The Dude, All Grown Up
Known for playing an immature slacker, Jeff Bridges actually is a conscientious family man
En español | Jeff Bridges is enjoying a kind of homecoming on this sun-drenched morning in Beverly Hills. The home in question is nothing like Bridges' actual residence, a rustic retreat up the coast in Santa Barbara. In contrast, this house is a modernist showpiece, all sharp angles, built high in the hills by a celebrated L.A. architect; its current owner rents it out for photo shoots. As Bridges wanders toward the living room — a soaring space with a view stretching from downtown to the sea — a grin of recognition spreads across his strong-boned face. "Now it's starting to look familiar," he says.
Bridges spent several days in this room a little more than 15 years ago, shooting a scene in the cult hit The Big Lebowski (1998). His character, Jeffrey Lebowski — aka the Dude — is described in a voice-over as "the laziest [man] in Los Angeles County." He's a shaggy hippie, a former campus radical who's done little since the '60s besides smoke doobies, drink White Russians and go bowling. Yet the Dude is a wise fool: He strives to live a simple, peaceful life but is still capable of true (if bumbling) courage.
He is, in other words, a type familiar to anyone who lived through the Woodstock era — a figure that, for many of us, embodies aspects of a former self.
The Dude is also the role with which Bridges is most often identified, despite the actor's phenomenal versatility. In his 60-odd movies, he's played everything from a space alien (Starman) to an Old West sheriff (True Grit) to the leader of a futuristic dystopia (The Giver, out in August 2014). That knack for shape-shifting won him an Academy Award (as country singer Bad Blake in 2009's Crazy Heart).
In real life, though, Bridges looks and sounds a lot like Lebowski. He has admitted to a fondness for the occasional toke. His speech is studded with Haight Street slang. He recently coauthored The Dude and the Zen Master with the Buddhist priest and social activist Bernie Glassman; a collection of dialogues, it uses lines from The Big Lebowski ("The Dude abides," "That's just like, uh, your opinion, man") as conversation starters.
This morning Bridges is dressed in a T-shirt and faded corduroys. He's lost the beard and gained a few wrinkles, but his caramel-and-silver hair still cascades to his shoulders. At 64, he retains His Dudeship's bearish build, so his light-footedness is a surprise. He soft-shoes it onto a triangular deck. "Very cool," he exclaims, raising his arms and stretching yogically. "This is just an amazing pad!"
But the resemblance between actor and avatar goes only so far. To begin with, Bridges is far from lazy. He's known as one of the most conscientious — and least self-absorbed — stars in Hollywood. "He thinks deeply about every word, every gesture," says The Giver's director, Phillip Noyce, "yet he leaves space for moments of spontaneous combustion. He avoids confrontations and ego struggles. Jeff's vibe really helped us through some difficult days during filming."
Bridges spends his spare time painting, sculpting, taking photographs, playing with his country-rock band, the Abiders, and raising cash to fight childhood hunger. And unlike Lebowski, whose closest relationship is with his bowling league, he's into communing with his kin.
Indeed, he's one of filmdom's most dedicated family men. In an industry that is notorious for minute-long marriages, Bridges has stuck with the former Susan Geston for 37 years. The couple have three daughters, with whom they are exceedingly close. (Isabelle, 33, an artist, is working on a children's book with Bridges. Jessie, 31, is a guitarist who often plays at her father's gigs. Interior designer Haley, 28, helped decorate her parents' house.) It's hard to imagine the Dude with a grandchild, but Bridges has one. When the 3-year-old accidentally locked herself in the bathroom, who did she call? "Not Ghostbusters. She called Grandma!" Bridges says, beaming.
In short, this om-chanting scion of Hollywood royalty (Lloyd Bridges, 1913-98) appears to be as wholesome, responsible and well grounded as your next-door neighbor. And without renouncing his Lebowski-esque persona, he seems to have achieved something that eludes many movie folks — maturity. Which raises a perplexing question. As the Dude might put it: How did he get so un-[expletived]-up?
Becoming 'The Dude'
I pose that query to Bridges as we settle into a guest room to talk. He clasps the back of his head in his hands, gathers his thoughts and murmurs, "I had a pretty great childhood." For that, he credits his parents, whose marriage lasted almost 60 years. Lloyd, known for his scuba-adventure series Sea Hunt, was making movies and TV shows throughout Jeff's boyhood and wasn't home much. Dorothy, though, "was kind of a spectacular mom," Bridges recalls. An actress, poet and artist who channeled her talents into motherhood, she instituted a daily ritual in which she spent an hour focused exclusively on each of her three children — with the kid calling the shots. "I'd say, 'Let's go into your makeup kit. I want to make you up like a clown.' Or, 'Let's play spaceman. I'll be a space monster. You can be trapped under the kitchen table.'"
If Dorothy's intention was to foster creativity and confidence, it worked. (And not only on Jeff. Brother Beau, now 72, became a movie star in his own right; sister Lucinda, 60, is a painter.) Lloyd gave his offspring their first acting roles; Jeff debuted on Sea Hunt at age 8. More important, he gave them wise counsel — on professionalism and on how to treat other people. During set visits, Bridges saw the joy his father took in his work: "He had such tremendous fun with what he was doing, and the feeling was contagious." The boy also watched his dad stand up for his beliefs. On one occasion, says Bridges, "this director was taking out his frustration on an assistant. My dad went up to him and said, 'Frank, I'm going to be in my trailer. When you apologize to this young person that you've embarrassed, you can find me.' "
None of this, of course, could stop Bridges from being a child of the '60s — or an adolescent male. More enthusiastic about girls and rock 'n' roll than homework, he coasted through high school with a C-ish average. "Our parents were wondering if he would amount to anything," Beau recalls. "I kept assuring them, 'Give him time — he's got great gifts.' He'd picked up my old electric guitar and really took to it. I thought that was where he was going to find success."
