40 at 40: Jeff Bridges and cult classic The Big Lebowski

In our series of 40 memorable covers from 40 years, writer Ingrid Randoja revisits a character that would become an indelible part of pop culture


Look at Jeff Bridges on that cover. Just look at him. He’s 48, he’s happy and he has absolutely no idea he’s just played the role that will define him for the rest of his natural life.

Before The Big Lebowski, Bridges was a well-regarded character actor; the kind you could cast as a slippery hero or a complicated villain, an alien or a cowboy, a goofball sidekick or a man grappling with having survived a plane crash. He’d racked up three Oscar nominations. He had yet to work with Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Coens – fresh off the massive cultural impact of Fargo – saw something in Bridges that would suit the weird stoner mystery they were kicking around, a loose reworking of Robert Altman’s boozy 70s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye with the role of detective Philip Marlowe recast as a stoned bowler who solves a complicated mystery without ever being fully aware he’s doing so. 

That guy – Jeffrey Lebowski, also known as The Dude, or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing – would be the role of Bridges’s life. And when the Coens rolled their movie into the world, Jeff Bridges suddenly had the role of his life.

That said, Ingrid Randoja – the NOW film writer who went to Lebowski’s New York junket to interview Bridges for our March 5, 1998 cover – was pretty sure no one knew that was going to happen.

“The Coens were there, and you could tell they felt they made a fun movie and they were proud of it,” she recalls. “But I don’t think anyone took it that seriously, because Fargo had been this magnum opus and with this one it was more like, ‘Let’s play.’”

In fact, The Dude wasn’t even the most talked-about character in the room.

“I think somebody talked about the inappropriateness of John Turturro’s Jesus” – an alleged pedophile and undeniable sleazebag – “and they started laughing. They just start laughing. ‘Yeah! Isn’t that great?’ And I started laughing, too; they knew they just made a really inappropriate, silly character who was very, very upsetting.”

Bridges wasn’t totally plugged into the round-table interview experience; those can be a grind, with eight to 10 entertainment journalists stepping on one another’s questions and derailing any sense of rhythm that might be building. 

But when he sat down with Randoja for their one-on-one conversation, the actor was a lot more present, acknowledging that his career was the result of nepotism – his first screen appearance was as a baby in one of his father Lloyd’s movies – and ultimately acknowledging that it takes work to be good at what he does, relating a story about being cast opposite screen legends Robert Ryan, Frederic March and Lee Marvin in a 1973 adaptation of The Iceman Cometh and realizing, once he decided to “try working when I didn’t feel like it,” that even the veterans he admired could get nervous before a take.

“He was great,” Randoja says. “At first it’s that high voice and ‘Yeeeeahhh’ – that’s The Dude, right? But he’s very open, and when we started talking about his dad, it was really interesting. You could tell his family really got him to understand acting. His story about The Iceman Cometh was just like, ‘Yeah, like that’s how you learn your trade.’ He loves the process, he’s all about the process. And then you look at the set photography he was doing at the time” – Premiere magazine gave Bridges a regular spot for his black-and-white photographs of whatever production he was working on – “and you saw how he loved just coming close to somebody, and getting into them.

“He thinks a lot about stuff. You can really sense that with him. And he talked a lot about his wife and his kids at the round table, just about how much of a support system he has. They are considered one of the great marriages in Hollywood, how much he just adores his wife, you know.”

That’s become even more apparent in recent years, as Bridges has aged into a public version of The Dude, projecting a charming, happy-go-lucky vibe even as he continually challenged himself as an actor. (He won an Oscar as a worn-down country singer in Crazy Heart, and reunited with the Coens for a grief-laden take on the studio Western True Grit.) He got a Twitter account and immediately started sharing snaps of himself and his wife, Susan Geston. 

He wrote a book, Daddy Daughter Day, with his daughter Isabelle Bridges-Boesch. And last fall, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he shared the news on Twitter: “As the Dude would say.. New S**T has come to light.”

Bridges seems to be confronting his illness with the same mild irreverence he uses to approach everything. In December, he marked his birthday (“71, man”) with a photo of himself with a shaved head and a new puppy. He’s been keeping people updated on the charities and projects he supports –including a documentary about the American financial system, Hot Money, which he co-produced – though it seems like the pandemic has scuttled the follow-up Lebowski project Bridges teased on Twitter three years ago. 

And yes, the fact that Bridges could trigger a social-media firestorm by tweeting a 15-second video of himself walking into a bar dressed as The Dude is kind of ridiculous. But that’s the appeal of The Dude, isn’t it? And no one saw it coming.

“They all saw the silliness of it,” Randoja remembers. “Like, they knew they were making silliness. Smart silliness, but that’s all that was. But looking back, what stands out is, like, Philip Seymour Hoffman. John Goodman and Philip Seymour Hoffman, I just can’t take my eyes off them.”

And Randoja prefers Bridges to The Dude, anyway. (Having interviewed the actor myself in 2009, I absolutely agree; Bridges’s bright-eyed intelligence and curiosity is much more fun to engage with than The Dude’s flustered confusion.)

“He’s a true California artist kind of guy, you know?” Randoja smiles. “A Laurel Canyon sort of guy, like if Harrison Ford had stayed a carpenter. But he would have been the nice guy. You wouldn’t want to hire Harrison Ford, but you would hire him.”

