Jeff Bridges on Cancer, Covid, and the Secret to Happiness

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Photo credit: BEAU GREALY
Photo credit: BEAU GREALY
Photo credit: BEAU GREALY
Photo credit: BEAU GREALY

WOW, MAN—it’s Jeff Bridges. Alive and well, at 72. Like, really well, from the looks of things.

He’s walking around a photo studio in Santa Barbara on a hot, still Tuesday. When he walks, he leads with his rib cage, his weight in his heels, his whole posture telegraphing a wide-openness to the world.

He’s been telling me where that posture comes from— it’s thanks in large part to these isometric exercises he learned from a trainer named Eric Goodman, which are designed to get the muscles in the backside of your body to work together to support you better, so that the burden of carrying your weight around the planet doesn’t fall solely on your poor, embattled joints, and which have freed Bridges from some hellacious back pain—but he’d rather show me.

And that’s how he ends up standing over me, a fatherly hand on my shoulder, helping me bend, saying, “Hinge! Hinge!” as I try and mostly fail to hinge myself, and then, to demonstrate how I should be holding my body, he takes a bit of my hair and tugs it upward, not hard, just firmly, directionally.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

He doesn’t seem, at all, like somebody who was on the verge of death just last year. He was, though. In 2020, the Dude was diagnosed with cancer, specifically lymphoma, and just as he was pulling through that, he caught Covid, and because the chemo that had knocked the lymphoma down to size had also left Bridges severely immunocompromised, the Covid really kicked his ass, making cancer look like a cakewalk in retrospect—and because he is Jeff Bridges, and was already a pretty spiritual guy, all of this did not engender anything you’d call a spiritual awakening. But it’s got him thinking more about things—about time, mostly, and about the specific strain of neurosis with which he’s always approached his work, and about what he wants to leave behind when it’s actually all over.

“Times like those,” he says, “when you’re facing your mortality, all of your game plans come to the fore. Your philosophies, your spiritual beliefs. What’s made you you all these years gets tested and brought to the fore big-time. And that is only available in those times, I believe. But what’s fortunate is that what you learn in those times can linger, and you can apply those to the rest of your life.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

HE’S FINE NOW. In remission. Done with everything—done with the special diet, done with the supplemental oxygen. Back at work as if nothing even happened. Busy promoting his new FX series, The Old Man, on which he’s an ex-CIA operative haunted anew by a lifetime of choices he made in the past, a role that happens to be Bridges’s first-ever series-regular TV gig in roughly 50 years of full-time acting, a chewy part on a twisty spy series that lets him play off TV legends like John Lithgow and Amy Brenneman.

Bridges shot half of the first season before Covid and cancer and went back and finished the rest; he’ll tell you all about it. And about what he learned from almost dying. But he’ll tell you in a circuitous, Bridgesian way, circling around a point and riffing off into abstract space, forgetting things (sometimes, he says, “I ask my mind for a word and it just flips me the finger,” which could be a symptom of post-Covid brain or just old-man brain, he’s not quite sure) and then remembering, or just rolling on to the next thought, enjoying the journey of the chat without stressing unduly over the destination.

“He says this constantly,” says Brenneman, who plays a divorcée who gets more than she bargained for when she falls for Bridges’s character on The Old Man. “He’s like, ‘Don’t you think sometimes, like, the acting is just an excuse for us to hang out and talk?’ ”

“He’s just happy to talk about the way the universe works for an hour,” says Old Man cocreator Jonathan E. Steinberg, “and it’s great. And it’s all coming from a place of being just fascinated by the world. It’s fun to be around somebody who’s willing to kind of just see things and note them and be willing to talk about them and not be as concerned about what we’re supposed to be doing today.”

Photo credit: BEAU GREALY
Photo credit: BEAU GREALY

Another part of working with Jeff Bridges, his collaborators all say, is that every so often you find yourself stopping and thinking, Holy shit, it’s Jeff Bridges.

His IMDb credits span seven decades. He’s played cowboys and country singers, good men and flawed men and men who want very badly to kill Iron Man. He came into the business already halfway famous, because of the name he shared with his father—Lloyd Bridges, of Sea Hunt and High Noon and later Airplane! and Seinfeld—but he also came in with whatever intangible quality separates icons from mere actors.

