Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges on the gift of life after cancer

Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges on the gift of life after cancer

Jeff Bridges at 72 wakes early and lingers a while in bed. Since a battle with lymphatic cancer that began two years ago (“When they found a 9in by 12in mass in my stomach”) and a bad case of Covid he contracted on his local chemo ward (“It made the cancer look like a piece of cake”), rising in the mornings has been a struggle for the veteran Hollywood actor. “I really have to drag myself out of bed,” he says. When Bridges is finally up and about, he stretches, he does a daily breathing exercise so intense it leaves him trembling, he makes coffee, he reads. By the time he’s down in the garage of his Santa Barbara home, maybe noodling about on a musical instrument, or painting, he’ll be feeling and behaving more like the Jeff Bridges that movie-goers have come to know: that beautifully unpolished, scruffy-sweet, growly-squeaky figure, irresistible in deathless works that include The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Big Lebowski and True Grit.

“Our garage has been converted into my hang,” Bridges explains, showing off its features to me one day. There are cosy rugs on the floor and paperbacks piled on side tables. Musical equipment takes up a whole corner, opposite another corner dedicated to ceramics. Bridges’s own paintings decorate the walls beside photographs of his family, including his brother Beau, his wife Sue, their three adult daughters and several grandchildren that include a newborn who arrived this year. While Bridges was in isolation, struck down by that cancer and Covid double, Sue arranged for some further additions to the garage. Portable fencing and screen doors were brought in, transforming the space into an indoor-outdoor recuperation room, complete with its own water fountain. Bridges was carried here straight from hospital, hooked up to oxygen tanks, his wheeled bed eventually swapped out for a leather recliner as his health improved.

Bridges sits in the recliner now, blanketing himself from the waist down for warmth. He has a grey beard and nape-length grey hair that needs frequent tucking behind his ears. His worn blue T-shirt advertises a brewery. He says, “I don’t know if it’s the illnesses or if it’s general old age. But my memory of those two years is like a dream, how a dream passes. I can’t remember the chronology as I’d like to.” One thing he does remember clearly is that right before he got sick, he agreed to star in a big-budget TV series for FX about a retired and ageing CIA agent who is brought out of hiding by his former enemies and forced to go on the run. Production had to be paused for over a year while Bridges underwent his various medical treatments in 2020 and 2021. The show makes its belated UK debut this month on Disney+. Title? The Old Man. The appropriateness is not lost on him.

He sees the humour in anything and everything, he exists to tell anecdotes, and if he’s ever telling you about a bleak or a frightening episode from his life, he’ll almost certainly be doing so in fits of high-pitched giggles. Was he ever frightened by the cancer and the Covid that hit him? Bridges hunches his shoulders and rocks. “Man!” he squeals. “How frightened is a baby being born? You’re so frightened you don’t even have any juice to be frightened. You’re just doing it. You’re just doing it, man.”

So he’s someone who can quickly identify and make the most of a bright side. As I’m not someone like that, I ask him how he does it. How did he stay positive through two vicious illnesses? Bridges starts to tell an apparently unrelated story, the relevance of which only gradually becomes clear. “So I’m remembering the very last gift my father gave me, before he died,” he says. His father, Lloyd, was a successful TV actor who died in 1998. “Sue and I had this new house at the time,” Bridges continues, “huge grounds, and what I really wanted for my birthday was a neat little electric golf cart to get around the property. I know Dad’s bought something cool for me. I open a door. And there… It’s not the golf cart I wanted… It’s like a motorised, gasoline-operated, dump truck kind of a thing. In my mind I’m thinking, ‘Oh, shit. This is not what I want at all.’ But I say thank you to him. Then he dies. Suddenly I’m using this vehicle all the time. I’m constantly saying to myself, ‘This is so much better than a golf cart! It’s so much more powerful! There are so many things I can get done!’”

