Jeff Bridges On His Life In Front of the Camera, From The Dude to The Old Man and Beyond

On the eve of receiving Film at Lincoln Center's Chaplin Award, the actor looks back on a career that's spanned seven decades.

Jeff Bridges has been in front of the camera for seven decades. Clockwise from top left: Bridges in Halls of Anger (1970), Against All Odds (1984), The Big Lebowski (1998), and True Grit (2010). UA/Kobal/Shutterstock; Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock; Polygram/Working Title/Kobal/Shutterstock; Skydance Productions/Kobal/Shutterstock

It may surprise you to learn the next recipient of the annual Chaplin Award, which Film at Lincoln Center will bestow April 29 at Alice Tully Hall, has a career almost as long as that of Charlie Chaplin himself. Jeff Bridges, 74, has spent 73 of those years before the camera, debuting at the age of 4 months as a squalling infant at a train station in the arms of Jane Greer in The Company She Keeps. When he missed his cry cue, his mother, Dorothy (who was in the film, along with his older brother, Beau), prescribed a little pinch. It worked, and he’s been screen-acting ever since.

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When he and Greer crossed professional paths again, it was in 1984’s Against All Odds, a remake of her noir classic Out of the Past. That time out she had a cameo, he had top billing.

Life has (mostly) smiled on Jeff Bridges through the past seven decades. He has accumulated an Academy Award (as the alcoholic country singer at the center of 2009’s Crazy Heart) and another six nominations, two Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. To which he’ll shortly add Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award. 

“I don’t quite know what to say about getting this award,” Bridges tells Observer. “So much is going on right now, I haven’t figured out what to say about it.” That includes wrapping season two of his FX series The Old Man (likely to air later this year) and shortly heading off to make another movie (that’d be next year’s Tron: Ares, the third installment of the sci-fi cult classic he kicked off in 1982). As if that wasn’t enough, he and Sue (his wife of 48 years) are moving into a new house designed by the youngest of their three girls.

Jeff Bridges in The Old Man. FX

“I guess I qualify as the right guy to play The Old Man, alright,” Bridges says of his FX show, in which he plays a former CIA operative trying to stay off the grid. “My memory isn’t what it used to be, and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. I went through a lot of challenging things last year, but I don’t spend much time thinking about it—that, or I just don’t remember much about it.”

Considering all he’s gone through, this salute by Film at Lincoln Center is tantamount to strolling blissfully into some blinding sunlight. Somehow, Bridges survived the near-fatal one-two punch of cancer and Covid-19, and he’s as surprised about that as anyone. “I was in that place where I said, ‘Oh, this is how I’m going to die.’ My doctors kept telling me, ‘You gotta fight. You gotta fight.’ I had no idea what they were talking about. I was in surrender mode.”

In October of 2020, Bridges went public with his lymphoma diagnosis and announced he was treating it through chemotherapy. By the following September, his 9×12 mass had shrunk to the size of a marble and his cancer was in remission. The Covid-19 he contracted trying to find the right cancer cocktail took five weeks to fight. Then, finally, he was released and ready for work.

Jeff Bridges with his father, Lloyd, and brother Beau at the 61st Academy Awards in Los Angeles, March 29th 1989. Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

Looking back, he has his doubts that he would ever have taken the show-biz route had it not been for the urging and encouragement of his famous dad, Lloyd Bridges—and his mother. Lloyd, unlike his own father, was very supportive of his kids getting involved in movies and acting in general. “He loved what he did and wanted to turn his kids onto it. He considered it a great way to meet people, be creative and travel all around the world, just doing exactly the thing that you love to do.”

Specifically, Lloyd opened the door for his two sons, hiring them to spend their turbulent teens on the smooth waters of his TV series Sea Hunt (1958-1960). Big brother Beau played surrogate father when their dad was glub-glubbing. At 17, Jeff toured with his dad in a play, Anniversary Waltz, and appeared as a younger version of Lloyd in the 1969 TV-film Silent Night, Lonely Night. It was only a question of time before he began taking acting lessons at New York’s HB Studio.

Right after Jeff’s role in a 1970 desegregation drama called Halls of Anger came his big break, playing the cocky, confident Duane Jackson who made the motel rounds of a tiny Texas town with Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show, which writer-director Peter Bogdanovich adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel. It brought Academy Award nominations for both Bridges and Bogdanovich.

“That was an absolutely thrilling experience,” Bridges says “Bogdanovich was a great filmmaker—a great spirit. Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Timmy Bottoms—it was cast to perfection. We were all starting out in those days, and we got the idea that this film felt special. It was, too. If you look at it today, it just hangs there by itself, being beautiful. It’s nothing like anything else.

Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show (1971) and Texasville (1990). Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock; Snap/Shutterstock

“Twenty years later, Bogdanovich assembled some of the same cast—Cybill, Ellen, Timmy—in Archer City, Texas, and we did the sequel, Texasville, again by McMurtry. It was like we had had a long weekend. The same actors went back to work on the same roles. We had a great time.”

