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American Masters – Jeff Bridges on becoming a movie star

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American Masters - Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges © 2010 PBS

Since its premiere in 1986, PBS’s popular series American Masters has spotlighted more than 160 biographies, including actors, musicians, dramatists – all American artistic giants.

Its 25th Anniversary season premieres on January 12th with the Academy Award winning actor Jeff Bridges, whose career spans 53 years, beginning when he did a role in his father’s [Lloyd Bridges] series Sea Hunt in 1958.

He went on to star is such memorable movies as The Last Picture Show, Tron, The Fisher King, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Jagged Edge, Seabiscuit, The Big Lebowski, and recently Crazy Heart, Tron: Legacy and True Grit.

Jeff Bridges spoke of his family and his career at the TV Critics Association tour.

Your dad once said that your brother Beau was always working hard on his acting and, as he put it, ‘Jeff was up in his room playing his guitar. All of a sudden he came out at 19 and became a movie star.’

American Masters - Susan Lacy, Jeff Bridges and Gail Levin
Susan Lacy, Jeff Bridges and Gail Levin © 2010 PBS

My dad had it pretty right. During my early years, I thought I might be a musician.

Like most kids, I didn’t do what my parent wanted me to do, and they were gung-ho that all their kids become actors.

They loved showbiz so much.

But then I got to cop to it. I am a product of nepotism, basically. I don’t’ think I would be an actor if my father wasn’t, and he didn’t say, ‘My son’s going to do this part in Sea Hunt.’

Anything he was in, he always tried to get his family involved in some way.

You seemed to have a cool childhood with a very well-adjusting family, can you talk about that a little?

American Masters - Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges © 2010 PBS

What comes to mind, if it would be one person, it would be my mother Dorothy Bridges, who we called ‘the General.’

She ran the show. She kept us all in line.

She was a very remarkable woman and a great writer. She kept a diary every day of her life since she met my father, and when each of her kids became 21, we got a copy of our lives from our mother’s point-of-view in her handwriting.

So I have a biography of my life written by my mother, which is quite unique.

My dad was gone quite a bit of the time, as I was, from my kids. And I’m very thankful that my wife Susan is such a wonderful mother, like my mom, to hold down the fort and give some kind of normalcy to my kids.

This film is subtitled The Dude Abides. Do you think you’re associated with the character in The Big Lebowski a little too much?

American Masters - Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges © 2010 PBS

I know what you mean. I tried to resist that, creating a strong persona because of my father as Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt. He was a very versatile actor, and because he was so successful as Mike Nelson he got offered a lot of skin diving scripts.

So I went about not developing a strong persona and now ‘The Dude’ has materialized as that.

I figure now my persona is going to be whatever it is, and I’ve done enough material around ‘The Dude’ that the filmmakers know I can do other things, so I’m not as worried as I once was about that, and I love The Big Lebowski.

It’s one of my favorite movies, I’m partial; I’m in it!

Looking back on your career which movies stand out for you the most?

American Masters - Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges © 2010 PBS

I don’t have my filmography in front of me, but the fresher ones are True Grit and Crazy Heart, that I thought were wonderful.

Every once in a while the movie will transcend your own expectations and both of these movies did that for me. The Big Lebowski is one like that. The Fabulous Baker Boys was like that, Fisher King, Fearless.

What about Starman?

Absolutely, that was one that transcended my expectations for sure. And Tucker. I worked with my dad twice as an adult in Tucker and Blown Away, I love the fact that we worked together in those two movies.

It must feel pretty good to have ‘Oscar-winning actor’ in front of your name at long last. Do you see it as some sort of crowning achievement or is it something that had you not won an Oscar, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal?

American Masters - Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges © 2010 PBS

It’s really interesting. I went to work about a week after I got that award. I went to work on True Grit, so I didn’t get much time to think about it and process it.

I guess some of the things that come up for me is that it’s wonderful to be acknowledged by the guys who do what you do. To get an ‘attaboy’ from those guys does feel great. But I’ve never been motivated by awards.

Your relationship with Beau seems really close, but has there ever been any rivalry as actors?

Being eight years older than me, Beau was more like an uncle than a big brother, and it was always like we were on the same team. Beau says when people ask him that, ‘No, it doesn’t bother me because I taught him everything he knows!’