Bridges pats his chest, a where-was-I gesture. Oh yeah, positivity. “What I learned from that whole experience in hospital was: life is constantly giving us gifts. They may be gifts that we don’t think we want. Who wants cancer? Who wants fucking Covid, man? Well it turns out, I did. Because dealing with your mortality, it makes things more precious. It’s a gift, man, to realise that I’ve got eyes to look at all this beautiful stuff in the world. I can feel the temperature of the day on my skin. I’ve got a wife who loves me, my kids, too, and I can bathe in that love. It’s all a gift.”

Bridges was born to Lloyd and his wife Dorothy at the end of the 1940s, “right after they’d lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,” he adds. “Can you imagine? Your one-year-old? But they had me. They got back in the saddle.” He wound up being the middle of three kids, his older brother Beau going on to become a successful film actor, his little sister Cindy an artist. “Our mom loved mothering,” Bridges remembers. “We all got to benefit. She did this thing with her kids called Time. It was an hour every day with each of us, doing whatever we wanted. Pretending to be clowns. Space monsters. You never got the feeling of duty coming from her. She just dug playing.”

Later, when Bridges was a listless teenager, he would cash in his “Time” with Dorothy in the form of back rubs. “Then, when I was an older guy, in my 30s and 40s, I would call her up and say, ‘Hey, I still need Time, Mom,’ and we’d got out to dinner in a restaurant.” Reminiscing about this, Bridges pauses to let sudden snorts of laughter pass. I ask him what amused him and he tells an anecdote about a meal they shared, not long before Dorothy’s death in 2009. “We’re walking back to the car, outside the restaurant, and as the valet guy’s about to open the door for her, Mom whispers, ‘Be mean to me!’ So I’m telling her, ‘Get in the car! Get in the car, you fucking bitch!’ And the valet guy he’s totally freaking out. Mom’s 90. I’m almost 60. And we’re playing together, man, still playing.”

This would be why Bridges pursued a career in acting, to legitimise a life in play. When he was in his early 20s, and he’d made just two films as a professional, he was Oscar-nominated for his role in a third, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Bridges didn’t win that time. Actually four decades passed before he did win, a best actor statue finally presented to him in 2009 for his mesmerising performance as a depressed country musician in Crazy Heart. Between those two bookending roles, there were scifi movies (Starman, two Trons), superhero movies (Iron Man), straight-faced dramas (The Iceman Cometh) and a beloved Oscar-nominated Western (True Grit). But dude. It was a comedy, The Big Lebowski by the Coen brothers, that established Bridges as an immortal. He played a jelly-shoed bowling-alley rat called Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. That’s the character people stop him in the street to talk about. It’s his wife Sue’s favourite of his movies.

Bridges met Sue in the mid-1970s, when he was shooting a forgotten movie called Rancho Deluxe on location in small-town Montana. Sue lived locally. “And that was it,” he says now. “Love at first sight. Boom. Hit me like a ton of bricks.” He says he has a picture that a location photographer snapped, right as he was asking Sue out on a date – and right as she was saying no. When he asked her again, later, she said yes and they danced in a bar. Their wedding was in 1977, though for months, Bridges says, he was a bit of a dick about marriage. “I loved this woman. But being married means giving up a whole other life, right? A whole other thing. So the only way I could get married was to give myself a caveat: ‘Oh, you can always get a divorce.’ That caveat lingered over the first three years of our marriage.” One day Sue called him out on his terrible attitude, telling Bridges, in so many words, to stop being a grump and grow up. “She’d put up with that shit for three years. And thank God she did.” Bridges rubs his hands in relief. “We’re coming up to 45 years together.”

The photo of their first encounter is his prized possession, he says. “I have it in my wallet right now. Copies are well distributed between people I trust, in case of loss.” You start to see why Bridges would spread a beloved photograph around as soon as he tells you about his history with houses. Jeff and Sue’s first marital home burned down. Then, in 1994, another place of theirs was destroyed in a Californian earthquake. Afterwards, “we moved to a really big house, a lot of acreage,” Bridges recalls. The property was on a tree-filled mountain. Wildfire destroyed it. “So we moved to another beautiful home, down the hill. We took years to tweak it, getting it just how we wanted it.” Bridges, who has virtually been holding back tears of mirth to get to this point in the tale, finally guffaws the punchline: “So here comes the flood!” The muddy hillside behind them, weakened by fire, collapsed. “Four feet of mud came through our front door, huge boulders, too. We had to be rescued by helicopter.”

