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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

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Bridges's road to love and marital happiness also had its bumps and potholes. Again he was slow to fully engage. The story here begins in 1974 in Montana, in the little town of Chico Hot Springs. Bridges was there making Rancho Deluxe, a comedy that he sees as a zany precursor to The Big Lebowski. One day during the shoot, his eye fell upon an intriguing young woman named Susan Geston, from Fargo, North Dakota.

"She was in Chico working at a dude ranch, waiting on tables -- the kind of thing you do in college," Bridges recalls. "I was kind of head-over-heels, just over her looks. She was this beautiful girl -- with a broken nose and two black eyes [the result of a car accident] -- and I couldn't take my eyes off that beauty juxtaposed with that disfigurement. Finally, I got my courage up and went over and asked her out on a date. And she said, 'Noooo.'"

Ouch. Here was Bridges, 24, rugged and handsome, and already a swaggering Hollywood star. Little wonder Susan's refusal was a bit deflating. "Later on, I asked her what that was all about and she said, 'Oh, I didn't want you Hollywood guys to come in there and get all the local action. Forget about it,' she said. She wasn't that kind of girl."

Soon thereafter, Jeff bumped into Susan at a hangout in Chico. They danced a little, and her resistance slowly began to melt. Soon they were living together at Jeff's house in the hills above Malibu, with a beautiful view of the Pacific. Even in the heat of the romance, Jeff still had his hesitations about commitment and marriage. Watching his mom and dad over the years, he knew that choosing a partner was probably the most important decision he would ever make. The very idea of it stopped him dead in his tracks. Finally, though, he jumped in heart and soul, and the result has been a strong, durable marriage, three lovely daughters and happy homes in Santa Barbara, California, and Montana, not far from where they met.

At home with the family, Bridges's restless creative energy flows into channels outside of acting. In addition to his longtime interest in painting, he's an avid and accomplished photographer. For years he's taken candid shots on his movie sets and used them to create intimate albums that he shares with his coworkers at the end of the shoot. The Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California, regularly features his work. Bridges has also taken up ceramics and has had great fun creating his own whimsical Web site, www.JeffBridges.com. As if this weren't enough, he plays guitar and piano and writes much of his own music. Last year he released his first CD, Be Here Soon, and he plans another. As usual with Bridges, the idea for the CD was a long time in gestation.

"It's a pretty eclectic mix. You've got some reggae tunes on there, some R & B, blues, rock, pop and some touches of jazz. It feels like so late to be letting the music out because I've wanted to do music since I was a teenager. It's taken that long for me to bring it out."

True artist that he is, Bridges channels his private turmoils into his different mediums of expression, the better to see and examine them. "There's a painting I did that kind of sums up my process for making decisions," he says. "It came out of a dream I had where I'm going down a huge river, with deep walls on either side of the cliffs, and there are these very large whirlpools, a series of them, all over the place. At the vortex of each whirlpool there's a jewel of some sort, a beautiful jewel, each one different and more beautiful than the next.

"I'm in a rowboat trying to navigate through these whirlpools. I'll row over, see a jewel, and I'll say, 'Oh, look! Oh, it's beautiful!' And then I'll see another and say, 'Oh, look at this one! It's so beautiful! Oh, my God!' And then it hits me: 'Oh, no! I'm stuck! The vortex! I'm being sucked in!' And the title of the painting is, Jeff Makes a Decision."

In recent years, Bridges has developed a new passion: smoking fine cigars. "I'm probably a product of the big cigar boom of the last 10 years or so. I'm probably also a product of Cigar Aficionado," he says. "I remember getting the magazine once or twice early on and looking through it and seeing what the best cigars were. Then a few years ago I was in New York making a movie and I went looking for some fine cigars. It was then that I started really enjoying them and collecting different types."

Bridges, who smokes one or two cigars a day, particularly loves PadrÛn Anniversarios, proving that he's a man of exceptional taste. PadrÛns, from Nicaragua, are among the finest in the world. Along with his PadrÛns, Bridges keeps his humidor at home stocked with a wide variety of cigars. "I usually order my cigars from Draper's, a place in Washington, D.C. I discovered it when I was there shooting Arlington Road."

As convivial as he is in conversation, Bridges says that at heart he is a solitary man; he cherishes his time alone. He'll do the mandatory premiere for the movies he stars in, but otherwise, like his father before him, he studiously avoids the Hollywood parties and nightclubs. He'd much rather be with Susan and the girls or alone with a cigar. "Usually when I smoke is after I've finished my business day at home. Around 5 or 6 o'clock I'll make myself a drink, choose a cigar, and go out for a nice walk behind my house. We have this lovely hill with wildflowers on it and a bench up there with a view of the ocean. I usually bring a book but I very rarely crack it. I usually just sit there with my cigar and look out at the ocean."

In contemplative moments like this, Bridges can look back over his 51 years and feel happy and fulfilled. He's made some great movies and he's worked with the finest actors and actresses of his time. He's also had the incomparable joy of working with his father in Tucker and Blown Away and collaborating with Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys and Hidden in America. Bridges is also extremely proud of his sister, Cindy, who recently produced a successful play in Los Angeles.

As it was when he was growing up, acting and family are inseparably intertwined in Bridges's life with Susan and their daughters, and sometimes that can be worrisome. A serious parent, Bridges is always concerned about setting a good example for his kids, showing them right from wrong, and sending them out into the world with strong values, a shockproof moral compass, and a can-do spirit. However, that does not always square with the roles he plays.

"When I was offered the part of The Dude in The Big Lebowski, I went through a big thing in my head worrying if this was going to be a bad example for my girls," Bridges says. "The guy was kind of an anti-hero, a pot-smoking, slacker kind of guy, and I was really racking my brain about it. I always want to feel free to play any role, a despicable guy or a good guy -- the full range of human experience. But this one was really giving me problems.

"So I assembled the family and told them my problem. After a long pause, my middle girl said, 'Dad, you're an actor. We know that it's all pretend what you do. We know that when you kiss some lady on the screen that you still love Mom. We know you're an actor.' So I had their permission, their blessing, to go play a character like The Dude. That was great that they understood that. And I count on the audiences to understand that what I do in my personal life and what I do on the screen are not some kind of example for them to base their lives on. Hopefully, when people see a movie, they know it's a movie."

In one important way, Bridges is not following his father's lead: he's not pushing his daughters toward movies or acting. He prefers to let nature take its course, to let his girls navigate their own rivers and find their own jewels among the whirlpools. Right on, Dude. As usual.

Paul Chutkow is the author of Depardieu, a biography of French actor Gérard Depardieu, and Visa, The Power of an Idea, the story of how plastic money has changed the world.

 


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