On a spring day in Santa Barbara, Jeff Bridges is having fun turning a backyard into an acting studio for a woefully-unprepared student. “This is our biggest scene, man; do you know where your mark is?” he indicated to Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. “We can’t be looking at our mark, man! Okay, now we’re supposed to be talking, supposed to be kinda natural, man.”
“Right, totally. Natural, man,” said Mankiewicz.
“Ooh, that was very nice, that gesture!”
At 72, Jeff Bridges is a star with a singular brightness. Seven times an Oscar-nominee, winning best actor for “Crazy Heart,” he’s a leading man with the soul of a character actor: he can be a hero, a villain, a statesman, or a stoner.
“I think as creative people, I think as artists, our task is to get hooked,” he said. “I love getting hooked when I do.”
“Getting hooked” is easy when the bug is in your blood. Born to actors Lloyd Bridges and Dorothy Simpson, his mom knew how to get a good performance out of Jeff right from the get-go, at less than a year old, in a 1951 drama, “The Company She Keeps”: “Jane Greer is, you know, holding me. And I’m a happy baby. I’m smiling! I’m supposed to cry in the scene. And Jane says, ‘Oh, I don’t want the baby to cry.’ And my mom says, ‘Oh, just pinch him. Yeah, just pinch his foot there a little bit.’ And I start to cry!”
Eight years later, Bridges shared the small screen with his dad in the hit CBS TV series “Sea Hunt” … a lesson then guides him today. “I can remember sitting me on his bed and, you know, teaching me all the basics: ‘Don’t just say your lines; listen to what I’m saying and react off that,’ you know?”
Another acting role model was in the next room – his brother, Beau Bridges, older by eight years. Bolder, too. Jeff recalled: “Beau came up with a great idea. We rented a flatbed truck and we’d pull into a supermarket. And our father taught us how to stage fight. People would gather around, try to break us up. And then we’d go, ‘No, it’s a show!'”
Jeff’s breakout film came in 1971, “The Last Picture Show”:
Big studio offers followed, including “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” opposite Clint Eastwood. Bridges – amazingly – told director Michael Cimino he wasn’t right for the part: “‘I don’t know why you hired me, man. I’m really, I’m not this guy.’ He says, ‘Jeff, Jeff, Jeff, you know the game Tag?’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ He said, ‘You’re It!'”
He’s been “It” ever since – in “Against All Odds,” “Starman,” “Jagged Edge,” “Iron Man,” “True Grit,” “Hell or High Water,” and of course, the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski.”
“It’s such a good movie,” Bridges said. “I mean, it’s so well-written and executed … you know, it’s so wonderful when that happens.”
If it seems Jeff Bridges leads a charmed life, consider the devastating 1-2 punch thrown at him during the pandemic.
Mankiewicz said, “You’ve had a couple of years.”
“Yeah, been away for a while with the cancer and the COVID and the whole thing, yeah,” he replied.
“The whole thing” Bridges is talking about began when he went to see a doctor after experiencing some pain: “I better get this checked out. And I go in and get a CAT scan and find out I have a nine-by-12-inch mass in my stomach. You know, lymphoma.”
A cancer diagnosis was blow #1. #2 came when Bridges – and his wife, Susan – tested positive for COVID-19. Susan spent five days in the hospital; Jeff,.
“Oh man, what a journey,” Bridges said. “Couldn’t breathe. And it’s the amazing pain for not being able to breathe.”
Mankiewicz asked, “You have moments where you think, ‘Well, this might be it’?”
“Oh, the doctors, yeah, my wife would ask, ‘Is he gonna die?’ And they say, ‘We’re doing the best we can here.’ They wouldn’t reassure her that it was all gonna be fine. My doctors were saying, ‘Jeff, you gotta fight. Man, you’re not fighting. You gotta fight.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about man? I’m in surrender mode, man!’ I mean we’re all gonna die, man. Come on, we’re all gonna get sick and die, and your friends are gonna die, and that’s part of it.”
“I imagine you that thought about your family a bunch?”
Bridges said, “Oh yeah. Dealing with problems, you know, what’s right in front of you, and those turned out to be, well, that’s life. That’s the way, you know? That’s what’s in front of me. And isn’t it beautiful?”
This was particularly beautiful: Bridges made a pledge to dance with his daughter at her wedding. “And when I started getting better, my goal was walking Haley down the wedding aisle. Not only did I get to walk her down, but we did a little wedding dance. And it was really, really terrific.”
His cancer now in remission, Jeff credits Susan with giving him the resolve to stay strong.
Mankiewicz said, “I was gonna say, typical Hollywood marriage – forty-five years!”
“Yee-hee! So wonderful. Oh, man!”
The two met in 1975 while Bridges was making a movie in Montana. “I have a photograph of the first words that I ever said to my wife, and first words she said to me: ‘Will you go out with me?’ ‘No.’ And click, the guy took the picture. You know, and wow. It’s my prized possession!”
He’s back at work, too, on a TV series, starring in “The Old Man” on FX. It’s a richly-drawn character, a former CIA operative pulled back in. Bridges said, “He’s a guy, he’s getting along in age. He’s not sure about his sanity. And his past, well, let’s say it’s interesting.”
To watch a trailer for the new series “The Old Man” click on the video player below:
2022 is shaping up as much better year for Bridges; he’s got a new role, and a fresh perspective: “During my illness, you so often say, ‘That’s not really what I wanted; I wanted more of this.’ But just being alive – seeing, hearing, feeling, touching. If COVID had taught us anything, it’s taught us that we’re all in this together, man. We’re all connected, you know? And to feel that connection in the form of love comin’ at you, that’s something else!”
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino.