Jeff Bridges grew up with show business in his veins. His father, the late Lloyd Bridges, was a gregarious sort who not only loved the making of movies, but the selling of them as well. He would encourage his children to give it a go. “This is a great life,” he would tell them.
Still, like any rebellious kid, the younger Bridges — who will receive the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement at the 76th annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 6 — was resistant to chasing his father’s chosen trade. He wanted to be a musician instead, or an artist. “I had maybe 10 movies under my belt before I thought I could do this for the rest of my life,” he said in 2009.
Eventually the passion kicked in. Six decades into a movie career that technically began when he was a 6-month-old infant on the set of John Cromwell’s 1951 film “The Company She Keeps,” the 69-year-old actor has moved in and out of the character actor space with ease, crafted award-winning lead performances with equal aplomb and maintained his trademark laid-back attitude throughout.
Early days found him opposite his father in television’s “Sea Hunt” and “The Lloyd Bridges Show.” He caught his feature film stride right out of the gate, though, with Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 “The Last Picture Show.” For his performance as Duane Jackson, a teenager searching for direction in the dust of 1951 North Texas, Bridges earned his first of seven Oscar nominations. He marvels today at how low-key the occasion was then. There was no campaigning or interviews building up to the big day. Just a phone call with the happy news.
Bridges would become a vital ingredient for directors throughout the 1970s. He scored raves opposite Stacy Keach in John Huston’s “Fat City” in 1972. He took on the role of Don Parritt in John Frankenheimer’s 1973 adaptation of “The Iceman Cometh” and landed yet another supporting actor nomination opposite Clint Eastwood in Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” in 1974. By mid-decade he was already headlining such major spectacles as John Guillermin’s “King Kong.”
Things would be taken up a notch on that score with 1980’s “Tron,” which launched Bridges into the pop-cultural realm. In a dual performance as computer programmer Kevin Flynn and hacker program Clu, Bridges was at the forefront of evolving, large-scale, effects-heavy Hollywood filmmaking. He’d revisit the property 30 years later with “Tron: Legacy.”
Bridges soon racked up a third Oscar nomination, and his first for a leading performance, for John Carpenter’s 1984 sci-fi classic “Starman.” As an alien being who comes to Earth and takes on the guise of a human, Bridges went to great lengths to conjure something special. He worked with a dancer friend to craft odd movements for the character that conveyed an unsettling sense of artifice. “It was almost like imagining that I was somebody in a human body, like I was driving it around,” he once said
of his approach.
The 1980s saw Bridges tackling different genres, from Joe Eszterhas and Richard Marquand’s 1985 thriller “Jagged Edge” to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 Preston Tucker biopic “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” He would wrap up the decade starring opposite his brother, Beau, in Steve Kloves’ “The Fabulous Baker Boys.”
The ’90s began with a touch of nostalgia as Bridges took on the role of Duane Jackson for Bogdanovich once again in 1990’s “Texasville.” Top-tier filmmakers continued to come calling, from Terry Gilliam (“The Fisher King”) to Peter Weir (“Fearless”) to Ridley Scott (“White Squall”). But it was the 1997 Coen brothers comedy “The Big Lebowski” that really tied things together for a legend ready to be immortalized.
As “The Dude,” a Southland stoner fashioned in part after film producer Jeff Dowd, Bridges constructed, perhaps, his masterpiece. It’s certainly the character that will outlive everything else he’s done, one that inspired a festival, Lebowski Fest, that Bridges has attended with his own wide-eyed wonder. (He once called performing to “a sea of Dudes” his “Beatle moment.”)
His fourth Oscar nomination came for playing an American president, albeit a fictional one (and Barack Obama’s favorite movie president, at that): Jackson Evans, the forthright commander-in-chief of Rod Lurie’s 2000 film “The Contender.” As with all his roles, Bridges looked to himself to help give Evans definition. Not unlike the Dude, it was a relaxed and easygoing creation, which no doubt was part of the appeal to Oscar voters. “A little piece of business I enjoyed seeing myself do was he’s putting his shoes back on after bowling and just kind of smelling his shoe,” Bridges said in 2016. “I love that!”
As he was being celebrated once again at the Academy Awards that year, a new phenomenon was taking hold across Hollywood: the rise of the superhero film. It wasn’t long before Bridges would join the fray, and he did so at the outset of what would become one of the most successful business models in the history of the film industry. In 2008’s “Iron Man,” the first of what would eventually be 20 (and counting) Marvel Studios productions, Bridges played the villain Obadiah Stane. But it was initially an uncomfortable experience for him.
“The script wasn’t quite right when we got it and Jon Favreau and Robert Downey knew it wasn’t quite there,” Bridges said in 2016. “Many days we would muster in my trailer with Jon Favreau, Robert Downey and all the suits from Marvel and we would try to write the scene we were going to shoot that day while the crew was tapping their foot in the studio. It was driving me crazy. I like to know my lines!”
He eventually just made a little adjustment in his mind to keep his sanity: “I said, ‘We’re just making a $200 million student film!’” After that he had a blast with it.
In early 2010, on his fifth Oscar nomination — and by then considered wildly overdue for recognition — Bridges finally heard his name called at the Academy Awards. He won the lead actor prize for Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” the story of a rambling country-western singer adapted from a Thomas Cobb novel and, through Cooper, somewhat inspired by the life of Waylon Jennings.
“That was a dream — I guess come true, in a way,” Bridges said in 2016. “Not even come true. It just seemed like a dream! It was an out-of-body experience.”
He would add another nomination, for the Coens’ “True Grit” remake, the very next year, and he continues to register those accolades today, most recently for his grizzled Texas Ranger in David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water.” He admits to having a bit of reticence in taking on new projects, lest he be kept from some other enticing opportunity. But he has maintained a striking pace all the same as one of the most prolific actors of his generation.
And despite the early rebellion, he eventually came to agree with his dad. Working in show business is, indeed, a great life.