SMOKE: LIFE'S BURNING DESIRES
THE TALENTED MR. BRIDGES
SUMMER 2003
By JOAN TASHIS
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK

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Jeff Bridges is not your typical Hollywood celebrity. In addition to his acting, he can sing, play guitar, paint, and sculpt. He has also been happily married for 25 years, and has offered the scandal sheets virtually no fodder in a career that spans decades of work and numerous honors. Oscar-Nominated four times (most recently for 2000's The Contender), he returns in this summer's horse racing epic Seabiscuit - a performance that many believe will finally gain the multi-talented actor that coveted gold statuette. If so, he will have plenty of good cigars to celebrate.

Jeff Bridges is a very talented man. He can act. He can sing, dance, play guitar, and write music. He can sculpt, paint, and sketch. He's a gifted photographer. He started a record label called Ramp Records, and he's got a pretty cool website. Believe me, I tried to find something he can't do, or someone who doesn't like him, and I came up empty.

But wait... Mr. Bridges does have one small kink in his armor: he is late. I'm waiting for him in the cushy lounge in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, playing solitaire on my Palm Pilot. To be honest, I was late, too. After I lose a few games, he arrives - taller than expected, and broader. He's not in jeans, his customary attire; instead he's in a beige Ermenegildo Zegna suit and coffee-bean brown suede loafers. His straw-blond hair is cut shorter than usual - but like those of his father, the late Lloyd Bridges, and his older brother, Beau, it's still a mop to be coveted. Nestled below two sagebrush eyebrows, those bankable blue-ribbon eyes look slightly overworked.

He plops down on a plush love seat, seemingly happy to be off his feet. He looks tired and admits he is. It's a productive tired, however; he was swamped by people who wanted to talk to him about his book, Photography by Jeff Bridges, at the national book buyers' convention. Still, those trademark Bridges-blue eyes, though overworked, manage an occasional sparkle from under heavy lids.

"Can we do the interview here?" he asks, while looking around the empty room. "If it gets too noisy, we can go up to my room." I tell him it's the best offer I've had in a while. As the words leave our lips, the room fills up with people who want to relax with a few evening drinks. We look at each other, and with a nod, I follow him to the elevator. Reaching the top floor, we enter an elegant suite, French provincial. He turns the cool air up and throws his suit jacket over the back of the couch. On the coffee table in front of the living room's entertainment center are the remnants of the lunch he didn't eat. "That salad didn't make it," he says, as he opens an Evian. We clink glasses as Bridges croons, "a votre sante", I reply, 'L'chiam."

I'm here today because Jeff Bridges is a busy man. He has an original movie premiering on STARZ, called “Scenes of the Crime”, on June 28; the highly anticipated Universal Pictures' Seabiscuit is set for a late July opening. He has just come from a major book retailers' convention, where he did hours of interviews about his coffee table book, Photographs by Jeff Bridges (Powerhouse Books), hitting bookstores in November. It's a collection of black-and-white photos shot during the production of various films he's made. He uses a panning still camera called a Widelux, which achieves panoramic wide-angles and allows the photographer to paint designs on a shot.

"You've seen those long pictures of the civil war," said Bridges. "Mine is a 35-mm version of that camera. I remember the first time I ever saw anything like it was when I was getting my high school photograph taken. The guy had a Widelux and there was a rumor going around that if you ran around real quickly you could beat the lens. It was true. So there's a lot of kids in their class pictures twice."

Though never rising to the level of stardom he deserves, Bridges' filmography is as long as an elephant's trunk. He's accumulated four Oscar nominations (The Last Picture Show, in 1971 at 21 years old; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, three years later; Starman, in 1984; and The Contender 2000). So why has super-stardom eluded him? Bridges attributes his deficiency of box-office blockbusters to his tendency to choose a role for reasons beyond the commerciality of a movie. This, and the fact that many Hollywood "Powers That Be" award roles by the number of bottoms an actor has put into theater seats, rather than talent or suitability. But he's not bitter about it. After growing up in and around the industry, he shrugs it off, knowing this reality is as unyielding as a river's course and just as foolhardy to fight.

