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Lloyd Bridges, acting patriarch, dead at 85

Long, varied career for illustrious thesp

Lloyd Bridges, who had a long and successful acting career (in films like “High Noon” and TV series such as the popular “Sea Hunt”) and who spawned a small acting dynasty thanks to his sons Beau and Jeff Bridges, died of natural causes at his Los Angeles home Tuesday. His wife Dorothy, Beau and daughter Cindy were at his side. He was 85.

Although Bridges had suffered a series of minor illnesses during the past year, he continued to work, and recently completed two feature films, “Jane Austen’s Mafia” and “Meeting Daddy,” the latter with Beau.

Working as an actor since the mid-1930s, Bridges toiled steadily in films, TV and on stage for decades, but his career got a second wind thanks to comedy roles, beginning with the 1980 “Airplane!”

Born Jan. 15, 1913, in the northern California town of San Leandro, Bridges first migrated south to attend UCLA where he majored in political science, with ambitions to be an attorney. During college, he was bitten by the acting bug. Playwright Sidney Howard saw Bridges in a production of his play “Yellow Jack” and encouraged his ambitions.

Right out of school, he toured with a production of “Taming of the Shrew.” Working to make ends meet, he toured in stock and with a group of friends formed the Playroom Club, a small Off Broadway theater.

Bridges supported himself by making records of the Bible, plays and poetry for the American Foundation for the Blind. His baritone in later years graced commercials with equal assurance and ease. (In 1990 he settled a suit alleging he misrepresented investment products in a TV advertising endorsement.)

For a time, he and wife Dorothy taught school in Darien, Conn. Spotted in a modern-dress version of “Othello” in the late ’30s, he was signed to a long-term contract by Columbia Pictures and made his film debut in 1941. His early films include “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “Talk of the Town,” “Louisiana Hayride” and “A Walk in the Sun.”

Columbia assigned him mostly to secondary roles, sometimes even the heavy. Then in 1945, he broke off as a freelance actor and the roles got better, including leads in B films “The Sound of Fury,” “Three Steps North” and “Whistle at Eaton Falls,” all in the late ’40s.

He soon graduated to A-level studio productions such as “Home of the Brave” (1949) and “High Noon” and “Plymouth Adventure” (both in 1952).

However, he hit his stride in TV, appearing frequently in live dramas on such anthology series as “Alcoa Hour” and “Playhouse 90.” He also continued to work onstage in L.A., including productions at the Actor’s Lab.

It was during this period that he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and recanted his earlier membership in the Communist party.

His film work continued with pics including “The Rainmaker” (1956) and “The Goddess” (1958), but in February 1957, Bridges went underwater with the 30-minute series “Sea Hunt.”

The networks passed on the series, figuring that no one could sustain a deep-sea adventure week after week, so the show began airing in syndication in January 1958. It was a big hit, and producer Ivan Tors and Bridges eventually filmed 156 episodes of the series, which made Bridges a household name. (A very young Beau Bridges also appeared in several episodes.)

Other series followed, each of them lasting only one season: the half-hour drama anthology “The Lloyd Bridges Show” (1962-63); “The Loner,” a 1965-66 western; drama “San Francisco Intl. Airport” (1970-71) and cop drama “Joe Forrester” (1975-76).

He returned to Broadway to star in “O’ Men, O’ Women,” “Cactus Flower” and an abbreviated run in “Man of La Mancha.” He also thrived in TV movies and miniseries through the 1980s, such as “Silent Night, Lonely Night,” “Moviola,” “The Great Wallendas,” “The People Next Door,” “The Blue and the Gray,” “East of Eden,” “George Washington” and “Roots.”

However, his film career in the ’60s and ’70s consisted mostly of forgettable fare, the best of which were the 1966 “Around the World Under the Sea” and the 1969 “The Happy Ending.” Then in 1980, he took a supporting role in the spoof “Airplane!” as a befuddled flight controller. It exploited Bridges’ (and co-star Leslie Nielsen’s) theretofore unheralded comic abilities.

The film’s sequel and two back-to-back “Hot Shots” spoofs further exposed Bridges’ comedic abilities and made him familiar to an entirely new generation of audiences.

After that, the movie roles again got better, with appearances in “Cousins,” “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” and in the thriller “Blown Away.” In the latter two pics, he co-starred with son Jeff.

Bridges is survived by his wife, his sons and daughter and 11 grandchildren.

Services are private.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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