It was fiction, of course, but Wilford Brimley’s one scene of about 5 minutes in “Absence of Malice” set in my mind what it was like to be a “good guy” in the Department of Justice while showing that there exists a temptation to act beyond what the law allows in pursuit of a misguided view of what seems “right.”
Wilford Brimley died Saturday in Utah at the age of 85. His career in Hollywood is chronicled in today’s Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times. His career arc traversed some fascinating times, but according to those who knew him well, he was the same man the day he died as he was the first day he took an acting job at the urging of Robert Duvall, whom he had met on the set of a television western when Brimley worked as a stunt man and horse wrangler. Brimley had been a rodeo cowboy, and he owned a horse farm that provided horses to television westerns in the 1960s. Because horsemanship was sometimes in short supply, Brimley would be hired to appear on horseback in one or more scenes. He once said there were days he would be in wardrobe and makeup as an Indian and ride one direction over the top of a hill, and then change into wardrobe and makeup as a cowboy and ride a different direction as one of those being chased by the Indians.
He got into acting at the suggestion of Robert Duvall after Brimley said he was fascinated watching Duvall work and what he could do with a character. He landed his first major part as the plant foreman in the movie “China Syndrome” after he walked into a trailer on the set to ask Jack Lemmon for an autograph. Lemmon asked if he had ever acted, he said a little, and Lemmon told the casting director to hire him.
But for me, it was this extended scene — Brimley’s only scene in Absence of Malice — that just grabbed my attention and put in my head the idea “That’s what I want to do.” The scene itself goes on for a couple more minutes, but I couldn’t find a full cut on YouTube. But if you know the movie you’ve seen it.
The movie is somewhat technically accurate for its day, but watching it now, there are things about the portrayal of DOJ that are no longer true. At one time, there was an “Organized Crime Strike Force” based in Washington DC, and “Strike Force” prosecutors would be dispatched to various cities around the country to address one particular case or series of related cases, and then return to Washington. Sometimes these involved extended “detail” assignments where the DOJ “Strike Force” attorney would move along with his family to the city where the investigation was taking place. The Bob Balaban character is an example of such an attorney. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, these “strike force” attorneys were phased out. The prosecutors who were living in different cities were given the option to return to Washington DC or become a member of the US Attorney’s Office in the city they were working in.
The other prosecutor in the scene is repeatedly referred to as the “District Attorney”, but the position is clearly that of the US Attorney. My guess is that not enough people in 1981 knew what “US Attorney” meant, and the makers of the movie decided to use the more familiar term “district attorney” to describe the character.
One humorous note about Brimley that I didn’t know until just recently was how much “older” he always looked than his true age. “Absence of Malice” was filmed in 1980 — Brimley was only 45. Maybe it’s just me, but the character has always seemed at least 15 years older than that.
This point was driven home to an ever greater degree in “Cocoon,” which was only five years later in 1985 when Brimley was 50. But he acted as a contemporary alongside Don Ameche and Hume Cronin as three elderly residents of a retirement community. Ameche was 27 years older than Brimley and Cronin was 24 years older. Both were old enough to be Brimley’s father.
Brimley’s family moved to Santa Monica when he was 6 years old and he grew up in Southern California. But he bought a ranch and moved to Utah in 2004. He hated LA — too big, and too many people who moved too fast and talked too fast he once said.