– Norman Wilner

Below is Ingrid Randoja’s cover feature, Cavorting With The Coens, republished from our March 5, 1998 issue.


Laid-back leading man bowled over by the Coens

By INGRID RANDOJA

NEW YORK – Guess how many movies Jeff Bridges has made. He’s been prolific and he likes to work, so let’s say 20? He’s a young-looking 48, so maybe 30? Try 41. That’s a lot of movies.

Of course, not all of them have been good films. Remember the turkeys The Mirror Has Two Faces, Blown Away, Tron, King Kong? But they get cancelled out by the beauties The Fisher King, Fearless, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Starman and The Last Picture Show.

He’s been nominated for three Oscars – twice for supporting roles in The Last Picture Show and Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, and once for best actor, in Starman. With his California good looks, penetrating gaze and a slightly flat, twangy delivery, Bridges can be either a leading man or a character actor. He’s the thinking person’s star – and serious about his craft.

For his latest film, The Big Lebowski, Bridges hooks up with the irreverently talented Coen brothers for their first film since the award-winning Fargo. Bridges plays Lebowski, or, as he likes to be called, the Dude, a weed-smokin’ ex-hippie who doesn’t do much except hang out with his bowling buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi).

But the Dude’s mistaken for the big Lebowski, a millionaire industrialist whose young wife has been kidnapped, and he gets caught up in a scheme that goes way over his haze-filled head.

This is the Coen brothers at their silly best, inventing film noir with a goofy, doobie-inhaling pacifist as the hero. It’s not as textured as Fargo, but it’s still one very funny, odd film.

Extra pounds

Bridges, who has dropped the extra pounds he put on for the role, sits in a Park Avenue hotel answering questions from a tableful of journalists. Later on, I join him for a one-on-one interview where he perks up, his energy level rising. Still, I’m sinking into Bridges’s measured aura. He’s a visual thinker, takes his time answering questions and has an endearing habit of answering with a high-pitched ‘Yeeaah’ or ‘Goood.’

“I drew on myself back when I was in the 60s and 70s to play the Dude,” says Bridges. “Like the Dude, I experimented with drugs, but I was more creative than the Dude – I painted, played a lot of music.”

In fact, Bridges is a noted painter. He’s also a musician – he’s written over 70 songs – and anyone who reads Premiere Magazine has seen examples of his photography taken on-set.

Bridges was born into a creative family. He’s the son of actor Lloyd Bridges and younger brother of fellow actor Beau. His first screen appearance was as a baby in one of his father’s films, and he admits candidly that he got into the business because of nepotism.

“The path of least resistance has always been my way. I was able to make a living from acting, so I did it more and more.”

So when did the obviously multi-talented man make the conscious decision not just to act, but to become a good actor?

“I had just finished doing a movie called The Last American Hero in 1973,” remembers Bridges. “Usually, after a film, you get the feeling you never want to do another one – you’re tired. That’s how I was feeling, and my agent called me. He told me I was being offered The Iceman Cometh, with Robert Ryan, Frederic March and Lee Marvin, with John Frankenheimer directing.

Classic opportunity

“I said, ‘No, I’m too tired. I want to relax.’ But a director friend called me up and read me the riot act, saying, ‘You call yourself an actor? You’ve got this great opportunity to work with these masters in a great American classic.’

“So I decided to do a little experiment on myself and try working when I didn’t feel like it. That’s what pros are supposed to do, right? And it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences I ever had.

“I remember I was rehearsing with Robert Ryan, and he was sitting with his hand on a table,” Bridges says, laying his palm on an end table beside him. “They said, ‘OK, we’re ready to roll,’ and Ryan took his hand off the table, and there were these big puddles of sweat. I said, ‘Oh, you’re nervous, too,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yeah. I’d really be afraid if I weren’t afraid.’ It was that moment when I realized that these old guys who’d been acting for all this time still got that tight feeling, and it was OK.”

Bridges learned from the pros and from his father, whose film career never took off after a successful stint on TV.

“I always planned on doing a bunch of different types of roles. My father was so successful in pulling off Mike Nelson, the skin diver on TV’s Sea Hunt, that people thought he was a skin diver, which is the ultimate compliment. But he got a lot of skin diver scripts,” notes Bridges. “I took a cue from that because I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I saw the pain my father went through not getting the chance to do different kinds of roles.”

But for all his ambition to stretch, the actor is still the laid-back California boy.

“I usually resist everything I end up doing. I spend most of my energy shouting, ‘No-o-o-o!’

“I did a painting based on a dream of me going down a river in a rowboat. I’m in a big canyon with steep, high walls and there are whirlpools. In the whirlpools are these beautiful jewels, and I’m trying to get the jewels without getting sucked in. The title of the painting is Jeff Makes A Decision. That’s my decision-making process – I’m drawn in, and pretty soon I’m out of control and I’m being sucked in.

“It’s funny. I’m kind of a frightened person who ends up doing courageous things. It’s weird.”

@nowtoronto

Comments (2)

  • Ellis Portal March 9, 2021 01:58 PM

    To me, The Big Lebowski is a guy’s film. Most of the men I’ve talked to about it absolutely loved it. I hated it. Every second of it.

  • Dwayne Epstein March 18, 2021 07:25 PM

    Bridges is a GREAT interview as I found when he agreed to talk to me about The Iceman Cometh for my biography LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK and what he learned from Marvin.

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