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The lesser-known side of Utah native, actor Wilford Brimley

‘He had a beautiful, mellow baritone voice. He could really sing a ballad.’

SHARE The lesser-known side of Utah native, actor Wilford Brimley
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Wilford Brimley in October 1992 at his ranch in Lehi, Utah. Brimley died at the age of 85 on Aug. 1.

Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — The day Wilford Brimley died, Stephen Colbert tweeted out a video. 

Unlike the many tributes that had started flooding social media, Colbert’s post didn’t mention Brimley’s walrus mustache or the catchphrase from the actor’s Quaker Oats commercials. 

It didn’t talk about the famous fishing scene from Ron Howard’s “Cocoon” that Brimley had improvised. Or Brimley playing Robert Redford’s grizzled baseball manager in “The Natural.” Or his scene-stealing moment as a gruff U.S. attorney general at the end of “Absence of Malice.” 

Instead, Colbert redirected thousands of people to a video of Brimley tenderly singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” originally performed by Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog. 

“So many great performances, but I’ll never forget seeing him sing this,” the late night TV host wrote. 

Based on the comments, the video surprised a lot of people.

“Who knew?” 

“Had no idea he had this in him.”

“Why is it we only know these things about people after they’re gone?” 

But John Diehl already knew. 

Recently, on a Wednesday summer night, Diehl joined a Zoom call from his home in West Jordan. A few others were also on the call. The 85-year-old Brimley appeared on his computer, near the bottom left part of the screen. 

The actor’s son, Bill Brimley, stood out-of-sight behind his dad, strumming a guitar. Wilford Brimley began to sing. 

“Toward the heavens, see how the bright stars do shine. By the same stars above you, I swear that I love you, you are my favorite Fraulein.” 

Diehl had heard Brimley sing “Fraulein” probably half a dozen times. It was one of the actor’s favorites — a 1950s ballad he’d previously recorded with the Western Music group Riders in the Sky, and a song he lovingly performed for his wife, Beverly, at their wedding. 

That Zoom performance just a few weeks ago would be one of Brimley’s last times singing “Fraulein.” 

Wilford Brimley, the musician

Brimley died on Aug. 1 after suffering from a kidney ailment for two months. The dialysis had taken a toll on him. But even at his age, and in his weakened physical condition, the actor’s voice was strong. 

“He had a beautiful, mellow baritone voice,” Diehl told the Deseret News. “He could really sing a ballad.” 

Diehl first came to know Brimley through the actor’s son, Bill. The two met years ago and bonded over their love of classic rock — Diehl is in a Utah-based band called Code Blue Revival that plays 1960s and ’70s music. Bill Brimley would sometimes join Diehl and his friend/bandmate Mark Milligan, transforming their music into three-part harmonies. 

Occasionally, they’d play for Wilford. He was always complimentary of their sound.

The actor once invited Diehl’s band to play at an event for his nonprofit organization Hands Across the Saddle on his ranch in Greybull, Wyoming. And a few years ago, when Brimley moved back to Utah, Diehl’s band started playing at the actor’s annual birthday gatherings. 

Brimley loved to hear the band sing Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” But when it came to music, he was just as versatile as he was in acting. He loved jazz standards — he even recorded an album with the Jeff Hamilton Trio. As an avid horse rider, he also enjoyed cowboy western music. 

“He was somewhat eclectic about his music that he liked,” Diehl said. “That’s kind of the sign of a true music lover, too.”

One late night, after the guests had left his 80th birthday party, Brimley invited Diehl’s band to his den. He sat them down and began to play songs from the 1930s and ’40s that he loved. 

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John Diehl, from left, Wilford Brimley and Mark Milligan at Brimley’s 80th birthday party.

John Diehl

“He wanted to educate us on the beautiful music that we missed because of our age,” Diehl said. “He wanted us, the younger generation, to gain an appreciation of his music. That was a really special night for us, to sit with him for a number of hours and just listen to music.” 

In his older age, Brimley no longer played the guitar. But he kept on singing. And he never forgot a lyric. 

“Even when he wasn’t feeling as well, that man had a memory like you would not believe,” Diehl said. “The man had an unbelievable repertoire of music that he knew. He remembered words to every song that he wanted to sing. I thought it was pretty amazing to have all those songs in your brain. 

“And he remembered people, too,” Diehl continued. “You could meet Wilford one time and then 10 years later meet him again and he knew who you were.”

‘He was his own man’

Brimley was a private person, but he didn’t hide his opinions. He had strong thoughts on politics, religion, family and everything in between. 

“But at the same time, he was willing to listen to your opinion,” Diehl said. ”He was the kind of guy who would maybe not say it in words but basically say, ‘We’ll agree to disagree.’”

Years ago, Diehl’s band had the opportunity to play for a fundraiser. Brimley asked the musician how much he was getting paid. 

“Well, we were going to do it for free,” Diehl told the actor. 

Brimley didn’t like the sound of that. 

“‘Once you do that for free then you’ll do it for free every time. Your talents are worth paying, even for a fundraiser,’” Diehl recalled Brimley saying. “He believed everybody should get paid for the work that they do, whether it was as a cowboy or an actor or a musician.”

Wilford Brimley, left, talks during a press conference at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Monday, May 16, 2016, about receiving a WATCHMAN left atrial appendage closure device as Dr. Pete Weiss and Dr. Brian Whisenant look on.

Wilford Brimley, left, talks during a press conference at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Monday, May 16, 2016, about receiving a WATCHMAN left atrial appendage closure device as Dr. Pete Weiss and Dr. Brian Whisenant look on. Brimley died at the age of 85 on Aug. 1.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

For all of his fame, Brimley remained grounded, unwavering in his opinions. 

“Even his family says, ‘Wilford was Wilford Brimley from the time he was born to the time he died,’” Diehl said. “He never changed for anyone. He never changed for the industry — he was who he was. He was his own man, and that says a lot for that industry, to stand fast on who you are.”

Brimley didn’t have as much energy during his final days. But he liked singing on those Zoom conference calls that his son, Bill, set up for him whenever he came to visit. During the pandemic, Bill Brimley had started Zoom music nights to give friends an outlet to perform and share music. 

On that recent Wednesday night, Brimley was prepared to sing “Fraulein.” Diehl and others’ eyes were fixated on the actor, watching him sing a song that had carried so much meaning for him over the years. 

At one point, Diehl joined in with some harmony. But he quickly stopped because of the delay. Later on, Bill Brimley, who was standing behind his dad, started singing along. 

“Fraulein, Fraulein, look up toward the heavens. See how the very same stars shine. By those same stars above you, I swear I’ll always love you, you are my pretty Fraulein.”

That’s one of the last memories Diehl has of Brimley. He recorded it, so he can always go back and watch the special performance from a man who taught him so much about music.

“He was just a great guy to know, just a great human being,” Diehl said. “I love the old guy.”