For, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: The cliché is that celebrity deaths come in threes, so, as if to fulfill that notion, following the passing of Olivia de Havilland and Regis Philbin we have now lost Wilford Brimley, one of Utah’s more famous performers, albeit in the character-actor, supporting-player category in many movies and TV shows (and later as a commercial pitchman). Brimley died in a St. George hospital at age 85.

In my several interactions with him in the 1980s and ’90s, Brimley’s gruff exterior and reluctance to reveal too much may have been simply because of an instinctual wariness; it took him a while to warm up. I initially discovered this as I visited with Brimley in his home, when he was living in Sugarhouse, on a Saturday morning for what was planned to be an hour or less. During that first hour he was cantankerous and his comments were clipped — but as my photographer and I were about to say our farewells he suddenly began to open up. We ended up spending three hours there and came away with a much better story than we expected; it was published in the Deseret News on Oct. 16, 1984.

I met Brimley at a New York junket for ‘Absence of Malice,’ where I invited him to join me (and Bruce Lindsay) for a live interview on KSL-TV’s ‘Prime Time Access,’ a magazine show that was airing at the time. Later I interviewed Brimley in New York again, this time at a junket for ‘Country,’ and I also emceed a Sundance Film Festival event, interviewing Brimley onstage with his pal Robert Duvall before fielding questions from the audience.

It should be mentioned that in addition to the credits listed below, Brimley went on to co-star in such box-office hits as ‘The Natural’ (with Robert Redford and Duvall), the sci-fi comedy ‘Cocoon’ and its sequel, ‘The Firm’ (opposite Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman), and the farcical ‘In & Out,’ among many others.

Brimley has been described in the newspaper obituaries as gruff on the outside and warm-hearted on the inside. That would certainly describe my interviews with him.

Referring specifically to ‘Absence of Malice,’ although he also cast him in other films, director Sydney Pollack described Brimley as ‘my secret weapon.’ But it was perhaps Ron Howard, director of ‘Cocoon’ who best summed up Brimley: ‘Well, Wilford can be crotchety — but that’s just Wilford being Wilford.’

I’ll just add that I have always remembered my sessions with Brimley fondly, for his sense of humor and his modest demeanor, and for his sly wit, which seemed to sneak up on some of my colleagues at those junket sessions with several of us sitting at a table.

So here, after some biographical prose, are some of Brimley’s more notable comments, gleaned from my meetings with him over the years.

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 fellows 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 Wilford 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.”

He 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.


Wilford Brimley, left, Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, 'Cocoon' (1985)

Before “Absence of Malice,” director Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie”) used Brimley’s talents as the old-timer in the desert who helps Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in “The Electric Horseman.”

As Pollack tells the story, he was later 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.

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.

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. 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 Robert Duvall in a supporting role). I played a dead body. I rode halfway across Mexico hanging over a horse.”

Brimley 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.”


Jack Lemmon, left, Wilford Brimley, 'The China Syndrome' (1979)

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.”

Here are some other Brimley witticisms.

On whether his conservative politics in notoriously liberal Hollywood lead to lively discussions on the set: “They always do,” Brimley said, chuckling. “I always find I’m in there canceling at least one vote.”

On fellow Utahn Robert Redford, 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 added, “He has the right to be wrong. And he is.”

On whether he feels type-cast as an old codger, though he is only 50: Brimley brought a real roar of laughter from assembled writers 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. … ” as his voice drifted off.

On choosing roles. “It has a lot to do with how much money I’ve got.”

On whether he’d ever do a “rip-off” movie: “You mean like ‘The Thing?’ I guess I would. I did.”

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 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 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.”