Brimley, Wilford 2

Brimley — anomaly among Hollywood types


From the Oct. 16, 1984, Deseret News

NEW YORK – They're called junkets. A major movie studio gathers together some 150 print and broadcast journalists from around the country, flies them into New York (or Los Angeles, or occasionally other cities), puts them up at a posh hotel in Manhattan, screens a brand-new movie Friday night and then offers interviews with the film's principles in the hotel the next day.

The print interviews are usually conducted in round-robin fashion over a buffet breakfast, with 50 to 75 writers sitting at five or six tables, while the celebrities rotate, spending 15 to 30 minutes with each group.

The "Country" junket gave us Jessica Lange, Levi Knebel, writer William D. Wittliffe, director Richard Pearce and Wilford Brimley.

Brimley lives in Salt Lake City, of course, and I have had occasion to interview him several times, having initially met him on a junket in New York for "Absence of Malice" a few years ago.

He's something of an anomaly among Hollywood types — low-key, soft-spoken and seemingly gruff, though actually just as lovable as his screen persona would suggest. He also says exactly what's on his mind or nothing at all. He won't make up an answer to fill dead air.

And he's full of funny anecdotes and a wonderful interview once he gets going. But it takes a little time to get him going. And if there's one thing lacking in junket interviews, it's time. Out of one 15-minute session with Brimley, I figured I'd have enough information for a three-paragraph story.

Realizing this, I put my tape recorder to work. I took notes for the individual interviews at my table, but for Brimley, I moved my tape recorder from table to table following him, so I'd get enough anecdotes for a story.

True, most of his comments were not to questions I asked — but that's true of most junket interviews anyway. When you're at a table with 10 other journalists, you're lucky to get in three or four good questions in 15 minutes.

Brimley entered wearing Western-style garb, including a 10-gallon hat that covered his painted white hair.

"That's not your natural hair color, is it?" someone asked.

"Oh, no," he said, "it's dyed white for this old-people's show I'm makin'." The "old-people's show" is "Cocoon," Ron Howard's latest directing effort, a science-fiction film starring Brimley in his first lead role, though he doesn't say so. His co-stars include such stage, screen and television veterans as Hume Cronyn, Jack Gilford, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy and Don Ameche.

Brimley was reluctant to discuss the film, which is still shooting in St. Petersburg, Fla. One writer asked his assessment of Howard as a director. "I hope you'll ask me that when it's over," Brimley replied. "I don't think now's the time to talk about that." So what's the movie about? "We'll have to wait and see, I guess. I don't know."

When a film is completed, he isn't hesitant to make his opinions known, such as his personal distaste for Australian director Bruce Beresford, who did "Tender Mercies." One wonders what Brimley will have to say about Howard.

But he's also lavish with his praise, as with these comments about "Country" director Richard Pearce: "He's way the best director I've ever been around. If they give prizes for what people do, he should win them all. I applaud the kind of director that allows life to go on, on life's terms, and simply take a picture of it without meddling. This man was not only able but eager to do that."


                           Wilford Brimley with Jessica Lange in 'Country'

He's also quite satisfied with ‘Country' as a whole, though he disagrees with its politics. " ‘Country' is a simple story about a family in trouble, a trouble of their own making. If you don't pay for your car, they take your car away. If you don't pay for your house, they take your house away. It's that simple.

"I'm not a liberal. I kind of feel that the actions of the liberals have destroyed the fiber of American society. And I believe that these people (in ‘Country') didn't make their payments and lost their farm, and I don't see any way to complicate that. It's pretty darn simple."

Asked if his views led to some lively discussions on the set, Brimley chuckled and said, "They always do. I always find I'm in there canceling at least one vote."

Someone mentioned Robert Redford, another Utahn, with whom Brimley co-starred in "The Natural," "Brubaker," and "The Electric Horseman." "Yeah, he's a good friend of mine. I think he's a very gifted actor, too." But as to Redford's politics, Brimley said, "He has the right to be wrong. And he is."

Jessica Lange had said earlier in the morning that Brimley was her first choice for the role of her father in "Country." "There aren't that many actors in that age range that could really handle a dramatic role. There was something about Wilford's look I felt was perfect, because he is rural, he is country, and there's that sense of patriarch about him."

And she's not the only one to feel that way. "Country" is the fifth film released this year with Wilford Brimley in the cast, after "Harry & Son," "The Hotel New Hampshire," "The Stone Boy" and "The Natural."


                                   Richard Farnsworth, left, and Wilford Brimley in 'The Natural'

Asked if he feels typecast as an old codger, though he is only 50, Brimley — whose low-key, rambling dialogues, punctuated with funny, on-target observations, already has those at the table frequently chortling — caused a real roar of laughter as he began describing his own persona: "Yeah, I'm a kind of codger, kind of an '80s, kind of a grandpa, kind of a . . . ." His voice drifted off as the laughter subsided.             

Asked if he'd do a "ripoff film," Brimley said, "You mean like ‘The Thing?' I guess I would. I did."

On choosing roles. "It has a lot to do with how much money I've got."

On spending free time. "I go fishing every chance I get. They say the good Lord don't dock you for the time you've spent fishin'. I'll live to be 134."

On becoming an actor in his 40s. "I put in my time. Whatever you occupy yourself with, it takes almost 50 years to be 50 years old."

Defining good acting. "Simple and truthful, moment to moment behavior."

On working so much. "This movie here (‘Country') is the last one I did (until ‘Cocoon'). I was home seven months. I thought that was a long break."

On "Heaven's Gate," one of the last major Westerns. " ‘Heaven's Gate' was a bastardized version of the Johnson County War, in which I think maybe three people were shot — one killed, two wounded. And in the film, they killed everybody in Wyoming. And all their horses, too."

On death. "We're all losers, and we're all going to go down the drain. You, too. Like it or not. When they throw you on your back and put the mud in your face, you've lost. And if you can figure some political way around that, I'm on your team."