Wilford Brimley, Curmudgeonly Actor Known for ‘Cocoon’ and ‘The Natural,’ Dies at 85


The former blacksmith, rodeo rider and Howard Hughes bodyguard also starred in ‘The China Syndrome,’ ‘Absence of Malice’ and ‘The Firm.’

Wilford Brimley, the actor with the walrus mustache whose down-home geniality seen in such films as CocoonThe Natural and Absence of Malice endeared him to moviegoers, has died. He was 85.

The Salt Lake City native, who also stood out as the plant foreman who becomes a confidant of Jack Lemmon’s character in The China Syndrome (1979), died Saturday morning, his manager, Lynda Bensky, confirmed to Hollywood Insight .

She said Brimley had been on dialysis and had other medical issues and was in the ICU in St. George, Utah, ahead of his death. He had lived since 2004 on a ranch in Greybull, Wyoming.

“Wilford Brimley was a man you could trust,” Bensky noted. “He said what he meant and he meant what he said. He had a tough exterior and a tender heart. I’m sad that I will no longer get to hear my friend’s wonderful stories. He was one of a kind.”

On television, Brimley starred on the 1986-88 NBC family drama Our House as a retired widower who, after the death of his son, takes in his daughter-in-law (Deidre Hall) and her three kids (the oldest was Shannen Doherty).

Earlier, he had a recurring role on the legendary CBS family drama The Waltons as the soft-spoken Walton’s Mountain resident Horace Brimley.

With Brimley — a blacksmith, rodeo rider, Hollywood extra and bodyguard for Howard Hughes before he made it as an actor — what you saw was what you got. A straight-talking, plain and portly fellow who didn’t much like fast-talkers or the fast life, he usually played a blue-collar or folksy kind of guy who didn’t hesitate to let you know what was on his mind.

Brimley’s stock rose in Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice (1981), in which he turned in a smoldering performance as an assistant U.S. attorney general in the Paul Newman drama. Pollack, who had employed Brimley for 1979’s The Electric Horseman, later cast the actor against type as a sinister security chief in 1993’s The Firm.

Brimley was back as his world-weary self as New York Knights manager Pop Fisher in Barry Levinson’s The Natural (1984), where he worked alongside Robert Duvall, who years earlier had influenced his decision to pursue acting.

The two had also co-starred in Tender Mercies (1983), for which Duvall won the best actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic, broken-down country singer. Brimley, solid as usual, played his old friend.

In Cocoon (1985), directed by Ron Howard, Brimley portrayed Ben Luckett, one of the residents of the Sunny Shores retirement home whose health miraculously improves after a dip in the pool next door.

Brimley never seemed far away from his fans, regularly popping up in commercials for Quaker Oats oatmeal or to tout the importance of diabetes testing (he himself was a diabetic).

Anthony Wilford Brimley was born on Sept. 27, 1934, and moved with his family to Santa Monica at age 6. During high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed for three years in the Aleutian Islands during the Korean War.

After the service, Brimley worked at odd jobs, including shoeing horses for the stables that furnished animals for TV and movie Westerns. He also was a blacksmith, wrangler, rodeo rider and a bodyguard for a reclusive millionaire.

“He was a good guy,” he said of Hughes in a 2014 interview. He noted that the former movie mogul preferred to hire members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, as Brimley was, to serve as his aides.

In 1960, Brimley left for Idaho and bought a small horse ranch. That venture wasn’t successful, and he returned to California a few years later and was hired as an extra. At the time, there was a demand for folks who could ride horses, and he worked on such shows as Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

“We used to saddle up, and they’d give us a breechcloth and Indian wig, rub some body makeup all over us, and we’d be Indians fleeing over the hills from the soldiers,” Brimley once said. “Then we’d change into soldier uniforms and go back and chase ourselves over the same roads.”

He developed a lasting friendship with Duvall, who encouraged him to develop his acting skills. “I met him on one of those horse opera TV deals; I can’t remember what the name of it was,” he said. “I was fascinated with what he was able to do as an actor. I’d never seen anything like it. I announced to the world that I was an actor. Then I didn’t work for about eight years.”

Brimley eventually got his SAG card and landed his first speaking role, on the CBS Western Lancer.

He was one of the original members of the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, a group started by Ralph Waite, and that gave Brimley experience in front of a live audience. He also landed roles in the 1971 film Lawman, starring Burt Lancaster, and on Waite’s The Waltons.

The curmudgeonly Brimley found TV frustrating. “I asked the producer if he had anything special in mind for the character I played. He said, ‘No.’ So I told him, ‘Write him out.’ I won’t be back,’ ” and he left for Utah.

He never was a fan of Hollywood: “Too many people, too congested and too fast,” he said.

In 1977, Brimley stopped off in L.A. to see some friends while he was hauling horses from Denver and was asked to interview for a part in The China Syndrome, the drama about a catastrophe at a nuclear power plant that starred Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas.

“First time I saw Jack Lemmon, it was in his office,” Brimley said. “I wasn’t thinking about working with him, I wanted his autograph.” He landed the part of Ted Spindler, the plant foreman.

That turn led to other movie roles, including three with another famous Utahan, Robert Redford — The Electric HorsemanBrubaker (1980) and The Natural.

His film résumé included Borderline (1980), The Thing (1982), High Road to China (1983), Harry & Son (1983), Country (1984), The Stone Boy (1984), End of the Line (1987), Cocoon: The Return (1988) and Hard Target (1993).

More recently, Brimley played the ornery owner of the only restaurant in a Wyoming town in Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker.

He moved to Greybull (population 1,885) to operate a ranch with his second wife, Beverly, whom he met on the set of Tender Mercies. His first wife, Lynne, died in 2000 after they were married for 44 years.

Brimley is survived by Beverly and three sons. 

“He was a wonderful man, a joy to be around, and his dry sense of humor and iconic voice left an everlasting impression on every person he met,” his talent agent, Dominic Mancini, said in a statement. “I was lucky to call him a friend.

“To know Wilford was to love Wilford. He had an amazing career and sliced through the screen with his dry wit, stoic stature and powerful conveyance. His unique blend of unexpected comedy and indelible storytelling will always remain unmatched.”

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