Wilford Brimley, star of ‘Cocoon’ and ‘The Natural,’ dies at 85: ‘He was one of a kind’

Wilford Brimley, the folksy character actor famous for his roles in films including “Cocoon,” “The Natural” and “The Firm,” has died. He was 85.

The mustachioed star – a former Marine who served in the Korean War – got his start in John Wayne’s 1969 Western “True Grit” and TV’s “Gunsmoke.” He was widely recognized for his work as a spokesman for Quaker Oats and Liberty Medical Supply.

His manager Lynda Bensky confirmed to The Associated Press that the actor died Saturday morning at a hospital at his home state of Utah, where he was on dialysis and being treated for diabetes and other medical ailments.

Fans recognized Brimley for roles like his grizzled baseball manager in “The Natural” opposite Robert Redford’s bad-luck phenomenon. He also worked with Redford in “Brubaker” and “The Electric Horseman,” and played a gruff district attorney in “Absence of Malice.”

But his best-known work was in 1985’s “Cocoon,” in which Brimley he was part of a group of seniors who discover an alien pod that rejuvenates them. The Ron Howard film won two Oscars, including supporting actor for Don Ameche. Brimley later starred in the 1988 sequel “Cocoon: The Return.” 

Wilford Brimley and Maureen Stapleton starred in 1985's "Cocoon."

Brimley, born Sept. 27, 1934, in Salt Lake City, worked as a blacksmith, ranch hand, horse trainer and bodyguard (for Howard Hughes) before finding fame.

“I am who I am, no matter what role I am playing. It’s all me,” Brimley told USA WEEKEND in 1987. “In my acting and in my life I try to be simple and tell the truth and I don’t like to pretend.”

He acknowledged taking many gigs mostly for money, while living in Utah on his cattle ranch. “If I thought I could make as much money raising cattle, you wouldn’t be able to tear me away from the ranch with an 80-ton crane. I feel good about myself out here, far away from 12 million screaming people. I was born here. It’s my home. And it’s where I want to be.”

For years, he was pitchman for Quaker Oats (his instantly familiar catchphrase: “It’s the right thing to do”), for which he won Advertising Age’s Star Presenter of 1988 award and was credited with helping boost sales by $100 million in a single year. In recent years, he appeared in a series of diabetes spots for Liberty Medical Supply that turned him into a social media sensation.

John McCain jokingly identified Brimley as his running mate while on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, and the star appeared often at his side.

“Wilford Brimley was a man you could trust,” Bensky said in a statement. “He said what he meant and he meant what he said. He had a tough exterior and a tender heart. I’m sad that I will no longer get to hear my friend’s wonderful stories. He was one of a kind.”

Barbara Hershey, who met Brimley on 1995′s “Last of the Dogmen,” called him “a wonderful man and actor. … He always made me laugh.”

Though never nominated for an Oscar or Emmy Award, Brimley amassed an impressive list of credits. He had his first credited big-screen role opposite Jack Lemmon as a nuclear plant engineer in 1979’s “The China Syndrome, and in 1993’s John Grisham adaptation “The Firm,” Brimley starred opposite Tom Cruise as a tough-nosed investigator who deployed ruthless tactics to keep his law firm’s secrets safe.

John Woo, who directed Brimley as Uncle Douvee in 1993′s “Hard Target,” told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018 that the part was “the main great thing from the film. I was overjoyed making those scenes and especially working with Wilford Brimley.”

Brimley spent two decades traveling around the West and working at ranches and race tracks. He drifted into movie work during the 1960s.

He forged a friendship with Robert Duvall, who encouraged him to seek more prominent acting roles, according to a biography by Turner Classic Movies.

Brimley never trained as an actor. “Training? I’ve never been to acting classes, but I’ve had 50 years of training,” he said in a 1984 Associated Press interview. “My years as an extra were good background for learning about camera techniques and so forth. I was lucky to have had that experience; a lot of newcomers don’t.”

“Basically, my method is to be honest,” Brimley said told AP. “The camera photographs the truth – not what I want it to see, but what it sees. The truth.”

Brimley had a recurring role as a blacksmith on “The Waltons” and the 1980s prime-time series “Our House,” and made a guest appearance on “Seinfeld.”

Another side of the actor was his love of jazz. As a vocalist, he made albums including “This Time the Dream’s On Me” and “Wilford Brimley with the Jeff Hamilton Trio.”

In 1998, he opposed an Arizona referendum to ban cockfighting, saying that he was “trying to protect a lifestyle of freedom and choice for my grandchildren.”

In recent years, Brimley’s pitchwork for Liberty Mutual had turned him into an internet sensation for his drawn-out pronunciation of diabetes as “diabeetus.” 

Brimley is survived by his wife Beverly and three sons.

Contributing: Kim Willis, USA TODAY, and Lynne Elber and Anthony McCartney, The Associated Press

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