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Jeff Bridges, 73, Reflects on His Cancer, COVID Battle: ‘The Obstacle Was Death’

Bridges wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk again, much less regain the mojo that made him a Hollywood icon

spinner image actor jeff bridges
Photo by: Beau Grealy/Trunk Archive

Jeff Bridges thrusts a single foot onto his desk. A muscular foot, clad in a funky rubber sandal. A well-cared-for foot to be sure. Surprisingly slender, unsurprisingly pale, lit by late-afternoon sunlight from his window. There it is. Jeff Bridges’ foot. Even his foot is cool. I’m just saying.

He has just worked out; his thick gray hair is wet and slicked back. Bridges is bearded, bespectacled and tan, looking very put together in a gray button-down — yet undeniably windblown, having forgotten to button up. And he isn’t throwing his bare feet on his desk, his hands behind his head, in some stagy “life is good” pose. It’s just a single foot. We’d been discussing the establishing shots of his television show The Old Man (FX), in which his eponymous character, an arguably infamous CIA assassin, is introduced to his audience without a hint of intrigue or international tension. Instead, the show opens with Bridges sitting in darkness, on the edge of a bed, groaning and sighing at the prospect of getting up again (and again) to pee. A bedside clock indifferently glowers up the narrowing intervals of his time for sleep — 1:15, 3:03, 5:42, 6:32 a.m. Later that morning, on the same bed, he undertakes the painful contortions of getting socks onto his old-man feet. He is the titular character, after all, the old man.

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“Don’t you hate putting on socks?” Bridges asks, and that’s when — ta-da! — his sandaled foot is raised: “See?” he says. “This is why I don’t put on socks!” Bridges then plugs the sandals — he clearly thinks they might help someone. “Check these out, man! They’re for foot recovery! I don’t know if there are any readers out there who have Morton’s neuroma; it’s like a nerve thing. These are the only shoes that I can wear.” He’s laughing, kind of pumped, and positively excited to have the right shoes. “They work great, man!”

VIDEO: Jeff Bridges Told Death ‘Bring It On, Man’

Like the characters he sometimes portrays, Jeff Bridges speaks in comma splices, punctuates the air in exclamation points and end-stops most of his sentences with an encouraging “you know?” or “man.” Checking in with me from the home in Santa Barbara, California, that he shares with his wife of 46 years, Susan Geston, Bridges tells stories, gesticulates, throws around ideas (philosophy, love, politics) in pieces, freely laughs and gets choked up in the very same inevitably fractured sentence. The man is a talker. He offers up his thinking without guile — what he’s learned along his journey, the low ruts of chemo, the dark nights of COVID-19, and his advice on the importance of making art, which books to read, the best music to dance to and anything else that might just help whoever he’s talking to. As Amy Brenneman, one of his costars on The Old Man, told me, “In many ways, work just interrupts a longer conversation for Jeff.”

We’re here, in part, to talk about living, and the work he is still doing at 73. So I ask about the simple declaration of The Old Man’s title, which doesn’t hint at the shadowy edge of modern military history, political intrigue, really serious fighting, car chases and, well, parenting, which makes up the sinew of the story. Is it something of a disguise? Or an insult? Are you actually the old man? Bridges harrumphs.

“I’m 73 now, so I guess I qualify,” he says. He purses his lips and squints. “It turns out there’s a bunch of us old codgers there: me, John Lithgow [77] — and Joel Grey [91] trumps us all.” Bridges continues with a searching look. “With us guys, anyway, if we’re lucky, we are all old men, finally.”

If Jeff Bridges can ever truly be said to pause when he’s in the middle of one of his riffs, this may be that very moment. He goes quiet and — just like that — he’s not riffing, not capturing images like the acclaimed photographer he became while winning awards for his acting, not jamming like the gifted musician he has proven to be, on film and off.

Jeff Bridges weighs his last word: “finally.” It’s a tangible word, a word of consequence, a word with claws for him, as an older man who is himself closing in on finality. Because early in the production of The Old Man, he was hit first with a surprisingly advanced case of cancer and then by a nearly fatal bout of COVID. But of course, pretty soon, he will start talking about all of that. He got sick, death came upon him. And it turns out that Jeff Bridges prepared for more living, even as he approached the possibility of his end.

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Jeff Bridges as Dan Chase in "The Old Man" (left) and as The Dude in "The Big Lebowski."
Prashant Gupta/FX Networks/Courtesy Everett Collection; Gramercy Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It all began after The Old Man’s cast and crew took a break to comply with pandemic restrictions in March 2020. “During that break,” Bridges recalls, “I was doing some exercises while on the ground and felt what seemed like a bone in my stomach. I thought to myself, Hmm. But it didn’t hurt or anything. I asked Sue what she thought. She said: ‘I don’t know, but you’ve got to get it checked out.’ ”

It’s clear he is crafting a cautionary tale on our tendency to put off consultations with doctors: “At the time, I said to myself, ‘It doesn’t hurt. I don’t want to go to the doctor.’ ” He and his wife went on a planned trip to Montana instead. “I’m hiking and feeling great. My shins really itch, and I think, Oh, I just got, you know, dry skin. Then I had night sweats, but thought, That’s just hot summer nights. It turns out those are lymphoma symptoms.”

