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We all know that Jeff Bridges is the Dude, or His Dudeness, or El Duderino for those not into that “whole brevity thing.” These are nicknames he acquired through his role as the slacker hippie in The Big Lebowski, the 1998 cult film that finally gave the actor a “persona” that he lacked throughout much of his career. “A lot of people dig the Dude,” Bridges observes, and he has indulged them a bit with Dude-like pronouncements, such as his claim that his recent Oscar win might lead to world peace, and accepting the award in a blissful mood that gave rise to rumors he was stoned (he wasn’t). But long before the Dude, Bridges actually did have a persona, that of an actor who always liked to “shake it up and keep my own persona slightly confusing. That way people will be able to slip me into the character at hand.”

It could be said that he slipped into the acting profession. Born December 4, 1949 in Los Angeles, California, his father was Lloyd Bridges, an actor best-known for his role as skindiving troubleshooter Mike Riggs on TV’s Sea Hunt, and as the airport manager (“I sure picked the wrong day to give up amphetamines”) in 1980's Airplane. “He loved what he did and wanted to turn his kids onto it,” Jeff said of his father. At the age of four months, Jeff made his film debut as Jane Greer’s infant son in The Company She Keeps, and later made several appearances on Sea Hunt, as did his older brother, Beau. “Whenever there was a part for a kid, Dad would say, ‘Do you want to get out of school for the day?’”

It wasn’t until 1970, shortly after graduating from Palisades Charter High School, that he made his “official” debut in Halls of Anger, as the lone white student at a high school rife with racial problems. Only a year later, at age 22, he was cast by Peter Bogdanovich as Duane, the jock in the small Texas town of Anarene, in The Last Picture Show. One of the most acclaimed films of its year, it earned eight Oscar nominations, including one for Bridges as best supporting actor. “It was absolutely thrilling when I got that part,” he recalled. “For me, that film stands alone. It’s not like any other movie I can think of. It just hangs there by itself.”

Success had its downside. “I feel so guilty about my career, man,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t the son of Lloyd Bridges.” His guilt took the form of rebellion, which included growing a beard and letting his hair grow. “My father says, ‘Cut your beard and cut your hair,’ and I yell at him, ‘I’m not going to do that, man.’”

His rebellion extended to his career. As a boy, Bridges thought acting was fun and an excuse to skip school, but “later on, like most kids, I didn’t want to do what my parents wanted me to do. I wanted to do music, or painting, or something else.” For someone who didn’t particularly want to act, he was finding himself in demand for some prestigious projects. In 1972, he was cast as a young boxer opposite Stacy Keach in John Huston’s Fat City, and he had the lead in Robert Benton’s little seen but critically praised Bad Company. The next year, he was Junior Jackson, the stock-car racer of The Last American Hero, based on a famous article by Tom Wolfe.

He didn’t commit himself to the idea of an acting career until joining Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Fredric March in John Frankenheimer’s 1973 film version of
Eugene O’ Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one in a series of heavy duty literary properties brought to the screen by the American Film Theater on a subscription basis. “That project was a turning point in my life. That was the film where I decided that I could make acting the focus of my career and bring my other interests, like music, art, photography, et cetera, to it.”

Bridges told The New York Times that it was “really heavy” working with such a high-powered cast, and “I came away from that experience with the certainty that acting is what I truly wanted. You know I found out those big guys were just as afraid as I was, and that fear is all a part of acting: it’s part of the fuel actors use to do what we do. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

At a time when Clint Eastwood was the world’s biggest box-office draw but all but ignored by the Academy Awards, Bridges became the first person ever acknowledged with an Oscar nomination (as best supporting actor) for an Eastwood flick, the engagingly eccentric Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, directed by a first-timer, Michael Cimino, who also wrote the script. In The New York Times, Howard Thompson summed it up as “a funny, tough-fibered crime comedy with an unobtrusive edge of drama,” and made note of Bridges’ “impish exuberance.”

Bridges followed it with a trio of critically respected but commercially disappointing projects. Rancho Deluxe, Hearts of the West, and Stay Hungry came and went. If only that had been true of King Kong. Dino De Laurentis’ much ballyhooed remake of the 1933 classic gave Bridges a change to play the hero. Too bad the movie was so laughable that the only heroism required was agreeing to appear in it. Though a box-office hit, most of the attention was focused on either the ape or sexy Jessica Lange, which seemed fine with Bridges. “I hope I don’t have too strong a film image, ugh,” he told The New York Times. “The stronger the image, I believe, the more it takes away from the acting possibilities. It’s like blowing your cover if you’re a secret agent.”

One would have had to be a secret agent to find any virtue in his next film, Somebody Killed Her Husband, the thriller that was supposed to turn TV phenomenon Farrah Fawcett Majors into a movie star. It did no such thing, and Bridges, rarely panned by critics, came in for a few barbs. “He works so hard at being winsome that he inadvertently parodies Richard Dreyfuss’ performance in The Goodbye Girl,” Frank Rich sneered in Time.

