SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- The 69-year-old actor paused, squinting a bit through his thick glasses at a room full of farriers. They had assembled in Salt Lake for the March 1, 2003, annual banquet for the American Farriers' Association.
The actor wet his lips and began, but he knew that there'd be no snowing this crowd. They were all independent, persnickity curmudgeons like he is. He had met his equals, and for a split second, both sides carefully sized each other up.
Neither side blinked.
"Yeah, but can he really shoe a horse?" was the question on 500 farriers' minds as they returned his stony stare.
As anyone who's been around horses knows, farriers need to be just as skilled at telling stories -- some would say lies -- as they are at shoeing horses, and Wil Brimley certainly passed that test. With impeccable timing and a sage, metered delivery, he spun yarns from his days of ranch shoeing in Utah. But he kept returning, with more than one sigh, to state over and over again what hard work horseshoeing is.
As the story goes, Wil Brimley was shoeing horses on a movie set one day -- and the rest is history. He has played the straightman to the likes of Tom Cruise in "The Firm" and Meryl Streep in "China Syndrome." He seemed right at home with fellow Utahan Robert Redford in both "The Natural" and one of the all-time classic horse cult films, "Electric Horseman."
While some might have expected him to put down the hammer and kiss his beat-up old anvil good-bye on his way to Hollywood, Wil Brimley just packed up his tools and took them with him. He's never really stopped shoeing, he'll tell you.
Wilford Brimley is America's most famous farrier, if you go by the numbers. Millions watched him shoe horses as crotchety old Gus Witherspoon on the 1980s-era family drama, "Our House." He convinced the writers to have Gus the grandfather go back to shoeing horses for some extra cash. As Wil likes to tell the story, he even got NBC to build him a shoeing rig. ("And a pretty nice one at that," he recalls.)
In more recent years, in-between films, Wilford Brimley has been the spokesman for Quaker Oats cereal and, currently, the American Diabetes Association. In these commercials he advises older Americans to have their blood sugar tested.
Brimley's talk to the farriers was short, but not very sweet. He kept his voice at a low monotone, and referred again and again to how hard farriers work -- and live. "My father wanted me to do something to earn an honest living, so I said I wanted to make that honest living shoeing horses," he began his final story. "My father looked at me and said, 'That's a little bit too honest, son'.'"
Brimley's deference to his fellow farriers brought him a generous standing ovation.
Wilford Brimley quietly left the banquet before the end of the raucous prize-giving ceremonies that led up to the announcement of the 2003 American Farrier's Team. One wonders if he drove to the banquet in a pickup truck or was chauffeured in a limousine.
It's easy to imagine him out in the dark parking lot searching for his own truck among the hundreds of shiny "rigs" parked there.
Once behind the wheel, he'd look like just another horseshoer on his way home from a hard day's work.
The 2004 American Farrier's Association Convention will be held in Rochester, New York.
More news about the AFA convention is available at www.hoofcare.com (link below).
Fran Jurga is editor of "Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science" and the web site www.hoofcare.com. She has been pestering poor Wilford Brimley about his horseshoeing past since she saw him shoe a horse on television in 1987and fondly refers to him as "the most difficult person I have ever tried (and tried and tried) to interview."