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Living the Dream

Jeff Bridges’ Oscar win for Crazy Heart in 2010 led to the fulfillment of a teenage fantasy to be a Rock star

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Observes Cooper, “It’s a familiar tale of redemption, but Jeff played it with so much warmth and humor. It takes a man who’s lived with demons to convey that pain. I think Jeff allows himself to feel the emotions he’s experiencing as the character. But histrionics—that’s not in his quiver. He cares about emotional purity and emotional truth.”
Notes Bridges, “There was a charm about doing a movie about something I love so much, like playing music. It was a leap of faith—but I had faith in T-Bone and Scott. And I’ve had great luck with first-time directors.”
That’s been true since Bridges’ first hit: Peter Bogdanovich was a former film critic who had been a director-for-hire when he finally got a chance to make a first feature of his own, The Last Picture Show, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. He discovered Bridges, along with former model Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms for that film.
“When I met him, he was 19, and my first impression was that he was a sweetheart,” Bogdanovich says. “I could tell right away that he was a good actor, and I thought he would be good playing a prick, because he was a sweet guy and you could tell that about him. So there was this tension between his own personality and the character’s bad behavior. He made the character more likable than he was written. You needed to know he wasn’t a bad person and Jeff brought that to the table.”
Almost 20 years later, Bogdanovich reteamed with Bridges and the Last Picture Show cast for a film based on McMurtry’s sequel, Texasville: “He was the same sweetheart,” Bogdanovich says. “He said a very interesting thing to me one day while we were driving to the location. He said, ‘You get dealt a certain hand in life. It’s what you do with it that counts.’ I thought that was very profound.”
It’s the day after the performance at Santa Fe Station, as Bridges settles into a patio table at a restaurant at the Red Rock Casino, in another part of suburban Las Vegas. It’s a warm April morning and Bridges, who orders a crab-and-avocado omelette, keeps moving his chair so he’s not sitting in the sun. Wearing a T-shirt, jeans and laceless Converse All-Stars, he’ll play his second Vegas show that night, in the Rocks Lounge at Red Rock.
The subject turns to cigars, which causes Bridges to smile: “An interesting subject, my whole relationship to tobacco,” he says. He began with cigarettes, smoking them in high school and, eventually, on movie sets. He played smokers in some movies, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
“Preston Tucker actually died of lung cancer. He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day,” Bridges says. “I remember I got nauseous from all the cigarettes I had to smoke making that movie. I was grateful that I wasn’t hooked on them. I could dabble with cigarettes and not feel that I needed more. Now I’ll occasionally take a couple of drags on a cigarette and it doesn’t taste good.”
His taste for smoking cigars, he allows, “might have come from smoking pot. I enjoy sampling different kinds of herb. There’s a certain aspect of that with cigars: all the different types and sizes and aromas, the way they’re made. Each one is individual—like rolling a joint. And unlike with cigarettes, you have a relationship with each cigar. It’s a unique thing.”
He favors Montecristo No. 2 (“I remember John Huston used to smoke those—three or four a day”) and says, “I don’t like them too strong. I appreciate the way they’re constructed. Partagás has some that are very nice. I like the shape of Padróns. And the Fuente Don Carlos—I really appreciate the long ash. I like the fact that it keeps on for a long time.
“I’m not an aficionado. I know what I like but I don’t study it. I just appreciate the subtle differences between them. I remember when I first started smoking them, I got a little book to keep track of what I smoked. I’d keep the bands in the book, too; that was a fun thing to do. I’ll go through periods where I smoke one every day, periods where it’s a kind of ritual and other times where it’s not as regular. It depends on what I’m doing and who I’m hanging out with.
“I had a ritual I used to love. I would walk up on my hill, with a cigar and a glass of wine, a book and some good music. I’d light up a nice cigar, and then I’d sit and smoke and watch the sunset.”
Mention of marijuana brings a smile to Bridges’ face as he notes, “Now that pot is practically legal, I don’t smoke anymore. I’ve been off pot for a while.”
Which comes as a shock to fans who recognize Bridges for what has become his signature role. Though he gave awards-worthy performances in films about men dealing with the rawest kind of existential crises in films such as Fearless, Wild Bill, The Fisher King and True Grit, the role that people routinely stop him to talk about is Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). The Dude—a hapless and unwilling private detective caught up in a case he doesn’t quite understand—seemed to divide his time between bowling, drinking White Russians (a cocktail involving vodka, milk and coffee liqueur) and smoking what appeared to be an endless series of joints.
“People recognize me and say, ‘Hey, wanna get high?’ And the guys don’t believe me when I say I’ve stopped. In fact, when I was doing Lebowski, I didn’t smoke any weed at all. Those lines the Coens write are so beautiful that I wanted to have my wits about me. I didn’t want to add that element into it.