College was not in the cards, but the draft was; to avoid Vietnam, Bridges joined the Coast Guard Reserve. Over the next few years, he did regular stints on buoy tenders. A chaplain turned him on to the radical Christian writings of Nikos Kazantzakis — one of Bridges' formative encounters with alternative spirituality. Later came transcendental meditation, LSD, est (Erhard Seminars Training) and other paths he hoped would lead to enlightenment.
Meanwhile, he ambled into the movies. Bridges' third big-screen outing, in The Last Picture Show (1971), earned him his first Oscar nomination. It wasn't until five productions later, however, that he committed to being an actor rather than a musician or artist.
While making The Iceman Cometh (1973), he witnessed some of the grand old men of American cinema at work: "To see Fredric March struggling with getting something right, or Lee Marvin … They were dealing with the same stuff I was." Before shooting one scene, Bridges noticed Robert Ryan's hands were sweating. "I said, 'Bob, how can you be nervous after all these years?' He said, 'I'd be really scared if I wasn't scared.' I realized that fear doesn't necessarily go away, but you befriend it." He was hooked.
'The Dude' Finds Lasting Romance
In his personal life, Bridges continued to drift — dating starlets and partying immoderately. But in 1974, he found his anchor. He was in a hot tub at a Montana dude ranch, shooting Rancho Deluxe, when one of the lodging's service workers walked by. The slim blonde had two black eyes and a broken nose from a recent car crash, but her beauty hit Bridges like a bowling ball scoring a strike.
After drying off, he asked her out; she said no. At the film's wrap party, though, she consented to dance with him. She also agreed to accompany him to a ranch he was thinking of buying. On the drive out, he took note of her relaxed warmth and wry humor and had the uncanny sensation that the woman at his side was his future wife. The idea terrified him — at 24, he wasn't ready to foreclose on his options. "My mother used to say I have something called abulia, a difficulty making choices," he says. "It's really true."
Sue, then 20, was from Fargo, North Dakota, the daughter of an architect and a professor. She came to share Bridges' sense they were destined to be together and moved in with him in L.A. After three years, though, she grew tired of trusting to fate.
When she got a job offer in Montana, she delivered an ultimatum. As Bridges recalls, "Sue said, 'I know you love me, but I want a family. If you can't answer to that, I'm going to find it somewhere else.' " He fell to his knees and proposed. They were married five days later.
"Sue brings Jeff down to earth," says Loyd Catlett, his longtime friend and stand-in. "In this business, you've got everybody telling you how great you are. In a loving way, she says, 'All right, honey, let's get down to reality.' "
"I think she was responsible for Jeff getting healthy, and taking responsibility for his life," adds brother Beau. "She focused him."
Bridges often speaks of himself as a kite, and of Sue as the person holding the string so he can safely soar. Yet, for a long time he resented being tethered. He and Sue fought often, but his parents had taught him that walking away was not the answer. Eventually, the couple developed a technique for defusing tension: They sit face-to-face. One talks, and the other listens — no interruptions. Then they switch.
Their recurring battle goes like this: "You don't get it." "No, you don't get it." The truth is, Bridges says, they're both right: "We don't understand what the other person is going through. That's something we all have in common." Accepting that premise encourages forgiveness.
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But learning to fight fair is not the only thing that's kept them together. A turning point arrived when their eldest daughter, Isabelle, then 4, came down with encephalitis. Bridges was off shooting a movie and couldn't make it home quickly. Sue, who was also caring for 2-year-old Jessie and pregnant with Haley, handled the emergency on her own. Afterward, as Isabelle spent a year in rehabilitation, her mother supervised her recovery. "Sue had enormous strength," Bridges later wrote in a published tribute. "I just looked at her in awe."
Over the years, he says now, his appreciation has steadily deepened. "What they don't tell you about marriage is that it just keeps getting better on all levels — emotion, sex, intimacy.
"Intimacy is what we're all looking for," he adds. "It's kind of a big high."
'The Dude' Fights Hunger
In The Big Lebowski, what gets the Dude out of his self-centered rut is his decision to track down a woman who may have been kidnapped. Bridges has his own ways of warding off solipsism. One is his work against hunger. In 1983, appalled by images of famine in Ethiopia, he began educating himself on food scarcity around the globe — and learned it was also a problem close to home. In response, he cofounded the End Hunger Network, a nonprofit that has raised millions of dollars for U.S. food banks. Recently, he became the national spokesman for the No Kid Hungry campaign, to connect needy American children with healthy food. "We work in a local way, avoiding the political pea soup in D.C.," he says. "We're trying to make sure kids who come to school have enough nutrition to learn."
Zen Buddhism is another outlet that offers Bridges balance. He tries to meditate daily. Among the precepts of the faith, he notes, is that no one escapes getting old, illness or death.
As Bridges approaches Social Security age (the big day is Dec. 4), he's pondering those principles constantly. "I've got two conversations going on in my head," he explains, a bemused smile deepening the creases around his eyes. "One says, 'Hey, you've got a lot of stuff you want to do, man. Now's the time, because you're gonna kick the bucket pretty soon.' The other says, 'Oh, Jeff, you want to make the rest of your life a giant homework assignment? Just relax, man. Just relax.'
"I've got both those pulls, from opposite poles. But I guess it's like breathing: You inhale, you exhale, and you get on with it."
Kenneth Miller is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Time, Life, Discover, Reader's Digest, Rolling Stone, and many other magazines.
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