Fingers crossed: their current home seems more secure. It’s the smallest property they’ve been in since Bridges and his wife were youngsters together, but its very snugness suits them in these years of his health difficulties, the actor says. Comfortable in his converted garage, tipped back in his reclining chair, Bridges is serious for a rare moment, uncharacteristically lost for words as he tries to describe what it was like to be away from his family during the cancer-Covid period. They would come to wave to him through his hospital window. He touches his heart, remembering that. All he can say is, “Oh.”

At one point in our conversation, Bridges tries to recall a younger actor he worked with on the 2013 action- comedy R.I.P.D., only to blank on his name. He snaps his fingers, reaching for it. “I just watched his recent movie, Free Guy.” Ryan Reynolds? I suggest. “Yes!” Bridges exclaims, relieved, troubled as well by the lapse.

“Isn’t that terrible? That’s embarrassing. To forget someone’s name when they’re dear to you It’s awkward. It feels weird to me.” Bridges shakes his head and says: “Memory, man. As I get older I ask my brain for a name, a word, and it says, ‘Are you kidding?’ My brain is flipping me fingers.” I ask about his return to work on his new drama, The Old Man, whether he struggled to remember lines on set. Ian McKellen, a decade older than Bridges, but still in regular work, once told me that actors die twice. The first death comes when they stop being able to memorise their dialogue. “I was pleasantly surprised to find that was not the case on The Old Man,” Bridges says. “Maybe it’s a short-term, long-term memory thing?”

I ask him, did he wonder, returning to work as an actor after the longest break of his career, whether his talent would still be there? “But that was always the case,” he smiles. “Even when I was a kid! I would show up on set and wonder, am I gonna pull this off? Sue has to remind me, that I’ve always gone off to work feeling like I won’t be able to do it. She tells me, ‘Have fun. Don’t take it too seriously.’ And the important word there is ‘too’, t-o-o,” says Bridges, spelling it out. “Yeah you can be sincere as an actor. Yeah you can get into it. But don’t let it fuck with your happiness.”

Before his mother died, she wrote Bridges a poem in which she described the “honour” of reaching advanced age. I ask him what he thinks she meant by the word. “It’s interesting. New shit comes up constantly as you get older. But it’s not like you’re learning new shit, it’s more like you’re practising how you respond to life. You kind of get to practise what you are.” Bridges continues, “People don’t talk too much about it, but often, in old age? You’ll be going through the things that age offers us – closer proximity to death, a whole different way of dealing with sex, hormonal shifts that make you look at intimacy in a different way – and it almost feels like going through adolescence again. Think of being young. Think of asking a girl out on a first date. Think of how that feels.” Bridges, touching his heart again, issues a high-trembling bleat to express how it feels, as love, terror and hope intermingle. “You have versions of that in old age, too.”

He stares out at the fountain in the outdoor part of the garage. When he was discharged here from hospital, bed-bound and breathing with the aid of tanks, Bridges spent a lot of time contemplating the water fountain. He enjoyed seeing the birds that flew down to drink from it. “Your attention gets narrower in old age,” he says. “But there are beautiful things to be seen within that narrow focus.” Take his marriage, he says. “Being sick, being close to death, it exacerbates the love. I feel that. I feel that. I feel how much love my wife has for me. And how much love I have for her.”

At the beginning of our conversation, Bridges talked me through his morning routine, those aching grouchy wake-ups before he stretches and breathes and makes coffee. Now he explains how each day ends for him and Sue. “We sit and we eat dinner in front of the TV. We’re always hooked on some new show or another. Maybe we’re getting tired, maybe I have a wrestle with one of the dogs on the carpet for a bit. I’ll say to Sue, ‘I’m goin’ up.’ And she says to me, ‘OK.’ I get into bed while she does her teeth. She comes in, too. We huddle with our dogs. We go to sleep.”

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