Bill Sniffin: Wilford Brimley Represented Wyoming Well

Although not a native son, Wilford Brimley personified the Wyoming way of life. He made us proud.

Bill Sniffin

August 03, 20205 min read


In 1988 I watched as the grizzled ex-Marine Wilford Brimley approached the microphone at the One-Shot Antelope Hunt in Lander. He was one of the shooters that year and had entertained everyone with his jokes and stories.  We all thought he would make us laugh.

Without much fanfare, the grizzled movie veteran stepped up to the front of the audience.

The crowd readied itself for some sage advice or wicked humor from the actor.  The actor of such hits as Cocoon, The Thing, The China Syndrome, and Absence of Malice had been entertaining people for three days and expectations were high for some more western humor.

But not this time.  Brimley, who is a real ex-rancher, had talked sincerely throughout his weekend in Wyoming of his earlier lives as a ranch hand and blacksmith in Utah and being an unsuccessful sheep rancher in Idaho. He had known hardship and he appreciated the good life he was enjoying now as an actor.  He had been emotionally affected by his experience in the towering Wind River Mountains and the vast Red Desert.

It prompted him to recite some words, which moved the audience immensely.

Brimley recited four lesser-known verses of the song Home On The Range as a poem. Those verses were as follows:

How often at night when the heavens are bright with the light from the glittering stars, have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed if their glory exceeds that of ours.

Oh, I love these wild flowers in this dear land of ours, the curlew I love to hear scream, and I love the white rocks and the antelope flocks that graze on the mountaintops green.

Oh, give me a land where the bright diamond sand flows leisurely down to the stream, where a graceful white swan goes gliding along like a maid in a heavenly dream.

Then I would not exchange my home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play; where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.

He recited those verses with such love and intensity, nobody who witnessed it would soon forget it. You could hear a pin drop in the big room.

Brimley, 85, died this past weekend in St. George, Utah. He had been living in Greybull and Santa Clara, Utah, since 2006.

The curmudgeonly actor seemed to always play roles older than himself.  “I played fathers to guys 25 years older than me,” he once exclaimed.

In 2009, Brimley founded the nonprofit organization Hands Across the Saddle (HATS) in the Big Horn Basin. It has helped many impoverished families over the past decade.

Internet reports listed the following in telling about Brimley’s death Saturday: Anthony Wilford Brimley was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on September 27, 1934.  Prior to his career in acting, he dropped out of high school to join the Marines, serving in the Aleutian Islands for three years.

He also worked as a bodyguard for businessman Howard Hughes, as well as a ranch hand, wrangler, and blacksmith. He then began shoeing horses for film and television. At the behest of his close friend and fellow actor, Robert Duvall, he began acting in the 1960s as a riding extra and stunt man in Westerns.

His first credited feature film performance was in The China Syndrome (1979) as Ted Spindler, a friend and coworker of plant shift supervisor Jack Godell (portrayed by Jack Lemmon). Later, Brimley made a brief, but pivotal, appearance in Absence of Malice (1981) as the curmudgeonly, outspoken Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Wells.

In the movie The Thing (1982) he played the role of Blair, the biologist with a group of men at an American research station in Antarctica who encounter a dangerous alien that can perfectly imitate other organisms.

Shortly thereafter, Brimley secured his first leading role in Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985), portraying Ben Luckett, leader of a group of geriatrics who encounter a magically reinvigorating swimming pool by their retirement home. Brimley was only 49 when he was cast in the role, and turned 50 during filming; he was at least 20 years younger than any of the actors playing the other retirement home residents. In order to look the part, Brimley bleached his hair and moustache to turn them gray, and had wrinkles and liver spots drawn on his face.

Brimley had a supporting role in Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), making witty exchanges with star Hugh Grant. This movie purportedly takes place in Wyoming.

Brimley frequently appeared in commercials, notably a series of commercials for Quaker Oats Oatmeal throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Brimley was also known for appearing in numerous television advertisements for Liberty Medical, a company specializing in home delivery of medical products such as diabetes testing supplies.

Although not a native son, Brimley personified the Wyoming way of life. He made us proud.

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.