The untold truth of Wilford Brimley

Anthony Wilford Brimley was a bona fide acting legend, and the owner of the most majestic mustache this side of Sam Elliott. While he never established himself as a leading man, he made his name as one of nature's great supporting actors, and tended to elevate any project he appeared in. The actor's robust presence, gruff baritone voice, and air of lovable grumpiness made him an instantly recognizable and welcome fixture in many great movies, and his unapologetically meme-worthy work as a product spokesman endeared him to a younger generation that might otherwise have been unaware of his work. Despite all this, Brimley tended to downplay his own abilities. In a 2014 interview with the Powell Tribune, the actor flat out stated that he's nothing special. "I can't talk about acting," Brimley said. "I don't know anything about it. I was just lucky enough to get hired."

In other words, Brimley was nothing short of a national treasure, and though he lived a long and fruitful life, losing him is painful. Fortunately, memories are forever, and the actor gave everyone plenty of those over the course of his magnificent career.

The many jobs of Wilford Brimley

It's easy to see Wilford Brimley primarily as an actor, but as William Grimes of the New York Times notes, his professional life involved a great many other, often even more exciting jobs. Brimley started his professional career early, dropping out of school when he was 14 and starting a new life as a cowboy. Yes, an actual cowboy. After doing that in three different states, he decided to tick yet another box in his awesomeness check list, and enlisted in the Marine Corps. After that, it was back to Old West life for young Wilford. who spent some time as a wrangler, a ranch hand, and even a blacksmith. At one point, he ventured outside his cowboy comfort zone by working as a bodyguard. For Howard Hughes. Yeah, it's that kind of a resume.  

Eventually, Brimley started gravitating toward the movie industry. It goes without saying that he didn't immediately take up this ninny "acting" thing. Instead, he started out shoeing horses for westerns, and dabbled in stuntman work. Before long, the filmmakers realized that they had a Wilford freakin' Brimley at their disposal, and the future started getting minor roles as riders, blacksmiths, and suchlike. As anyone who has heard Brimley talk can probably guess, after that it was just a matter of time before speaking roles started flying his way.

Wilford Brimley's majestic movie career

Wilford Brimley's movie and TV roles were many and plentiful. He has appeared in various capacities in legendary movies and shows like the original True Grit, Kung Fu, The China Syndrome, The Firm, and Seinfeld. However, the 1980s were particularly good for him, and he worked steadily and often throughout the decade. 

His highlights from the decade include John Carpenter's seminal cult sci-fi horror The Thing (1982), where Brimley utilized a mustacheless version of his everyman charm in a prominent role as the doomed biologist, Blair. In 1985, the actor appeared in his arguably best-known role, Ben Luckett in the sci-fi movie, Cocoon. The role of the magically rejuvenated old man was somewhat defining for Brimley, who was in his late forties when he took up the role of the elderly retiree. His ability to play a much older man once again came in play a few years later, when he scored the starring role of grandpa Gus Witherspoon in the NBC drama Our House.

As the New York Times reports, Cocoon director Ron Howard found that Brimley was fairly intimidating, yet talented and dedicated to his craft. "Wilford's a testy guy, not an easy guy to work with all the time, but he has great instincts," the legendary director said in 1985, also noting that many of his scenes had been improvised.

Wilford Brimley was a magnificent spokesperson

As William Grimes of the New York Times and Faith Karimi and Alta Spells of CNN explain, an important part of Wilford Brimley's career was his work as a product spokesperson. He's notorious for his tenure in the Quaker Oats advertisements, as well as for the diabetes awareness commercials he made for Liberty Medical Supplies. Both of the campaigns were very health-oriented, which is no surprise, seeing as Brimley himself was diagnosed with diabetes way back in the 1970s. 

In a 2014 interview with the Powell Tribune, Brimley revealed that the goal of his outspokenness was to fight against the idea that having a condition like diabetes is something to be ashamed of. He also noted that he was fine with the many, many jokes told at his expense, often revolving around the peculiar way he pronounced the word 'diabetes'. "You can't stop that," he said. "One of the funniest was when John Goodman played me on a commercial on Saturday Night Live. You can't stop that. You can either accept that or let it bother you. I accept it." 

Wilford Brimley was a musician with his feet on the ground

As if being an actor, cowboy, blacksmith, bodyguard, US Marine, and several other things weren't enough, Wilford Brimley was also a musician. According to the New York Times, Brimley was a capable guitarist, and possessed a lovely singing voice. He was so fond of music that he actually recorded several albums with collaborators such as the Jeff Hamilton Trio.

You'd think that Brimley would have been at least somewhat proud of his many, many accomplishments. However, it appears that his blue-collar background and general down-the-earth mentality meant that despite his impressive career, he wasn't one to let things go to his head, as he made clear in one 1993 interview: "I'm never the leading man. I never get the girl. And I never get to take my shirt off. I started by playing fathers to guys who were 25 years older than I was." 

The actor's humility also extended to his musical endeavors. He once told Tom Lawrence of the Powell Tribune that he has decidedly never tried to be be a musician: "I never really planned to do so. It just kind of happened."

The death of Wilford Brimley

It is a universally-held truth that the only thing more awesome than Wilford Brimley is two Wilford Brimleys. Unfortunately, on August 1, 2020, the world's Wilford Brimley deposits suddenly and tragically dropped to zero, when the 85-year-old acting legend perished in a hospital in St. George, Utah. As William Grimes of the New York Times tells us, Brimley had been fighting a kidney problem.

Those lucky enough to have known Brimley, and worked with him, were quick to express their condolences and reminisce on the actor's general magnificence. As Clark Collis of Entertainment Weekly reports, many of them commented on his ability and willingness to surpass expectations and play characters much older than him. Others commented on his warm, trustworthy nature. Stephen Colbert even pointed out his singing talents: ""RIP Wilford Brimley," the television host tweeted. "So many great performances, but I'll never forget seeing him sing this surprisingly tender 'It's Not Easy Being Green.'"  Per Faith Karimi and Alta Spells of CNN, arguably the nicest, most sincere commentary on the great man came from his manager, Lynda Bensky. "Wilford Brimley was a man you could trust," she said. "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." 

Rest in peace, Wilford Brimley. Indeed, you were one of a kind.