Wilford Brimley, a portly actor with a walrus mustache who found his niche playing cantankerous coots in ‘Absence of Malice’, ‘The Natural’, ‘Cocoon’ and other films, died Saturday at age 85.
Brimley had been sick for two months with a kidney ailment, said his agent, Lynda Bensky.
Brimley had played Walton Mountain resident Horace Brimley in a recurring role on the television series ‘The Waltons’ when Michael Douglas, the producer of ‘The China Syndrome’, gave him his breakthrough role: Ted Spindler, an assistant engineer at a nuclear plant.
In the film’s climactic scene, in which he is being interviewed by a crusading television reporter played by Jane Fonda, Brimley delivered an impassioned defense of his boss (Jack Lemmon), who had precipitated a crisis to draw public attention to defects at the plant.
In an article for The New York Times singling out Brimley as a talent to watch, Janet Maslin called him “the mustachioed man who very nearly steals the ending of ‘China Syndrome’ from Jane Fonda.”
Brimley followed up with a small but memorable performance as a pugnacious district attorney in ‘Absence of Malice’ and with supporting roles in ‘The Natural’, as the put-upon manager of a losing baseball team, and ‘The Firm’, in which he played the sinister head of security at an unsavory law firm.
In Ron Howard’s 1985 fantasy film ‘Cocoon’, Brimley delivered one of his most engaging performances, as a Florida retiree who, with Don Ameche and Hume Cronyn, regains his youth after swimming in a magic pool.
“Wilford’s a testy guy, not an easy guy to work with all the time, but he has great instincts,” Howard told The Times in 1985. “Many of his scenes were totally improvised.”
In the 1980s and 1990s Brimley was a television fixture as a spokesman for Quaker Oats, gruffly telling viewers to eat the cereal because “it’s the right thing to do,” and Liberty Medical, a company selling diabetes-testing supplies. Brimley learned that he had the disease in the late 1970s.
When interviewed, Brimley played down his talent; he described himself as “just a guy, just a feller” to the Powell Tribune of Wyoming in 2014. “I can’t talk about acting,” he said. “I don’t know anything about it. I was just lucky enough to get hired.”
Anthony Wilford Brimley was born September 27, 1934, in Salt Lake City. His father, a real estate broker, sold the family farm in 1939 and moved his family to Santa Monica, California.
Tony, as he was known, dropped out of school at 14 and worked as a cowboy in Idaho, Nevada and Arizona before enlisting in the Marine Corps, which sent him to the Aleutian Islands. After leaving the service, he worked as a ranch hand, wrangler and blacksmith. Briefly, he was a bodyguard for Howard Hughes.
He began shoeing horses for television and movie westerns and gradually took nonspeaking roles on horseback. He appeared as a stuntman in ‘Bandolero!,’ in an uncredited role in ‘True Grit’ and as a blacksmith in the television series ‘Kung Fu’.
After ‘The China Syndrome’, he worked steadily. He played Harry, the former manager of the country singer played by Robert Duvall, in ‘Tender Mercies’, and the eccentric tycoon Bradley Tozer in the Tom Selleck adventure film ‘High Road to China’, before returning to the role of Ben Luckett in ‘Cocoon: The Return’.
From 1986 to 1988 he had a starring role as Gus Witherspoon, the opinionated but lovable grandfather in the NBC series ‘Our House’, yet again confounding the usual Hollywood ageing process by portraying, in his early 50s, a character who was 65.
He had a pleasant singing voice and recorded several albums of jazz standards.
Wilford’s first wife, the former Lynne Bagley, died in 2000.