As a younger man, he always had a rare grace, and he’s aged no less gracefully—The Old Man deepens and complicates the growly, inward-turned presence Bridges brought to recent films like Hell or High Water and Bad Times at the El Royale. If icon still feels, even after all these years, like an awkward descriptor to hang on him, it’s because he’s worn that status so casually for so long. Decades ago, legendary film critic Pauline Kael said he “may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived.”

The overall Jeff Bridges-ness of Jeff Bridges, his iconicity, sneaks up on you. Sometimes, Brenneman says, when she’s in a scene with him, she can’t help thinking of Peter Weir’s Fearless, from 1993, with Bridges as a plane-crash survivor whose experience scrambles his whole psychospiritual map.

Fearless is a huge movie in my internal landscape,” Brenneman says. “That look on his face as the plane’s going down—there’s moments that are kind of beyond language, in that movie, for me. So I have those flashes, where that face is looking at me [in a scene], and I’m like, ‘Oh my God—it’s that face.’”

Photo credit: Courtesy FX Networks
Photo credit: Courtesy FX Networks

Jon Steinberg remembers being a kid on the floor of his parents’ bedroom, watching Bridges in King Kong and Tron a million times. He grew up to be a creator of TV shows like Jericho and Black Sails. In 2017, the producer Warren Littlefield approached Steinberg and his Black Sails partner Robert Levine with a pitch for a series based on a Thomas Perry novel about a loner retiree who’s hiding a bloody and morally murky covert-ops past.

“I think, almost right away, we started talking about [doing] Unforgiven in the spy genre—the opportunity to do what that movie did for westerns in the Bourne space,” Steinberg says. “And that got really exciting.”

The minute they started talking about who might play Dan Chase, the titular Old Man, Bridges’s name was first on the list, Steinberg says, “and I was skeptical that it was realistic. He’d never done TV. I was fully aware that he was a guy who could do probably literally anything he wanted to do, and I felt like we were going to be in line with 35 people trying to get his attention.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Bridges is also, famously, very hard to book, for anything. The question of whether or not to accept a particular piece of work fills him with anxiety, even when the work is tempting. It’s said that the Coen brothers had to talk him into playing the Dude in The Big Lebow­ski, a part that’s now one of the pillars of his legend, and then when they wanted him for the John Wayne part in their remake of True Grit, they had to talk him into that, too. He even had to be wheedled into playing the whiskey-pickled country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, the role he went on to win an Oscar for.

“All of them,” he says, a little sheepish. “All of them. And this one’s no different. I resisted this a lot. I had a lot of good reasons not to do this.”

But when Bridges hesitates, it’s usually for one big reason, whether it’s Jon Steinberg or the Coens or Marvel on the other end of the line: “The basic concern of, once you engage in this, you can’t engage in that—and you don’t even know what that is yet! But you know it’s going to take you away from your family, from music, from your art—all these other things you’re going to have to focus on less, if not at all.”

So he resisted The Old Man, for a while, not because he wasn’t interested—he’d read the book and liked it—but because he was interested, and he knew he’d get sucked in, which is how he works.

“Once you get hooked, it’s surrender,” he says, laughing a little. “Then it’s, Take me, eat me, have your way with me.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

SOMETIMES, BRIDGES SAYS, operating with that level of commitment can keep him from enjoying the work. He’s constantly having to remind himself of what his mom, Dorothy Bridges, used to say every time he went off to make a movie: “She would say, ‘Remember, Jeff, have fun. And don’t take it too seriously.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, fuck, I forgot. That’s right.’ ”

It’s like when he played Robert Downey Jr.’s nemesis in Iron Man, released in 2008, the film that launched a billion-dollar megafranchise, which has involved Bridges not at all, because he died at the end of the first one. Or maybe he didn’t—Bridges isn’t sure.

“In the script they gave me, they open the suit and the suit’s empty,” he says, “So who knows? Maybe I’ll be—what was my name?”

