Remembering Wilford: Local residents recall iconic actor as gruff man with good heart

An image of Wilford Brimley taken backstage during the Stage Door's production of "Harvey" at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Trey Paterson, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Iconic film and television actor Wilford Brimley died Saturday. The 85-year-old Utah native and resident of Santa Clara was known for his roles in “Cocoon” and “The Natural,” but to many in the Southern Utah community, Brimley was known as the man with a grumpy exterior and a good heart.

L-R: Director Thomas Waites and Wilford Brimley prepare to put on a stage production of “Harvey,” at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Rich Murset, St. George News

The cowboy tough exterior

Anyone that knew Brimley, whether professionally or in the community, described him as a man with a tough exterior, someone who was a straight talker and a real cowboy.

In a previous St. George News report regarding the actor’s death, Brimley’s manager Lynda Bensky said he was a man who said what he meant and meant what he said.

“He had a tough exterior and a tender heart,” Bensky said.

Stephen Armstrong, an English professor at Dixie State University and film historian, first met Brimley about two years ago after he was asked to write some blog pieces for the Utah Film Commission.

He told St. George News that he knew Brimley lived in the area and approached him because he had made movies here with the director Sydney Pollack.

Wilford Brimley (L), greets Carolyn Murset and family after the premiere of her one-woman play, “Tales of Tila,” which he produced at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Rick Murset, St. George News

“I contacted him to do an interview, and you know he had that gruff blunt way and he said he would welcome me – a complete stranger — over to his house, and he’d come talk to me about making movies with Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack,” Armstrong said.

St. George resident and former music critic for The Independent, Kevin Jones, who met Brimley through mutual friends, said he was a gruff man, the kind of guy who had no use for all the Hollywood nonsense.

“He was also very liberal with the expression ‘stick it where the sun doesn’t shine’ to anyone who recognized him as the Quaker Oats guy,” Jones said.

Brimley started his film career as an extra in Westerns, and he embodied the Western spirit in real life.

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.”

Armstrong, who conducted the question and answer session with Brimley at the screening described the experience like this:

He was a real cowboy who wasn’t going to put on Hollywood airs. He pinned me to the wall, figuratively speaking. Here I am asking questions about how he went about his roles and how he prepared – questions that a professor would ask or a film historian. And he just sort of like this, ‘Cut the crap, man. I’m a cowboy. I’m a horseshoe guy who just made a career out of being myself. And I’m going to be myself right now.’ And he dressed me down in front of a crowd. A lot of times that is not what you want done to you, but it was such a fantastically direct moment, you couldn’t help but admire his honesty.

The take no crap cowboy was also known for his raucous and often inappropriate sense of humor.

Carmie Golightly, who met Brimley while co-starring with him in The Stage Door’s production of “Harvey” at the Electric Theater, recalled the first time she met him.

L-R: Wilford Brimley and Carmie Golightly during rehearsals for “Harvey” at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Carmie Golightly, St. George News

“The first thing Wilford said to me was, ‘Will it upset you if I swear around you?'” she said with a laugh.

Golightly told St. George News that Brimley famously hated auditions and would flat out refuse to participate. Brimley told her a story of a time he was asked to audition for a role.

“They asked for an audition, and, of course, he said ‘Nope,’ and then they asked, ‘Are you funny?’ He told them a story of a little old lady whose son built her a nice long wheelchair ramp out of her house. The first time she went out to use it she started rolling. She rolled and rolled down the ramp and into the street and kept on going until she ran into a truck and splat,” Golightly said, telling the story.

“We all sat stunned for a minute until we all started laughing at how terrible it was. I asked, ‘Did you get the part?’ he chuckled, ‘Nope,'” Golightly added.

Though Brimley was in the public eye, he didn’t really like reporters, but there were a few in Southern Utah who were able to gain his trust, though not without effort.

Brian Passey, a former arts reporter for The Spectrum in St. George, said the first time he spoke with Brimley scared him to death.

“He could be an intimidating man. But that personality is what made his characters so memorable. After all, they weren’t really characters. They were all Wilford Brimley,” Passey said.

The soft center

But beneath his intimidating exterior, Brimley is more fondly remembered for his soft center and good heart.

“He had a soft center that manifested in his love for children for whose benefit he donated much time and money,” Jones said.

Hurricane resident Carolyn Murset who became friends with Brimley during “Harvey” as well, echoed Jones in the following anecdote:

He was also compassionate. During one of our visits, I’d mentioned that I had just performed at a fundraiser for a local young father awaiting a heart transplant. The event was sparsely attended. He said to his wife, Beverly, ‘Get the checkbook,’ and then to me, ‘Give me their address, and we’ll get this money to them.’ I have no idea of the amount on the check, or if the young couple who received it even knew who Wilford Brimley was. He didn’t and wouldn’t have wanted the recognition for his generosity.

For Golightly, Brimley’s kindness came out when she was able to visit him, especially when she brought her children with her.

