Don’t try to label Wilford Brimley.
“I’m not a musician. I’m not even an actor,” Brimley told me during a phone interview. “Just a guy, just a feller.”
Several million fans will disagree with that self-assessment. Brimley, who turns 80 this fall, has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows in the past half-century. He has carved out a successful career playing cantankerous old guys with good hearts.
The Salt Lake City native now spends most of his days at a ranch outside the little town of Greybull in northwest Wyoming. He has always been an avid horseman and was a rodeo rider and blacksmith in the 1950s and 1960s after a three-year hitch in the Marines during the Korean War.
“I was a horseshoer,” Brimley said. “I worked all over, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada. I shod the horses for the production companies.”
Soon, under the name Anthony “Tony” Brimley, he started doing stunt work and appearing as an extra in Western TV shows. He eventually began using his middle name, Wilford, and his long career was at full gallop.
Actor Robert Duvall played a key role in getting him better parts, Brimley said.
“He’s always been really encouraging,” he said. “He’s always been a marvelous example of honesty and integrity.”
Both were in “Tender Mercies,” the tale of a broken-down country musician. Duvall won an Oscar for the lead role and Brimley received plaudits for his work as an agent.
But the 1983 movie is special to him for another reason.
“That’s where I got my wife,” he said. Both were married to other people at the time and were friends for years. But then things changed.
“Her husband died and my wife died. And I got the best thing Texas ever made.”
Among the other roles Brimley played was as Pop Fisher, the beleaguered manager of the New York Knights in “The Natural.” The baseball fantasy starred Robert Redford, Duvall and Richard Farnsworth, a veteran stuntman and actor who was his best friend in the movie and real life.
Some of their real antics — guessing which song the other was whistling — made it into the film.
Redford “did his own thing,” which was fine, Brimley said. He has acted with other major stars, including Paul Newman — “a really, really good guy” and Robert Mitchum, whom he greatly admired.
Brimley has been around a lot of famous people. He was a bodyguard for reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, although he doesn’t care to discuss that very much.
“He was a good guy,” he said, adding that Hughes paid him well. Hughes preferred to hire members of the Church of Latter-day Saints as aides and staffers, and Brimley is a Mormon.
He said despite being in movies and TV show for most of his life, he doesn’t have a clue on how to act, nor does he understand why he kept getting hired.
“I can’t talk about acting,” Brimley said. “I don’t know anything about it.”
The last film he was in was “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” Brimley calls it “somewhat a substandard movie” but said he does not consider himself retired. He also sings jazz standards and records with musicians he admires.
“If something good came along, I’d take a look at it,” he said. “People send me scripts.”
Brimley said he has been trying for 25 years to get a movie made on a story he wrote. It may never happen, but that’s the goal of this “feller.”
South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.
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