Obadiah Stane.

“Obadiah Stane,” he says. “Maybe Obadiah Stane will come back, somehow.”

Photo credit: Gene Lester - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gene Lester - Getty Images

Honestly, he doesn’t sound hugely invested in whether this happens or not. But he was happy with Iron Man as a finished product—“I’m biased,” he says, “because I’m in it, but that’s my favorite superhero movie”—and he dug working with director Jon Favreau.

“The way he worked with the suits, the Marvel people, was amazing, because we would show up not knowing what we were going to shoot,” he says, getting a kick out of the memory. “We’d be writing it in our trailers, and then all the guys from the studio would be there tapping their foot.”

But at first, he says, taking that now unthinkably loosey-goosey approach to the making of a massive tentpole superhero film was a source of huge anxiety, because in order to work, he needs to commit, and in order to commit, he needs to know what he’s committing to. Early on, he says, “I was really in a terrible state. Y’know—‘I got to know what I’m saying. What’s the script? I gotta know my lines, so I can prepare!’ And then I made this little adjustment. ‘Jeff, you’re making a $200 million student film. Relax and have some fun.’ ”

That’s how it goes. Bridges resists and resists, and then when he gives in, he gives them everything. One day, Steinberg and Levine got a call that Bridges wanted to do The Old Man, and then a few months later, there he was on set, a 70-year-old man shooting a brutal close-quarters knife fight in an overturned car.

He didn’t do all his own stunts, of course, but according to Steinberg, “You’d be amazed by what he did do. He did quite a bit. It was important to us that it feels honest, and a lot of that solution was Jeff doing a lot of it, fighting his way through it. He doesn’t half-ass anything, and [the knife-fight scene] is a scene where he’s got to go to a really dark place to get to an emotional moment and a scene where he’s got to roll around on the ground with a stuntman and be in a life-or-death, knock-down-drag-out fight, and it’s all fully committed to.”

They’d shot four episodes and parts of a fifth when the pandemic shut down their show along with pretty much every other show on earth.

In October 2020, the week they were supposed to go back into production, Brenneman heard Bridges was out with a sore back. “And the end of that week, he’s got cancer,” she says.

He announced it later that month on Twitter with a Lebowski reference: New shit has come to light. He mentioned the great doctors he’d been seeing and said his prognosis was good. But by that point, 2020 had already been one of the bleakest, meanest years in recent memory, a year of endless injustice and unthinkable loss, and the idea that it might end with the Dude dying of fuckin’ cancer seemed depressingly on-brand. It was hard not to expect the worst.

“I’ll give you a little of what that trip was like,” Bridges says today.

It went like this: Sometime that summer, he’s exercising, stretched out on the floor in Santa Barbara. He rolls over and feels something like a bone in his abdomen where a bone shouldn’t be. His wife tells him to go get it checked out, but it doesn’t hurt, so instead they go through with a planned vacation—three months at the Bridges family’s place in Montana.

“I’m sweating at night,” Bridges remembers, “but that’s because the nights are hot. And my legs itched. Those are all symptoms of this lymphoma that I had—I didn’t realize that. But I was feeling great. Had no pain.”

He gets back to California about a week before he’s supposed to be back on set as Dan Chase. Decides he’ll go to the doctor, see about whatever’s going on in his abdomen.

“I get it checked out,” he says, “and they tell me that I have a nine-by-twelve-inch lymphomic mass in my stomach. Nine by twelve! A huge fucking thing. Like a baby in my stomach, man.”

Photo credit: BEAU GREALY
Photo credit: BEAU GREALY

So they call in the specialists. They start him on chemo. The chemo does its thing. Bridges feels sick, but he feels all right. He feels as much love as a man’s ever felt, from everybody. He celebrates his 71st birthday in December 2020, him and 50 friends laughing together one Zoom call, and it’s the best birthday he’s ever had.

Then it’s early 2021. Bridges goes in for another scan at the hospital in Santa Barbara and the news is good. The mass in his stomach, Bridges says, has “imploded down to this little thing the size of a marble.” He sends joyful emails to Brenneman and Steinberg, grateful to the universe.

