Jeff Bridges embodies the free-wheeling, free-spirited zeitgeist of the baby-boomer generation. His laid-back, long-haired, laconic persona has served him well in Hollywood, earning him roles in many critically acclaimed and popular films as well as a slew of industry accolades, including seven Academy Award nominations and an Oscar. A lifelong music fan, Bridges has in recent years toured as a singer/guitarist with his band, The Abiders — including shows in Carmel and Monterey. He’s also an accomplished photographer, specializing in panoramic images, publishing two books of his work. If that’s not enough creative output for one person, he’s also a talented and whimsical cartoonist and has co-authored a book with his daughter Isabelle entitled “Daddy Daughter Day.”
Jeffrey Leon Bridges racked up his first film appearance in the role of “Infant at Train Station” in “The Company She Keeps,” with his mother Dorothy Dean Bridges and older brother Beau. Both he and Beau bubbled up often in their father Lloyd’s TV underwater adventure series, “Sea Hunt.” But it wasn’t until 1971 that the actor, then past his rebellious teen years, got his career jump-start as Duane Jackson in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show.” Did his father encourage him to follow in his acting footsteps? “When I was a kid, like most kids, you don’t want to do what your parents want you to do,” the actor says. “You want to rebel. My dad, unlike a lot of showbiz people, really encouraged all his kids to go into showbiz. He loved it so much and all the different elements of it. And I said, ‘Gee dad, I’m not sure. I’m interested in painting and music,’ and he said, ‘Jeff, don’t be a fool, all those things will be available to you through acting. You’ll get to play a musician, an artist and so forth. And you’ll be able to use all your talents in acting — that’s one of the wonderful things about being an actor.’ I’m glad I listened to the old man. I fought him — actually quite late into my career. I had about ten movies under my belt and a nomination for an Academy Award and I still hadn’t made up my mind I wanted to be an actor.”
There are many definitions of the term “cult movie.” All contain some form of the Oxford English Dictionary’s somewhat stuffy explanation: “[films] with enduring appeal to a relatively small audience.” Think “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Generally, these efforts failed to net a large audience, at least upon initial release. A 1998 film conceived by Joel and Ethan Coen, “The Big Lebowski,” certainly fits that bill. It comes in at number two (with a bullet) on IMDB.com’s 25 Best Cult Movies of All Time, right between Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
That honor is due in no small part to the title character of Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude,” portrayed to perfection by Bridges. It’s quite possibly the role he was born to play. True fans can recite every line from the script and do so at every opportunity: “That rug I had; it really tied the room together.” “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” “Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes, well, the bar eats you.” “The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.” And “Nobody calls me Lebowski; you got the wrong guy. I’m the Dude, man.”
Asked if he ever tires of hearing The Dude references, Bridges says, “Oh man, not at all. That movie is so splendid. Getting a chance to work with the Coen Brothers — they’re true masters and like a lot of masters, they make it look easy. But they are so talented and so skillful. I was lucky to work with them again in “True Grit.” But The Dude and “The Big Lebowski” — what a wonderful film. I’m very happy to be associated with that and The Dude. We named the band The Abiders, a “Lebowski” reference. And I played two of the Lebowski Fests. They go on for a couple of days where people dress up like the characters and celebrate the movie. I had a wonderful time.”
It would be a shame to pigeonhole Bridges only as the guy who embodied The Dude. He has crafted many unique, believable characters during his career. Moviegoers cheered for him as Preston Tucker, the maverick inventor that dared to take on the Detroit auto industry. They sympathized with Bad Blake, the country singer on the wrong side of his career arc — the role for which he was awarded a long-overdue Academy Award. He got his first nomination for his sensitive portrayal of Starman in the 1984 John Carpenter film of the same name. And the guy who was The Dude also followed in the footsteps of The Duke, screwing on an eyepatch to inhabit the character of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” 2010 redux. He’s a man of many faces, but one whose inner truth and warm humanity always shine through.
Bridges’ IMBD biography states that he “often play(s) very relaxed and mellow characters.” But is that indicative of the man when the camera is off? “Well, I don’t know, I suppose I have that aspect of being relaxed and mellow on my good days,” he says with one of his frequent laughs. “A lot of people think The Dude is very relaxed and mellow but if you look at the story, his mellowness is challenged in just about every scene. That goes for me as well. My mellowness and relaxedness are challenged by things like child hunger, what we’re doing to our environment—those things can shake up the mellowness and relaxedness. Although both of those things have a place in dealing with serious problems, I think. Joy and love and these positive aspects are all tools that can be used towards ending childhood hunger and healing our planet. I find that love can be a lot more motivating than fear when dealing with those big problems. Loving each other.”
Songwriter John Goodwin, the actor’s lifelong friend and musical collaborator says of his buddy, “Jeff is the most generous person I’ve ever met. Of course, lots of people ask for his autograph, and I’ve seen him spend time with them while drawing a cartoon for them suitable for framing.” Bridges has recorded and performs many Goodwin tunes. “He’s so much fun to write and jam with. He’s worked with so many super talented and illustrious people. I’ve found that Jeff brings out not only the best in me, but things I didn’t even know I was capable of. Everyone who’s ever worked with him talks about how he enables them to do their utmost.”
Bridges has been married to Susan Geston since 1977. They have three daughters, Isabelle, Jessie and Hayley. Carmel Magazine caught up with Jeff in July 2021 from his Montecito, California home.
Carmel Magazine: You and your band The Abiders played here twice: once at Sunset Center in Carmel in 2013 and the Golden State Theater in Monterey in 2016. Any recollections of your visits here?
