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Another one they aren’t making any more of these days

That would be gifted actor, horseman, Marine veteran, Hollywood stuntman, ranch hand, jazz singer, blacksmith, and world-champion poker player Wilford Brimley.

Anthony Wilford Brimley (September 27, 1934 – August 1, 2020) was an American actor. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and working odd jobs in the 1950s, Brimley started working as an extra and stuntman in Western films in the late 1960s. He became an established character actor in the 1970s and 1980s in films such as The China Syndrome (1979), The Thing (1982), Tender Mercies (1983), The Natural (1984), and Cocoon (1985). Brimley was known for playing characters at times much older than his age. He was the long-term face of American television advertisements for the Quaker Oats Company. He also promoted diabetes education and appeared in related television commercials for Liberty Medical, a role for which he became an Internet meme.

Brimley joined the Marines in 1953 and served in the Aleutian Islands for three years. He also worked as a bodyguard for businessman Howard Hughes as well as a ranch hand, wrangler, and blacksmith. He then began shoeing horses for film and television. At the behest of his close friend and fellow actor Robert Duvall, he began acting in the 1960s as a riding extra and stunt man in westerns. In 1979, he told the Los Angeles Times that the most he ever earned in a year as an actor was $20,000. He had no formal training as an actor, and his first experience in acting in front of a live audience was in a theater group at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater.

His first credited feature film performance was in The China Syndrome (1979) as Ted Spindler, a friend and coworker of plant shift supervisor Jack Godell (portrayed by Jack Lemmon). That same year, he appeared in the Robert Redford/Jane Fonda feature film “The Electric Horseman” cast as simply “The Farmer” while assisting Redford and Fonda’s characters evade troopers while transporting the horse in a cattle hauler. Later, Brimley made a brief but pivotal appearance in Absence of Malice (1981) as the curmudgeonly, outspoken Assistant Attorney General James A. Wells. In the movie The Thing (1982) he played the role of Blair, a biologist among a group of men at an American research station in Antarctica who encounter a dangerous alien that can perfectly imitate other organisms.

Brimley’s close friend Robert Duvall (who also appeared in The Natural) was instrumental in securing for him the role of Harry in Tender Mercies (1983). Duvall, who had not been getting along with director Bruce Beresford, wanted “somebody down here that’s on my side, somebody that I can relate to.” Beresford felt Brimley was too old for the part but eventually agreed to the casting. Brimley, like Duvall, clashed with the director; during one instance when Beresford tried to advise Brimley on how Harry would behave, Duvall recalled Brimley responding: “Now look, let me tell you something, I’m Harry. Harry’s not over there, Harry’s not over here. Until you fire me or get another actor, I’m Harry, and whatever I do is fine ’cause I’m Harry.”

It was Brimley’s showstopper star-turn as AAG James J Wells (not James A Wells, as Wiki erroneously has it above) in Absence of Malice that sent me down the Wilford Brimley rabbit hole today, after re-watching Brimley’s riveting performance on YewToob. Interesting thing about the apparent James J/James A flub: Brimley’s character may very well have been James A in the script (don’t know, didn’t check), judging from what appears to be his momentary hesitation when giving his name as James J in the AoM final cut:

Note ye well that Mr Brimley, a relatively unknown bit-player-cum-character actor at the time, just walked in, sat down, riffled some papers, opened his mouth, and proceeded to steal the entire film from screen titans Paul Newman and Sally Field, without so much as breaking a sweat. By God, that there is what you call acting, bub. Ahh, but how very typical of Wilford Brimley: Kurt Russell, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon—running scenes with all of these fine actors and many more, he refused to be intimidated or overawed, nonchalantly holding his own with all those marquee names, making it look not just easy, but effortless.

More rich, buttery Brimley goodness from AoM:

One more time:

Over the years I must’ve seen Absence of Malice about, oh, I dunno, forty or fifty times—enough that I’ve long since had every word of Brimley’s dazzling five minutes or so of screentime towards the end down by heart, anyway—and still ain’t no way tired of the flick. If you’ve never seen the movie, I urge you with all my heart not to let another sun go down before you rectify that gap in your cinematic education. They ain’t making movies like Absence of Malice anymore, nor actors like Wilford Brimley, nor sturdy, versatile, by-God American men like him, for that matter.

Anybody else thinking, as I just was, that the AAG Wells character, in fact pretty much all the G-men in the above climactic scenes, represents another long-gone American totem: the competent, reasonable, and trustworthy public servant? Not to mention Sally Fields’ newspaper reporter, who, although she lost her way temporarily and compromised her professional ethics in pursuit of a red-hot scoop, nonetheless proves herself to be basically decent in the end, deeply regretful for betraying her integrity and resolved that she will NOT let it happen again.

As Wells says of the DA ensnared in Michael Gallagher’s clever trap: “Yeah, he’s a nice guy, he just forgot about the rules.” When the dust has settled, the wayward but basically well-meaning are chastened, the corrupt and malifecent made to face serious consequences, and AAG Wells has somebody’s ass in his briefcase, as promised.

Today, though, is there anyone left among us so naive, so unworldly, that he seriously expects such unflagging virtuousness from his “public servants,” even in a fictional movie? Yep, the past is a different country all right.

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2 thoughts on “Another one they aren’t making any more of these days

  1. Brimley was a pretty special character, thanks for the reminder. Someday I’ll tell the story about meeting Newman, one of two hollywood celebs I have met.

    I’d say that not having any acting lessons was to Brimley’s benefit, lessons would have likely ruined him.

    Heck of a movie, but I’m of the opinion that much of the real DOJ has been corrupt for as long as I’ve been alive. We just didn’t know how bad it was.

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