“I went to visit him a few times, one time I brought my daughter with me. He told us the story of the song, ‘Rainbow Connection,'” Golightly said. “He looked at my daughter and told her, ‘Your mom loves you so much. She sacrifices for you and wants your life to be amazing.'”

After Passey earned his trust as a journalist, he was able to get to know Brimley as a friend, having the opportunity to eat dinner with him in his home.

“We didn’t just see Wilford the cowboy turned Marine turned Howard Hughes bodyguard (yes, for real) turned actor. We also got Wilford the jazz singer and Wilford who tears up when he talks about little kids,” Passey said, describing a time having dinner with Brimley and both of their wives.

The actor and mentor

While Brimley was known for many of his high profile television and film performances, he also graced the stage in Southern Utah on a few occasions.

Wilford Brimley as Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Kerry Kimball, St. George News

The Stage Door’s Kerry Kimball said she was approached because Brimley was investigating the possibility of working with a local theater company on a few projects. She was told that Brimley would decide whether he wanted to work with her based on a one-on-one meeting.

With Brimley’s approval, they started collaborating on projects.

“The first thing we collaborated on was ‘Love Letters’ with Katherine Ross. Ms. Ross was a dear friend of his and he had performed the role opposite her before,” Kimball said.

“Wilford was also a ‘my word is my bond’ and a handshake kind of person. When we decided to work on ‘Love Letters,’ he wrote up a short handwritten contract for Katherine Ross and one for himself. The contracts made no mention of dates or even what they were for. When I pointed this out to him, he just said ‘You and I know what they are for.’ I didn’t argue with him, I just signed,” Kimball added.

After the success of ‘Love Letters,’ the pair collaborated on a stage production of ‘Harvey,’ which Brimley starred in and a celebrity concert series featuring several of Brimley’s famous friends.

It was through “Harvey” that many local actors were able to learn from Brimley as a mentor and become his friend.

Both Golightly and Murset told St. George News that Brimley extended an invitation to the entire cast of “Harvey” to come to his home and go over lines with him if they wanted.

“He taught me so much in those sittings, to be natural and myself. He taught me a lot about honesty and sincerity,” Golightly said. “Wilford believed in me even though I was green and had a lot to learn. Just him believing in me gave me the strength to believe in myself and the courage to be stronger and more confident.”

An image of Wilford Brimley taken backstage during the Stage Door’s production of “Harvey” at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Trey Paterson, St. George News

Murset, who also took Brimley up on his offer received not only Brimley’s mentorship, but the opportunity to have her one-woman play, “Tales of Tila,” produced by him.

“When I learned that he’d owned a ranch in northern New Mexico not too far from where I’d grown up, I asked if he’d be interested in listening to my ‘Tales of Tila’ on CD. My play takes place in northern New Mexico the first half of the 20th century,” Murset said, adding that he said would gladly listen to it and then ended up sharing the CD with his neighbors.

“At rehearsals and before performances of ‘Harvey,’ he’d pull me aside, giving me encouragement and advice. He told me, ‘I’ll put you and your play on the stage.’ He did. He was a man of his word,” Murset added. “When I was intimidated at taking my show on the road, Wilford was my cattle-prod and cheerleader.”

The singer

What many people might not know about Brimley is that he was a very good singer, Jones said of his friend.

“He was a fantastic singer. Seriously, like Sinatra,” Jones said. “He used to have a little combo, and he’d play around LA, he took me with a few times. Weirdest thing you ever saw. He’d stand there like a tree stump and this mind-blowing voice would tear into a standard. Chills. Not kidding.”

Brimley’s love of music extended beyond his singing and he often shared it with his friends.

“Wilford introduced me to Amazon Alexa. His kids had given him the Alexa tower in his living room. Several of our visits were guided listening sessions of his favorite jazz, Latina and Cuban artist musicians. He himself was a fine vocalist,” Murset said.

Brimley has several albums recorded, including one full of cowboy poetry, Murset said, all of which she is grateful to have as a way to remember her friend.

The man

But whether on the screen, the stage or in his living room, Brimley is remembered for being exactly who he was.

Wilford Brimley as Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Kerry Kimball, St. George News

“What you saw on the movie screen, TV or on the stage, was what you got in person. I don’t believe he believed in acting. Whatever that situation or character required, he believed in performing it with truth,” Kimball said. “He had a gruff, crotchety exterior at times, but he really, really cared about people.”

Golightly agreed.

“I know Wilford was a bit rough around the edges, but his heart was a heart of gold, he genuinely cared about people, and I will always look up to him as a friend and a mentor,” she said.

And it was his caring attitude that touched the lives of so many in Southern Utah and beyond.

“Wilford didn’t really like reporters, so I was honored that I had earned his trust and his friendship. I hope he would be OK with me calling him a friend. I know I was honored that he called me ‘Son,’ Passey said.

St. George News reporter ASPEN STODDARD contributed to this report.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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