Editor’s Note: This story contains spoilers through Episode 6 of “The Old Man.”
Lymphoma was one thing. When Jeff Bridges, 72, learned the cancer diagnosis, he had shot almost four and a half episodes out of a planned ten of “The Old Man” (FX). It was the “Crazy Heart” Oscar-winner’s first starring role in a TV series. He had jumped on board the show from uber-producer Warren Littlefield (“Fargo,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) right off the pilot. And then the pandemic hit.
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“The world fell apart,” said showrunner Jonathan Steinberg (“See,” “Percy Jackson & the Olympians”) on Zoom, tracing the rollercoaster course of the series leading up to the July 21 cliffhanger Episode 7 finale. “And then the writers and the world were coming back together again. But while we were making it Jeff got sick.”
Littlefield had first called showrunner Steinberg back in 2017 when he landed the rights to Thomas Perry’s new thriller about an ex-Afghanistan CIA operative who is unearthed 30 years after disappearing off the grid. “I’m excited about it,” Littlefield told Steinberg. “I think there’s a show in it. Do you want to help me figure it out?”
Steinberg did, but he had no idea that he would encounter one setback after another bringing the series to fruition. “The Old Man” would take five years to air. And when it finally arrived, it became a well-reviewed hit on FX and Hulu, with writing on Season 2 already underway.
Littlefield gave him and co-creator Robert Levine room to explore the most memorable way to put the story on screen, which meant turning Chase’s girlfriend (Amy Brenneman) into a more forceful character than the usual romantic supporting female role. “It became letting the story go where it wanted to for this medium,” said Steinberg. “It’s always weird to change a medium like that. It doesn’t want to do the same things that it was doing in its original form.”
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“The Old Man” weaves through time and several parallel relationships. There’s the face-off between two equally wily former CIA colleagues, Chase and Harold Harper (Emmy and Tony-winner John Lithgow), who is now a suit at the FBI. Thirty years ago during the Afghanistan war against the Soviets, they were backing Afghanistan rebel leader Faraz Hamzad (Pej Vahdat) when the operation went south. Young Chase (Bill Heck) took off with the warlord’s wife (Leem Lubany) and disappeared stateside to live their own life.
That included raising a daughter, now known as Angela Adams (Alia Shawkat), who harbors loyalty to more than one father. The Chases raised her and let her go to lead her own life; parents and child stayed in touch via burner phones. Adams hasn’t seen her father since 2012, and did not attend her own mother’s funeral. Harper mentored her at the FBI, and cares for her like his own daughter.
This becomes clear when the CIA, in league with the now-grizzled Hamzad, abduct Adams in order to lure her elusive dad to save her. But is that Hamzad’s real goal? Adams seems just as eager to meet him as he is to get her there. No one expected Harper to jump ship and join forces with Chase to save her. That’s the big reveal as we head into the rip-roaring Season 1 finale. Two old men are ganging up together to confront the third. And they negotiate the terms of their alliance in an unforgettable, bravura 15-page sequence in a black SUV racing across the desert.
Bridges and Lithgow, 76, had a blast; the two actors had never worked together before. “With Jeff Bridges, someone better know what they’re doing,” said Steinberg. “And John is amazing. They both knew it the first day they were on set together. They were both like kids on the first day of school.”
But finishing the series was by no means a sure thing. Everything came to a screeching halt midway through filming as Bridges endured rounds of chemotherapy. He had no idea, he told The New York Times, that he was taking punches with a 9 by 12 inch tumor in his gut. He didn’t feel a thing. And then, with his immune system laid low, he caught Covid. That’s what almost killed him; he spent weeks in intensive care. But he pulled through, recovered, and returned to the set.
“We were into Episode 5,” said Steinberg, when they shut down for six months due to the pandemic. “And we were all supposed to go to Morocco. We were days away. There were a few producers already on the ground in Morocco on March 13, 2020, when everything shut down. We brought them back, we realized after a month or two, that that wasn’t going to be feasible. We rebuilt the whole model to come shoot it in LA.”
And then on the Friday before Bridges was set to shoot, he called Steinberg: “I have chemo on Monday.”
The production revamped to shoot everything they could without Bridges. And then shut down for his cancer treatments for four months. “And then when he had no immune system, he was stripped to zero, he got COVID,” said Steinberg. “And that’s what put us down for a year. And it almost killed him. Yeah, really scary and dicey.”
