25 years later, ‘Man With a Plan’ saga shows real-life politics is stranger than fiction

  • John O'Brien feeds his flock of Romney sheep at Landgoes Farm in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of O'Brien's film “Man With A Plan,” about farmer Fred Tuttle’s fictional race for the U.S. House of Representatives. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • John O'Brien is the director of the Tunbridge Trilogy, three films made in and around Tunbridge, Vt., where he lives. It is the 25th anniversary of the release of “Man With A Plan,” the second of the films. O'Brien is also a member of the Vermont House of Representatives and the Tunbridge Selectboard. He was photographed at home in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

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    Fred Tuttle (on porch) makes a speech as soundmaster Richard Morse, left, photographer Jack Rowell, seated, and director John O'Brien work on O'Brien's movie "Man with a Plan" in Tunbridge, Vt., on Nov. 16, 1992. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

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    John O'Brien, of Tunbridge, Vt., is interviewed during a break in filming "Man with a Plan" on Nov. 16, 1992. O'Brien's movie is the second in his Tunbridge Trilogy series, which combines scripted and documentary techniques. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

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    Fred Tuttle, right, is outfitted with microphones from reporters, including WNNE-TV News Director Bruce Lyndes, second from left, while doing interviews from Tuttle's Tunbridge, Vt., kitchen on Sept. 9, 1998, the day after his Republican primary win over Jack McMullen for the U.S. Senate. At left is John O'Brien, Tuttle's campaign manager and the director of "Man with a Plan," the fictional film about Tuttle's candidacy for Congress. Lyndes also played a part in the movie as a TV news anchor. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Jennifer Hauck

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    Fred Tuttle stands outside his dressing room with host Conan O'Brien and fellow guest Elizabeth Berkley during the Oct. 3, 1996, broadcast of the "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" TV show in New York City. Tuttle, of Tunbridge, Vt., is promoting "Man with a Plan" and his U.S. Senate candidacy and Berkley is appearing to promote the upcoming movie "Showgirls" that she stars in. (Jack Rowell photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/30/2021 9:57:28 PM
Modified: 11/1/2021 1:13:16 PM

TUNBRIDGE — John O’Brien speaks modestly of Man With a Plan, his 1996 feature film about a Vermont farmer who decides to run for Congress.

For a piece of Vermont artistry, the film was a resounding success, but in movie terms, where success is measured in tens and hundreds of millions, it was as modest as O’Brien is when he speaks of it.

“I think it’s holding up really well in light of the American political scene,” he said in an interview at his Tunbridge sheep farm. “It never seems out of touch or out of time.”

But it does seem a long way from here, from a time when gentle mockery of electoral politics seemed not only possible, but necessary. On Friday, a certain former president issued a statement that read, in its entirety, “INFLATION NATION!” Try satirizing that.

Satire might be dead, but Man With a Plan remains an indelible cultural marker in Vermont, and it led to one of the greatest episodes of political theater in the state’s — and maybe the nation’s — history.

O’Brien came up with the idea of putting Tunbridge dairy farmer Fred Tuttle at the center of a movie when Tuttle had a small, scene-stealing role in O’Brien’s previous film, Vermont Is for Lovers.

At the time, Ross Perot, the folksy Texas tycoon, was running as an outsider for president in 1992. Dissatisfaction with the status quo was in the air.

O’Brien is most often identified as a Tunbridge sheep farmer and filmmaker, but he has a political background. His father, Robert, was a state senator from Orange County and ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1976. He also studied political science and film at Harvard.

At various times, O’Brien has said that the classic Peter Sellers film Being There, and the Saturday morning cartoon character Mr. Magoo were also inspirations for the film. Tuttle exuded the same uncomplicated ease as those characters.

Man With a Plan features Tuttle more or less as himself, a 70-something Vermont dairy farmer with busted knees who’s behind on his taxes and needs money for medical bills. What can a guy with few qualifications do that will pay him enough to get by?

The answer, of course, is run for Congress.

“I’ve spent my whole life in the barn,” Tuttle says in the film. “Now I just want to spend a little time in the House.”

Tuttle, with his advisers, Kermit Glines, Edgar Dodge and Euclid Farnham, fellow Tunbridge residents all appearing in the film as themselves, fashion his campaign as a member of the fictitious Regressive Party. His opponent is a six-term incumbent, played by Bill Blachly, founder of Unadilla Theater, in Marshfield, Vt., and former state legislator.

O’Brien shot the film in a loose, improvisational style, giving his untrained actors a general idea of what he wanted, then letting them talk.

