It’s weird that Wilford Brimley wound up as a meme.
On announcing his passing, TMZ—our national arbiter for who’s actually dead in this age of viral fake obits—described him as the “Face of Quaker Oats & Diabetes Campaigns.” Many of the responses to my own quick remembrance on Twitter were met with shouts of “DIABEEEETUS” or some variant. There’s a Twitter account dedicated to marking when actors pass the “Brimley/Cocoon Line” (that is, the age at which Wilford Brimley played a senior citizen in a retirement community in the movie Cocoon), the idea being that 50 (well, 49) is the new 30.
All of which is to say that Brimley seems to linger in the national memory not as a fine character actor who enlivened any production with his push-broom mustache and laconic drawl. And that’s a shame, because he’s brought so much joy to so many of us through the years.
It’s not Cocoon but another sci-fi offering that comes to mind when I think of Brimley: The Thing, John Carpenter’s claustrophobic Cold-War-by-way-of-the-cold classic. Brimley’s Blair embodies the real spirit of the picture, the inability to know who, exactly, has been compromised by the titular Thing. Has he been overtaken by the alien when he smashes up the computers, cutting the base off from the rest of the world, or is he simply trying to keep them safe? Has he been compromised when he’s self-isolating in his shack away from the base or later, after demanding to be freed? When he’s a madman he seems more reasonable than when he’s calm and collected—and that simple realization is the most frightening revelation of all.
Brimley later went toe-to-toe with one of the great actors of the silver screen and one of the great stars of the silver screen (Gene Hackman and Tom Cruise, respectively) in The Firm, a bloated-but-entertaining adaptation of the Grisham potboiler. He’s the perfect actor to bounce those two very different personalities off of, able to out-gruff Hackman and lend a bit of gravitas to the still-young Cruise.
But then, perhaps Brimley was fated for memedom. How can a man who creates this image—a shot worthy of the Renaissance masters; a shot that could be studied for its perfection for ages; a shot one could build whole retrospective film festivals out of—not be?
In fully comprehending and absorbing this visual, we come to understand that Wilford Brimley was both the superego of America—a solemn, gravelly voice reminding us of the righteous path—and also its id.
As is often the case, and following in the tradition of Tocqueville and Dickens, it took a foreigner entering this land to clearly see America for what it is. John Woo added Wilford Brimley to Hard Target to show us that America is a land where a geriatric can ride a horse and shoot a bow while galloping away from an explosion at full speed, debris raining down all around him, a white-haired, white-mustachioed angel of death and harbinger of awesome.
And if he can do so in a deeply questionable Cajun accent, all the better.