Wilford Brimley made his breakthrough essentially playing himself on The Waltons
His character was even named Brimley.
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Odds are, when Americans think of Wilford Brimley, two things come to mind, his mustache and his commercials. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, in his folksy, to-the-point manner, he would declare in Quaker Oats ads, "It's the right thing to do." Beyond selling oatmeal as a healthy breakfast, he promoted diabetes awareness for years as the spokesman for the American Diabetes Association.
With his sweater vests, plaid button-down shirts and handlebar mustache, he always seemed to be playing himself. He was a true character more than a character actor, whether he was playing a friendly nuclear power plant employee in The China Syndrome, the old-timey manager of a baseball team in The Natural, or the wicked head of of a law firm in The Firm. Of course, he even got the chance to take the lead in Ron Howard's charming sci-fi flick Cocoon.
But it all started on The Waltons. In his first credited screen appearance, Brimley made his debut on The Waltons in "The Ghost Story" in 1974. How apt was the role? He was seen on a rocking chair on a porch. His character was even named Brimley, Horace Brimley.
Brimley appeared in 10 episodes of The Waltons between 1974–77. We see Brimley ordering lumber for a barn and helping find Olivia in the woods with his dogs. It's hard to separate the character from our image of the actor. In those early appearances, he was frequently billed as "A. Wilford Brimley."
His real-life background was fit for a television plot itself. The rugged Utah native worked as a bodyguard for Howard Hughes, not to mention as a ranch hand, wrangler and blacksmith. His Hollywood career began with jobs as a horseriding extra and stuntman.
He had no formal training as an actor. Brimley indeed was always playing himself, to some degree, and that was big enough for any screen.