UPDATED: ‘Cocoon’ star, local resident Wilford Brimley dies

ST. GEORGE — St. George News has learned that local resident, Utah native and renowned actor Wilford Brimley has died. The character star, known for bringing a loveable folksy curmudgeon personality to such popular films as “Cocoon,” “The Natural” and “The China Syndrome” was 85.

Updated Aug. 1, 10:30 p.m.: Additional details, comments from manager.

Wilford Brimley, right, seen in a publicity photo with Barret Oliver for the 1985 film “Cocoon.” | Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox, St. George News

Brimley, who was born in Salt Lake City, called Santa Clara home as well as a ranch in Greybull, Wyoming.

Brimley’s manager Lynda Bensky said in a statement the actor died Saturday morning at a local hospital, presumably Dixie Regional Medical Center. He was on dialysis and had several medical ailments, she said.

Brimley started his film career as an extra in Westerns, and the Western spirit stayed in his heart throughout his life as he could usually be seen wearing a Stetson in his local appearances atop a face marked by his signature, walrus-like mustache. In 2005, the Motion Picture and Television Fund honored Brimley with its Golden Boot for his contributions to Westerns in film and television.

In March, Brimley hosted a screening at Dixie State University marking the 40th anniversary of his role as Farmer in the Robert Redford movie “The Electric Horseman.”

Speaking to St. George News at the time, Brimley said he played the small role in the film as a favor to director Sydney Pollack while shoeing horses in Salt Lake City in his day job, and improvised the role because bringing himself into roles was what he did best.

See, I was never good at pretending to be somebody I’m not. A lot of actors think that’s your responsibility. Well, it’s not,” Brimley said. “Your responsibility is to take a set of imaginary circumstances presented by a writer and put yourself in those circumstances, and the key is: yourself.”

Bensky said Brimley was a “”man you could trust.”

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

Brimley is survived by his second wife Beverly, who he married in 2007, and sons James, John and Bill. He was preceded in death by his first wife Lynne, who he was married to from 1956 to her passing in 2000, and son Lawrence.

Actor and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Wilford Brimley spoke at a ceremony in SunRiver honoring veterans, St. George, Utah, Nov. 11, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

Brimley’s first notable role, a 10-episode guest turn of television’s “The Waltons” also had a bit of himself, as the character Horace shared his last name.

According to Brimley, he didn’t break into acting until he was 40 after his good friend, actor Robert Duvall, encouraged him to try acting out.

Despite playing a lot of roles in Westerns, Brimley may be best known for the first movie he had a leading role in: the 1985 fountain of youth, science-fiction movie “Cocoon.” Despite being just 50-years-old at the time, he played a character 25 to 30 years older.

The character actor also became a familiar face in movie theaters and homes for his turn as a nuclear plant worker in “The China Syndrome,” his role as Blair in “The Thing,” baseball manager Pop Fisher in “The Natural” and the grandfather in TV’s “Our House.” He also became a fixture in Quaker Oats commercials, extolling viewers that it was “the right thing to do.”

After 1997’s “In & Out,” Brimley mainly retreated from Hollywood. But as a diabetes sufferer since 1979, he became known as an advocate for people suffering from the disease. That earned Brimley a lifetime achievement award from the American Diabetes Association in 2008.

His pronunciation of diabetes became an internet meme in the last few years – something Brimley was good-natured about as he became active in social media himself.

In one of his last tweets before his death, Brimley mocked the “diabeetus” meme.

A tweet from Wilford Brimley on July 31, 2020, joking about his pronunciation of “diabetes.” | Twitter screenshot, St. George News

St. George News writer Aspen Stoddard and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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