More than just the face of Quaker Oats, Brimley’s career spanned decades of hit movies and TV series.
Wilform Brimley passed away yesterday at the age of 85. Even at that advanced age, this Hollywood workhorse still has projects in pre-production! From his humble start as a stuntman for Westerns, Brimley worked his way up, taking guest spots on high profile TV series and eventually starring roles in major motion pictures. To celebrate his five decades of cinematic achievement, we share our favorite film and TV roles starring the lovable Quaker Oats mascot.
The Serious Pick: The Natural (1984)
On the way to a tryout with the Chicago Cubs, young baseball phenom Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is shot by the unstable Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey). After 16 years, Hobbs returns to pro baseball as a rookie for the last-place New York Knights. Despite early arguments with his manager, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), Hobbs becomes one of the best players in the league, and the Knights start winning. But this upsets the Judge (Robert Prosky), their owner, who wants Hobbs to lose games, not win.
This film may be filled to the brim with baseball cliches and gauzy nostalgia, but it’s rightly regarded as one of the best sports films of all time. Robert Redford helps disarm the melodrama with his easy charm, and Brimley gives the film grit as the principled manager who refuses to sell out his team for money.
The Heartwarming Pick: Cocoon (1985)
Residents of a Florida rest home get a new lease of life when they stumble across an alien “fountain of youth” in a disused holiday home. Unbeknown to them, aliens have been using the swimming pool in the house to store their cocooned brethren, giving the waters a powerful, rejuvenating quality.
There was a moment in time in the late 80, early 90’s when stories about older folks came into vogue. Great actors like Jessica Tandy, Don Ameche, Walter Matthua and Wilford Brimley starred in films where not only older actors center stage, the drama really took the concerns of old age seriously. One of the finest films from this crop was Cocoon.
The cast was excellent (and featured another recently departed great, Brian Dennehy) and the story wove together comedy and tragedy in equal measures. Selling an elegiac story about folks in a retirement home is a lift. Selling one about folks in a retirement home…meeting aliens from Atlantis? Good on you, Cocoon, good on you.
The Unconventional Pick: Hard Target (1993)
Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a sailor skilled in martial arts, is employed to guard Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler) as she tracks down her father, an itinerant Vietnam veteran living in New Orleans named Douglas (Chuck Pfarrer). They soon uncover a sinister group of wealthy men who hunt the homeless for sport, paying them $10,000 if they can survive a crosstown journey. When Chance discovers that Natasha’s father was one of their victims, he decides to destroy the evil hunters.
Guilty pleasure time. Hard Target isn’t a great film. It’s not even one of the better spins on “The Deadliest Game” to come out around this time. Hell, it’s not even one of the better Jean -Claude Van Damme action flicks of the 90’s. But it does have Wilford Brimley blowing the high holy hell out of a bunch of goons led by Lance Henriksen. With a bow and arrow. On horseback. Eat your heart out, Rambo!
- The China Syndrome (1979) – Brimley’s big break into feature films, this thriller stars Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon and Michael Douglas. The story about a compromised nuclear facility really hit home when 3 Mile Island nuclear plant had an accident just two weeks after the film’s premier.
- The Thing (1982) – If you had basic cable in the 1980’s, you’ve seen John Carpenters creature feature spectacular, The Thing. It’s gone from cult classic to just pure classic based on the awesome practical effects and great cast.
- Remo Williams – The Adventure Begins (1985) – This attempt to make an American James Bond, based on a pulp series of action novels, was widely ignored. It’s not a great film…but I loved watching it numerous times on TV. It must have been third in the running in 80’s rerun counts behind The Beastmaster and Predator.
- The Firm (1993) – Brimley managed to hold his own in a supporting role opposite Tom Cruise in this legal thriller. That’s no small praise as the film also featured Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, and Holly Hunter. Quite the prestigious law firm.
- The Waltons
- Kung Fu
- Our House – While bigger shows like Mr. Belvedere, Alf, or Family Ties probably have more nostalgia mojo, I remember this series fondly. The story of a curmudgeonly widower whose widowed daughter and 3 grandkids move in had a lot of heart.