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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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Once Bridges had committed heart and soul, his creative floodgates swung wide open. In his next movie, he was brilliant as Clint Eastwood's bank-robbing sidekick in Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot; his work in the 1974 action picture earned him another Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. Now he was off and running, taking on a wide and eclectic range of roles. He played ex-cons and aliens, cowboys, oil men, and wide-eyed entrepreneurs. He rarely played action heroes or cardboard supermen; his forte was the everyman, the regular Joe with palpable heart and humanity. Above all, he refused to be typecast, even though it might have made for an easier career and greater box-office success. That decision, too, traced back to dad.

"There were a couple of reasons for my taking that path," he says. "One big one, I think, was that I saw how frustrating it was for my father. He pulled off Mike Nelson in "Sea Hunt" so well that people actually thought he was a skin diver, which is a great compliment for an actor. But it also sent out the wrong message to all the people who make movies. He created such a strong persona that it was very hard for him to get other kinds of roles. He was a Shakespearean-trained actor, he sang, he replaced Richard Kiley on Broadway in Man of La Mancha. He had a lot of different chops as an actor. But he pulled off Mike Nelson so well that he got hooked on it. I saw how frustrating that was for him, and I went about trying to switch roles for that very reason, to not get that heavy persona and get typecast. Also, playing many different kinds of roles keeps it fun for me, not always playing the same guy, and it sends the message out there that I can do different kinds of roles."

Following this approach, Bridges has now made more than 50 movies, building a filmography that many actors can only envy: Heaven's Gate, Cutter's Way, Tron, Starman (the 1984 film for which he was nominated for best actor), Jagged Edge, Eight Million Ways to Die, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Texasville, The Fisher King, Fearless, Wild Bill and White Squall, to name only a few.

Not all his movies, of course, have been hits. In fact, some of his best work has been sadly overlooked. American Heart, a 1992 release, is a frustrating case in point. It's a jewel of a movie, with Bridges playing an ex-con who, once he's set free, suddenly finds himself strapped with uncomfortable baggage: his son, a vulnerable youth in desperate need of his father. The project emerged from a documentary Bridges saw about street kids in Seattle. Bridges developed and produced the movie, with Martin Bell directing. Bridges and young Eddie Furlong give fine, aching performances, but the movie was a box-office bust -- for all the wrong reasons.

"I'm really proud of that movie," Bridges says. "It was the first film I produced, and it was wonderful taking it through the full arc from beginning to end. It was filled with all kinds of emotions and a lot of heartbreak. The company that put up the money to make the film went bankrupt just as our film came out. So we had the experience of having our movie in the theater with no money for prints or ads. It was very, very tough. The result was that not too many people saw it. That's one of the good things about videotapes: movies get to be around a little bit, so people can see them."

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.


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