Jeff Bridges in The Old Man
"See this painting?" Jeff Bridges twists around in his chair and points to a rectangular canvas hanging in the agreeably cluttered garage at his home in Santa Barbara. "It's called 'Jeff Makes a Decision,'" he says, gazing at what looks — via Zoom — to be undulating swaths of blues and pinks.
He painted the abstract imagery, he explains, inspired by a vivid dream in which he was paddling down a river filled with beautiful whirlpools. At the bottom of each lay a glittering bauble. "I get attracted to the jewel, and I reach for it and it almost sucks me in," he says, adding that at the last second, he saves himself and continues floating down the river.
The dream, he says, is about how after more than sixty-four years as a professional actor — if you count his childhood appearances on Sea Hunt, the action-adventure series that starred his dad, Lloyd Bridges — the first emotion he experiences when offered a juicy role is... reluctance.
"I'm at the point in my career where I know what it will cost me," he says. "It's time away from my family and from other things I want to do."
Bridges uses the painting to explain the prolonged process he underwent before returning to TV after decades away to star in The Old Man, debuting June 16 on FX. Based on author Thomas Perry's novel of the same name, the series stars Bridges as Dan Chase, a grizzled, seemingly folksy seventy-something living in Vermont. After he's targeted for assassination, he reveals himself to be a former intelligence officer with relentless John Wick–level fighting skills, as well as a pair of highly trained killer dogs.
Executive producers Warren Littlefield and Jonathan E. Steinberg presented Bridges with an undeniably appealing pitch. They saw expanding Perry's page-turner into a series as a chance to riff on the themes Clint Eastwood pondered in The Unforgiven, his 1992 revisionist Western about a gang of aging outlaws.
"What happens to a man when you check back in thirty years later, and he's become a dad and raised a kid, and has a domestic life and is happy?" asks Steinberg, the series showrunner and also its cocreator with Robert Levine. "Can you really do that? Can you spend your life as an action hero and then retire?"
Stylistically, they envisioned something akin to '70s nailbiters like Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View. Framed in this manner, The Old Man begged for an actor of Bridges's stature. "You don't make Unforgiven with an unknown," Steinberg reasoned. "It immediately felt like a movie-star role."
After a couple of conversations and a long lunch at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, a team began to take shape. To assist Bridges in his first ultraphysical scenes since the bar fight in Walter Hill's 1995 drama Wild Bill, the production hired stunt coordinator Tim Connolly, the man behind Charlize Theron's ten-minute, single-take stairwell brawl in Atomic Blonde. Christopher Huttleston, a one-time CIA operative, came aboard as consultant. Bridges asked if it would be okay if his longtime buddy T Bone Burnett did the music. (That was an easy yes.)
Then the cast began assembling: John Lithgow signed on as Harold Harper, an FBI operative assigned to track down Chase. Amy Brenneman agreed to play Zoe McDonald, a landlady who unwittingly gets entangled in his troubles. "You start thinking, 'These are the guys I'm going to jam with!'" says Bridges, who ended up signing on as star and as an executive producer. "The whirlpool got me. I'm hooked."
Spend a moment scanning Bridges's lengthy filmography, and it's clear that for a self-admitted waffler, he knows how to choose roles that showcase his strengths with characters of all stripes. He's as boyishly affecting playing small-town high-school royalty in The Last Picture Show as he is endlessly entertaining in the guise of a weed-loving layabout in The Big Lebowski. The Fabulous Baker Boys gave him the chance to act with his real-life older brother, Beau Bridges, and to smolder as a piano-playing ladies' man. In 2009, he moved into his gruff loner phase and took home an Oscar for Crazy Heart.
Watching him on set, Steinberg was struck by his virtuosity. "When he glares at you, it's intimidating," he says. "You buy him as a person who can be violent and frightening. When he is being silly, you just want to sit and be around him and laugh with him. When he's being vulnerable and introspective, you lean into it. He has the ability to do so many things so well."
When Bridges was small, his dad urged him to become an actor, offering a stream of bit parts on his series and the chance to skip school. He also taught his son the basics of the craft. "He'd say, 'Listen to what the other actor is saying,' and 'Go out of the room and come back and play the scene in a completely different way,'" Bridges recalls.
Another foundational lesson was never put into words. Observing his father on set, he realized how a leading man's behavior affects the entire cast and crew. "He approached his work with such joy," Bridges says. "And it was kind of contagious. That's my style, too."
For an example of how he carries on the family tradition, consider John Lithgow's description of his first time working with Bridges during the rehearsal phase. To explore their characters' early relationship, the pair selected a flashback scene, one they'd never appear in themselves, since young Dan and Harold would be portrayed by Bill Heck and Christopher Redman.
The scene called for Dan, looking very Lawrence of Arabia, to appear in the distance on horseback and gallop across the rugged terrain of Afghanistan to confront Harold, wearing a windbreaker and Dockers. "We were in this huge soundstage," Lithgow says. "And for, like, thirty yards Jeff pretended to be riding all the way up to me on a horse. The man is so relaxed with the work process, enjoys it so much. It's so charming."
Bridges and Lithgow, says costar Amy Brenneman, are the sort of guys that tick all the boxes. "Young, old, male, female, straight, gay — everybody loves them," she says, adding that she and her close friends Lucinda Jenney and Annie Potts have all been cast opposite Bridges and call themselves his "sister-wives."
"Love is the word, right?" Brenneman says. "What's crazy is, I was with Jeff Bridges for sixty straight days — from January to March 2020 — and those were some of the best sixty days of my life. I was just high. I've worked with people who have been around as long as he has, but do not have the same respect and interest in acting as he does. I thought, 'Oh, this guy. He doesn't phone it in.'"
What Lithgow and Brenneman couldn't have known was how long it would be before they'd stand on a set again with Bridges and hear a director call, "And... action!"
Originally, the plan was to shoot the first half of the series on location in Los Angeles, then move the production to Morocco to shoot the rest of the episodes. But in March 2020 — four days before leaving for northern Africa, where a unit had already been dispatched and sets were being built — The Old Man was forced to shut down due to the pandemic. The production team shifted its focus to getting the overseas unit back home within days.
The wheels continued to fall off when seven months later, just as filming was about to resume, Steinberg got the call: Bridges, having just been diagnosed with lymphoma, wouldn't be returning until he completed chemotherapy.
Bridges was as surprised as anyone when he learned in January 2021 that both he and his wife, Sue, had been exposed to Covid at his treatment center. Soon after, they both tested positive, but, with his immune system weakened, Bridges ended up in an ICU for five straight weeks. "Covid made the cancer look like nothing," says the actor, who couldn't roll over onto his side without a nurse's assistance. "I was in terrible, terrible shape."
But his spirit couldn't be broken. On March 28, 2021, in his online blog, in an entry titled "I continue to heal," Bridges discussed the shrinking of his tumor, along with the Covid news. "Here's the weird deal," he wrote. "While I had moments of tremendous pain (screaming, singing, a sort of moaning song all through the night), gettin' close to the Pearly Gates, all in all, I felt happy and joyous most of the time. This brush with mortality has brought me a real gift — LIFE IS BRIEF & BEAUTIFUL. LOVE IS ALL AROUND US, & AVAILABLE @ ALL TIMES. It's a matter of opening ourselves to receive the gift....
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This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, under the title, "To Hell (Or Was it Heaven?) and Back."