Brimley, Wilford 1

Wilford Brimley: you've seen his face, now meet the actor


From the July 17, 1983, Utah Magazine of the Deseret News

Wilford Brimley has almost patented his crusty curmudgeon role, that is, the persona he has developed for films in which he appears, usually sporting a walrus mustache and thick glasses, always wiser than the down-home folksy fellow he appears to be. Wilford Brimley also has the distinct habit of stealing the show.

And he's that stereotypical motion picture character actor: People recognize his face, but seldom remember his name. Many of his films have been major successes, so if you've seen these pictures, you've seen Brimley: "Tender Mercies," "High Road to China," "Absence of Malice," "Brubaker," "The Electric Horseman," "The China Syndrome." Others include "The Thing," "Borderline," "10 to Midnight," "Tough Enough," "Death Valley."

It's about 8 o'clock, Friday morning, and pulling up to Brimley's Salt Lake residence (in East Mill Creek), the first thing noticed is that while his home is attractive and beautifully landscaped, it is also fairly modest — not unlike the other homes in the area. Inside, while not lavish, it is very comfortable, with a lived-in, homey atmosphere, and much larger than it appears on the outside.

Brimley is greeting his son Jim, just back from a fishing trip. And he's bidding farewell to a couple of houseguests who have been there a few days, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Duvall.

Brimley's wife, Lynne, is tidying up (she apologizes for "the mess," though the place looks spick-and-span). The night before, Emmylou Harris and her band were guests at a party thrown in the Brimley home, after her Symphony Hall concert, during which Duvall sang onstage with her.

Taking in the surroundings, in the basement family room, there is clearly a Western feel. Here a vase shaped like a cowboy boot, there a saddle displayed on a stand, and on the walls, several paintings in the Western motif . …

When he comes in and sits down, apologizing for the brief delay, Brimley seems not unlike the characters he plays in the movies. Seemingly gruff and colorful in his language, he's actually quite gentle, and reluctant — even embarrassed — at being the center of so much attention from a writer and a photographer.

Self-effacing, though proud of his best work, Brimley is a professional who has little patience with those in the business who are not. He's very opinionated and speaks his mind. Later, however, he thinks twice about some of what he has said, fearing he's been perhaps a bit too outspoken. "There's no sense being negative about other people. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

A cynic might suggest he just doesn't want to offend anyone who might have a job for him in the future — but Brimley doesn't play the Hollywood game. You can rest assured that just about anything he says may be taken at face value. "I don't see a lot of films. I don't know much about what's going on in the business. I don't read Variety or anything."

He does feel strongly, however, that film is an art. "One of the best films ever made, I think, is ‘True Confessions' (with Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall), and ultimately it will stand up as a classic. ‘Raging Bull' is by far his (Martin Scorsese's) best picture, and one day it will be considered the masterpiece it is and an example to filmmakers. (Francis Ford) Coppola is a genius that I'd like to work with. ‘The Godfathers I and II' are masterpieces, and every bit as important to culture as the Mona Lisa, or that kind of thing. They really stand up."

Then he adds that though he has some favorite old classics, such as "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Casablanca" ("Those were magnificent!"), he's not really a fan of old movies. "I think people tended to overact in those days, generally. I think movies now really are better than they have ever been."

Of his own success, Brimley says simply, "Work begets work. If you do a good job, if you do your work well, people remember you and call you again when they have a part."

Director Sydney Pollack ("Tootsie"), has used Brimley's talents twice. First as the old-timer in the desert who helps Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in "The Electric Horseman," and more recently in "Absence of Malice."

As Pollack tells the story, he was auditioning Hollywood actors for a pivotal role in "Absence of Malice" when he remembered Brimley and thought he would be perfect as the FBI executive from Washington who comes into Miami at the last minute to straighten out the problems his local boys have caused. Brimley was perfect, and he stole the show — no easy task with Paul Newman and Sally Field in the scene.


     Wilford Brimley shows up at the end of 'Absence of Malice' and steals the show

Stealing the show is not something he sets out to do. He just gets in there and does his best. Brimley has a natural ability that some actors strive for years to attain — and sometimes never achieve.

Over the past few years his stature as an actor has grown and he has become something of a world traveler. He simply goes wherever a movie job takes him, and that might be anywhere in the world. Most recently he's been in Montreal for "Hotel New Hampshire," in which he co-stars with Nastassia Kinski, Jodie Foster and Beau Bridges. Before that he played Paul Newman's brother in "Harry and Son," directed by Newman in Miami and co-starring Joanne Woodward and Robby Benson.

Last year he was in Yugoslavia filming "High Road to China" (as Bess Armstrong's father, the object of her search). And he also spent some time in Texas filming "Tender Mercies," as the manager of Robert Duvall's ex-wife, a country-western singing star. In addition, he was at work in Hollywood early this year, doing a pilot for a proposed network-television series.

The traveling, he says, isn't as glamorous as it sounds. "People think it's romantic to be off making a movie in Yugoslavia but the geography is incidental. It's really not a vacation. It's work. A visitor looks on it like a vacation, a holiday. But my holiday is when I come home."

