Wilford Brimley seems to occupy a unique place in the hallowed halls of American pop culture. When I was a kid in the 80s, he was the everygrandpa on Our House, and curmudgeonly variations on that theme have comprised much of his career. But I wondered: where'd this guy come from, and why are young folk on the internets so all-fired excited about him again? Join me for a moment, if you will, for a brief Brimography.
We've had a few features here on the website about famous people who had weird jobs before they came to prominence. By this rubric, Wilford Brimley is a superstar: one of his early jobs was working as Howard Hughes' bodyguard. As a young(ish) man he worked as a ranch hand, a cattle wrangler, a blacksmith, and at the urging of his friend Robert Duvall, he began to use these talents in the service of Western-themed movies and TV shows; he shoed horses for film and TV, eventually getting background acting work as a riding extra and a stunt man in Westerns. This led to some minor acting roles on the TV show The Oregon Trail, and then to a breakout role in 1979's The China Syndrome.
Here he is acting his pants off opposite Paul Newman as a Department of Justice official in 1981's Absence of Malice.
He played Dr. Blair in John Carpenter's wonderful 1982 remake of The Thing:
The following year, he appeared in the academy award-winning film Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall, who insisted Brimley be cast so that Duvall, who was clashing with director Bruce Beresford, "could have someone there on his side." Brimley and Beresford clashed too, with Brimley reportedly responding to a direction he didn't like by saying: "Now look, let me tell you something, I'm Harry. 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." Balls of steel, that one.
A lot of people will remember Brimley from his role as the (curmudgeonly) coach in The Natural. Here's the great scene where Brimley finally gives Redford an at-bat, gamely telling Redford to "knock the cover off the ball." Which Redford does, quite literally.
His role as the evil company lawyer in The Firm showed that Brimley had range, and could play both good-at-heart curmudgeonly or, in this case, bad-to-the-bone curmudgeonly. Here he is blackmailing a very keyed up young associate played by Tom Cruise.
He also appeared in the Cocoon movies, where he, Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Jack Gilford all tried to out-curmudgeon one another, and has had roles ever since -- he even has something coming out this year, a film called The Path of the Wind. Last year, he gave a celebrity endorsement to John McCain, which Stephen Colbert made fun of:
But lately, Brimley's been more famous for the commercials he's done over the years than for his many film roles. He was, of course, the spokesperson for Quaker Oatmeal throughout the 80s and 90s:
But the thing people have latched onto are his spots for Liberty Medical, a company that makes diabetes testing supplies. Brimley himself has struggled with diabetes since a diagnosis in 1979, and has made diabetes advocacy and awareness one of his missions in life. However, his unorthodox pronunciation of diabetes ("dia-BEE-tus") has become a target for endless ridicule on the internet. Here's one of the original Liberty Medical spots:
This spot and a few others like it have become viral memes, with YouTubers from all corners of the internet re-editing and re-mixing them -- mostly as dance numbers -- and getting millions upon millions of views. There's nothing funny about diabetes, but it seems that people have decided there's something very funny about Wilford Brimley. Here's the re-edit that started it all:
This mashup of a Liberty Medical spot and Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" equals "Rock Me Diabetes."
Another dance mix.
It's gotten so popular that Brimley's spots were even parodied on Family Guy:
What a way to wind up a long career, eh?
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