In Seabiscuit, Bridges apparently has picked a winner. He plays the racehorse's owner, Charles Howard. It's perhaps a role closer to his own nature than even he realizes. The story revolves around four characters: a half-blind jockey (Tobey Maguire), a down-on-his-luck trainer (Chris Cooper), Bridges, and, of course, the racehorse who took them and the entire country on the ride of a lifetime during the dim and depressed days of the 1930s. "All of these people," he says, "have been through tough times and have seen their day. In Seabiscuit's case, he had a pretty bad track record and it looked like his racing days were over. The same could be said for Red Pollard (McGuire) and Tom Smith (Cooper); they were not really well thought of in the first place."

What attracted Bridges, 53, to this role was Howard's championing of the underdog. "Even before he got Seabiscuit, he liked to find people that other people had lost faith in. He got something out of making those people successful and seeing qualities in each of them that maybe the world hadn't seen," he says. Rumor has it, Bridges possesses some of the same qualities as Howard. Not bad for a town that looks in garbage pails and under fingernails for bad news to gossip about.

Bridges accentuates how lucky he was to be able to talk with Laura Hillenbrand author of the best-selling book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. He reports that she was very generous with her time for discussions about Howard. "Of course, I read the book and got a lot out of it," Bridges says. He pauses for a second, brow furrowed, then continues, "There must be a nicer word that isn't quite as vulgar as 'having a lot of balls' (laughs)." Chutzpah, I suggest. "Right! I had the chutzpah to ask her if she had anything of his that she could lend me. Something I could just kind of carry on my person as I got about it. So she sent me a wallet that had a pass that he always carried. So having that was great as far as just bringing in his spirit, or channeling him, or whatever you want to call it."

No stranger to horse racing, Bridges reports that his grandfather, Fred Simpson, went to the track four or five times a week. "He was very into it. As a teenager I used to drive him down to Santa Anita. As a matter of fact, I'm dedicating the photography book to him and my cousin Erica - who turned me on to Laura's book. She called me up about five years ago right after the book came out and said 'I've read this book; you've got to play this part.' I said, 'Maybe a script will be written some day.' It gave me great satisfaction to call her up years later and say, 'Your prophecy came true, Erica."


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Jeff Bridges also loves everything about cigars. Learning about new ones, tasting them, collecting them. Cigar smoking is a new love, and the blush is still on the rose. "I may have been a product of that big publicity push and reading magazines like SMOKE. But I fell in love with all the different types of cigars. And soon it became “Oh, maybe I'll try that..." he says, leaning back into the velvety love seat he is sitting on.

Bridges pours us another glass of water and continues. He wants to talk about cigars. "Another thing I kind of kick myself in the butt for: just before I discovered that I
enjoyed cigars, I did a film with Ridley Scott [1996's White Squall]. I think he smoked Davidoff, or it might have been Dunhill. He would always offer me a cigar and I would always say, 'Nah,' because I remembered smoking one as a kid and it making my head spin.

"Then, when I stared to smoke them, I tried to figure out which I liked the best and collect the different brands and stuff. I began to really enjoy it. On a good week, I'll have one a day, kind of in the evening. I'll take a walk up this hill I have behind my house. Have a drink and a cigar. I really enjoy that."

Bridges is not into the accoutrements of cigar smoking. He admits he doesn't even own a humidor. He prefers to keep his stash in nice boxes and keeps the boxes on a shelf. "It's kind of primitive. It's just kind of fun to collect the different brands and find the ones you like. I have really been enjoying the Padron Anniversary series. I had that Cuban Trinidad cigar, that was really great. Trinidad has come out with a brand that's not made in Cuba; I'm not sure where it's made - the Dominican Republic? I haven't tried those yet." But he's looking forward to it.

Living an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles, the Bridges family is not in the middle of the Hollywood scene, so the stars he's lit up with are few. He has, however, taken a few celebrity cigar breaks. "I think Kevin and I have smoked cigars together," he says, referring to shooting K-Pax with SMOKE's former cover boy Kevin Spacey. "Andy Garcia loves a cigar. Ridley and I, since shooting the film, have smoked cigars together."

