Wilford Brimley: 1934-2020

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A notable character actor throughout his career, Wilford Brimley was too often reduced to fuel for punchlines about how old he looked at a young age, Quaker Oats, or even his Diabetes PSAs. His passing this weekend will hopefully lead people back to a career that was more than just social media talking points. Brimley was as reliable as they come, one of those great familiar faces who could do so much with so little. His gruff exterior led to over-used words like “curmudgeonly” being applied to his entire career, but he had remarkable skill at conveying an entire life in limited screen time and a greater range than his reputation. Most of all, he could do SO much with very little, using a world-weary glance or tiny piece of body language to convey what his peers would need a monologue to get across. In the ‘70s and ‘80s in particular, he worked with major talents. And, like all great supporting actors, he made all of those talents better.

Wilford Brimley didn’t become an actor much less a star until a later date than most performers, serving in the Marines and working a variety of jobs before deciding he wanted to be an actor in his thirties. He actually got involved in bit parts and as a stunt man in Westerns after a good friend encouraged him to get involved, Robert Duvall. His first film role actually didn’t come until he was well into his forties. After a brief stint on “The Waltons” on television, Brimley broke through with a great supporting performance opposite Jack Lemmon in the hit thriller “The China Syndrome.”

Brimley used that as a launchpad to a very notable ‘80s career, often playing the cynical grump but adding shades of humanity and decency to everything he did. He’s fantastic in 1981’s “Absence of Malice” and reunited in 1983’s “Tender Mercies”with his friend Duvall, who reportedly fought for Brimley’s casting. One of his most beloved roles from this period came as Dr. Blair in John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” With his familiar face and no-nonsense demeanor, he helped ground Carpenter’s terrifying vision in relatable human behavior.

He worked non-stop in the ‘80s—he had TEN film credits from 1983-84 alone. His work ethic led to roles in films like “10 to Midnight,” “The Hotel New Hampshire,” and “Country,” before a one-two blockbuster punch in the middle of the decade with 1984’s “The Natural” and 1985’s “Cocoon,” the films that really made him a household name. Opposite Robert Redford in the former, Brimley played the coach of a mediocre team in what would become an instant classic for baseball movie fans. “Cocoon” became something of a trivia talking point in that Brimley wasn’t even 50 when it started shooting but played a retiree along with actors who were over two decades older, one of whom (Don Ameche) won an Oscar.

The work dried up a little after that. Perhaps playing so much older limited the roles for which producers considered Brimley. It felt like he was relegated to grumpy old men from there, and he leaned into that with the leading role in a series for NBC called “Our House” and to return for a “Cocoon” sequel. He still had the ability to memorably enhance blockbuster films in the ‘90s, most unforgettably in 1993’s “The Firm” and “Hard Target,” a pair of radically different films and performances that should have served as a display for Brimley’s range on their very own. Comedies like “My Fellow Americans” and “In & Out” defined the later part of his career, as did a memorable cameo on “Seinfeld.”

Brimley’s work was intentionally non-showy, designed to support his leading men. Kurt Russell, Jack Lemmon, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall – he was the consummate collaborator, someone who never stole focus and made everything better by adding to the overall realism. Wilford Brimley brought depth and gravity by finding something genuine, which came off to some like he was merely playing himself, but that’s a massive reduction of his talent. Watch one of his classics in an honor and consider the outpouring of love this weekend from his friends and colleagues below:

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