Jeff Bridges: Carmel and Monterey — I have so many wonderful memories of Carmel and Monterey. I was stationed there in the Coast Guard Reserve, gosh, I don’t know when — back about when I was 19 or somewhere in there.
Also, one of my oldest, dearest friends — we go back to the fourth grade together—John Goodwin, lived in Carmel. John is a wonderful song writer. Most of my songs I’ve gone out with The Abiders were written by John.
When I first brought my wife, Sue (she was Sue Geston at that time) down from Montana, we stopped by John’s place in Carmel. He was the first friend of mine who met my wife-to-be.
CM: Have you visited here at other times either with your family growing up or as an adult?
JB: Certainly, going up to Big Sur. Does that count?
Monterey and Carmel are so beautiful. I have wonderful memories there — my mind is dwelling on some of those memories right now.
CM: What film(s) stand out as favorites for you, and why? IMDB states that “American Heart” (1992) and “Fearless” (1993) are some favorites. True?
JB: Absolutely, those two were definitely favorites. I’ve got a lot of movies with “Heart” and “American” in the title. Another favorite was “Crazy Heart.” That really brought my music into the picture. My dear friend T Bone Burnett who brought all that great music to “Lebowski” also worked on “Crazy Heart” and wrote many of the tunes along with my friend John Goodwin, my ole buddy who had lived in Carmel. He wrote the song called “Hold on You.” Working with my brother on “The Fabulous Baker Boys” — that was incredible.
You know that corny thing that actors say about their movies — they’re all like their children. That’s how I feel, and I love all of them. They all have a home movie quality to me. When I see them up on the screen, I think of all the great times I had with the folks who made the movie and it’s often hard for me to get caught up in the story because I’m seeing that home movie aspect so strongly.
CM: Any roles you turned down — or that you accepted — that you later regretted?
JB: No, not really. No regrets as far as that stuff goes. Each movie is such a unique experience.
Each experience in life teaches us something and the movies are no exception to that. Learning and growing is what life is all about, so no regrets as far as the movies go.
CM: When did you start playing music?
JB: Well, my father had that Goya nylon string guitar I played on. Beau bought this white Danelectro guitar that I confiscated, and I learned how to play chords on it.
Now, I have a signature guitar that I’ve made with Breedlove, a wonderful guitar company. We got in cahoots because we’re both concerned about our environment. This guitar I made with them has “we’re all in this together” on the neck of the guitar. It’s a reminder that keeps coming up for me—that we’re all in this together—what we do matters. Our guitar is built with sustainable wood. That was very important to all of us because we’re cutting down our trees… the lungs of our planet. We’ve got to be conscious of what we’re doing with that. My dear friend Chris Pelonis, who is also the musical director of The Abiders, was instrumental in making that happen.
CM: Your music has a distinctly country feel, and I sense a little Grateful Dead here and there. Who are your songwriting inspirations/heroes?
JB: Well, I gotta say, Dylan and the Beatles. Dead? Sure, I love the Dead. Their country stuff was an inspiration. But I grew up in the 60’s. My older brother Beau is eight years older than I am, so the music coming out of his room was all that early rock and roll—Chuck Berry, Little Richard and those guys. So, they also have influenced me. And bluegrass—one of the first tunes I learned was [The Carter Family’s] “Wildwood Flower.”
CM: Has photography always been a part of your life? What photographers inspire you?
JB: I started taking photographs in high school and, just like my dad’s guitar, I took his Nikon camera. And we set up a darkroom in my bathroom and I started taking pictures of my friends. At my wedding, a wonderful photographer, Mark Hanauer, took photos using his Widelux panning still camera. I was so enamored of the photographs, that my wife bought me one. We’ve been married 44 years, so 44 years ago she gave me this Widelux and that’s been my camera since then. That’s about the only camera I use. Of course, I take the occasional digital stuff with my iPhone, but not much. I’m mainly a Widelux guy.
One photographer who inspires me is Jacques Henri Lartigue. At the turn of the century, he took “snapshots” from those times, some showing movement. Photos during this time were usually very posed. But his snapshots have an informality that show what it was like being alive during those times. Around 1912 Lartigue acquired a new camera, a Nettel 6×13, which enabled him to photograph panoramic views.
That’s what I aspire to do with my photographs of making movies—to capture what it’s like being in the center of making movies and what that feels and looks like.
CM: What are you working on now? Are you writing songs?
JB: Well, right now, I’ve got a show I’m working on called “The Old Man”—that’s me!
I can’t believe it. (laughing). It’s a TV show that we’re in the middle of making. I’m taking a break from it right now. I hope to get back into it soon.
Am I writing songs? Well, I’m starting to get back into my music having taken quite a long break from it. So, who knows? Maybe there’ll be something comin’ out soon. I’ve got several albums on iTunes people can check out. And also, there’s some wonderful ambient music supplied by Keefus Ciancia, a wonderful keyboard player. We made an album called “Sleeping Tapes.” You can find out all about that by visiting joinsleepclub.com. There’s also a small video we made with a bunch of friends that I really enjoyed making. We shot the whole thing with iPhones and regular digital cameras. We had a great time.
I put out two books that are collections of my photography and all the proceeds from those books go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF.com), just an amazing organization. I feel proud of being involved with motion pictures and television because we take care of our own. We consider all the people who work in it, from the craft service folks to the grips, gaffers, actors, directors and assistant directors. Everyone benefits from the MPTF. I encourage everyone to go to my site (jeffbridges.com) or the MPTF site to get more details about what they’re up to.