The next few years found Bridges headlining several films that, though initially failing to find an audience, would become cult favorites, revered by a small but enthusiastic following. First up was Winter Kills, a conspiracy thriller with one of the most amazing casts ever assembled. Elizabeth Taylor, John Huston, Sterling Hayden, Anthony Perkins, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone and Ralph Meeker were all attracted to director William Richert’s sometimes suspenseful, often preposterous, and always entertaining adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel. Bridges played the younger brother of an assassinated president modeled on JFK, who begins his own investigation into the crime when evidence of a second gunman emerges. “It doesn’t make a bit of sense,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “but it’s fast and handsome and entertaining, bursting with a crazy vitality all its own.”

Surprisingly, Heaven’s Gate also has its admirers, particularly abroad where it was hailed as a masterpiece, but only after laying such a colossal egg in
America that it earned a reputation as one of the biggest bombs of all time. Michael Cimino’s ambitious Western was so costly that it brought down its studio, United Artists, and made the Oscar winning director of The Deer Hunter a Hollywood pariah. Had it been more modestly budgeted, it might have been seen for what it is: an interesting and offbeat Western about a war between greedy cattle barons and the immigrants who they fear are taking over their land. The film’s failure didn’t seem to hurt Bridges, but then his role was minor compared to those of Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, and Christopher Walken. 

Cutter’s Way
, originally titled Cutter and Bone, may have fared better had it not been released by United Artists, the studio responsible for Heaven’s Gate. A character study wrapped in a fairly standard murder mystery, it cast Bridges a boozing lothario whose best-friend, played by John Heard, is a manic Vietnam vet who tries to clear him of murder.

Then there was Tron, another film that was a victim of poor timing. In the Disney production, Bridges played a programmer who is sucked into a computer game. It was released in the summer of 1982 when movie screens were dominated by science-fiction, but with competition from E.T. and Star Trek II, Tron, like Blade Runner, only found an audience later through home video.

The 1980s proved a prolific decade for Bridges. Reviewing the noir-ish Jagged Edge in The New York Times, Janet Maslin thought Bridges “gives what may be the only ordinary performance of his career” as a murder suspect defended by Glenn Close, but thought he was “unexpectedly well-suited to (the) romantic fall-guy role” in Against All Odds, a remake of the noir classic Out of the Past.

He returned to science-fiction with 1983's Starman, for which he received his third Oscar nomination, his first in the leading best actor category. “How do you create an alien?” he wondered. “I thought about some of the crazy people I’ve known who I thought might be alien. I observed my three-and-a-half-year-old and 20-month-old daughters because I wanted to have their innocence, the ways kids make a mistake without knowing it’s a mistake.”

Critic Janet Maslin opened her review of the film with an almost prophetic compliment: “If Starman doesn’t make a major difference in Jeff Bridges’ career, Mr. Bridges is operating in the wrong galaxy.” Maslin felt that only Bridges could have believably played the role because of his “blend of grace, precision and seemingly offhanded charm.” Of course, the film didn’t make that much of a difference in his career. Sure, it got him an Oscar nomination and a lot of critical praise, but he’d already had both. The film did not launch him into the stratosphere. He remained a respected actor, a leading man, but not quite a superstar. 

Tucker: The Man and His Dream
had little impact either, despite the presence of Francis Ford Coppola behind the camera. The true story of the man who built a modern automobile, but was successfully defeated by the automotive behemoths of Detroit and their Washington lobbyists, it was, in Roger Ebert’s view, “not so much about the car as about the man, and it is the man that he fails to deliver.” But once again, Janet Maslin was generous in her praise, saying the actor “gives Tucker’s optimism great charm, then turns it into something genuinely heroic once it crashes head-on into the exigencies of American business.” For the first time as an adult, Bridges had the chance to act with his father whom Coppola cast as a Senator working for the opposition.

The family ties were even stronger in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Jeff and older brother Beau Bridges starred as a pair of piano playing brothers both of whom are smitten with the sultry singer they add to their act. In the latter role, Michelle Pfeiffer earned an Oscar nomination.

He kicked off the ‘90s by joining Robin Williams in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King.  Bridges plays a DJ overcome with guilt after one of his rants sets off a madman who open fires on a bar. He finds redemption by helping a deranged homeless man (Williams) in his quest for what he believes is the Holy Grail. In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers observed that Bridges “seems juiced by playing this arrogant bastard; he’s rarely been better,” but one imagines the two leads could have switched roles and still been effective.

