The actor of choice to play gruff, but lovable grandfathers, old salts and dispensers of sage advice in the 1980s, Wilford Brimley was a former real-life ranch hand who worked his way up the Hollywood food chain from stunt rider and extra to popular character actor and television pitchman. On the advice of friend Robert Duvall, Brimley set his course down the acting path and earned his big break in "The China Syndrome" (1979). By the mid-1980s, Brimley was adding old-fashioned grit and homespun charm to high-profile pictures like "The Natural" (1984), "Cocoon" (1985) and "The Firm" (1993), as well as on the primetime series "Our House" (NBC, 1986-88). His profile lessened in subsequent years, though his avuncular presence was well used in a series of ads for Quaker Oats and the Liberty Medical supply company, keeping fresh his distinctly whiskered visage to audiences.
Born on Sept. 27, 1934 in Salt Lake City, UT, Brimley was the son of a real estate broker, who moved the family to California when his son was six years old. Brimley dropped out of high school to join the Marines during the Korean War, serving three years in the Aleutian Islands. After an honorable discharge, Brimley worked as a ranch hand, wrangler and blacksmith throughout the Western states, then spent three years as bodyguard to Howard Hughes. When he returned to California, he found work at stables that provided horses for film and television projects, but soon after lit out again to work as a cowboy in Idaho. He eventually returned to Los Angeles to find work as a riding extra and stunt man in Hollywood Westerns like "Bandolero!" (1968).
During this period, Brimley struck a friendship with Robert Duvall, who encouraged him to become an actor. Brimley eventually logged enough hours as a stunt man to earn his Screen Actors Guild card and soon landed small parts in "True Grit" (1969) and "Lawman" (1971). Brimley was frequently credited as "A. Wilford Brimley" in his early roles, a trend that continued until the mid-1980s. In 1974, Brimley began a recurring role on "The Waltons" (CBS, 1972-1981) as town blacksmith Horace Brimley, which lasted until 1977. His dedication to his craft impressed cast member Ralph Waite, who invited Brimley to join and train with his Los Angeles Actors Theater. Soon after, Brimley graduated to larger character roles, many of which emphasized his skill with gruff blue-color types. He earned his first spate of solid reviews as Ted Spindler, a foreman at a nuclear facility who knows that his plant suffers from safety issues, in "The China Syndrome" (1979). The film's finale afforded Brimley an emotional soliloquy which caught the eye of numerous producers and casting agents.
Brimley was soon riding high as a character actor in Hollywood features throughout the 1980s. Robert Redford employed him on several occasions, first as a farmer in "The Electric Horseman" (1979) and later in "Brubaker" (1980), before giving Brimley one of his best roles as the crusty manager of a struggling baseball farm team in Barry Levinson's "The Natural" (1984). Other solid performances came as a tough assistant attorney general in "Absence of Malice" (1981), a scientist who is driven mad by an alien presence in John Carpenter's cult classic "The Thing" (1982) and the no-nonsense manager of Robert Duvall's ex-wife (Betty Buckley) in "Tender Mercies" (1983).
Brimley's biggest hit came as one of a trio of senior citizens (alongside Don Ameche and Hume Cronyn) who discover that a hidden alien pod is also the fountain of youth in Ron Howard's "Cocoon" (1985). The role emphasized the gentler aspects of his screen persona and led to more tenderhearted roles, like the hermit who aids George Lucas' cuddly Ewoks in the TV feature "Ewoks: The Battle for Endor" (ABC, 1985). Brimley graduated to regular series work, playing kindly grandfather Gus Witherspoon, who dispenses wisdom to his daughter-in-law's children (Shannen Doherty and Chad Allen) on the well-regarded, but ultimately short-lived family series "Our House." Brimley also spun his newfound status as Hollywood's Favorite Curmudgeon into a series of television ads for Quaker Oats cereal, which reportedly surged in sales as a result of his appearance. The spots, which hinged on Brimley's admonition to eat the cereal because it was the "right thing to do and the tasty way to do it," were lampooned - often mercilessly - by television and radio comics.
When Brimley's popularity started to peter out in the early 1990s, he wisely shifted to playing stern heavies, like the security chief in "The Firm" (1993). After a supporting role in "My Fellow Americans" (1996), he enjoyed a brief comic turn as Kevin Kline's bewildered father in "In and Out" (1997). But for the most part, Brimley spent the remainder of his career appearing in television movies and independent features. In 2001, he returned to the stage in an off-Broadway production of the venerable play by Robert E. Sherwood, "The Petrified Forest." Brimley also enjoyed wide exposure from a series of ads for Liberty Medical, which sold supplies for testing diabetes on daytime television ads. Himself suffering from diabetes, Brimley became the company's official spokesperson in 1999. Like his ads for Quaker Oats, he found himself the target of numerous jibes and spoofs from comics, who fixated on his folksy pronunciation of the disease as "dya-beet-us."