Upon his return home, at the overdue doctor’s visit, he was informed he had a large mass in his stomach.

“I was doing those fight scenes for the first episode of The Old Man and didn’t know that I had a 9-by-12-inch tumor in my body.” He repeats those dimensions several times during our conversation. It seems to awe him. He rubs at the center of his chest. “You’d think that would have hurt or something, when they were punching me and stuff,” he says. “It didn’t.”

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As Bridges underwent chemotherapy, filming was halted, with just four episodes of The Old Man shot. Soon he was living the chemo life, as a (somewhat) typical outpatient. “It was slow at first, as they worked to find the right chemo cocktail for me,” he says. Cancer was, as ever, bad news, but then Bridges received worse news. In January 2021, “I got this letter from the chemo place informing me I had contracted COVID. I had no immune system to fight it. Chemo had wiped that out, which made it really, really tough.” Unable to walk, turn over or breathe without an oxygen feed, he faded quickly during the first days of his five-week hospitalization. “For me,” he says, “cancer was nothing compared to the COVID.”

Did he ever want to give up? Bridges rolls an answer around in his thinking. “I remember the doctor saying to me, ‘Jeff, you’ve got to fight. You’re not fighting.’ But I didn’t get it anymore. I just didn’t know how to do that. I was in surrender mode. I’d say to myself, ‘Everybody dies, and this is me dying.’ And I’d hear myself go, ‘Oh, well, here we are, on to the next adventure.’ ”

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(Left to right) Jeff Bridges performing with his band, the Abiders; one of Bridges' drawings.
Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images; Courtesy Jeff Bridges

The Art of Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges is a legitimate lifelong actor. He made his first appearance in the film The Company She Keeps (1951) with his mother, actress Dorothy Bridges, as a 6-month-old. A few years later, he began making appearances along with his brother Beau in Sea Hunt (1958–1961), his father Lloyd’s hit TV show. He popped into the national consciousness in the widely acclaimed The Last Picture Show in 1971 and has been making movies of every stripe since (70-plus to date), most prominently Heaven’s GateJagged EdgeTronThe Fabulous Baker BoysStarmanThe Big LebowskiTrue Grit and Crazy Heart, for which he won an Oscar.

But his reach as an artist has not been confined to TV and movies. He is a talented photographer with countless exhibitions and two luxe books of behind-the-scenes movie shots, as well as a country musician with three albums as front man to his own band, the Abiders. He also paints and makes ceramics: It’s worth a trip down the rabbit hole of his website ( for a look at the breadth of his commitment to the artistic process and his delightful products. “Photography, painting, drawing, acting — I kind of look at them all as the same,” he tells me. “Each of them is a version of me being as creative as I can, focusing my creativity on a particular thing.”

Like anyone stretching into new areas of expression, Bridges still finds it hard to get started on projects from time to time. “I resist,” he says. “I’m kind of a lazy guy, you know, I don’t like to work and all that stuff. I push it off, push it off, and then I say, ‘Well, I’ve got to do it, you know? Come on.’ And then I let the clay and my hands have a dance together, and as the clay becomes a ceramic bowl, I engage. You get engaged, man. It happens.”

He thinks everyone should try out different art forms: “The task is to get out of the way and let the thing rip through you.” — T.C.

Death is part of aging, of course, and Bridges acknowledges the recent passing of friends in his life with a catch in his gravelly voice. “We’ve been losing a lot recently. David Crosby just passed. His dad shot High Noon, which my father was in, so we’d known each other for quite a while. My dear friend Jackson Browne just lost David Lindley, the great pedal steel guitar player. I’ve personally lost Peter Bogdanovich, who directed me in The Last Picture Show,” he says. “You asked me about the things that happen to old men. Their friends die, you know?”

But did he really surrender to COVID? Mostly, no. When Bridges was preparing for his role in The Old Man, before his cancer diagnosis and the advent of his own COVID, the show’s producer hired a technical expert, Christopher Huttleston, a former CIA senior operations officer, to help the cast portray senior CIA agents. Bridges went to school. “I asked him about the philosophies of CIA guys in the battlefield. He told me a lot of them are into stoicism. So I studied up on stoicism and got a lot out of it.” Part of that study was familiarizing himself with a principle based in part on a quote by Marcus Aurelius, which is often referred to as “the obstacle is the way.”

