Wilford Brimley has died. One of the great gruff old men of cinema-despite the fact that his first great “old guy” performance, Cocoon ‘s Ben Luckett, came when he was still just 49 years old-Brimley lent gravitas to everything from landmark sci-fi films, to John Grisham legal thrillers to, yes, oatmeal commercials and public statements about the perils of diabetes. , no official cause has been reported, although he was apparently on dialysis at the time of his death, at the age of 85.
Born in Salt Lake City, Brimley came to the world of acting in that most tried-and-tested of manners: Serving as a blacksmith, shoeing horses on film and TV Westerns-which eventually transitioned to a job as a riding extra and occasional stuntman. That, in turn, developed into a regular role on The Waltons, and from there he began to acquire film roles, often with the encouragement and assistance of his old friend Robert Duvall. (The two would co-star in 1983’s Tender Mercies.)
Indeed, the ’80s were the era that saw Brimley rise to national prominence, first with a memorable turn in The Natural, followed by his starring role in Ron Howard’s Cocoon. But while Brimley was, yes, closer in age to co-star Steve Guttenberg than “contemporary” Don Ameche during the filming of Howard’s alien-based Fountain Of Youth riff, he nevertheless invested the role with wit and grouchy charm.
Not that it was all friendly, grandfatherly chats, either; Brimley seemed to relish the roles where he could cut loose, whether that meant taking an axe to a computer room in an effort to stymie John Carpenter’s The Thing, or effortlessly intimidating Tom Cruise into the dirt as a corporate blackmailer and hired killer in The Firm. (Has anyone ever infused more comic menace into asking a guy if his wife gets Redbook or the Sharper Image catalog?)
Which is as good a time as any to note that Brimley was a man with a firm grasp of his own somewhat comical image; his social media account over the last several years has been a regular feed of good-natured acknowledgement of his various pop-culture-assigned catchphrases (“Oats,” Cocoon, his very particular pronunciation of the word “diabetes.”) But even before that, he lent his grumbly, faux-friendly talents to a memorable appearance on Seinfeld, scaring seven kinds of shit out of mail-protester Cosmo Kramer without ever raising his voice. (Even if he did end up asking for a “ridiculous” amount of money before he could be lured away from his regular low-key life to do it.)
As Brimley himself was quick to admit, he was rarely an actor of excessive or distracting range; rather, he seemed to take a great pride and pleasure in projecting a rock-solid and unflappable authenticity-and then, of course, sometimes brutally subverting it for additional effect. He was a reliable presence in dozens of projects, and when society tried to turn him into a punchline, he rolled right along with it, calmly smiling at the impressions while continuing to support his advocacy causes like diabetes awareness. ( One of his favorites? John Goodman embodying him for Saturday Night Live.) In film and television, he projected the kind of stoicism and self-seriousness it’s easy to take comfort in, the kind that lets you know he’s smiling along with the joke -even if the mustache sometimes made it a little difficult to see.