Wilford Brimley Dies — My Favorite Films

At the Movies Blog

Wilfred Brimley as manager Pop Fisher in The Natural.

I’ve met some of the biggest names in Hollywood, but someone I never met brought the greatest joy to a gift I gave my daughter. When Wilford Brimley was doing those diabetes commercials, she’d imitate his folksy voice and have a good laugh. So when I went to meet her one time in L.A. with a few of her friends, I brought her a framed autographed picture of Brimley. She couldn’t stop laughing, while her boyfriend asked, “Who’s that?”

Well, that would be the legendary actor that just passed away, at age 85. An actor who has looked like he was 85 for the last 30 years. In fact, one of the funny facts that came out years ago, was that he was the same age when he filmed Cocoon (50-years-old in 1985) that Tom Cruise was when he was filming the fourth Mission: Impossible movie. Hey…maybe alien blood doesn’t work as well as Scientology.

Speaking of Tom Cruise, they were both great in a movie together — The Firm. Brimley had a great voice and face for spouting off legalese. And he’s one of the things I loved about one of the best movies ever made about journalists — Absence of Malice, playing Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Wells. My high school journalism teacher had us watch this and I was blown away (and it would be nice if reporters these days would watch it and maybe learn a thing or two about editorializing news stories that should be unbiased, but I digress).

Brimley was terrific in Tender Mercies a few years before Cocoon. It was Oscar-winning star Robert Duvall who, in the ‘60s, encouraged the former Marine and ranch hand, to start doing films. For a few years he was an extra on many Westerns, before being launched to stardom in the same film Michael Douglas became a star in — The China Syndrome. Of course, Douglas became the bigger star, but then…he had dad Kirk’s good looks. Brimley’s dad was regular country folk in Salt Lake City, selling real estate.

Here’s the best Brimley fun fact: for a brief time, he was Howard Hughes’ bodyguard. 

When I wrote a list of the 75 Best Sports movies (which you can read here: https://fox5sandiego.com/entertainment/at-the-movies-blog/the-top-75-sports-movies-ever/ ), his role in The Natural was one of the reasons I loved it (also starring his pal Duvall). That mustache, the wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth, and barking at players — the perfect vibe for a baseball manager. He first meets Robert Redford when he’s an aging “rookie” and mouths off to him, getting angry, and exclaiming, “People don’t start playing ball at your age, they retire!”

Later seeing how great he is as a player, and thinking he’s lost him, Roy Hobbs wobbles back from the hospital, asking to play. Brimley is shaving in the locker room, and looks at him in the mirror. Brimley says, “You know, my mama wanted me to be a farmer.” 

Redford replies, “My dad wanted me to be a baseball player.” 

There’s a brief pause before the crusty old manager says, “Well, you’re better than any player I ever had. And you’re the best god damn hitter I ever saw. Suit up!”

Just typing that now brings tears to my eyes.

Glancing at Brimley’s films, I’m embarrassed to say — I don’t remember him in The Thing. I remember the artwork of the movie poster (done by the great Drew Struzan). I also remember Kurt Russell’s bad-ass beard, and the cool ending. I don’t remember the Quaker Oats guy, though. But hey — I was 13-years-old, scared to death watching that in a darkened movie theatre (remember the old days, sitting in a movie theatre?). 

But Brimley had a great run in Hollywood, and that includes with his love life. He married his first wife in 1956, and they stayed married until her death in 2000. They had four kids. He married again in 2007 and with Beverly Berry, started a few charities, namely Hands Across The Saddle.I like the idea of his first wife riding up to him at that big ranch in the sky, perhaps with Cocoon co-star Brian Dennehy, who passed away four months ago.

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