Jeff Bridges' low Hollywood profile is perhaps the reason he is about to celebrate 26 years of marriage (though we'd rather say it was because he smokes cigars). Another might be the example his parents set. Dorothy and Lloyd Bridges were married over 50 years. On his website (jeffbridges.com) are his drawings, paintings, some sculptures of little heads - about which he says "It's always nice to give someone a little head" - photographs, his record album to purchase or sample, other fun stuff, and various links. One is a link to his mother's website, which contains her beautiful poetry, much of which is dedicated to the undying love for her husband "Bud" (Lloyd Bridges died in 1998, at age 85).

Dorothy Bridges kept a diary every day that she was married, and has carried on with her journaling. "It must be 60 years of writing, every day," Bridges says. When each of the kids turned 21, she gave each of them a book, in her own handwriting. "She transcribed every entry in her diary about the kid," he says. So we each have a biography of our lives written by our mother, from our mother's point of view, even before we were born - from conception and all that stuff. Isn't that wild?"

What's really wild is that both marriages have survived Hollywood. He grew up in a house filled with love. His eyes grow distant. "They were amazing parents," he says. "Talking about people I've worked with, my dad was my acting teacher. The way he worked is the way I try to. I run into people all the time that have worked with my dad and their eyes light up. He was really just amazing. I worked with him twice as an adult. I did a lot of 'Sea Hunt' episodes with him as a kid but we did Tucker and Blown Away as adults." He says it was amazing to see his Dad come on set. He feels most people doing a job that long a time, with so many accolades, might become jaded. "But he would do it with such joy," says Bridges. "It was kind of contagious. Everyone would say, 'What we're doing is kind.' He made it just a great experience. That's the way I went to work because I saw how effective it is giving the best of yourself - everyone rises to it - and then you get a synergistic kind of thing going."

Bridges is not certain if his parents influenced him on his own feelings about marriage. How could they not? "Uh." Long pause. "I'm wondering. It's hard to say, because you don't know the other. I know I was frightened to get married. I fell in love with my wife, a love-at-first-sight kind of thing. There were voices from beyond saying, 'THIS IS THE ONE.' It used to frighten me. So the bar was pretty high. Susan is a Virgo and she does remind me a lot of my mom, I must say" Bridges is a Sagittarius.

He leans forward, reaches into his back pants pocket and pulls out his wallet. As he rifles through it, he says he wants me to see his "prize possession." Something he carries with him all the time. Among the photos, he finally finds the one he's looking for. It's a photograph that he was given 15 years ago by a man who worked on the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe. "The guy said, 'I thought you might like this. You were asking some girl out on a date.' Turns out it's a picture of the first words I ever uttered to my wife, which were, 'Will you go out with me?' And she said, 'No,' as the guy took the picture."

"On our first date, I was going to buy some property in Montana and I invited her to go with me. And we're looking at all these different houses and I felt I was looking at these houses with my future wife. And it frightened me.

After three years of living together in Malibu, he finally did propose. But, he admits, only because that nagging voice in his head wouldn't go away, and because Susan was going to move home to Montana and get on with her life. "I did the classic getting on my knees and saying: 'will you marry me?' But, oh, man, it was terrible.

"I had this theory - death is the end of the story - [about] how the story worked out. And marriage is a giant step in that direction. This is the woman, and all the other doors close. So this fear of marriage is kind of a fear of death in a way, a fear of organizing everything. This is it!" (We both shudder.) "You do get a chill just thinking about it. So I was just frightened."

He stops to collect his thoughts, and smiles, "What you don't know at that point is: you picture this long hall with all these beautiful doors on either side, then there's this one door at the end of the hall - and that's the marital door. What you don't know is that when you open that door - there's another beautiful hall going this way (arms open wide to each side) with all sorts of halls and doors you've never even dreamed of."

Jeff Bridges might finally win his well-deserved Oscar this year. How do I know? A voice in my head just told me.

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