Utah native Wilford Brimley, ‘Cocoon’ Star and Quaker Oats pitchman, dies at 85

(Evan Agostini | AP file photo ) Actor Wilford Brimley attends the premiere of "Did You Hear About The Morgans" at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York in 2009. The veteran actor has died at the age of 85.

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 on Saturday at age 85.

Mr. Brimley had been sick for two months with a kidney ailment, said his agent, Lynda Bensky.

Mr. Brimley had played the 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Howard told The Times in 1985. “Many of his scenes were totally improvised.”

In the 1980s and 1990s Mr. 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. Mr. Brimley learned that he had the disease in the late 1970s.

When interviewed, Mr. 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 on Sept. 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, Calif.

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 film 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 aging process by portraying, in his early 50s, a character who was 65.

“I’m never the leading man,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 1993. “I never get the girl. And I never get to take my shirt off. I started by playing fathers to guys who were 25 years older than I was.”

In part because of his television commercials, Mr. Brimley made the transition from actor to comic source material. John Goodman did a parody of his diabetes commercial on “Saturday Night Live,” and in 1997 he appeared in a cameo role on “Seinfeld” as the short-tempered postmaster general, Henry Atkins.


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He had a pleasant singing voice and recorded several albums of jazz standards, including “This Time the Dream’s on Me” and “Wilford Brimley With the Jeff Hamilton Trio.” He could more than hold his own as a guitarist too.

Mr. Wilford’s first wife, the former Lynne Bagley, died in 2000. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available Saturday night.

As Mr. Howard noted, Mr. Brimley came by his cussedness naturally. In “Miracles and Mercies,” a documentary about the making of “Tender Mercies,” Mr. Duvall recalled a set-to between Mr. Brimley and the director Bruce Beresford, who had made a suggestion about how Mr. Brimley might play the role of Harry.

“Now look, let me tell you something, I’m Harry,” he recalled Mr. Brimley telling Mr. Beresford. “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.”