This is in January. As it happens, it’s January 6. Bridges is glued to the TV like everybody else—“I’m watching the, what do you call it, the revolution or whatever the hell. The failed revolution”—and then he gets a letter from the chemo-treatment center, telling him he’s been exposed to Covid. And that’s when things get really scary.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Chemotherapy, Bridges explains, “strips you of all your immune system. So the Covid made my cancer look like a piece of cake. The cancer never hurt. But the Covid, oh God. Because I had nothing to fight it, and that was wild.

“I was on death’s door,” he says, “with the Covid. My wife would say, ‘How is he? He’s going to live, isn’t he?’ And the doctor would say, ‘We’re doing the best we can.’ It was that kind of thing. They weren’t saying, ‘No, he’s going to be okay.’”

Maybe this is no big surprise, but Bridges took a pretty Zen approach to the possibility of his own death. He says he drew on everything he’d learned from a lifetime of spiritual practice, everything he’d learned about letting go and not knowing and simply bearing witness to a situation, which he says sometimes put him at odds with the practitioners of Western medicine who were treating his cancer.

“This one doctor,” Bridges says, “would come up to me and say, ‘Jeff, you’ve got to fight, man. You’re not fighting. You gotta fight!’ And I said, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ I’m in surrender mode. I’m practicing getting ready to die. If anything, my action would be closer to dancing—I’m dancing with my death.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

BUT THE DUDE SURVIVED—beating Covid as well as cancer. (“There’s still something in there,” he says today. “They don’t know if it’s scar tissue or whatever it is. But I’m in remission.”) He went back to finish shooting The Old Man, almost two years after completing the first four episodes—two years of seeing only masked faces, two years that seemed like a weird dream.

I ask Bridges if he felt like a different person on the other side of all this, in any way he can quantify.

“More the same,” he says after a second. “Deeper the same, rather than different. Deeper the same.”

Long before cancer and Covid, he’d already done a fair amount of thinking, he says, about mortality, and the fact that he will not be here forever. The book he’s carrying around with him today is Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, by the British journalist Oliver Burkeman. Four thousand weeks, Bridges explains, “is how many weeks you got if you live to around 80. That’s not too many, you know what I mean? And my buddy, he actually did the math—you’ll live to 76 with 4,000 weeks. It’s a little less than 80.”

Photo credit: Everett
Photo credit: Everett

Burkeman’s big idea, contra just about everything anybody’s ever written about time management and productivity, is that no matter how we optimize our lives, we will never have enough time to meet the demands life places on us. Bridges opens the book, adjusts his glasses, reads out loud:

The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.’ I love that,” he says.

Burkeman suggests that “the dictatorship of the clock, the schedule, and the Google Calendar alert . . . [makes] it all but impossible to experience ‘deep time,’ that sense of timeless time, which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead.” Bridges loves that idea, too.

“Clock time is relatively new,” he says. “Back in the feudal times, they didn’t have clocks, man. It was a whole different thing, time. And we’re trying to jam in as much as we can. We feel like we’re left out if we don’t do this bucket list. And we miss what’s right in front of you. We can miss the present. I say, ‘That’s not what I wanted. I want this and this and this and this.’ And you miss what you’re given.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“And it’s not like I’ve figured it out,” he says. “I’m an anxious cat, man. I resist life big-time.”

In this moment, I’m feeling the dictatorship of the clock myself. Bridges has to hit the road soon, and I’ve still got questions. I point out that on The Old Man, he and John Lithgow’s character—a high-ranking government official whose connection to Bridges’s Dan Chase goes way back—are both thinking about their legacies, about how they’ll be remembered once their past actions come to light. I ask Bridges if he’s been thinking more about his legacy, given the events of the past few years.

“It’s so wild,” he says. “There’s this new thing—it’s not only kids, it’s just a modern thing to aspire to, which seems so bizarre. ‘I want to be an influencer when I grow up.’ And I want to be an influencer! Why not? That’s what I want to do. Make a difference.”

And then he’s off, swinging from vine to conversational vine, talking about Buckminster Fuller and the way flocks of birds and schools of fish change direction as one big group, and that’s when Bridges says to me, “You know about fractals?”