And if you comment about how busy he obviously is, Brimley just mutters in his distinctive, low-key voice that the parts he plays are small, so he has lots of time to himself and for his family and his horses.

"I do about 60 days of work out of 365 days." And he wouldn't mind working a bit more.

Though highly principled about selecting scripts, Brimley is not above taking a part he doesn't really care about if a friend asks or if his wallet is feeling flat. Ask him about "10 to Midnight," a dreadful, violent vigilante picture with Charles Bronson (Brimley played the police chief) and he'll just say, "Well, I'd worked with Charlie Bronson, he's a pal. And besides, I could use the money." Ask him about "Tough Enough," a "Rocky" ripoff, and he explains that it originally was designed as a father-son relationship film (he was Dennis Quaid's father), but the screenwriter-director was fired and the film was substantially changed during production.

He also has less than kind words about Australian director Bruce Beresford ("Breaker Morant"), with whom he worked on "Tender Mercies." "That was Duvall's picture, and it was made good in spite of (Beresford)."

Brimley's also not too happy with the state of television today. "I did a pilot a couple of years ago, and it was good experience. It was a lawyer show about a father and daughter law firm. It just never sold." But he was fired from his latest TV pilot just a few months ago, along with the director. "We weren't willing to do silliness. I went in knowing it was something else, and they changed it."

"Big John" was about an estranged father, a Midwestern cop who goes to New York City to track down the man who killed his son, and becomes strongly attached to his daughter-in-law and young granddaughter. Brimley describes in detail how the network interfered, trying to turn the show into a sitcom, and illustrates his point with a videocassette of raw footage from the show, touching scenes of the reunion, and gently humorous exchanges between Brimley and the child. He's obviously enthusiastic as it runs, then when it's over, he expresses anger over the network's treatment of the show. "You tell me where the slapstick should go." The experience has soured him on television.


                       Wilford Brimley with Tom Selleck in 'High Road to China'

Those are the rare exceptions, though. He has thoroughly enjoyed most of his acting jobs. And he has high praise for most of those he has worked with.

  • The youngsters in the "Hotel New Hampshire" cast: "They're all great kids. Doing that picture was a lot of fun."

  • The film's director, Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"): "He was a pleasure."

  • Paul Newman: "A fine director. Being an actor himself, he really knows how to work with actors."

  • His co-star in "Tough Enough," Dennis Quaid: "A wonderful actor, and I never saw a guy work harder at his craft."

Similar words are expressed for for Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, Jack Lemmon and other co-stars and directors.

He considers Duvall, DeNiro and Gene Hackman the top actors today. "That's the kind of acting I'm interested in."

Yet Brimley seems surprised at his own success.

Born in Salt Lake City, he moved to Santa Monica, Calif., at age 6. He was there until he was 14, when he put a lifelong interest in horses to practical application, working ranches in California and Nevada. He returned to Salt Lake City at 17. "I tried to go back to school but it didn't work out, so I joined the Marines." For how long? "Too long." Just over three years, actually, but he simply says "I cleaned my rifle and marched around a lot."

After that he stayed in Los Angeles and again tried to go back to school. "I wasn't a very good student, so I went back to shoein' horses." He married and had three sons before moving to Idaho to work with horses again. In the mid-'60s, he returned to L.A., and through some connections parlayed his knowledge of horses into the foundation of his show-business career.

"I was an extra for years," Brimley said. "I was in a lot of Westerns, but not so you'd notice. It was a good living, but then one day I decided that I wanted to act. So I just stopped doing ‘extra' work. I had met my good friend Bobby Duvall, and I got a glimpse of what it could be like.

"So I actively pursued an acting career. I was banging on doors, doing silly interviews that don't do anything for ya, only to ya. And I was changing agents all the time. That went on for eight years.

"My first real role was in ‘The Lawman' (a 1970 Burt Lancaster western, with Duvall in a supporting role). I played a dead body. I rode halfway across Mexico hanging over a horse."

He gradually began to get speaking parts, many of them in television shows, and "most of them were junk. Then I got my first big break, ‘The China Syndrome.' "

His work on "The China Syndrome" led to "The Electric Horseman," which in turn led to "Brubaker" and "Absence of Malice."

What is really significant about Brimley's success is his remaining a Salt Lake Resident and keeping his marriage and family intact. "My wife is a wonderful Utah girl. Her people come from here — she's a descendent of the Neff clan. And she comes right from this area, the East Mill Creek neighborhood. She's very happy here." So is he. "We like to fish and hunt. You couldn't get me very far."

Would he live in Hollywood? "You couldn't melt and pour me there."

He's also active in the National Old-Timers Rodeo Association. "I used to do a lot of rodeo work. I still do. I never could beat anybody, but I never figured I should just send the money in without showin' up." And after a lifetime of loving and working with horses, Brimley now raises and races quarter horses.

His next film will be another with Duvall, "The Stone Boy," which he describes as a small, independent production, another of Duvall's personal projects, like "Tender Mercies." Brimley has a couple of others lined up as well but he doesn't like to talk about them "until the ink's on the paper."

There is no doubt, however, that we'll see Wilford Brimley in a couple of films each year from now on.

"My attitude is that I'm lucky. I don't regret having to pay my dues. I'm having a great time."