Man at His Best

Jeff Bridges: What I've Learned

The 66-year-old Oscar-winning actor shares what he's learned from a six-decade career that began when he was just a baby.

BY MIKE SAGER | Sep 23, 2016 | Film & TV

Getty / Vera Anderson

I kinda fell into this acting thing. I'm really a product of nepotism. I guess. I don't know really what the hell I would have been if I didn't do the acting.

My first role was at six months, in a film called The Company She Keeps in 1951. My parents, Dorothy and Lloyd Bridges, were visiting their friend, John Cromwell, on the set. Jane Greer was in a scene, and they needed a baby. My mom, I'm told, said, "Here, take my baby," and gave me to Jean. I was supposed to be a crying baby in the scene, but I was a pretty happy baby in general, and they were having problems getting me to look upset. So my mom said to Jane, "Just go ahead and pinch him!" Jane gave me a pinch, and of course I started crying—that was my first acting role. Many years later—33 years later—I made a movie with Jane Greer called Against All Odds. We had a scene together, and I told her, "Jane, I'm having a little trouble emoting here. Can you just give me a little pinch to get me started?"

I don't know really what the hell I would have been if I didn't do the acting.

Unlike a lot of showbiz parents, my father really loved show business and encouraged my brother and me to get into it. He was in a popular show called Sea Hunt. There'd be a role in one of the episodes for an eight-year-old, and he'd say, "Come on, Jeff. Come do it, come on and play with Dad. You'll get out of school, it'll be fun." And then he'd set me on his bed and go over the lines. He taught me all the basics of acting. How important it is to listen to the other guy. How to make it feel like it's happening for the first time. How to do a line in many different ways. It was like being home schooled in acting.

My dad was so good in Sea Hunt, people thought he was a skin diver who took some acting lessons when in fact he studied Shakespeare. Not many people know it but he replaced Richard Tyler on Broadway in Man of La Mancha. He was a wonderful singer, great at comedy, drama, all sorts of things. But he played Sea Hunt so well, he got offered a lot of parts for skin divers. That got kind of old.

Later on, my dad went the full circle, and he was kind of typecast as a comedic actor. I did two films with my father as an adult: Tucker and Blown Away. When we were doing Blown Away, there was the part of my uncle in the movie, and I told the producers, "Have you thought about casting an actor who kinda looks like me—a wonderful actor named Lloyd Bridges?" And the producer laughed and said, "Oh yeah, your father's a wonderful actor, but he's really more of a comedian?" Like in Airplane and Izzy Mandelbaum on Seinfeld. And I said, "What the fuck are you talking about?" It's amazing how people forget. They made him read for the part. My dad didn't complain. He was the consummate professional. It was a life lesson about fame.

People come up to me all the time and tell me how they loved Sea Hunt. They tell me about strapping vacuum cleaners onto their backs and pretending they were aqualungs, or putting on their mother's pantyhose and pretending it was a wetsuit. I meet scientists and oceanographers who come up and say, "Oh man, Sea Hunt got me started."

When one of my movies comes on TV, and I'm surfing the channels and I land on it, I'll usually watch one scene and then click—I turn to something else. But if it's The Big Lebowski, I get sucked in. I can't help it. Each scene is so great, and all the actors are terrific. Wherever I am, I'll end up watching it till the end. The John Turturro stuff at the bowling alley. Oh, God! He's amazing.

I was kinda surprised when Lebowski initially came out that it didn't do better—it was mildly received, a lot of people didn't like it at all. And then it happened to be a hit in Europe, and then splashed back on this side of the pond and became kind of a cult thing. Strange how that happens.

After Lebowski, I did have a little concern about developing baggage like my dad did with the Sea Hunt thing, being known going forward forever as The Dude. If the persona of any one character you portray is too strong, it's hard for a viewer to project any other character on top of it—they keep unconsciously remembering his other roles. For that reason, I like to be able to mix it up. So I was happy that my next film after Lebowski was The Contender, in which I played the President of the United States. But gosh, The Dude is a wonderful character. I wouldn't mind if I was mostly recognized for that guy. That doesn't bother me at all.

I think I might hold the record for the longest relationship with a stand-in. We've done over 70 movies. His name is Loyd Catlet, we met on the The Last Picture Show. He's a dear, dear friend—all those experiences we've had together. I make one or two movies per year, so we spend a lot of time together.

Because he was an actor, my dad was gone a lot of the time, and I kinda replicated that in my own parenting. Like myself, my kids were lucky to have my wife, their mom, Sue. I kind of regret not being there as often as I might have been.

I don't know what's more satisfying than hanging out together and being connected as your kids become adults.

Luckily, parenting doesn't end when your kid grows up. Hopefully you have many years together. And to me it only gets better. My girls are all in their thirties, and I try to come up with things we can do together now. My eldest, Isabel, and I are working on a children's book called Daddy-Daughter Day. Jessie, my middle girl, is a wonderful musician; we've often gone out on the road together, and she's been my assistant on several films. My youngest, Hailey, is helping us design our new home. I don't know what's more satisfying then hanging out together and being connected as your kids become adults.

I was with my three-year-old granddaughter, who I really love and want to hang out with, and I found myself really not liking her very much. She was so selfish, and she wasn't very responsive to my affection. And truly, she was kind of mean to me. Then my wife gave my daughter a book to read; I read it, too. It talked about all the stages kids go through. I guess I wasn't around so much when my own kids were growing up, so it got me thinking: In life, we're all going through stages, all the time, just like my granddaughter. The older we get, the more subtle and hard to define these stages are, but we're still going through them. It's just the way life evolves.

A good marriage is all about intimacy, and getting to know each other as well as you can.

I'm 66. I cannot believe it, man. I cannot believe it. They tell you this your whole life, and it's really true—how fast it goes. And it picks up speed. I've got these two voices in my head. One is saying, "Man, you're 66. You're not going to live forever. You got a lot of stuff you wanna do, so get on it, because it's gonna be over in a little while. There's not much time left. And the other guy in my head says, "Will you please relax? You don't want to spend the rest of your life in the middle of some homework assignment, doing all this achieving. Why don't you just take it easy?"

Right now I'm getting to live this teenage dream of being in a band, doing my music. It don't suck.

From: Esquire US.