R.I.P. Wilford Brimley

Well, Wilford Brimley has left the earth at the age of 85. If you’re like me, you’re asking, “How is that possible? He was 85 forty years ago!” But, no, he was 50 when he did Cocoon (1985). He just had an old man way, and that was the whole point of Wilford Brimley.

Brimley was a genuine Utah Mormon, and worked his whole life around horses. He could ride ’em, wrangle ’em, and shoe ’em. After working as ranch hand and blacksmith in several western states (with a three year interlude during which he served in the Korean War) he settled in Southern California, where he worked in film and TV as a stunt man, wrangler, smith, and mounted extra. It is said that for a time he was also Howard Hughes’ bodyguard.

Eventually, Brimley began spending more time in front of the camera. He appears to have made a lot of friends from his behind-the-scenes work, and he simply had a good face and a natural presence. He was an authentic character, the kind they don’t make so many of any more. Sometimes he was cast in westerns and other period pieces. Other times, he appeared as old-timers in films set in the present day. He had a recurring role on The Waltons (1974-77) and this led to a busy period in movies. He often supported stars in more than one film. His best known turns are in The China Syndrome (1969) with Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon; The Electric Horseman (1979), Brubaker (1980) and The Natural (1984) with Robert Redford (another friend of Utah right there!); Absence of Malice (1981) and Harry and Son (1984) with Paul Newman; The Thing (1982) with Kurt Russell; Tender Mercies (1983) and The Stone Boy (1984) with Robert Duvall; High Road to China (1983) and Crossfire Trail (2001) with Tom Selleck: Country (1984) with Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange; and the Cocoon pictures (1985-88). His most preposterous turn may be in The Firm (1993) wherein he was called upon to play an ass kicking fixer for a crooked law firm. I just couldn’t bring myself to be scared of Wilford Brimley. In the ’90s he appeared in a lot of TV westerns, and had a memorable turn on Seinfeld as the Postmaster General. Lord, I wish that he was the Postmaster General right now! (“You want me to slow the mail down? On purpose? Go to hell!)

In more recent years, Brimley was most famous as the commercial spokesman for Quaker Oats (“It’s the right thing to do”) and The American Diabetes Association (“Dia-bittus!”) By this point he was so crotchety that one took away an angry vibe from these appearances. Nobody’s stopping you from eating oatmeal, old man! Amusingly, his former co-star Tom Selleck seems to have stepped into Brimley’s shoes as America’s designated senior, with his pitches for reverse mortgages. It’s a little harder to buy the grandpa act from the former Sexiest Man in America, however.

Today’s news inevitably makes me think of my old friends Jay Klaitz, Jon Bulette, and Nils D’Aulaire, who sowed a few wild oats with their musical Who Is Wilford Brimley? at Williamsburg’s Brick Theater back in 2004. Man, those were the days.