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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

By nature, he's a warm, very open man, and this morning, as he kicks back at a quiet Los Angeles café, the stories and anecdotes roll off his tongue like honey from a spoon. Stories about being tossed into acting at the age of eight. Stories about the zany, bumbling way he met and courted his wife, Susan. And wonderful stories about the craft of acting and how he creates indelibly etched characters such as "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski and the president in The Contender. Over the course of a long conversation, the stories spill forth in a random, spontaneous fervor, all illuminating one central fact: at the age of 51, Jeff Bridges is bringing forth his finest work, showing us over and over why movie insiders consider him to be one of the most accomplished and exciting actors in America today.

At last, too, Bridges is getting the recognition he deserves. The Big Lebowski reigns today as a cult classic among the twentysomething generation, and for many of them, the wild, wacky Dude has become a revered cult hero. In The Contender, Bridges's smooth, seamless performance again showed his ability to play the sophisticated leading man, and this year it earned him his fourth Academy Award nomination.

Still, it's a safe bet that some of his best work is yet to come. In his latest movie, K-PAX, set for release in October, Bridges costars with the great Kevin Spacey in a sci-fi fable that promises to bring out the best in both actors. Spacey plays a mental patient who insists he's an alien from the distant planet of K-Pax. Bridges plays his psychiatrist. At first, the doctor attributes his patient's claim to sheer lunacy, but as the story unfolds, he begins to wonder if the man might actually be telling the truth.

"Working with Kevin was wonderful, and that was a big reason to do it," says Bridges. "I've been a big fan of his work -- The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, L.A. Confidential. He's a really good actor and he turns out to be a wonderful guy as well. We approach acting in the same way in that we both enjoy the process. We both like rehearsals and we understand the value of them. There are some actors who don't like to engage with other actors; they just like to relate to each other between 'Action!' and 'Cut!' But I've always felt that getting to know the people you're working with can inform and enrich the work. The closer you get, even if you're playing opposites, the better the work. Some actors are afraid of leaving it all off-camera or getting the characters confused, but I don't see it that way. I often feel that the actual movie is like the skin sloughed off the snake; it's the by-product of the real valuable stuff, which is the real-life experience of doing it."

So how does he go about building a character like the shrink in K-PAX? "I start in a bunch of different areas and use them all at the same time," Bridges says. "There's a thing in acting called psychological gesturing -- how you sit, how you hold your body -- and that tells you a lot. So when you're playing a certain character, whether it's The Dude or the prez or the fella in K-PAX, they have a certain body language and way that they use their bodies. That starts from how much the guy weighs. Obviously, you have to get in real good shape if you're playing a football player. Or, if you're playing a slacker, you have to get that down very early in developing the character. In my process, I look inside myself and see what aspect of myself that I can draw on and ask myself, How would I be in this character's position?

"Then I'll look at my close circle of friends and family, at different people who might inspire me and remind me of this character. You also look at other professional people who do what you do and you rip off clothes ideas from them or how they hold their hand, little details that help tremendously in defining a character."

In this case, Bridges also went right to the source: he spent time with a psychiatrist in New York. "Whenever you can get a person who's either been through what your character has been through or somebody who has the same profession as your character, it helps so much," he says. "It's tapping into the real thing. Certain things you can learn by them answering questions for you, but it's also just being around them and kind of soaking their energies up."

As usual with Bridges, this leads into an amusing anecdote. It comes from the shooting of Texasville, the 1990 sequel to The Last Picture Show, the now-classic coming-of-age tale that launched his career in 1971. In Texasville, Bridges again plays Duane Jackson, who has grown up into a beleaguered, middle-aged oil man in a dusty little West Texas oil town. It's a marvelous performance, full of texture and nuance, and remembering it now puts a soft gleam in Bridges' eye. "I'm playing a little older than my actual age," Bridges recalls, "and I was feeling a little insecure about what this guy should look like. There was some delay in the costumes, and none of the costumes were right, and here we were going to shoot the first day and I'm not happy with any of my wardrobe. They're knocking on my door and saying, 'Fifteen minutes, Mr. Bridges.' And I'm going, 'Oh, shit! What am I going to wear?'

"Then I get another knock on the door, and there standing in front of me is this fella, Rusty Lindeman, and he looks exactly how I want to look. And he says, 'Hi. Just wanted to welcome you, you're shooting on my property here. I own these few sections of land you're shootin' on. I just want to say welcome and if there's anything I can do to help ya, just let me know.' So I said, 'Well, can I have all your clothes?' And he said, 'Why sure! What do you want?' 'Well, can I have the shirt off your back?' And he took off his clothes and I put 'em on, with all the pens in his pocket and all that stuff, and it saved my ass. It was a godsend."

Bridges also had a real-life model for his portrayal of the president in The Contender, for which he was nominated for best supporting actor. "I looked at different presidents and politicians, the Kennedys and Johnson. I looked at Mario Cuomo a little bit; I was always impressed with him as a speaker. But when I really got down to it, I found that the person I modeled him after the most was my father. He always approached his work with a lot of joy, and I think this president did the same. He really liked what he did very much. He was a very gregarious guy and he liked people to feel at ease with him." Bridges even used a particular passion of his father's to help delineate the character: food. "The president liked to use food to put people at ease -- or to put them on the edge of their seats. My father did the same thing," he says.

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.

"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.'"

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."


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