“I made that mistake early in my career with booze. I was playing a scene where I was supposed to be drunk, so I had a few drinks beforehand. I was fine for about a half-hour—but then you have to get through the rest of the day, and that doesn’t work.”
The Big Lebowski itself started with a cult following, which has grown to the point that many cities have annual celebrations of the film, called “Lebowski Fest.” At the annual gatherings, people dress up as the characters and watch the film (which was recently named the No. 1 bowling movie of all time by, all the while debating its deeper meaning.
“I remember being surprised that it wasn’t a hit when it came out,” Bridges says. “It had to hit Europe and splash back to the U.S. Then they started having these Lebowski Fests. I went to one and I felt like the Beatles when I walked out. Here was a whole sea of Dudes in the audience. It was kind of amazing.”
Bernard Glassman, Zen Buddhist lay-teacher, cowrote the book The Dude and the Zen Master, with Bridges, published earlier this year, about how The Big Lebowski actually seems to espouse bits of Zen wisdom through the character of The Dude. (“Bernie calls them the ‘Koan’ brothers,” Bridges jokes.) Glassman, a longtime friend of Bridges’, has also been a steady cigar-smoking companion when the two of them see each other.
“There are a lot of things in the dialogue of The Big Lebowski that remind me of Zen philosophy, in the modern vernacular,” Glassman says. “In my opinion, Jeff is quite a bit like The Dude, which is one of the things that struck me about him. The character of The Dude strikes me as someone who embodies many traits of an enlightened guy.”
Still, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the Lebowski tree. Writer-director Rod Lurie, who cast Bridges as the president of the United States in The Contender (2000), remembers visiting Bridges in Santa Barbara and drinking White Russians with him while selling him on the script.
“He was in an outfit that looked like it was out of The Big Lebowski,” Lurie recalls. “And he explained that, in Lebowski, he wore his own clothes.”
After the meeting, Bridges walked Lurie to his car, hugged him and said, “The Dude as president. Who’d-a thunk it?” But, as Lurie notes, “He’s one of the greatest actors in the history of the screen. He’s able to assimilate that charisma in different ways for different characters.”
On the set, Bridges smoked cigars as that character President Jackson Evans. By the end of the production, he had Lurie and costar Joan Allen smoking cigars as well.
“He went total Mephistopheles on me,” Lurie says with a laugh. “I’m a complete teetotaler. But he was instructing me on the aroma and the taste of a good cigar. And he got me to smoke a cigar—or, to be truthful, a quarter of a cigar. But Jeff seemed obsessed with them. On the set, he spent all his downtime working on music and cigars.”
Asked how the satisfaction he gets from acting has changed, Bridges smiles and says, “Like The Dude says, it’s up and down, strikes and gutters. And you know—the fear doesn’t go away. It’s still there. But your relationship to it changes. It becomes more of your buddy. And then the work remains fresh.”
Though he does his best to stay in the moment, Bridges shakes his head when asked if he’s a practicing Buddhist.
“I’m of a Buddhist-ly bent,” he allows. “I meet guys who are into it and I resonate with their thoughts. It feels like how I view the world. I sit, I meditate.”
And, like his father, who encouraged him to become an actor by taking Jeff out of school as an 8-year-old to act on episodes of “Sea Hunt,” Bridges has a social conscience, with a particular focus on the issue of hunger in America. He helped start the End Hunger Network in 1983 and is the spokesman for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. He lent his face and voice to the recent documentary, A Place at the Table, which pointed out that, through social food programs started by President Richard Nixon, American childhood hunger was nearly eradicated in the 1970s. But since the conservative revolution that shredded the safety net for programs such as food stamps and free school meals, the figures on food insecurity among children have spiraled.
“There’s actually federal money to feed kids available to the states,” Bridges says. “Feeding kids is pretty simple. The money is there, but the states have to have the programs. My goal is to make Santa Barbara County the first no-kid-hungry county in the country.
“The reason there’s hunger is there is not sufficient political will to end it. That’s when it will be changed. The politicians represent us. So we need to figure out what we’re willing to do to help create that political will. And I’m not talking about gestures like donating $100 to scratch the guilt itch. That’s part of the problem.”
Scott Cooper says, “You can’t be a great actor if you’re not a deeply humanitarian person. Jeff is; the need to be adored is something that doesn’t factor into his life.”
Asked how old his current age—63—would have seemed to the 20-year-old Jeff, Bridges says, “Man, when I was in 6th grade, 20 looked ancient. So 60? It’s hard for me to believe I’m as old as I am and that I have a grandchild.
“I sat next to a woman on a plane recently who was 80 years old. She told me she was a great-great-grandmother and she was going off to visit some friends. And she said, ‘Last time, we all went skinny-dipping.’ ” Bridges pauses to give a throaty chuckle and shake his head in approval.
“Skinny-dipping,” he says. “That was very heartening to me. I thought, ‘Well, maybe there’s some fun left.’ ”
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