Wilford Brimley, the unlikely character actor who brought both curmudgeonry and geniality to films like Cocoon, The China Syndrome, The Natural and Tender Mercies, has died at the age of 85.
Brimley’s agent Lynda Bensky confirmed to the New York Times that the actor had been sick for two months with kidney ailments; the actor — a longtime spokesperson for Liberty Medical — had been diabetic since the Seventies. Brimley died Saturday at a hospital near St. George, Utah, where the actor resided.
“Wilford Brimley was a man you could trust. He said what he meant and he meant what he said,” Bensky told CNN. “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.”
With his walrus mustache and stocky build, Brimley was not a traditional actor, and he held a variety of jobs — blacksmith, cowboy, ranch hand and reportedly Howard Hughes’ bodyguard — before his friend, actor Robert Duvall, persuaded him to try acting. Brimley first worked as a stuntman and extra before making his credited debut in 1974 with a guest-starring role in The Waltons.
Brimley’s first big-screen credit, at the age of 45, was a small but memorable role in 1979’s The China Syndrome, playing the friend of Jack Lemmon’s nuclear power plant whistleblower. Over the next few decades, Brimley would continue his trend of supporting but scene-stealing roles, including his memorable one scene of work as an assistant U.S. district attorney in 1981’s Absence of Malice; Brimley would later parody that scene while playing a Postmaster General on a 1997 episode of Seinfeld:
While Brimley was most often cast as affable yet crotchety types in films like The Natural, Tender Mercies, My Fellow Americans and In & Out, he sometimes lent his gruff characteristics to villain roles, including the squirrelly, paranoid biologist in John Carpenter’s The Thing and the duplicitous chief of security in the Tom Cruise-starring adaptation of The Firm.
In addition to his big screen work, Brimley became known to a generation of TV watchers for his near-constant presence in Quaker Oats ads, as well as his efforts to promote diabetes education in Liberty Mutual commercials, which later took on a second life thanks to YouTube and memes. The American Diabetes Association honored Brimley in 2008 for decades spent imploring viewers to check their blood sugar.
“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,” Brimley’s talent agent Dominic Mancini, said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.
“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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