Before Wilford Brimley was an actor, Robert Redford knew him as a guy who knew horses.
“I first met Wilford long before he began his film career, as he helped me care for the horses on my ranch in Spanish Fork, Utah,” Redford said in a statement through his publicist this week. “He was an accomplished horseman, he was a lot of fun and we had a great connection from the start.”
Brimley, a veteran character actor known for his gruff demeanor, died Saturday at the age of 85. Redford was just one member of Utah’s film community to pay tribute to Brimley, who was born in Salt Lake City and lived most of his life in Utah.
In his statement, Redford said, “we also shared a love of Utah and its landscapes. He once told me that in the early stages of his career, when he was a struggling actor based in California, he saw the image of Mount Timpanogos in the film ‘Jeremiah Johnson,’ and it jolted him, he said, ‘That’s my home, I gotta go back.’”
Brimley appeared in three movies in which Redford was the star. Most famously, Brimley played a crusty coach to phenom Roy Hobbs in the classic baseball drama “The Natural” (1984). Brimley also played a farmer in the modern-day Western “The Electric Horseman” (1979), and a prison board member in “Brubaker” (1980), in which Redford played a corruption-fighting warden.
Redford, who turns 84 on Aug. 18, said Brimley “had a strong, cantankerous spirit, which shone through in his characters. Though never formally trained, his was a natural talent. It was a privilege to know and work with him.”
Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, said in a statement that “Utah lost a real treasure, and he will be missed.”
“Anyone who has spent any time at the movies is familiar with Wilford Brimley’s face,” Pearce said. “He’s in so many great films, including one of my favorite Utah-made movies, ‘The Electric Horseman.’ Whether he was playing a good guy (‘Cocoon’) or a bad guy (‘The Firm’), he infused the scene with an authentic believability.”
Gov. Gary Herbert, in a statement issued Monday, called Brimley “a great actor, who didn’t look like he was acting. It really came naturally to him.”
Herbert, a movie buff, said he “particularly enjoyed his appearances in two of my favorite shows of many, ‘The Natural’ and ‘Absence of Malice.’ His contributions to movies and art are significant and appreciated by many.”
Filmmaker Richard Dutcher, posting on Facebook, noted that Brimley “gave a wonderful performance in my film ‘Brigham City,’ for which I will always be grateful.” Brimley played a crusty deputy advising the sheriff, played by Dutcher, during a murder spree in a small Utah town in the 2001 film.
Besides “The Electric Horseman” and “Brigham City,” Brimley’s work in his native state of Utah included the short-lived 1992 CBS series “The Boys of Twilight.” Brimley played a deputy, working with the sheriff (Richard Farnsworth), as the only lawmen in a small but gentrifying Utah town. (KSL, then Salt Lake City’s CBS affiliate, received angry phone calls from viewers when the station preempted the pilot episode to air a Brigham Young University basketball game.)
When the series was in limbo, after an abbreviated first season, Brimley told The Salt Lake Tribune he didn’t care that much either way. “If ‘Twilight’ goes, that’s fine, but I’ve got a life going on. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, anyway,” he said in 1992.
In 2011, Brimley had a stroke-preventing heart device implanted, as part of a clinical trial at Intermountain Medical Center’s Heart Institute. Five years later, when the trial was done and the device was offered to more patients, Brimley appeared at Intermountain’s announcement to say the parachute-like device saved his life.
When The HandleBar, a bicycle-themed bar that opened in 2018 in Salt Lake City’s Marmalade district, created a portrait wall of famous “handlebar” mustaches, Brimley’s picture was part of the mix, alongside images of Burt Reynolds, Freddie Mercury, Cheech Marin and Mr. Potato Head.
Brimley, a political conservative who sometimes carried a pistol because he had the right to do so, once railed against actors getting involved in politics. “The Constitution I read and understand makes no provision for the vote or voice of a movie actor being any more important than that of a carpenter,” he told The Tribune in 1992.
Brimley occasionally did delve into regional politics, though — often on the losing side.
In 1992, he endorsed an initiative to legalize parimutuel betting in Utah, to lure horse racing to the state. The initiative, opposed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was soundly rejected. In 1999, Brimley campaigned against an initiative in Arizona to ban cockfighting, saying he was “trying to protect a lifestyle of freedom and choice for my grandchildren”; Arizona voters approved the initiative overwhelmingly.
In 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain half-jokingly floated Brimley’s name to fill the vice presidential slot on McCain’s presidential ticket — a space ultimately filled by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. And in 2016, in the Utah governor’s race, he endorsed Jonathan Johnson, the head of Overstock.com and a family friend, in the Republican primary over Herbert, who was seeking (and won) reelection.