Bridges’ second Oscar nomination came in 1975 for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, playing the sidekick of  Clint Eastwood’s bank robber. It was the work of first-time writer-director Michael Cimino—and such a good shoot that the actor decided to go back for a second Cimino. Unfortunately, that turned into the disastrous epic western, Heaven’s Gate. One of Bridges’ ancestors is in it, sorta.

“Cimino and I were discussing characters he was then creating, and one of them—a rich businessman—reminded me of a distant relative, John L. Bridges, who came from Arkansas during the California gold rush and made a mint,” he recalls. “Without skipping a beat, Cimino called up the production designer and said, ‘Change all the signs in town to John Bridges, Ltd.’”

There is a sliver of a silver lining in Heaven’s Gate. It reunited him with a co-star from John Huston’s 1972 film Fat City about two boxers, one up-and-coming (Bridges) and one down-and-out (Stacy Keach). Namely, Kris Kristofferson, who wrote and sang “Help Me Make It Through the Night” in the film. During the endless filming of Heaven’s Gate, Bridges and Kristofferson sat around and jammed with their guitars whenever they could. “We were a bunch of wild kids in those days, but Kris was working hard and really concentrating on the acting. There were a lot of musicians doing that movie. That’s where I met my good buddy, T Bone Burnett.”

That was 1980 or so, and Burnett was singer-songwriter who’d yet to launch his career as a producer of albums by Elvis Costello and the multi-million selling, Grammy winning soundtrack to the Coen BrothersO Brother, Where Art Thou? You can find fragments of both Kristofferson and scads of Burnett in Crazy Heart, a drama about an alcoholic country singer, who, after four marriages, stumbles into an affair that inspires him. 

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart (2009) Fox Searchlight/Kobal/Shutterstock

Bridges took his own inspiration for his Crazy Heart character Otis “Bad” Blake from not one country singer but a whole bunch of them: the Highwaymen, the mid-’80s group made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kristofferson. “I remember working with T. Bone on the music,” he says. “He wanted to create an alternate universe where this guy and his music were sorta like that same music—but different. I kinda modeled myself not entirely from any one character but just the whole group there.”

The music simulation was successful. Both Bridges and Burnett won Oscars for their work—Burnett for the song he wrote with Ryan Bingham, “The Weary Kind.” 

Bridges’ confidence has grown through the years. In 2010, he took on a role that had won John Wayne an Oscar in 1970: Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit. Bridges even got nominated for it. “Why are you doing that?” he asked when Joel and Ethan Coen pitched the part to him. “They said, ‘Have you read Charles Portis’ novel?’ I said ‘Naw,’ so I read it. It read like a Coen Brothers movie. I totally understood. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s go.’ I’m so glad that I jumped on that train. It proved to be a great experience for me.”

Perhaps his greatest experience at movie-making came with John Frankenheimer’s 1973 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s monumental tragedy, The Iceman Cometh. Bridges played the young anarchist who suicides at the end. He was in his early 20s; his co-stars were in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. 

“With most movies, you’re lucky if you get a couple of weeks rehearsal,” Bridges explains. “This one—it all was kinda flipped around. Director John Frankenheimer gave us eight weeks to rehearse, then shot it in two weeks. It was hanging out those eight weeks with these master actors—Fredric March, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin—all were just as anxious as I was at the time, wanting to do justice to the material. I noticed, in them, that this fear and anxiety is the sort of standard stuff that I would get used to in my career. It is something that you can get used to.”

And, crucially, filming Iceman came at a time when Bridges wasn’t sure he’d make acting his focus, as opposed to the other creative pursuits that interested him: music, painting, photography. “During those eight weeks, I was sitting around with these great actors and this great director, just shooting the breeze and getting to know how other actors of that caliber work on projects like this,” he says. “It was very enlightening. After that, I decided I can do this for the rest of my life in a professional manner.”

Prior to this, Bridges was “along for the ride” and referred to acting as his “pretend muscle. You get to work with other great make-believers, all making believe as hard as they can. What I learned from my father wasn’t anything he said. It was the way he behaved. He loved his work so much that, whenever he came on set, he brought that with him, and other people rose to it.”

Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998). Polygram/Working Title/Kobal/Shutterstock

Bridges came perilously close to turning down the role he is most associated with—The Big Lebowski‘s pot-smoking, bowling slacker Jeffrey Lebowski, a/k/a The Dude—for fear his daughters would think the character is some kind of positive force. They talked it out, and the rest is history.

Why the Coen brothers thought he would be perfect as The Dude still mystifies Bridges. “It wasn’t like any of my other films. I have no idea why they picked me. Maybe they had watched me in high school, I don’t know. Not only is it one of my favorite films—if not the favorite—I think it is kind of a masterpiece. I know I’m biased, but it’s right up there. It just works so well for the audience. Every time you see it, you will find new little things you’ll enjoy.”

The Dude has spoken. More later, on April 29.

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Jeff Bridges On His Life In Front of the Camera, From The Dude to The Old Man and Beyond