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Most actors are lucky if they play one truly memorable character in their careers. At 63, Jeff Bridges has more than a few to his credit.
He was nominated for Oscars as Best Actor for his performances as a sweet space alien in Starman (1984) and as a surly U.S. marshal in True Grit (2010), and won one as an alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart (2009). He was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his turn as a confused teen in small-town Texas in The Last Picture Show (1971).
He wasn’t nominated, but easily might have been, for his work as a visionary auto executive in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1984), as a talented but unmotivated pianist in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), as a suicidal radio DJ in The Fisher King (1991), and as renowned gunfighter Bill Hickock in Wild Bill (1995).
And that’s not even to mention the character for which he’s best known, as the blissed-out bowling-alley philosopher “The Dude” Lebowski in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998).
He may add another with his new film, Robert Schwentke’s R.I.P.D. Based on a Dark Horse comic, it’s a supernatural-themed action-adventure picture that’s scheduled to open nationwide on Friday.
Bridges plays an Old West sheriff named Roy Pulsifer. Roy has been dead for more than a century, but he’s still on the job as an agent of the Rest in Peace Department, an otherworldly operation that recruits deceased lawmen to hunt down outlaws trying to escape final judgment by hiding on Earth.
“This movie has some of the irreverence of Men in Black (1997),” Bridges says, speaking by telephone from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. “The director and the writers made this impossible world seem realistic and exciting.”
The film, which also stars Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, and Ryan Reynolds, is an unusual spin on the cop-buddy genre. Roy, who has run through a variety of partners in his century-plus career, is now saddled with a recently dead Boston detective (Reynolds) determined to find his own murderer. Meanwhile Roy has to train him in the intricacies of afterlife law enforcement.
Roy Pulsifer isn’t like many of Bridges’ trademark characters. Strong, capable, and sure of himself, he has definite ideas on how things should or shouldn’t be done, ideas he’s determined to instill into his young partner – and not necessarily to be gentle doing it.
“Roy is very different from me,” he continues, “although I have my own things that I’m certain about. It’s interesting to see when I’m wrong. There’s lots of humor to be had in those situations when you take yourself too seriously.”
Bridges likes to present himself as a laid-back quasi-hippie, but in reality he always has been focused on his career and his family. The sons of actor Lloyd Bridges and actress Dorothy Dean, he and his brother Beau both segued from childhood directly into the family business, beginning with guest appearances on their father’s hit series Sea Hunt (1958-1961).
''I was never too rebellious,'' Bridges says. “Having kids had something to do with that.”
The actor has been married to the former Susan Geston for 37 years. They have three daughters — 31-year-old Isabelle, 30-year-old Jessica, and 27-year-old Hayley — and a 2-year-old granddaughter.
Film audiences mostly understand the difference between an actor and the characters he plays. In the case of The Dude, however, the character has taken on mythic qualities and there seems to be some confusion as to where Bridges stops and The Dude starts. The Coen brothers modeled the character in part on the actor, and Bridges famously wore his own clothes in the role.
“I think The Dude is very true to himself,” Bridges says. “Like The Stranger says at the end of the movie, ‘It’s comforting to know that The Dude is out there taking it easy for all of us.’ Everyone has a bit of The Dude in them. I think I’m more ambitious than The Dude, although I don’t think of myself as ambitious.”
Nonetheless, his crowded schedule could be mistaken for that of an ambitious man.
Since playing a country singer in Crazy Heart, Bridges has spent much of his time on music, including taking a year off from films in 2011 for that purpose. He and his band — the Abiders, as in “The Dude abides” — are touring the West Coast this summer.
“(Crazy Heart) ignited my music,” he says. “I’ve been into music since I was a kid, and the Oscar shone a spotlight on it. I’ve been running with that ball, and I hope to do another album.”
Not that he’s abandoning films. Long one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, Bridges recently completed Seventh Son, which he describes as a fantasy.
“It appears to be set in the Dark Ages,” he says. “I play a witch hunter. It was interesting dealing with myths.”
Bridges also has agreed to play the Aviator in a new version of The Little Prince, based on the 1943 children’s classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Marion Cotillard, James Franco, and Rachel McAdams also will appear in the film.
Taking a cue from his father,“ I try to mix up the people I play,” he says
“My father in particular loved all aspects of show business,” Bridges continues. “He loved doing interviews, making movies, and meeting people. He really wanted all his kids to go into show business, which is unusual. Most people are trying to keep their kids out of show business, because there’s great opportunity for humiliation and all the terrible things people know about.”
“I fought him on it for a number of reasons,” he adds, “especially the whole nepotism thing: ‘Oh, you just got that job because of who your father is.’ You want to be respected on your own for what you are.”
Bridges initially resisted his father’s wishes, preferring to focus on music and painting, but he doesn’t regret having given in.
“My dad told me, ‘Jeff, you can do all those things in acting,’” Bridges says, “and he was right. Look what happened.”