Wilford Brimley, best known for his roles in The Natural, the 1982 remake of The Thing, The Firm and Cocoon, died on Saturday. He was 85.
His agent, Lynda Bensky, told The New York Times that he had been sick with a kidney problem for two months.
Brimley was also famous for the series of commercials for Quaker Oats in which he appeared.
Pauline Kael ably summed up his appeal in a few words. Reviewing Cocoon for the New Yorker in 1985, she said, “Wilford Brimley, with his walrus mustache and friendly belly, brings an ornery impudence to his role.”
Brimley, who seemed to enter old age several decades ago, appeared perfectly at home in the Ron Howard-directed movie about senior citizens unintentionally rejuvenated by an alien life force in the pool where they do water aerobics even though he was only 51 at the time. Brimley’s Ben Luckett doing cannonballs in the pool is one of the most memorable moments in the film. Brimley returned for the 1988 sequel.
The actor had a habit of creating memorable performances even in relatively small roles. In Barry Levinson’s nostalgic period baseball movie The Natural (1984), Brimley brought a welcome characterfulness to his role as the team manager Pop Fisher that the bland hero played by Robert Redford utterly lacked.
In Sydney Pollack’s 1981 journalistic ethics drama Absence of Malice, starring Sally Field and Paul Newman, for example, Brimley had essentially one scene — but it was the key one, and he truly dominated it. Roger Ebert singled him out for praise for his work as “a lawman who takes brusque command of an informal hearing” in the climactic scenes of the movie “and reduces everyone but Newman to quivering surrender.”
John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film The Thing saw Brimley bring a very different energy to his role as Dr. Blair — intelligent but lugubrious.
Brimley appeared in the Robert Duvall-dominated Tender Mercies (1983) but still found room to make an impression as the Duvall character’s old manager, patient but truth-telling, and the same year, the actor was the best thing in the long-forgotten Tom Selleck adventure vehicle High Road to China, in which he played the gone-missing father of Bess Armstrong’s character.
During the 1990s, Brimley reteamed with director Pollack for the adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm (1993), starring John Cruise; Brimley effectively played the sinister law firm’s chief of security — a rare outing for him as a villain. He also appeared in 1996 political comedy My Fellow Americans, starring Jack Lemmon, James Garner and Dan Aykroyd, as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and as Kevin Kline’s character’s father in the 1997 sexuality comedy In and Out. He also appeared in a number of TV movies.
In Richard Dutcher’s 2001 film Brigham City, Brimley played a retired sheriff involved in the investigation of a serial killer amid a backdrop of Mormon piety. More recently he appeared in the Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker urbanites-in-the-sticks comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? in 2009.
The actor also had a long history in television.
After an uncredited role in True Grit with John Wayne, Brimley made his small screen debut in an episode of Kung Fu in 1975 and recurred on The Waltons as Horace Brimley.
The year 1979 was a busy one for Brimley: He appeared in the miniseries How the West Was Won, played President Grover Cleveland in the reunion telepic The Wild Wild West Revisited, and had roles in two Jane Fonda films: The Electric Horseman, also starring Robert Redford, and The China Syndrome; a couple of years later he reunited with Redford on Brubaker, in which Brimley had a small role.
From 1986-88 Brimley starred in the family drama Our House as a grandfather who takes in his daughter, played by Deidre Hall, and her children (one of whom was played by Shannen Doherty).
In a memorable 1994 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, Brimley appeared as an old man dying of cancer who wants to be relieved of his burden through euthanasia but doesn’t trust his own son to get the job done; a 1997 episode of Seinfeld in which Brimley played the Postmaster General showed the actor’s facility with comedy and also parodied his great scene in Absence of Malice.
Born in Salt Lake City, Brimley served in the Marine Corps, stationed in the Aleutian Islands; worked early on as a farmer and rodeo rider; served as a bodyguard to Howard Hughes; and began his career in showbiz shoeing horses for films and TV westerns.