMullen, Tuttle found a real life political foil. With O’Brien as his handler, Tuttle mounted a primary challenge that was as much about publicity as it was about politics.

The campaign caught on. The “Spread Fred” bumper sticker, which first appeared in the film on a manure spreader, turned up on cars around the state.

One of the campaign’s memorable moments took place when the two candidates met in a VPR Switchboard debate. Tuttle exploited his opponent’s lack of farm experience.

(Tuttle) “Jack, this is a milk production question. How many teats does a Holstein have and how many does a Jersey have?”
(McMullen) “How many what, Fred?”
(Tuttle) “Teats, teats, does a cow have?”

(Zind) Tuttle’s entry into politics won him even more attention. He appeared on late night talk shows with Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. Tuttle surprised even himself by winning the primary. In the general election, he endorsed his opponent, incumbent Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

(Leahy) “I doubt if I’ll ever be a part of another campaign like that. I must admit that I’ve had a lot of other U.S. Senators, both Republican and Democrat come up to me and say, ‘How do you arrange something like that?'”

(Zind) Leahy says Tuttle was a true Vermonter with an abundance of common sense. The two campaigned together, visiting grade schools and encouraging students to stay in school to make sure their parents voted.

(Leahy) “A lot of the places we went to, it was sort of secondary having a U.S. senator there. Everybody wanted to see him.”

(Zind) For all his good humor, Tuttle’s lived the hard life of a farmer. He had survived three earlier heart attacks, cancer and other ailments. Arthritis forced him to sell his beloved herd of Jerseys. John O’Brien says in spite of the hardships Tuttle maintained a cheerful disposition. O’Brien says his friend had other qualities that weren’t so well known.

(O’Brien) “I think he had a real sense of fairness. And ultimately was one of the kindest people I ever knew.”

(Zind) Fred Tuttle is survived by his wife, Dottie, and two children. A private funeral is planned for this week, and sometime in the future there will be likely be a public celebration of Tuttle’s life.

(Sound from “Man With a Plan”) “I didn’t really want to go to Washington, but the people called collect and I accepted the charges. I’m gonna miss everything. I’m gonna miss Vermont. Yeah, I’m really going to miss Vermont.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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