Hollywood lost one of its longtime icons on August 1, 2020, with the passing of Wilford Brimley. Some knew the 85-year-old from a storied big-screen career in films like 1993’s The Firm and 1985’s Cocoon. Others knew him as the spokesperson for Quaker Oats or as an advocate for diabetes monitoring on late-night television.
However you came to be aware of Wilford Brimley, you were probably charmed by his genial nature and hirsute facial appearance. But Brimley had a career that went beyond the screen; read on for more facts about the actor’s life, his time as a bodyguard for one of the world’s most famous men, and why he was not friendly with the man who portrayed Yoda.
1. Wilford was Wilford Brimley's middle name.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1934, Anthony Wilford Brimley moved to California with his parents when he was 6 years old. He elected to drop out of high school so that he could join the Marines. He served on the Aleutian Islands for three years before returning to civilian life as a ranch hand and horse wrangler. Those skills eventually came in handy when Westerns became a popular television genre, and Brimley often found work as an extra or background player. When he got screen billing, Brimley initially used his real first name—Anthony, or Tony—instead of his middle name, Wilford.
2. Robert Duvall got Wilford Brimley into acting.
While working as a horse-riding extra, Brimley became friendly with actor Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and was encouraged by Duvall to try his hand at more substantial parts. "He’s always been really encouraging," Brimley said of the Oscar-winning actor in 2014. “He’s always been a marvelous example of honesty and integrity.” The two appeared onscreen together in 1982’s Tender Mercies, about a country singer (Duvall) trying to reconnect with his daughter. Brimley played his agent and also met his future wife during production.
3. Wilford Brimley was a bodyguard for Howard Hughes.
Before getting work as a stuntman and actor, Brimley worked as a bodyguard for aviator-turned-recluse Howard Hughes. But the actor was always reluctant to discuss Hughes, a famously reclusive man in his later years. “He was a good guy,” Brimley once said of his former employer. The job came in part through Brimley’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Hughes reportedly preferred to employ Mormons, as he liked that they didn't smoke or drink and they rarely talked.
4. Wilford Brimley didn't train to be an actor.
Brimley’s genuine demeanor didn’t come to him through any kind of Method approach. He was never formally trained as an actor, choosing instead to draw upon his decades and self-professed lean years working various jobs (bartender, horseman) before getting a break in 1979’s The China Syndrome. “Training?” he asked a reporter rhetorically in 1984. “I’ve never been to acting classes, but I’ve had 50 years of training. My years as an extra were good background for learning about camera techniques and so forth ... basically, my method is to be honest.”
5. Wilford Brimley enjoyed mooning people.
While Brimley’s onscreen presence was normally one of sedate wisdom, the actor was not averse to showing his buttocks if the timing was right. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1988, actor Steve Guttenberg, Brimley’s co-star in the Cocoon movies, mentioned that Brimley sometimes mooned people on set. “The biggest fun I had on the Cocoon shoot came when Wilford Brimley would moon the audience, or the camera,” Guttenberg said. “He has a running contest with Robert Duvall to see who can moon the most people at one time. Duvall has the record [as] he drove through a town when it was having a parade and mooned 2000.”
6. Wilford Brimley surprised an elementary school class.
While shooting a film in Louisiana in 1990, Brimley struck up a friendship with Elizabeth Landman, the then-9-year-old daughter of the set’s food caterer. When Landman returned to school to tell her friends at St. Joseph’s Catholic School that she had met the man from Cocoon, no one believed her. Brimley decided to boost her credibility by visiting the school unannounced one day to sign autographs and answer questions about his career.
7. Wilford Brimley was not opposed to a cockfight.
In 1998, Brimley attended a rally in Phoenix, Arizona to oppose a statewide ban on cockfighting—an often-illegal practice that sees bettors wager on the outcome of a fight to the death between roosters equipped with razors on their feet. The actor argued that the law would be a slippery slope, one eventually leading to a ban on hunting dogs. He also said that while he lived in Utah, he visited Arizona to attend the competitions. “I’m trying to protect the lifestyle of freedom and choice for my grandchildren,” he said. The activity was eventually outlawed in Arizona in 2007.
8. Wilford Brimley was also a singer.
Though he “never made a thing about it” and proclaimed he was “not a great singer,” Brimley had a passion for covering popular music. In the 1990s, the actor performed at Los Angeles-area clubs after rehearsing with pianist Bob Smale and bassist Don Bagley for two years. He performed “My Funny Valentine,” “It Had to Be You,” and “All the Things You Are,” among other hits, and later made appearances on the Jerry Lewis telethon and the ill-fated Pat Sajak Show. He also recorded a number of albums. When Brimley agreed to hit the stage at Cal State Northridge for a jazz endowment benefit fund in 1993, Joel Leach, the school’s jazz band director, said that Brimley had a warm, rich voice. Brimley offered to do the benefit for free and even left filming of The Firm in order to appear.
9. Wilford Brimley got into a feud with Yoda.
While shooting the 1997 feature In and Out, Brimley was said to have gotten upset with director Frank Oz. Oz—a performer who operated and voiced Yoda in several Star Wars movies—told an interviewer that Brimley was one of three actors who “hate my guts.” (The other two were Marlon Brando and Cher.) Neither Oz nor Brimley ever elaborated on what transpired between the two to cause the rift.
10. Wilford Brimley was active on Twitter.
While he took only sporadic acting roles in recent years, Brimley wasn’t completely unplugged from the public. He had a verified Twitter account on which he—or an authorized representative—tweeted inspirational quotes and occasionally took note of his contemporary status as a meme source. Brimley once responded to an observation that action star Tom Cruise, who was 56 at the time, was five years older than Brimley was when he played a geriatric in Cocoon. “This is still hard for me to believe,” Brimley wrote.