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SYFY WIRE obituary

Wilford Brimley, actor in Cocoon and John Carpenter's The Thing, dies at 85

By Josh Weiss
Wilfred Brimley The Thing

Wilford Brimley, an actor known for roles in John Carpenter's The Thing and Ron Howard's Cocoon, has died at the age of 85. His agent, Lynda Bensky, confirmed to The New York Times that he had been suffering from kidney issues over the last two months. Brimley passed away Saturday at hospital in St. George, Utah.

His role as the paranoid biologist Dr. Blair in the 1982 remake of The Thing is legendary. After witnessing the alien's assimilation of Outpost 31's kennel of dogs, the character does some calculations and discovers that the entire world could be overrun if the creature were ever to reach civilization. This revelation causes him to snap and sabotage the crew's vehicles and communication implements. Blair is forced into isolation by the rest of the men, but it later turns out that he's one of the "Things," which tries to build an escape craft before absorbing Nauls (T.K. Carter) and Garry (Donald Moffat) in the run-up to the explosive climax with Kurt Russell's MacReady.

Brimley remained fond of the project over the decades, sometimes joking about its sporadic relevance on Twitter. During an interview with LA Weekly in 2016, he praised the groundbreaking practical effects work of Rob Bottin. It should be noted that the dog sequence mentioned below did involve the help of the late Stan Winston.

"This was my first experience in a movie featuring special effects. There was a kid in charge [of the creature effects], Rob Bottin, a genius at developing that stuff. At one point, I had [makeup] all over me and turned into the Thing. That was something," Brimley said. "I've personally never been a big fan of rubber dogs, monsters, special effects and stuff like that. But on this occasion, it seemed necessary. These things did not look like puppets. They were hideous. I mean, the dogs in the movie — the real dogs — were nice to be around. But the creatures that that kid Rob created were horrible!"

When it came to Cocoon three years later (Ron Howard's fourth feature film as a director), Brimley took up the post of Ben Luckett. Interestingly, the movie also dealt with aliens coming to Earth, although their intentions were much more benign. In particular, Tom Benedek's screenplay revolved around a group of senior citizens who are granted youthful renewal through extraterrestrial means.

"He was a kid," Brimley said of Howard in 2014. "He got a lot older doing that movie. He was with some veteran actors ... they were the big time."

1985 was also the year that Brimley starred as Noa Briqualon in the made-for-TV Star Wars movie Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. The oft-forgotten film was based on a story by George Lucas and received three Emmy nominations. Until last week, when The Mandalorian blasted onto the scene with 15 nominations, Battle for Endor was the only live-action Star Wars production to receive Emmy nods.

Born in Salt Lake City as Anthony Wilford Brimley, the actor served in the Marine Corps and started his professional career as a farmer and rodeo rider. He broke into the entertainment business by fitting horses with shoes for Western-themed TV shows and films.

In his later years, Brimley became famous for his bushy mustache and iconic pronunciation of the word "diabetes" (die-uh-beet-us) during his stint as a brand ambassador for Liberty Medical. He is survived by his second wife, Beverly, and three sons from a previous marriage: James, John, and William. Brimley's first wife of 44 years, Lynne Bagley, passed away in 2000.