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Jeff Bridges: ‘I had cancer and Covid. I was facing my mortality’

Ahead of Disney+’s The Old Man, Jeff Bridges talks about how he overcame a frightening health scare and why he’s fighting child hunger

Jeff Bridges is one of the great film actors. With a Best Actor win at the 2009 Oscars for his role as a country singer in Crazy Heart plus nominations for his breakthrough role in 1971’s The Last Picture Show, Thunderboltand Lightfoot three years later, Starman in 1984, The Contender in 2000, the Coen Brothers’ epic Western True Grit in 2010 and Hell or High Water (2016), Bridges is a true acting heavyweight. He ensured movie immortality by playing The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one of the most iconic roles in recent film history.

Bridges has not done television for 60 years. Until now. In The Old Man, a high-quality new seven-part Disney+ series, Bridges plays a grizzled former CIA operative who absconded from the service and has been living off grid for 30 years. When an assassin comes for him and the FBI close in, he uses all his old tricks to go on the run – determined to maintain contact with his daughter. If the on-screen survival story is dramatic, Bridges also faced one of his own during filming when he caught Covid whilst undergoing treatment for cancer.

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The Big Issue: The last time you appeared as a regular in a television series was 60 years ago, in Sea Hunt and The Lloyd Bridges Show, both alongside your father. What took you so long?

Jeff Bridges: I resisted doing TV for a number of reasons. My father, Lloyd Bridges, had done several TV shows. Probably his most famous one was Sea Hunt in the early 1960s. And I remember how hard he worked on them and how frustrated he was about the time that wasn’t being spent to make the highest quality stuff. But these days, the quality that’s coming off the TV set is so tremendous. I thought, I’d better explore this.

Why was The Old Man the right project for your comeback – it’s got all the action, all the drama, but is also about the need to stay connected to the people we love…

It’s all of those things. And it’s also about consequences – our actions have consequences, even if they happened many, many years ago.

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Your character is a real survivor. And given what we’ve all been through in the last few years and given what you’ve been through yourself, do you feel like this will connect extra hard with an audience?

It’s funny. That question really triggers a lot of stuff for me. Like you say, I went through a health scare. I had cancer, and Covid on top of that, and was really facing my mortality. It’s fascinating how everyone goes through that in different ways. I remember the doctors used to say to me, ‘you gotta fight Jeff’. I said, what are you talking about? I’ve got no idea, who am I supposed to fight?

I was in surrender mode, man. If anything I was dancing with my life and my mortality. It’s interesting – sometimes I guess fighting and surrender kind of merge. I’m thinking about my character, and I think he’s surrendered to the way he has operated in his life. And when I was sick, I noticed that all my strategies for life came out. I looked to them and one of my strategies is surrender. But I think in his surrender, he does fight. So it’s a little bit different to my own personal strategy!

There is a lot of action in this – the fight scene in episode one is epic – was your return to work after illness hard both mentally and physically?

Oh yeah. I love to do stunts and stuff when I’m doing movies because of the kid in me. And I was fortunate to work with some of the top stunt coordinators, Henry Kingi and Timothy Connolly. And, man, those guys are real experts.

They make it so real and tough and that was really a joy for me to do. I’m 72 years old. I’ve enjoyed doing fights in movies but I don’t think I’ve ever done more fighting than in this series.

Jeff Bridges in The Old Man. Image: FX
Jeff Bridges in The Old Man. Image: FX

Where does The Old Man fit in alongside your movie career?

There’s a similarity in everything I’ve done – and that mainly has to do with working with wonderful artists. The directors, the writers and all these great actors. Here I get to work with Amy Brennerman and she is wonderful to work with, and John Lythgoe and Alia Shawkat are just terrific. Working with all the artists is my favourite part. The parts are always different but the approach is the same. 

Do you have favourite roles from your extensive back catalogue?

Sure. But there’s that corny thing actors say about their movies. They are like your children, so you don’t want to have favourites. But you do. There are a few that always surface. I always loved working with my father, Lloyd and my brother, Beau. We did The Fabulous Baker Boys together with my brother and Michelle [Pfeiffer]. And with my dad I did Blown Away and a Francis Coppola movie called Tucker. And of course, Lebowski. That’s right up there, you know, The Dude. And working with the Coen Brothers on that and True Grit.

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The Big Issue exists to fight poverty and homelessness…

Oh, that’s good. Yeah!

… and you’ve been fighting child hunger in the US for decades. Why was that a fight you joined?

Well, being a father of three girls myself and being an actor, I use my imagination all the time. So to imagine myself not being able to supply nutrition to my girls – that really motivates my action to help kids get their proper nutrition. But I’ve been involved with ending hunger, oh gosh, I’ve lost count, 35 or 40 years. And initially it was world hunger. But when I started getting into it, I saw that we had trouble right here in America so I shifted my main focus to ending childhood hunger in America. I’ve been the spokesperson for an organisation called No Kid Hungry for about 30 years now.

The Old Man, starring Jeff Bridges, begins on Disney+ from 28 September.

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