Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Wilford Brimley: Farewell to an Old Guy Who Really Felt His Oats

Crusty Wilford Brimley, he of the walrus mustache and the passion for Quaker Oatmeal, has left us at the ripe old age of 85. Curiously, the former soldier and ranch hand made his mark on Hollywood by playing men much older than his actual years. He was only 51 when he co-starred in Ron Howard’s Cocoon with such Hollywood veterans as Don Ameche (age 77), Hume Cronyn (age 74), and Jack Gilford (age 77). His wife was played by sixty-year-old Maureen Stapleton, and the legendary stage and screen star  Jessica Tandy (age 76) was also featured in the cast. (In 1984 I was privileged to interview Tandy and her longtime spouse, Cronyn, backstage before a production of Foxfire. But that’s a story for another day.)

Cocoon, for those too young to remember, concerns a group of oldsters living in a Florida retirement community. Plagued by health challenges and a loss of youthful vigor, they are not much enjoying their so-called golden years. Then the unthinkable happens: the elderly folks, somehow rejuvenated by the magical life-force in a neighbor’s swimming pool, are visited by aliens who invite them to sail to a distant planet where they can live forever. It is not an easy parting: most of them will be leaving behind friends and family as they sail off into the unknown. A few (Gilford’s character among them) choose to stay where they are: as he puts it in a poignant speech, “This is my home. It’s where I belong.” 

Ron Howard, in 1985 still early in his directing career, was so anxious about guiding the performances of legendary thespians that he was plagued by bizarre dreams: “I’m on a set, and something is just not clicking. I’m scrambling around, trying to make it happen, but I don’t really have the answers.” When he makes a tentative suggestion, everyone on the set turns to him and yells, “You’ve got to be kidding! That’s the stupidest thing we’ve ever heard.” Then, in his dream, the thoroughly red-faced Howard lurches into a desperate song-and-dance routine. In fact, the acting veterans liked and respected the thirty-one-year-old Howard. Which didn’t mean they refrained from pushing back when necessary. In that swimming pool scene, Brimley, Cronyn, and Ameche are required to cavort like youngsters, doing exuberant flips, dives, and cannoballs. Because of the age of his performers, Howard hired doubles to execute these stunts, then discovered the three actors were miffed: “They wanted to do it themselves. And they did. They really taught me that you can’t generalize about what people can, or cannot, do because of age.”

Howard was also surprised to learn that each senior member of his company had a different approach, which he needed to blend into a unified whole. Of the four cronies whose actions dominate much of the film, Hume Cronyn devoted much mental energy to analyzing his role, while Jack Gilford called on the skills of a trained vaudevillian. The dapper Don Ameche, whose nimble (and Oscar-winning) breakdancing scene is one of the film’s highlights, turned out to be an old-school Hollywood film actor who begged Howard to give him precise direction. As for curmudgeonly Wilford Brimley, he was happiest when going his own way. A prime example is the fishing scene, in which his character breaks the news to his beloved grandson that he’s leaving for outer space. With Howard’s blessings, Brimley discarded the scripted lines and improvised a simple but deeply moving farewell. Says Howard, “It is one of the scenes I've always been proudest of, and I had virtually nothing to do with it.” 

Some of the material from this post was taken from my 2003 biography, “Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond,” which has surprised me by becoming, during the pandemic, an Amazon bestseller in its Kindle edition. Up-and-coming: an audio version from Tantor. (Fingers crossed.)  

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