Who is Wilfred Brimley? The Natural, The China Syndrome, The Thing, spokesperson for Quaker Oats & American Diabetes Association and more.
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I’ve met some of the biggest names in Hollywood, but someone I’ve never met brought the greatest joy in a gift I gave my daughter. When Wilford Brimley did those diabetes commercials, she imitated his popular voice and laughed well. So when I met her once in LA with some of her friends, I brought her a framed autographed photo of Brimley. She couldn’t stop laughing, while her friend asked, “Who is that?”
Well, that would be the legendary actor who just died, at the age of 85. An actor who looked like he’s been 85 for the last 30 years. One of the funny facts that came out years ago was even that he was the same age when he was filming Cocoon (aged 50 in 1985) as Tom Cruise was when he was filming the fourth Mission: Impossible movie. Hey… Maybe alien blood doesn’t work as well as Scientology.
Speaking of Tom Cruise, they were both great in a movie together – The Firm. Brimley had a great voice and face to spray legalese. And he’s one of the things I loved about one of the best movies ever made about journalists — Absence of Malice, who plays Assistant United States Attorney James A. Wells. My high school journalism teacher made us watch this and I was overwhelmed (and it would be nice if reporters would watch these days and maybe learn something about editing news stories that should be unbiased, but I digress).
Brimley was great a few years before Cocoon at Tender Mercies. It was Oscar-winning star Robert Duvall who in the 1960s encouraged the former Marine and rancher to make movies. For a few years he was a perk on many westerns, before he was launched into stardom in the same film, Michael Douglas became a star in – The China Syndrome. Of course Douglas became the bigger star, but then … He had father Kirk’s good looks. Brimley’s father was an ordinary rural resident in Salt Lake City and sold real estate.
This is brimley’s best fun fact: for a short time he was Howard Hughes’ bodyguard.
his role in The Natural was one of the reasons I loved it (with his friend Duvall also starring). That mustache, the wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and barking at players – the perfect atmosphere for a baseball manager. He meets Robert Redford for the first time when he’s an aging ‘rookie’, and says to him, gets angry and exclaims, ‘People don’t start playing ball at your age, they’re retiring!’
Later, when he saw how great he is as a player, and thinks he’s lost him, Roy Hobbs staggers back from the hospital and asks to play. Brimley shaves in the locker room and looks at him in the mirror. Brimley says, “You know, my mom wanted me to be a farmer.”
Redford replies, “My dad wanted me to be a baseball player.”
It takes a while for the crusty old manager to say, ‘Well, you’re better than any player I’ve ever had. And you’re the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Take your suit! ‘
Just typing that now brings tears to my eyes.
When I watch Brimley’s films, I’m ashamed to say – I don’t remember him in The Thing. I remember the artwork of the movie poster (made by the great Drew Struzan). I also remember Kurt Russell’s naughty beard and the cool ending. I don’t remember the Quaker Oats man. Anyway – I was 13 years old, terrified to watch that in a dark cinema (remember the old days, sitting in a cinema?).
But Brimley had a great run in Hollywood, and so did his love life. He married his first wife in 1956 and they remained married until her death in 2000. They had four children. He married again in 2007 and started a few charities with Beverly Berry, namely Hands Across The Saddle. I love the idea of his first wife driving up to him on that big airborne farm, maybe with Cocoon co-star Brian Dennehy, who died four months ago.