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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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"When I was looking for an agent, Beau worked on scenes with me and helped me prep," Bridges recalls. "One of the tough things about acting, when you're learning it, is where do you act? Where do you get the audience? Beau and I used to do this crazy thing where he'd go out and rent a flatbed truck, and we'd prepare a bunch of scenes and improvisational ideas. Then we'd pull into a supermarket parking lot and stage a fake fight. People would come around, notice us, and then we'd leap up and say, 'We're just kidding!' Then we'd jump on the back of the truck and do our scenes -- until the police came. And when the police came, we'd try to integrate them into our improvs. Then we'd jump into the cab and drive off to the next supermarket. We played the supermarket circuit."

Throughout his youth, Jeff remained an indifferent student. His parents were so worried about him that they sent him to military school for his freshman year of high school. "I wasn't applying myself, they said, that sort of thing. I was paying too much attention to the girls instead of studying," he says. Military school didn't click, and the following year he returned to Westwood to attend University High. Did he audition for school plays or acting classes? Nah. Why bother? Bridges was already acting professionally, and some of the best teachers he could find were right in his living room. Similarly, after high school he felt little compunction to go to college or acting school.

"I went from high school -- bang! -- into the movies," Bridges says. "I did spend a few weeks in acting classes in New York when my father was there doing Cactus Flower. But most of my training really came from my parents and my brother, Beau."

It did not take long for his talent to flower. By age 21, Jeff Bridges was a full-fledged star. His rocket to glory was The Last Picture Show. Written by Larry McMurtry and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Picture Show still stands up beautifully today, 30 years since its release. Bridges played Duane Jackson, then a coltish would-be stud who loses his heart and his virginity to the beautiful and bewitching town ingenue, played deliciously by Cybill Shepherd. Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson and Ellen Barkin also gave triumphant performances.

"That was my breakthrough film," Bridges says, and that is a classic of understatement. His performance earned him his first Academy Award nomination, as best supporting actor, and it marked him as one of America's most gifted young actors. To movie critics and other outsiders, Bridges seemed like a natural, a young man who had found his life's path and was destined for greatness. Problem was, Bridges himself wasn't so sure. In some ways, success had come too easily. And too early.

"For a long while I wasn't sure I was going to make acting my main focus professionally. I was interested in music, painting and other creative pursuits. I did the movies with a little more capricious an attitude; I wasn't so seriously minded as a total professional."

Under the burden of this youthful confusion, Bridges found himself at a troubling crossroads. Coming off a grueling shoot in 1973 for The Last American Hero, a story inspired by the life of stock car racer Junior Johnson, Bridges was exhausted, and he briefly thought about giving up acting altogether.

"There's a certain muscle that's used when you act, and maybe it's not a physical muscle but certainly it's an emotional one, and after making a movie you feel wiped out," he explains. "There's also a feeling of not wanting to lead a pretend life, of wanting to lead a real life and not pretend to be somebody else. I was feeling these emotions after Last American Hero. I really didn't want to work again. Maybe not never, but certainly not for a few months anyway.

"Then I got a call from my agent and he said I'd been offered a role in a film of The Iceman Cometh, the Eugene O'Neill play. John Frankenheimer was going to direct it, and it was going to star Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Frederic March and other wonderful actors. My immediate reaction was, 'No, I'm too bushed, man; I'll have to take a pass.' A few minutes passed and Lamont Johnson, the director of Last American Hero, called me up and read me the riot act. He says, 'Listen, you call yourself an actor; how dare you turn this down! This is a great opportunity and you're working with great actors.' I thought about what he had to say and I understood that to be a true professional, you have to work even when you don't feel like it.

"So with about a week's break I went right into The Iceman Cometh. We had eight weeks of rehearsals and then we shot for two weeks. So it was almost the reverse of how most movies are made. During those eight weeks, I was sitting around with these great actors and this great director, just shooting the breeze and, of course, going over the material. I was also getting to know how other actors of that caliber work on things like this. It was very enlightening. After that experience, I decided, 'Hey, I can do this. And I can do this for the rest of my life in a professional way.'"

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