If Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa sometimes blur the line between actor and role, the same holds true for Jeff Bridges and The Dude. The 71-year-old Bridges seems to harbor the same contented cool that embodies Jeff Lebowski, the berobed slacker who finds himself at odds with nihilists in the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski.
Of course, Bridges has tackled other roles in his 50-year career—a career that was paved by his famous father, fellow actor Lloyd Bridges. For more on Jeff’s life and film highlights, including his unlikely screen debut and stint with the Coast Guard, keep reading.
Bridges, who was born on December 5, 1949, grew up in an acting family. His father, Lloyd, was an actor best known for the NBC aquatic drama Sea Hunt (1958-1961), and both Jeff and his older brother Beau followed their father into the business. Jeff recalled that Lloyd would sit him on his bed as a kid and mentor him on the finer points of acting, including listening to when another performer is speaking rather than just waiting for his turn to deliver lines.
Technically speaking, Jeff made his acting debut prior to that advice—as an infant. Bridges briefly appeared alongside his mother, actor Dorothy Bridges, in the 1951 film The Company She Keeps.
While both Jeff and Beau appeared on Sea Hunt, they had another outlet for their performing impulse. When Jeff was around 15 years old, Beau would rent a flatbed truck and the two would drive around getting into stunt, or stage, fights in view of the public. The choreographed fighting would be so convincing that observers would grow alarmed.
“Our father, Lloyd, taught us how to stage fight, you know, fake fight,” Jeff told Fresh Air in 2017. “And we would stage this fake fight. And a crowd would, you know, gather around the parking lot, watching these two guys go at each other … And we’d jump on the back of the flatbed truck and perform our scenes that we’d worked on until the police came.”
When Bridges was 18, he graduated from flatbed fistfights to studying acting in a slightly more respectable way, attending the Herbert Berghof (HB) Studio in New York City. At the same time, he also joined the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves. During his seven-year tenure, he worked as a buoy tender, removing paint from buoys, repainting them, then repeating the process over again.
While Bridges had some film and television credits to his name, it was his role in 1971’s The Last Picture Show that made the industry take notice. The 22-year-old’s portrayal of rich jock Duane Jackson living in small-town Texas in 1951 struck a chord. Bridges was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, one of the film’s eight nominations. “It was the show that put me on the map,” he told the Associated Press in 1990. Bridges was nominated for seven Oscars between 1972 and 2017, and won his first—and so far only—golden statuette for his performance as a troubled country music artist in 2009’s Crazy Heart.
Beginning with 1984’s Starman, in which he played an alien falling in love with Karen Allen, Bridges has made a habit of taking photographs while on movie sets. Using a Widelux camera, the panoramic images depict a litany of behind-the-scenes shots. Bridges usually gifts collections to film crews after wrapping; he published two books of photography, 2003’s Pictures by Jeff Bridges and 2019’s Jeff Bridges: Pictures Volume 2. The actor has also held exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, and London, and received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York in 2013.
In what seems to be the only time a sibling duo co-hosted Saturday Night Live, Jeff and Beau Bridges shared hosting duties for a February 1983 episode. In a nod to their earlier training, the two got into a (staged) fistfight during the opening monologue. They spoofed Sea Hunt with Cheap Hunt, in which a cash-strapped crew tries to shoot a scene without filming underwater. In the most peculiar sketch of the evening, Jeff played a masseuse who seems a little too comfortable massaging his brother. Jeff returned to host SNL solo in 2010.
Since he was a kid, Bridges has had an interest in music, which he preferred over his father’s attempts to draw him into acting. Later on, Bridges was able to sell two songs to famed producer Quincy Jones, including “Lost in Space,” which appeared in a 1969 film titled John and Mary. Bridges also played his own piano in the 1989 film The Fabulous Baker Boys and released a debut album, Be Here Soon, in 2000. In 2014, he performed during Lebowski Fest in Los Angeles alongside his band, the Abiders.
The Big Lebowski was a custom-tailored role for Bridges, who strolls through the Coen Brothers movie as its shaggy-dog protagonist. It’s one of the few films he’s made that seems to carry as much interest for him as it does for fans. “I’m one of those guys—you know, a movie of mine comes on the tube—on the TV—I’ll, you know, watch a scene and then turn the channel,” he told Fresh Air in 2017. “But when Lebowski comes on, I—you know, I say, well, I’ve got to just—I’ll just wait until Maude comes, you know, flying down from the ceiling nude, you know, splatters paint all over The Dude. And then I’ll say, well, no. I’ll just stick [around] to … see [John] Turturro lick the ball, you know? And I get sucked in, you know? And I end up watching the whole thing.”