A few days after the March 1998 death of actor Lloyd Bridges at age 85, his son Jeff returned to Houston to finish filming the thriller Arlington Road. At the end of his first day back, he gathered cast and crew together in a dark hallway for an impromptu memorial service. “I talked about how a set is about as close as my father got to a church sanctuary,” Bridges recalls. “I really could feel him there. We kind of drew his energy into the room and bid him adieu and gave him a standing ovation and said, ‘We love you.’ ”
Professionally and personally, Bridges, 49, is carrying on the legacy of his father, whose work ranged from roles in High Noon to TV’s Sea Hunt to the goofy Airplane! Jeff, a three-time Oscar nominee (for 1971’s The Last Picture Show, ’74’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and ’84’s Starman), has become known as one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors. “I remember conversations with my dad about being in a relay race—and he’s passing the baton,” Bridges says. “I’m carrying on his job.”
It could hardly have been otherwise. “My first memory of acting,” Bridges recalls, “was being thrown off the Malibu pier in ice-cold water and having to recite my lines” for a guest spot on Sea Hunt at age 8. His father, he says, struggled to balance career and family. “He taught me all the basics of acting when I was just a little kid,” Bridges says. “I remember him sitting me up on the bed and going through it all for hours at a time. He was definitely my teacher.”
And obviously a good one. In some 40 films, the younger Bridges has played killers (Jagged Edge), crooners (The Fabulous Baker Boys) and stoners (The Big Lebowski) with equal credibility. In the newly released Arlington Road, he stars as a history professor who suspects his all-American neighbor (Tim Robbins) of concocting a terrorist plot. “He’s an underrated actor,” says Robbins, “who always gives great performances.” (Next month, Bridges appears opposite Albert Brooks and Sharon Stone as a producer and screenwriter in the romantic comedy The Muse.)
Still, Bridges has yet to achieve the superstardom many predicted a decade ago. (“The movies’ most reliable leading man is about to become a white-hot Hollywood star,” TIME predicted in 1988.) Which seems not to trouble Bridges in the least. “I don’t think of myself as underappreciated or underrated,” he says. Instead, he seems satisfied to be that true showbiz rarity: a happily married husband and father.
“I have everything I want,” says Bridges—a wife of 22 years, Susan, 46, and daughters Isabelle, 17, Jessie, 16, and Hayley, 13, who fill a four-bedroom Italian home (with a separate two-bedroom guest house and greenhouse) set on 20 acres in the hills of coastal Santa Barbara, two hours north of Los Angeles. “You know from the first moment that this is a guy who loves his family,” says Barbra Streisand, who directed and costarred with Bridges in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. “His warmth and humanity make his masculine attractiveness even more appealing.
Just ask wife Susan, who met her future husband when she was working as a waitress in Montana during the filming of Rancho Deluxe. After she rebuffed his advances—”I knew him as Lloyd Bridges’ son,” she explains, and “I didn’t want to be a notch in anyone’s belt”—they ran into each other at a party. “He turned out to be a really nice guy and a really good dancer,” she recalls. “We just danced the night away.” The couple, who enjoy going to art museums and hiking, were married a couple of years later in 1977. “Jeff really enjoys his family,” she says. “He’s very loving and affectionate. He likes getting his hugs.”
Bridges saw his father’s 59-year marriage to his mother, Dorothy, 83, a homemaker, as a model for his own. “We called my mother the General because she held it all together,” says Bridges, who visits her L.A. home weekly and calls her almost daily. “My mom, being so grounded and having such a secure base, allowed my father to be a kite. She would hold the string and he’d go flying out into the wind. That’s the example I take of how they did it.”
A self-declared “total product of nepotism,” Bridges crawled in his father’s footsteps before he could walk—and long before his Sea Hunt guest spot. His first role was as an infant in Jane Greer’s arms in 1950’s The Company She Keeps. While his father drilled him in the basics of acting, older brother Beau, now 57 and also an actor, played surrogate dad to Jeff and sister Lucinda, now 45 and a painter, whenever Lloyd was working. Says Beau: “I taught [Jeff] how to throw a baseball and how to surf. A lot of stuff a kid would learn, Jeff learned from me.”
The younger brother acted occasionally while attending University High School in L.A., where, he says, he “wasn’t a great student.” He grew his hair long and smoked pot—even after, he confesses, joining a teen antidrug group. “It was the ’60s,” he explains. “I had some more experimenting to do.”
In 1971, as Beau appeared in the forgettable drama The Christian Licorice Store, Jeff shot to stardom and earned his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a high school football hero in The Last Picture Show. Both brothers insist there has never been much competition. “We really weren’t in the same ballpark,” says Beau, who costarred with Jeff in Baker Boys. “It was more of a prideful thing watching my brother have so much success. I just stood back and enjoyed the whole thing.” Jeff returns the compliment: “[Beau] was always my coach, my mentor.”
Dorothy says that her children, like Lloyd, tend to view acting “as no big deal. My husband just thought he was lucky to support his family and do what he loved.” Still, it took a while for Jeff, who resisted “going into my father’s business,” to view acting as a career. Not until 1973 did he fully commit—a decision he did not take lightly. “He’s easily the most serious person on the set, in the sense of dedication,” says Two Faces co-star George Segal. But when the cameras are turned off, he relaxes and turns uncommonly friendly. “It was always open house in his trailer,” says Segal. “We’d hang around and get a drink and unwind. He’s like an instant brother.” Tim Robbins seconds the motion. “I enjoyed his sense of humor and his warmth,” he says. “We had a couple of evenings of just drinking and playing guitar.”
But as much as Bridges enjoys his line of work, he isn’t pushing his kids into the family business. For now, at least, he’s got more basic parental concerns to cope with. When Isabelle brought her new boyfriend home to meet her parents two years ago, Bridges says he was all set to play the tough dad. But, he says with a laugh, the boyfriend “turns out to be 6’8″—the center for the Santa Barbara High School basketball team.” He adds, “We try to give them as much freedom as we can, so that when they move out of the house they won’t go wild.”
Besides, Bridges is far too busy to keep a hawkeye on his brood. Several hours a week, he gets together with a group of rock and jazz musicians at his home studio, where he sings and plays guitar and piano. (He also writes his own songs.) In addition, he is gathering the hundreds of black-and-white photos he has taken on film sets for a potential book. And he still manages to devote time and energy to the End Hunger Network, a nonprofit charity he founded in 1983, which has raised about $4 million for community food banks throughout the U.S.
But no matter how frenetic his life gets, he takes time out to remember his father. “It’s funny,” he says. “I keep waiting for this big enormous grief to hit, and it never really has, as strong as I think the emotions should be. My dad and I were so close that there was nothing left undone.” Still, he adds in a soft voice, “I think about him all the time. I feel him every day.”
Julie Jordan in Santa Barbara