Born and raised without television or indoor plumbing in the small mining country town of Sharpe, KY, writer Tom Rickman's literary heroes were Southern gothic writers such as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. He spent his youth daydreaming on the banks of the Ohio River about becoming an author like they or Mark Twain.
Rickman left his hometown to serve in the United States Marine Corps, then attended Murray State College as an English major with an interest in acting. While attending graduate school at the University of Illinois, Rickman adapted an O'Connor story for the short film Good Blood, which drew the attention of the American Film Institute. Rickman soon left Illinois to study at the AFI. There, as a Film Fellow in writing and directing, he made another short, What Fixed Me, which won awards at the New York Film Festival and the National Student Film Festival.
His AFI experiences led to Rickman penning his first feature-length script, the story of a young boy from Western Kentucky. Although it wasn't produced, the piece earned him work on the Raquel Welch film Kansas City Bomber (1972), and other films such as The Laughing Policeman (1973) and The White Dawn (1974).
The authentic rural flavor in much of Rickman's work made him a sought-after commodity in the mid- to late '70s, when action pictures featuring Southern good ol' boy heroes and plenty of car chases were in vogue. The self-proclaimed "redneck writer" ended up as the scribe on a pair of financially successful Burt Reynolds vehicles, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975) and Hooper (1978).
The Reynolds projects led to Rickman being hired to write the life story of country singer Loretta Lynn, based on her autobiography. Rickman's extensive research paid off with Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), a film that was a box-office hit, solidified actress Sissy Spacek's career as a female lead, and earned its writer an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Following Coal Miner's Daughter, Rickman was given the opportunity to make his long-time dream of directing come true. He cast Tommy Lee Jones, Martha Plimpton, and Brian Dennehy in The River Rat (1984), a film that he described as a cross between The Night of the Hunter and Huckleberry Finn. The River Rat was not a hit with audiences or critics, at a time when a spate of other rural-themed films were competing with it in theaters, including Country (1984) and Places in the Heart (1984). Like director Robert Benton with the latter film, Rickman returned to his childhood stomping grounds to create his most personal movie and even employed locals who were not professional actors to fill the minor supporting roles. However, viewers remained indifferent and it would be some time before Rickman would step behind the camera again.
Other notable projects by Rickman in subsequent years included a highly successful move into writing made-for-television dramas, including an Emmy-nominated adaptation of author David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman (1995) and the hit network version of the best-selling novel Tuesdays With Morrie (1999). The latter earned Rickman a Humanitas Prize and a WGA Award.
The chief characteristics of Rickman's work are rural heroes thrust into positions of importance (Loretta Lynn, Harry Truman), where they then struggle to maintain their sense of self and a connection to their roots. Even in those films where Rickman essentially toiled as a hired gun, he has often created or emphasized characters from rural backgrounds, such as Horrible Hank (Norman Alden) in Kansas City Bomber.