“For me, in that hospital bed, the obstacle was death. And that was the way. I kept thinking, Here’s the problem, you know? Here’s the challenge. I asked myself, ‘How are you going to go about it?’ And I thought, I’m a dancer, man, and I’m a musician. I’m going to jam with this situation, you know?

There is nothing funny about this jam, no casual echo of the characters he’s played or the music he has created. Jeff Bridges is speaking about the way he confronted the possibility of death. In what may have been his darkest moment, he engaged with death instead of fearing it.

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Bridges recovering from COVID-19 in 2021.
Courtesy Jeff Bridges

“I couldn’t understand how you’d fight it. So I fought by surrendering, which is not the same as giving up.” Bridges takes a breath, carefully picking his next words. “What I really felt at the time was love. Love was certainly magnified for me during this time. Not only from the people around me, but also the love in my own heart for them. So what I did was more like giving in to love, you know?” I do.

It would appear that the seeker Jeff Bridges made his way around the obstacle of death armed with an alchemy of intense curiosity, personal will, family love and some very real reverence for science. He still marvels at the people who worked to save him. “The nurses and doctors were just spectacular, man. They worked hard, they shared information, they appreciated different opinions. It was so focused, so simple, so beautiful.”

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Bridges was lucky that doctors were able to coax his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma into a relatively fast remission by immediately putting him through chemotherapy infusion, followed by an oral chemo protocol. And when COVID struck him at the peak of his time in chemo, Bridges had another turn of good fortune: a staunch advocate.

“My wife Sue was my absolute champion,” he says. Initially hospitalized alongside Bridges with COVID, Sue was sent home from the hospital after a week, then returned following her recovery to keep watch. “She really fought to keep me off a ventilator,” he says. “I didn’t want to be on it, and the doctors didn’t necessarily want that. But Sue was adamant.”

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Bridges with his wife Susan Geston (left).
Xinhua News Agency/Eyevine/Redux Pictures

Eventually, he was treated with “convalescent plasma,” blood plasma that is gathered from COVID survivors and already contains viral antibodies. Bridges made enough of a turn in his recovery that he moved from weeks in the hospital, on the verge of being put on a ventilator, to months of recuperation at his home. There, in a converted garage, perpetually hooked up to oxygen tanks, he lay, first on a hospital bed and finally in a Lebowski-forward leather recliner, meditating, contemplating his physical state and practicing breathing exercises, which he credits with giving him the strength to return to work.

Now, as we speak, Jeff Bridges is a few days away from starting to film Season 2 of The Old Man. His health is, mostly, back. The tumor has shrunk “to the size of a marble,” he says, though the recovery from COVID has stretched on a bit. “A lot of getting better was a matter of setting really small goals. At first they’d say, ‘How long can you stand?’ For a while, my record was 45 seconds before I’d collapse. And then they were saying: ‘Oh, look, you’re standing for a minute! That’s so cool, now can you walk 5 feet?’ ”

Recovering did not immediately involve any level of professional optimism. “I didn’t think I’d ever work again, really,” he says. “So at first I said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ But eventually that became, ‘Maybe I can.’ I have to admit that I was still frightened of going back to work. Then I began to think of my recovery as a gift being presented.” And part of that gift would be the strength to walk his youngest daughter, Hayley, down the aisle at her wedding, which he did in August 2021. He even sneaked in a bridal dance for good measure.

spinner image actor jeff bridges in a blazer
Photo by: Michael Becker/FX

Bridges sounds astounded when describing his return to the set of The Old Man to finish Season 1. “So cut to two years after taking that break,” he says, breathing deeply as he remembers. “I come back to work, and, man, it was like a dream, as if we’d just had a long weekend or something. I was seeing all the same faces in the cast and crew. Very bizarre. Everybody showed such dedication and hung in. We finished it. I appreciate that.”

Bridges concedes his grapple with COVID has made him feel a bit older. As he speaks, his post-COVID breathing occasionally gets a little ragged, and he admits to sometimes feeling more confused than he used to.

Also, in the morning, before meditation and stretching, before even really being fully awake, he sometimes experiences what he calls morning dread.

“I sometimes just wake up and say, ‘Oh God, I gotta do it again. I gotta get up and do all this stuff I don’t want to do.’ Fortunately, we’re all so creative, telling ourselves stories about why we feel all that. ‘That’s why I feel bad. And, oh yeah, I forgot about that one.’ And it just rolls on while you’re lying there in bed, and then you get up and get going.”

And why does he keep going? In part it’s just the joy of his vocation. “I’m so blessed to have this cast,” he says of The Old Man’s actors, “to talk to and jam with. To get back to doing what invigorates you — it feels great, man.” But he’s feeling a bigger pull, suggesting that he and all of Hollywood should play their role in uniting and bringing joy to America through art. “I’m feeling that the times are demanding us to be as creative as possible,” he says. “We should all work together to make something beautiful, like we do in the movies.”

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