I say Yeah, tentatively, and Bridges, sounding almost suspicious, says, “You’ve seen the fractals?”

And I say, even more tentatively, that I’ve seen some fractals in my day, and Bridges says, “The latest kind of fractals?” And at that point I have to admit that I am not really up on the latest advances in fractals, and Bridges tells me to get out my laptop and Google “hardest fractal.” And while I’m digging the computer out of my bag, he’s explaining, “This guy Mandelbrot came up with this formula, z equals z squared plus c. And when that diagram is made in a visual sense, it’s basically a window into infinity.”

I can’t connect to the studio’s WiFi, so we end up elbow to elbow, me and Bridges, watching computer-animated diagrams of fractals on the cracked screen of my iPhone—kaleidoscopic geometric patterns, evolving endlessly, as if we’re zooming deeper and deeper into a universe of microscopic particles.

“See that first shape—that’s the initial shape. Some call that the fingerprint of God. Now just watch this for a second. Give it a couple of minutes before you get the whole gist of it,” Bridges is saying.

“Just keep watching it. Watch what happens. You think you know where it’s going, right? Watch what your mind is doing as you watch that. What’s the conversation that you have with your mind as you watch it? Pay attention. Look at the detail. Look at the fucking detail, man.”

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

We’ve been looking at this for kind of a while, long enough that Bridges has forgotten why he wanted to show me the fractals in the first place. And yet it’s all connected. We have, somehow, zoomed down to the root of Bridges’s anxiety. As much as he loves acting, as much as it fires him up, he also gets fired up about fractals, and about playing music with his band, the Abiders, and about this company he’s involved with that makes guitars out of sustainable wood, and when he resists engaging in this or that new acting project, he does so “because I know it’s going to take me away from all my little side projects that I love so much.

“So whatever I’m attracted to, I get”—he mimes recoiling, makes a sound like somebody’s showing him a snake. He shrugs. “Funny dynamic.”

Bridges’s assistant is hovering. We have five minutes of clock time left.

“Let me just say this one thing,” Bridges says to me. “You married?”

I am, I say. Bridges is, too—since 1977, to Susan Geston, whom he met in Montana in 1975 while shooting the movie Rancho Deluxe. It’s a good story. Geston had been in a car accident, and on the day she met Bridges, she had two black eyes and a broken nose. A makeup artist snapped a picture of the moment they met, and ten years later he sent it to Bridges. Bridges still carries it in his wallet—a picture of a goofy young actor in a cowboy hat meeting a beautiful girl with a banged-up face.

“It was love at first sight,” Bridges says now. But even that wasn’t enough. “I resisted marriage so much, man. I resisted getting married because it’s the same thing—it takes you away from all the other things. All the other chicks, man, and all these other adventures that you don’t do.

“And I resisted, I resisted. And I said, ‘If I don’t marry this lady, I’ll spend my life’—this is my fear—‘I’ll spend my whole life saying, That was the one, and I let that diamond slip through my fingers in the sand. And finally the caveat I gave myself, that allowed myself to get married, was You can always get a divorce. I said, ‘Okay.’ ”

So they got married. And honey-mooned in Hawaii.

“So now we cut to the Seven Sacred Pools in Maui,” Bridges says, “and I’m just smelling the rotting mangoes and I’m pouting. Sue says, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ She goes, ‘Oh, let’s annul this. This is terrible.’ I said, ‘No, no, no.’

“And she put up with that pouting shit for three years and didn’t kick me to the curb, thank God. I finally got with the program and said, ‘Oh no, she’s not trapping me. I got a gift, a wonderful gift, that I was questioning and didn’t want to accept. And now we’re celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary, man. Three kids, three grandkids.”

Susan Bridges got exposed to Covid when Jeff did.

“We shared an ambulance to the hospital. Oh, man,” Bridges says, sounding like there was still no place he’d rather be than right there with her, that it was somehow another gift from the universe, terrible and beautiful, all at the same time.

This story appears in the July-August 2022 issue of Men's Health.

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