The rest of the decade was devoted to such intriguing if unsatisfying fare as American Heart, Fearless, and The Vanishing, as well as the big-budget flop Wild Bill. He also appeared alongside Barbra Streisand in her self-directed The Mirror Has Two Faces, and again with his dad, and Tommy Lee Jones, in the dreary Blown Away.

No one, least of all Bridges, realized it at the time, but 1998’s The Big Lebowski would provide him with the signature role that had eluded him, and which he seems to have avoided, during most of his career. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the bizarrely funny tale is almost impossible to describe. It doesn’t really have a plot. Instead it is, as Roger Ebert noted, “about an attitude, not a story.” Suffice it to say, Bridges plays the Dude, described at one point as the laziest man in
Southern California, who seems to have been freeze-dried in the peace and love era of the 1960s and thawed out in the ‘90s. He wears a goatee, a pair of large Bermuda shorts, a bathrobe and flip-flops, and speaks his own language. What does he do for recreation? “I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.”

During its initial release, The Big Lebowski made approximately two million dollars more than its $15 million budget, but through the years has inspired an annual gathering of rabid Dude admirers, the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, several books, and even shops specializing in Dude-inspired clothing and paraphernalia. Ray Preston, the proprietor of one such shop in
New York, explains that “One day I put these Big Lebowski shirts in the store as a joke. Turns out they were the only things that sold consistently.”

As Bridges told The Guardian, “I didn’t want to develop too strong a persona.” He remembered how his father was typecast as a skin-diver in Sea Hunt and wanted to avoid that trap. “So I set out to mix it up as much as I could. That’s partly for my own enjoyment, but it also sends a message to the financiers. If I can play different things, I get sent different things.”

Mixing it up meant following the Dude with the President - of the United States, that is - in The Contender, for which he received another best supporting actor Oscar nomination.

If he wasn’t known for having big box-office hits, that began to change in the millennium. 2003’s Seabiscuit, the true life depression-era saga of a horse that inspires the nation by winning against all the odds, not only scored a best picture nod at the Oscars, but was a major hit with the public.  The true life depression-era saga of a horse that inspires the nation by winning against all the odds.  In 2008, Iron Man resuscitated Robert Downey, Jr’s career, and also gave Bridges a rare chance to play the villain.

Finally, on his fifth Oscar nomination, and second as best actor, Bridges, often considered underappreciated, won the gold, as well as a slew of other awards, for his role as the broken down country singer, Bad Blake, in Crazy Heart. “You always kind of start with yourself, see what aspects of yourself can fuel the part,” he told Kris Tapley in explaining his approach to a role. In some ways, Bad Blake didn’t require much of a stretch. He had always loved music, played guitar, sang and wrote songs. One of his more obscure credits was writing and singing the song, “Lost in Space,” heard over the closing credits of 1969’s John and Mary, a love story starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow. Now, after his success with Crazy Heart, Bridges is recording an album produced by T-Bone Burnett and planning to make some live appearances.

“I’ve been involved in two big flop Westerns,” he said in 2001, referring to Heaven’s Gate and Wild Bill. “I don’t know if Americans still care about Westerns. I hope they do. There are some wonderful ones still to be made.”

Indeed, Americans do care about Westerns when they are as wonderful as 2010's True Grit. The 1969 original won an Oscar for John Wayne whose role of the one-eyed marshal, Rooster Cogburn, was now being offered to Bridges. Could Bridges fill the Duke’s boots? Would he or any actor even consider making the attempt?

“I wasn’t really playing that role,” Bridges told Time. “One of the things I asked the Coen brothers when they asked me to come on board was why they wanted to make True Grit again. They said, the movie we’re making is referring to the book by Charles Portis. We’re not concerned with doing a remake of the movie. That was a relief to me because I didn’t have to get into the Duke’s boots.”

Actually, Bridges was playing that role, and though the Duke cast a long shadow, Bridges managed to make Rooster his own without stepping on his predecessor’s oversized boots, or being trampled under them. His Cogburn was not as larger than life as Wayne’s, and his swagger may have been less intimidating, but it was a classic performance, one that brought him a second consecutive Oscar nomination as best actor.

At the same time that Bridges was reviving another actor’s role, he was reprising one of his own in Tron: Legacy, a sequel to his 1982 film. “What got me to the second one is pretty much what got me to the first one, and that was that I wanted to mess around with all the new technology that was available to my industry. Of course, the technology in this new one makes the old one look like a black-and-white TV show.”

Music and acting are only two of his passions. He is also a committed visual artist who takes photographs on the set of his films and presents the personnel with an album of memories after every shoot.  He is also committed to the Hunger Network. “People are working at jobs that pay so little that they can’t pay the rent and buy enough food,” he reports on his web site. “35 million people are hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and 13 million of them are children.”

When asked by Time if he ever tires of references to The Big Lebowski, Bridges insisted he does not. “A lot of people dig the Dude.” And even more people dig Jeff Bridges.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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