A Valley News reporter who visited the filming of Man With a Plan in November 1992 captured Dodge’s account of a conversation with Tuttle:

“Fred wanted to know, ‘What does John want? What does John want?’ ” Dodge said. “ ‘Fred,’ I told him, ‘John is trying to get something, he wants to get something down that will be real and tangible. He wants to capture a way of life that was so different. It’s a way of life that’s passing.’ ”

In that way, Man With a Plan is a kind of time capsule. With the exception of Blachly, who’s now in his 90s, the old men of the film are all gone.

O’Brien edited the film and got it into theaters in 1996. It premiered in the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium to a packed house, and had long runs in Montpelier, Burlington and Boston.

O’Brien and Jack Rowell, who helped make the film and shoot still photographs during filming, drove Tuttle around the region for Friday night film openings.

The Spaulding show sticks out in O’Brien’s memory.

“It was such a great experience when you have 900 people there,” he said. “That was the beginning of the whole self-distribution adventure.”

The film came out in the heyday of independent cinema. O’Brien cobbled together around $100,000 to make the movie.

But distribution was a challenge. As an independent filmmaker, he didn’t have the leverage of future films to wield against the theaters, making a wider release impossible.

The film made it to New York, playing on one screen in Greenwich Village. The New York Times published a review on Nov. 1, 1996, praising it as a “slight, goofy, charming and satirical movie.” O’Brien, the reviewer wrote, “has a keen sense of the lunacy of politics, but also a sensitive ear for sprightly musical accompaniment and an artist’s eye for the natural beauties of Vermont.”

Typically, films open in New York and Los Angeles so they can be reviewed and any critical praise can become part of a national marketing campaign, O’Brien said. But Man With a Plan got to New York having already played in the provinces and with no marketing budget.

He and the film’s backers scrambled to get the movie into home video formats before Christmas, and they distributed it through video shops, book shops, general stores and other places willing to sell it.

In the long run, the movie grossed around $1 million, enough to cover costs, pay back investors and for O’Brien, Tuttle and a few other people to get paid $10,000 to $20,000. If you figured the hours spent making the film, that didn’t work out to minimum wage.

But there was a second chapter that was even bigger than the first.

O’Brien had been considering having Tuttle run for Congress for real in 1998 as a way to generate publicity. But Peter Freyne, political columnist for the Burlington alt-weekly Seven Days, encouraged O’Brien to look at the Senate race instead.

Jack McMullen, a Massachusetts businessman who’d become a Vermont resident in 1997, filed to run as a Republican for the Senate seat held by Democrat Patrick Leahy. A wealthy Harvard Law School grad, McMullen came across as a diffident, inexperienced candidate who lacked the common touch. O’Brien and Tuttle decided he should run in the Republican primary against McMullen.

Their September 1998 GOP debate on Vermont Public Radio was a classic native-vs.-flatlander encounter in which the candidates asked each other questions. Tuttle’s queries for McMullen proved he didn’t know his way around a barnyard. “How many teats does a Holstein have and how many does a Jersey have?” “What’s a tedder?” And “what is rowen?” (All cows have four teats. A tedder is a tractor attachment that turns hay for drying, and rowen is second-cut hay.)

He also handed McMullen a list of town names and asked him to pronounce them: Charlotte, Calais, Leicester and so on, and McMullen mangled them as if on cue.

“That was a quintessential moment in Vermont history,” Deborah Kimbell, a Tunbridge resident who had been Leahy’s campaign press secretary in 1986, said in a phone interview.

Tuttle defeated McMullen by 10 percentage points and swiftly endorsed Leahy and campaigned with him. Kimbell caught them at a campaign event at a one-room school in Granville.

“If it had been McMullen and Leahy, it would have been more of the same,” she said. “This was so refreshing and fun.”

Tuttle collected 23% of the vote in November, despite his endorsement of Leahy. He also made the rounds of talk shows, including a flight to Los Angeles for the Tonight Show. Rowell sold photographs of Tuttle to newspapers around the world.

After Man With a Plan, O’Brien made one more film, Nosey Parker, completing his “Tunbridge trilogy.”

He told a reporter once that he’d like to make bigger movies with bigger budgets, but didn’t really want to leave the farm, either. The farm won. He got married to Emily Howe, a fellow Tunbridge resident, in 2015, and they run a wedding business at the farm. He’s also served two terms in the Vermont House, representing Royalton and Tunbridge, as a Democrat, and is on the Tunbridge Selectboard as well.

He shot about 500 hours of film for another mockumentary, this one about environmentalism, but hasn’t found time to finish it.

American politics has grown stranger and more fraught since 1996. Man With a Plan stands apart from it, as Vermont does.

“I think the movie and its satire are holding up pretty well,” O’Brien said. “As with all satire, the real deal of American politics is even more absurd.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

Correction

Fred Tuttle won Vermont’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 1998. An earlier photo caption with this story gave an incorrect year.




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