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Jeff Bridges: Super Natural

For 30 years he's been one of America's most gifted and fascinating actors. Now Jeff Bridges takes us inside his celebrated family -- and inside his turbulent creative quest.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, Sep/Oct 01

(continued from page 1)

His father. Throughout the conversation, Bridges keeps circling back to stories about his father and mother, and he makes clear that they were -- and remain -- his mentors, inspirations and rock-solid anchors in the turbulent whirlpools of Hollywood and the creative life. As Bridges explains it, he was born under the boughs of a magnificent family tree, and everything he is today flows from those hearty roots.

"My dad was amazing," he recalls. "He approached acting with such joy, and he loved it so much, it was almost contagious. I'll run into people on the street and they'll say, 'Hey, yeah, I worked with your dad.' And their eyes will light up, like they got a good hit from the guy, and I could tell they got a little taste of him."

His father was Lloyd Bridges, the beloved, highly respected actor who made his name as skin diver Mike Nelson in the popular 1950s TV series "Sea Hunt." He also starred in the musicals Cactus Flower and Man of La Mancha on Broadway, and in his later years he became a comedy sensation through the wacky Airplane! movies and his occasional turn as Mandelbaum on "Seinfeld." Lloyd died in 1998. Jeff Bridges' s mother, Dorothy, was -- and remains -- a formidable presence in her own right. Her friends affectionately refer to her as Dotty, and inside the family, Bridges says, she's affectionately known as The General.

"She's something," Bridges says. "She runs the entire show. Like dad, she was born in California, but her folks were from Liverpool. By the time her father was 14, he had jumped on a sailing ship and run away from home. By the time he was 21, he had been around the world seven times. He finally settled down in New York, and eventually he became the head of transportation for Broadway Department Stores."

Lloyd and Dotty met at UCLA, and from the beginning acting and their family life were inseparably intertwined. "My father came from a broken home. He didn't get much support for becoming an actor," Jeff says. "He studied law for a while and then switched over and became a drama major at UCLA." After they married, Lloyd and Dotty had three children: Beau, Jeff, who was born on December 4, 1949, and their younger sister, Cindy. A fourth child, Jeff says, died of sudden infant death syndrome.

In the early years, the family lived in the Southern California town of Mar Vista. Later, with Lloyd's success in "Sea Hunt," the Bridges moved to Westwood, home to a multitude of Hollywood stars. It was a rarified atmosphere, and in the bosom of the Bridges family, acting wasn't seen as a profession; it was seen as a passion, a calling, and a source of immense joy and fulfillment. Almost inevitably, the Bridges kids got bitten by the bug. Unlike other budding young actors, they didn't need to look for mentors or acting coaches. Everything they needed they got from mom and dad, including boundless support, inspiration and well-grounded values.

"My father, unlike his father, was very supportive of all his kids getting involved in movies and acting in general," Jeff said. "He loved what he did and wanted to turn his kids onto it. He thought it was a great way of meeting people, being creative, and traveling around the world and doing what you love to do."

Not surprisingly, Jeff caught the bug at a very young age. When he was eight, his dad had him appearing in episodes of "Sea Hunt." "I did two or three of those. It was always great getting out of school. That was my main motivation for acting at the time." At this stage, acting was only a lark. He much preferred hanging out with big brother Beau.

"He was a wonderful guide," Jeff says. "He's eight years older than I am, and when we were growing up he'd really take the young kid under his wing." First came sports. "Beau was always kind of small for his age, but he was very athletic, and he really excelled at sports. He was scouted by the Dodgers and played on the UCLA basketball team. I was always big for my age, so I think he got a kick out of teaching me to throw a curveball, how to box, and all that stuff. And he did the same thing with the acting."

Beau went into acting first, and soon embarked on a successful movie career (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Norma Rae, The Hotel New Hampshire). He also found a secure niche in television, doing made-for-TV movies and miniseries, sometimes also producing and directing. When his little brother was ready, Beau was happy to show him the ropes.

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