Who is Wilfred Brimley? Anthony Wilford Brimley (September 27, 1934-August 1, 2020) was an American actor and singer. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and taking on a number of occasional jobs, he became an appearance for Western films, and in just over a decade established himself as a character actor in films such as The China Syndrome (1979), The Thing (1982), Tender Mercies (1983) and The Natural (1984). He has been the longtime face of television commercials for the Quaker Oats Company. He also promoted diabetes education and appeared in related advertisements for Liberty Medical.
Anthony Wilford Brimley was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on September 27, 1934. He was the son of Lola (Nelson) and Wilford Brimley, a real estate agent. Brimley’s paternal grandfather was English, originally from Wigan, Lancashire, and his paternal grandmother’s parents were Scottish, originally from Glasgow. Brimley’s mother was half Danish and also had Welsh, English, German and Swiss-German ancestry. Before embarking on an acting career, he dropped out of high school at the age of 14 and worked as a cowboy in Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona. He joined the Marines during the Korean War and served in the Aleutian Islands for three years. He also worked as a bodyguard for businessman Howard Hughes, as well as as a rancher, brawler and blacksmith. He then started to iron the horses for film and television. At the behest of his close friend and fellow actor Robert Duvall, he began acting in the 1960s as an appearance of horseback riding and stuntman in westerns. In 1979, he told the Los Angeles Times that the most he ever earned in a year as an actor was 20,000 pounds. He had no formal training as an actor and his first acting experience in front of a live audience was at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre.
Brimley’s screen breakthrough came when he was cast in the popular 1970s television series The Waltons as the blacksmith and Walton’s Mountain resident Horace Brimley; He made seven appearances between 1974 and 1977.
His first performance in an accredited feature film was in The China Syndrome (1979) as Ted Spindler, a friend and colleague of factory shift supervisor Jack Godell (played by Jack Lemmon). Later, Brimley made a brief but pivotal appearance in Absence of Malice (1981) as the gruff, outspoken assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Wells. In The Thing (1982), he plays Blair, the biologist of a group of men at an American research station in Antarctica who encounters a dangerous alien who can perfectly mimic other organisms.
Brimley’s close friend Robert Duvall (who also appeared in The Natural) was instrumental in securing him the role of Harry in Tender Mercies (1983). Duvall, who didn’t get along with director Bruce Beresford, wanted “someone down here who was on my side, someone I could relate to.” Beresford felt Brimley was too old for the part, but eventually agreed to the casting. Brimley, like Duvall, clashed with the director; During an instance in which Beresford tried to advise Brimley on how Harry would behave, Duvall recalled that Brimley had replied: “Now look, let me tell you something, I’m Harry. Harry’s not here. As long as you don’t fire me or take another actor, I’m Harry, and whatever I do is fine because I’m Harry.”
Brimley later appeared as Pop Fisher, the world’s tired coach of a baseball team in crisis, in The Natural (1984). Soon after, Brimley secured his first starring role in Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985), playing Ben Luckett, leader of a group of geriatricians who encounter a magically invigorating pool near their retirement home. Brimley was only 49 when he was cast in the role and turned 50 during filming; He was at least 20 years younger than all the actors who played the other residents in a nursing home. In order to play the part, Brimley cleared his hair and moustache to make them gray, and had wrinkles and liver spots drawn on his face. He also starred in Cocoon: The Return, a 1988 sequel.
Through these and other roles, Brimley became famous for playing old gruff or boring, particularly in the 1980s NBC drama series Our House, starring Deidre Hall, Chad Allen and Shannen Doherty. One exception was when he played William Devasher, the sinister head of security for a mafia-associated law firm, in Tom Cruise’s 1993 film The Firm.
After playing Kevin Kline’s father in In & Out (1997), Brimley retired from Hollywood in favor of involvement in more independent productions. He returned to the film TNT Crossfire Trail (2001), starring Tom Selleck (with whom he had previously worked on the 1980s film High Road to China). He played a general U.S. postal worker in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld (“The Junk Mail”), which forces Kramer to end his boycott of the postal service. After many more years of independent film and television acting, Brimley had a supporting role in Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), making witty exchanges with star Hugh Grant.
On August 1, 2020, Brimley died at a hospital in St. George, Utah, at the age of 85. He had been sick with kidneys for two months.