I suppose for most of the general population, Wilford Brimley is either known as the Quaker Oats guy or as the old fella doing PSAs for diabetes (or, as Wilford called it die-uh-beet-us). There’s no shame in becoming synonymous with hot cereal, or in being the best-known advocate for the treatment of a deadly disease—it’s just that his work as a crusty pitchman overshadowed something very significant: Wilford Brimley was a damn fine actor.
Brimley’s trip to becoming an in-demand character actor was a roundabout one. He dropped out of high school to join the Marines. After finishing up his service three years later, he went on to work a variety of jobs including ranch hand, wrangler, blacksmith, and for a time, the bodyguard of Howard Hughes. In the ’60s, he was working on Westerns for TV and film (shoeing horses) when Robert Duvall suggested he become an actor. He began his acting career as an extra and a horse-riding stuntman.
Most of his early appearances on film (including John Wayne’s True Grit and Lawman with Burt Lancaster) were uncredited. In 1974, Brimley caught his first sizable break with a four-year/ten episode recurring stint on The Waltons as the not all that imaginatively named “Horace Brimley.”
It wouldn’t be until 1979’s fabulous nuclear reactor drama The China Syndrome, starring Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda, that Brimley would score his first meaty—and credited—role on film (when the late-blooming Brimley was already 45). Brimley plays Ted Spindler, the close-friend and co-worker of Lemmon’s whistle-blowing Jack Godell, and gives an impassioned defense of the fallen Godell near the film’s close. After Godell takes over the control room to keep the reactor from melting down, he is killed by a SWAT team. The resulting effort by the corporation to make Godell look unstable is countered by a distraught Spindler, who declares, “He weren’t no loony, he was my friend!” It’s a simple line, delivered with heart-wrenching urgency. It’s hard to imagine anyone speaking those words in the way Brimley did. His voice quaking with anger and hurt, it was the first evidence of Brimley’s greatest gift as an actor—authenticity.
Supporting roles in The Electric Horseman (Robert Redford and Fonda) and Brubaker (Redford again) followed, but it was the small, but pivotal role in the Paul Newman film from 1981 Absence of Malice where Brimley got his next chance to shine as a crusty (an innate Brimley trait) Assistant U.S. Attorney who had no trouble speaking his mind. Brimley’s screen time in Absence is relatively brief, but he owns every second of it.
One year later Brimley was cast in John Carpenter’s classic remake of The Thing as Dr. Blair, who like many of the men working on a research project in Antarctica, meets a bad end at the hands of a shape-shifting alien. One of the rare sans walrus-like mustache appearances by the actor, it’s a masterful horror film that makes the most of its isolated setting and ensemble. Brimley is a standout as he loses his mind and begins to sabotage the remaining crew’s efforts to survive.
1983 brought another plum role to Brimley as Harry, the manager and close friend of Robert Duvall’s gone-to-seed country singer, Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies. Duvall had to fight with director Bruce Beresford to get Brimley cast in the part. Brimley and Beresford would go on to clash on set when the director questioned the actor’s choices. Brimley went full curmudgeon (and who was better at that?) on Beresford, stating,
“Now look, let me tell you something, I’m Harry. Harry’s not over there, Harry’s not over here. Until you fire me or get another actor, I’m Harry, and whatever I do is fine ’cause I’m Harry.”
Brimley was right. He was Harry. Despite the struggles Beresford had with Duvall and Brimley, the film became a critical success, garnering five Oscar nominations: director, actor (Duvall), original song, and original screenplay (Hortan Foote), with both Duvall and Foote taking home statues.
Brimley scored one of his most beloved roles the next year in Barry Levinson’s classic baseball film (based on the Bernard Malamud novel), The Natural. As Pop Fisher, the beleaguered manager of the fictional NY Knights, Brimley’s crustiness is countered by a warm-hearted sincerity as his initial reluctance to put in the “too-old” Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) gives way to a deep appreciation for the middle-aged rookie who takes the league by storm. When Fisher tells Hobbs that he is the best player he’s ever seen…well, grown men cry. The Natural stands alongside Field of Dreams as the two ultimate fantasies based on America’s pastime (hell, both end with a father and son playing catch), and Brimley’s performance as Pop is integral to the former’s much-adored status.
That same year, Brimley was seen with Jessica Lange and Sam Shepherd in the farm drama Country, directed by Richard Pearce. Country was one of three films (along with Places in the Heart and The River) from that year that took on the plight of the American farmer. It was the least successful of the three, but it did draw the ire of Ronald Reagan who called the film “propaganda” trying to undermine his administration’s agricultural policies. As Otis, the father of Lange’s Jewel and owner of a farm he can barely hold onto, Brimley once again stands out next to the film’s more famous leads.
Ron Howard’s sleeper hit Cocoon followed in 1985, which follows a group of elderly people who are rejuvenated by aliens in a pool that serves as a fountain of youth. For some, Cocoon is a bit too sentimental, but it was a huge hit with audiences. Brimley, along with Don Ameche (the film’s only acting Oscar winner), Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and the remaining cast, were all received warmly for their performances. A 1988 sequel failed to recapture the magic of the first film, performing poorly at the box office and with critics.
Five years later, Brimley would take on a rare part as a heavy in Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of The Firm, starring Tom Cruise. Despite being on the cusp of sixty at the time, Brimley’s casual, avuncular menacing as the Machiavellian law firm’s “head of security” Bill De Vasher is truly palpable. You even buy that the virile man of action Tom Cruise would run like hell from a near sexagenarian until he gets the drop on De Vasher and desperately beats the hell out of him with a briefcase. The Firm was a massive hit, but I never felt like Brimley got credit for how good he was in the film, even though he had only a few lines.
In 1997 Brimley was cast in Frank Oz’s “coming out” comedy In & Out as the father of Kevin Kline’s Indiana English teacher who comes to a somewhat late conclusion that he is, in fact, gay. The film feels a bit antiquated now, and even a little odd in the way Kline’s character reaches his moment of discovery, but it was big hit and Brimley was again lovely as the accepting Midwestern dad who loves his son regardless of his persuasion.
Brimley kept working sporadically over the next twenty years, but the lack of notable parts and the ubiquity of his Quaker Oats commercials and diabetes PSAs made us forget how good Brimley had been as a character actor over the preceding two decades.
Hopefully this obit and the others that are certainly out there today serve as reminders. He deserves that much.
Wilford Brimley died yesterday, he was 85 years old.