While Steinberg was convinced the show would never be seen, all he wanted was for Bridges to pull through. “It’s hard to watch,” he said. “But then when we started to get the sense that he was feeling like, ‘I want to come back and finish this,’ the idea of subjecting him to five more episodes of shooting just didn’t seem real.”
That’s when the writers figured out how to turn a 10 episode story arc into seven, said Steinberg, “where the end of seven still feels like a finale.” It was a cliffhanger. “It actually works,” he said. “Yeah, it was better, because the 10 episodes had always just been a default. That’s the box the season comes in. And when we had the freedom to say, ‘Well, what is it? If it could be anything? What would we want to be? It started to coalesce around this seven-episode run in a way that was better for the story.”
How to shoot action with the weakened Bridges was the question after he returned. “We altered it,” said Steinberg. “And then we altered it again. It was this process of fear, because he didn’t really even know what he could shoot. There were points over that year where even standing up and walking from here to there was was a real challenge. If you didn’t know what had happened, you would never know from looking at him. Wow, it was a weird experience of knowing this guy was almost dead eight months ago. It’s the same crew. Everybody just showed up a year later and picked up right where we left off. It was really strange.”
The arc now focuses on parallel fathers and their shared daughter. Holding her own with Bridges and Lithgow was Shawkat as Angela Adams. “The moment she started, you felt everybody breathe,” said Steinberg. “And you’re not going to be afraid to write for her. She’s going to be able to be another leg of this triangle.”
For Adams, “Harper filled a bit of a vacuum,” said Steinberg. “I like stories about chosen family and found family. There’s something touching about that. This story has always felt like it’s about parenting children at different points in their lives. To fully sequester them and compartmentalize them into different characters, I felt I might have never seen that before. And then to put that into this genre, and allow it to absorb and be amplified by all of those stakes of life and death.”
“The Old Man” starts off in genre territory with two episodes directed by “Cop Car” and recent “Spider-Man” director Jon Watts that crackle with surprise turns and balletic action. One minute a frail septuagenarian is wondering if he can still trust his senses, the next he’s in a car chase in the dark and wrestling a lethal killer into a death grip. Those familiar kspy-on-the-run tropes allow the writers to pull the audience along as they subvert and deepen the story along the way.
Steinberg kept the story grounded in reality, much like “Homeland,” but moved the setting from Libya to Afghanistan. “I wanted it to feel like the backstory was not just big and emotionally impactful, but had a sense of place to it,” he said. “To have it be a story that began on this battlefield in the middle of a Cold War in which there were cold warriors who felt like they were battling evil on both sides. But very specifically for an American action hero in the ’80s, to feel like, that was the movie he was in. And so we wanted that to feel real. And we wanted it to feel like in the present day in Afghanistan, the character that place plays in the story was important.”
Another wrench in the middle of making the show: the Afghanistan front radically changed, “which was a challenge,” Steinberg said. “It’s the risk you run when it takes five years to make a show. How do we embrace and respect and employ what’s happening on the ground in the story, so it doesn’t feel like it could just be anywhere?”
The writers deployed heightened dreamscapes and flashbacks to get inside Chase’s head, using the ghost of Abbey Chase to communicate with her sleeping husband. “It lets you hear them think,” said Steinberg. “And when you try to translate that into something visual, you have to find ways to put it on screen or not. And there’s something about this story, it was most interesting when it was a journey into [Dan Chase’s] head. Confronting his mortality, and confronting his past, was just as much a journey into his own psyche as it was into flashback. The decision for those flashbacks to be subjective, to really be memories, more than objective flashbacks, was a big part of that.”
Season 2, which is being written now, will start with the some of the scenes cut from Season 1, and should wind up at about eight episodes, give or take. It will expand on all of these relationships, as well as the other “Old Man,” the puppeteer behind the scenes played by a menacing Joel Grey, who is invested in both Chase and Harper. “As we move forward, the relationship between this guy and his two adopted sons was important,” said Steinberg.
The series could be done by the end of 2023 — or not. “There are scenes that will live almost as they were,” said Steinberg. “There are stories that almost immediately went away. It was a an odd sort of process of translation of taking two to three scripts and throwing them away and then waiting for things to reemerge from them to see what what wanted to be a part of it. But it’s better to start that story where they are now rather than getting into it and then stopping in the middle.”
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