Seven-time Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges, 72, costars with John Lithgow (76, two Oscar nominations, 13 Emmy nominations, six wins) in The Old Man, Bridges’ first lead role in a TV series. Bridges — whom critic Pauline Kael once called “the most natural and least self-conscious screen star who ever lived” — plays Dan Chase, a retired widower whose bladder wakes him up at night, as do nightmares about the dementia that claimed his wife. But he can still stomp and kill multiple hit men half his age, escape car trunks, and flee Lithgow’s Harold Harper, now an FBI man on his trail. Bridges and Lithgow tell AARP about their new show, hot careers and thoughts about life.
What’s your characters’ relationship in The Old Man?
Lithgow: Jeff and I play two ex-CIA operatives who did something in Afghanistan 30 years before, which has come back to haunt us in the present day.
Bridges: Our chickens have come to roost, and the consequences for our earlier behaviors.
Lithgow: And in all these intervening 30 years, we’ve had absolutely nothing to do with each other, because we had to keep apart. It’s international espionage of the present day, with flashbacks to the Soviet Afghan war time.
Jeff, you refused to star in The Old Man at first, just as you initially rejected The Big Lebowski — during which you quit smoking pot while immortalizing a pothead icon — and Crazy Heart, which won you an Oscar, right?
Bridges: Yeah, that’s the way I roll. I resist so much, because when I engage, it’s 1,000 percent.
What did you end up liking about playing The Old Man?
Bridges: I always find it important, if you’re lucky, to get a real guy involved, somebody who has actually lived the life of your character. Our tech consultant, Christopher Huddleston, a retired senior CIA clandestine operative, served six field tours, five in the Middle East. So this is the kind of cat I’m playing. He turned me on to Stoicism, and this book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph.
You ran into a couple of obstacles in making The Old Man, right?
Bridges: Yeah, cancer and COVID, a double punch. I was sick for like two years. It was like a dream. I’m feeling terrific now.
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How has TV changed since you appeared on your dad’s show Sea Hunt at age 8? Older characters used to be comic or reductive roles, or they were film stars relegated to TV, like Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley.
Bridges: Everything’s changed, man. There’s so much content now, right? How do you find all this stuff? And the longest scene I’ve ever done in a movie was a 12-minute take. On TV now, you’re acting for 25 minutes straight. We’re just jammin’. And you kind of get into a zone. John and I approach acting the same way.
Lithgow: So many more projects are getting made, until COVID I barely knew an actor who was out of work.
When you two were young guns coming up, there weren’t so many projects that partnered older actors.
Lithgow: You’re absolutely right, except for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau bromances, and Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country. But it was pretty rare that you saw a whole story built around senior actors. Now more audiences are being served, and I did The Tomorrow Man (2019) with Blythe Danner, a love story between two older people from Bleecker Street Films, which concentrates on that, and Love Is Strange (2014) with Alfred Molina.
So the old stigmas attached to older actors, and to TV, are going away?
Lithgow: Yeah. In fact, some of the finest work is being done on TV. It’s a whole revival of television — not even a revival, it’s the invention of very, very high-quality television. Take Tim Van Patten, a director on my Perry Mason series. He also did Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire.
Also, he’s directing Michael Douglas’ upcoming Ben Franklin show on Apple TV.
Lithgow: Yeah, talented writers, directors, producers and actors are just flocking to streaming TV. I have to say, just speaking personally and about my own career, I just feel like things are better than they’ve ever been. I’ve had these just wonderful job opportunities in the last five years. Things have been better since I turned 70 than they ever were before.
Is the key to aging to achieve some wisdom, and adapt?
Bridges: Wisdom in aging, yeah. You’re kind of starting to get the joke. You know, what’s the alternative — not adapting? Then you’re gone. On my website, jeffbridges.com, I recommend this book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. If you die at 80, you’ve lived 4,000 weeks. That’s all we’ve got, man! We aren’t as thankful, as grateful as we might be. We’re always saying, no, this isn’t quite right in life — we think that that’s a problem. But that very thing that bugs us, that’s where the lesson is. Hang in! That’s the surprise of life — you never know where it’s going to take you. You know?
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.