Jeff Bridges is back in action after a life-threatening battle with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and COVID-19. At the Wednesday night premiere of his FX thriller “The Old Man”, the Oscar winner described the surreal experience of returning to set after a year-long hiatus due to his health struggles.
“I was sick for a year and then came back to work with all the same cast and crew, and it was like I had a bizarre dream or something,” Bridges told reporters on the red carpet at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
Filming for the TV adaptation of Thomas Perry‘s 2017 novel was initially shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After production resumed later in the fall with three episodes left to shoot, it was once again halted when Bridges was diagnosed with cancer and left to seek treatment.
While undergoing chemotherapy, Bridges contracted COVID-19 and spent five months in the hospital fighting for his life. Bridges explained that at the time, he wasn’t worried about whether he would ever be able to work again as he had become almost resigned to death.
“I was kind of surrendering to the idea that I might die,” he told Variety. ‘That this might be the end of the race kind of thing, because that’s what’s going to happen to all of us at some point and maybe this was my time to go through that and I didn’t know.”
However, Bridges began to envision returning to “The Old Man” after achieving a series of health milestones. “I would have little goals all through my illness,” he said. “The first goal was seeing how long I could just stand up, and my record was 45 seconds for a long time. That was about as much as I could take, walking down the hallways of the hospital with your walker and your oxygen.”
Bridges continued, “And then my daughter Hailey was getting married to a wonderful guy Justin and I wanted to walk her down the aisle, do that wedding dance with my girl, and so I worked on that with my trainer Zach Wermers and we got that going. Then ‘The Old Man,’ I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to come back. But as I started to get my health back, I said, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’”
The actor, who is now in remission, told Variety that his health struggles hadn’t changed his attitude about his work. “I think what I’ve found is when you go through something like that, you pull out everything you’ve got,” he said. “All your spiritual, philosophic, all your yoga, whatever training you had in your life. You’re saying, ‘Now, come on, guys, give it what you’ve got!’ So, it was just getting deeper into who you are, I guess, in a way.”
In the show, Bridges stars as former CIA operative Dan Chase, who escaped from the agency decades ago and has spent the intervening years living a quiet life in Vermont. After a failed assassination attempt forces him out of hiding, Chase finds himself on the run from several adversaries, including FBI agent Harold Harper (John Lithgow), with whom he shares a complicated history.
In their interviews with Variety, executive producers Jonathan E. Steinberg and Warren Littlefield marveled over how Bridges was able to pick up filming as if nothing had ever happened.
“There’s something about when you get on set,” Bridges explained. “I remember my dad (Lloyd Bridges) when he was an older guy.” Bridges imitated how his father would switch on when acting. “He’s always been an inspiration for me,” he said.
Amy Brenneman, who plays Bridges’ love interest Zoe McDonald, told Variety that he “just comes alive” when on set.
“It’s what he’s done his whole life,” she said. “This joy came out and obviously coming back from a very rough time.”
“He was ready to come back and be like 007,” said Alia Shawkat, who plays FBI agent Angela Adams.
On the day of Bridges’ return, Lithgow told Variety that they began shooting their first scene together, which took place in a car. He said that the two bonded as they sat side by side during the six days of the shoot. “It was like doing a cross-country drive when you are in your 20s. We just became friends for life.”
“Of course, we had our microphones on the entire time to play the scenes so we would just forget the fact that the entire crew were listening to every word we said,” he added. “They were listening to Jeff and I becoming great and intimate lifelong friends, including an entire afternoon where we did nothing but tell each other incredibly dirty jokes. Every time we would come to a punchline, we would hear 40 people laughing.”
Lithgow continued, “These were fantastic scenes. A scene that would have made a great one-act play. To go at that with Jeff and to discover what a great actor he was while acting with him. That was just a really wonderful thing.”
“The Old Man” debuts on June 16.