Word has just reached me of the death of Wilford Brimley, a fine character actor and a friend of liberty. Brimley died Saturday in a St. George, Utah hospital of a kidney ailment. He was 85 and had not worked in films since 2017.
The news saddens me as I’ve enjoyed Brimley’s pleasing screen presence over the decades. He specialized in playing cranky but smart characters, often with a soft heart behind the bluster. Readers may recognize the portly guy with the walrus mustache from The China Syndrome, Cocoon, The Natural, Tender Mercies, The Electric Horseman, and Absence of Malice. In this last he plays a no-nonsense and folksy assistant U.S. attorney. If only more of the real people in these jobs were as smart and as funny and had as clear a vision of what justice is as Wilford’s character, whom I found the best thing in the movie.
Brimley rarely played a heavy, though he did so in The Firm when he played the head of “security” for a mob law firm. In the climactic scene of The China Syndrome, Brimley defends his boss at the nuclear power plant to a crusading reporter, played from atop a moral high horse by Jane Fonda. New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin described Brimley, in his first big role, as “the mustachioed man who very nearly steals the ending of ‘China Syndrome’ from Jane Fonda.” This strikes me as a very worthwhile thing to do indeed.
Brimley was never the star of the show. No one would ever accuse him of being handsome. In 1993 he lamented to the Dallas Morning News, tongue-in-cheek we may be sure, that “I’m never the leading man. I never get the girl. And I never get to take my shirt off.” Just as well, this last. Brimley had an hourglass figure with most of his sand in the middle.
By sheer coincidence my wife and I had watched Brimley at dinnertime one night last week in the 2001 made-for-television western Crossfire Trail. In this one Brimley plays Tom Selleck’s older sidekick. We remarked that Selleck and Brimley, along with Sam Elliott, are just about the last remaining Hollywood actors convincing as Old West characters. Alas, Brimley is now gone, and both Selleck and Elliott are getting a bit long in the tooth to spend a long day in the saddle or to clean out a saloon full of bad guys. There’s nothing much to follow them. Val Kilmer would have to get a note from his mother to ride the range.
Brimley’s Western authenticity comes from the fact he was authentically Western. He was born in Utah in 1934, and after dropping out of school at 14 worked as a cowboy and horse wrangler before serving a hitch in the Marines. He also worked as a blacksmith. His most exotic pre-acting gig was serving as a bodyguard for Howard Hughes. His first job in the movies was shoeing horses for Westerns. He moved on to non-speaking parts, stunt work, and with the help of friend Robert Duvall, to meatier roles. He succeeded in a very competitive vocation without the benefit, if such it is, of any acting training. This may be why he always seems honest on the screen and never seems to be acting.
Because of his Western bona fides, I found it a bit surprising when reviewing Brimley’s filmography for this article to find that he didn’t play in that many Westerns. This is likely more because Westerns have not been in favor in recent times, not because Brimley wasn’t made for them.
Those whose viewing leans to the small rather than the large screen may remember Brimley from The Waltons, or from his long-running commercials for Quaker Oats. He whoops up eating that company’s oatmeal with the invariable tag line, “It’s the right thing to do.” These home-spun commercials were almost enough — though not quite — to get me to eat oatmeal more often for breakfast.
Unlike so many in Hollywood, Brimley didn’t take every advantage to share his politics with the world. No scolding or virtue-signaling from our Wilford. But from what I’ve read of him his approach to the world was conservative, with emphasis on personal liberty. He projected on the screen, as well as lived in his personal life, the hard-headed wisdom, values, and good humor of Heartland America. Something we could use a lot more of just now.
RIP, Wilford Brimley. A fine actor. A fine American.