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But Does He Use a Night Light? : Jeff Bridges is everyone’s pick as Hollywood’s most underappreciated actor. Why doesn’t that get him through the nights? It’s that fear thing

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About halfway through a conversation that, truth to tell, has both parties yawning politely into their fists, Jeff Bridges starts to go off on this fear thing.

He’s supposed to be talking about “Fearless,” his new movie opening Friday, and how he decided to play the guilt-stricken survivor of a plane crash instead of one more good ol’ boy. But right in the middle of his career-as-food metaphor--"It’s like a menu; if you’re only eating pancakes, it gets boring"--he just shifts gears.

“This theme of fear,” he says, as though he’s not sure his audience is a believer or a skeptic, “it’s those things I’m frightened of that I’m attracted to.”

As with “Fearless,” Bridges didn’t know if he could, or even wanted to, play a guy who had lived through that kind of life-passing-before-your-eyes terror. Well, yeah, he says, but there are other things besides film roles that are frightening too.

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“It just goes with the territory,” he says, sounding like the extraterrestrial “Starman” he once played, more than a little awed by the human condition.

“There’s the fear of a life wasted, the fear of not being loved. And kids open a whole other thing, these people you love more than yourself. It’s a fear of change that goes back to that fear of being born, of being pushed out from that secure place when there is no separation between you and the universe.

“One of the ways to get through that fear is to go at it almost with open arms, like it’s an old friend. It’s what I do as an actor--not to become unafraid, but to be able to say, ‘It’s OK to be afraid.’ ”

Bridges sounds as if he’s rehearsing for a 12-step program, but Loyd Catlett, an actor and his close friend since the two worked together on “The Last Picture Show” more than 20 years ago, says such talk is typical. “We all have fears we wrestle with. A lot of Jeff’s drive is from fear.”

Bridges hunches forward in his chair, plowing on. “I’m perceived as this pretty laid-back guy, but inside I’m filled with all this stuff. It’s not really a bad thing, it’s just there--that sense that I’ll blow what I’ve been given, because I’ve been given a pretty terrific hand. But life just keeps on coming. ‘Oh, you think you can handle that? Well, check this out!’ The more you handle, the more life is going to challenge you. Sometimes I realize that the object of the game is just to relax, almost like it’s a breathing exercise.”

Bridges drops his head, forcing a stream of air, yoga-like, through his mouth.

“You exhale that and relax a bit,” he says looking up, letting a smile crease his crinkly-eyed handsomeness. “But then you get tense again. Do you feel that too? Are you pretty relaxed? Are you fearless?”

When Jeff Bridges was 8 or so, his father became, in Hollywood terms, more famous than God. “Sea Hunt,” starring Lloyd Bridges as skin-diver Mike Nelson, was the country’s top-rated television drama. For his father, accustomed to playing bad guys in mediocre Westerns, it was the kind of career-changing experience every actor longs for. But for an 8-year-old, it changed everything, so that even a trip out to the curb to meet the ice cream truck with Dad brought neighborhood kids screaming, “Mike Nelson, Mike Nelson.”

By the time he was 18 and about to make his first film, playing a white student who is bused to a black school in “The Halls of Anger,” Bridges knew a lot about fame--that he would have to go a long way to compete with his father and older brother Beau, the second actor in the clan, but that being that high up means a long fall down. “The nicer it gets,” he says, “the more you have to lose.”

Not that Bridges, as Catlett points out, has been spooked by success. To his friends and his family, he’s as regular as they come. Or as regular as it gets with an actor who spends weeks at a time at his ranch in Montana, holed up with his music and his books and his paints, talking to no one but his wife, Susan, and their three daughters and maybe the mountain lions, letting his hair grow past his shoulders and hoping, as he puts it, “that no script excites me that much to take me away from there.” As Beau says, “We call him the Sloth.”

It is an unusually insouciant attitude, which has led to what could be argued is one of Hollywood’s most underrated careers.

Despite fading star quarterback good looks that could easily have earned him status as a romantic leading man, Bridges, 43, has played a range of purposefully eclectic characters--from a high school football hero in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show” (for which he was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar), to the emotionally naive extraterrestrial “Starman” to a homicidal psychopath in “Jagged Edge” to a cynical jazz pianist in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” to an even more cynical Howard Stern-esque radio talk-show host in “The Fisher King.”

“I try to mix it up, so I’m not playing the same guy over and over again,” says Bridges, who has earned three Oscar nominations while working with much of Hollywood’s top talent--directors John Huston, Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Terry Gilliam and actors Clint Eastwood, Jane Fonda, Glenn Close and Robin Williams. “The audience carries a lot of baggage from seeing an actor in his last film. I mix it up so they are not sure what to expect, so they’re paying more attention. Is he a good guy, a bad guy or what?”

For the past two years, Bridges has pushed the limits even further, sidestepping mainstream features for more offbeat films. Last spring, he played an ex-con in “American Heart,” a $6-million independent film that he also produced. In the remake of the Dutch thriller “The Vanishing,” also released this year, Bridges was praised for his performance as a mysterious, sinister character, even though the film itself faded quickly.

Now he stars in “Fearless,” an unusually metaphysical film directed by Peter Weir from Rafael Yglesias’ screenplay, based on his novel about the survivors of an airplane crash. Bridges’ performance as Max Klein, a successful architect and the hero of the disaster, is being called one of the strongest of his career. He follows that by co-starring with his father in next year’s “Blown Away,” his first action film, in which he plays a member of the Boston police bomb squad.

So, given his talent and his lineage, why isn’t Bridges in the league with Redford or Costner or Nolte? Even his family has entered the debate. “Jeff has never been one for competition,” Lloyd says. “He still isn’t. He just likes a personal challenge in his work. I think sometimes he should take films with more commercial prospects.”

Colleagues agree. “He’s an artist, an actor who wants to tell stories with pictures,” says Gary Busey, one of Bridges’ closest friends and a frequent co-star.

“He’s known celebrity for years,” says Martin Bell, who directed Bridges in “American Heart.” “Yet he is untouched by it.”

Producer Paula Weinstein, who has worked with Bridges on “Fearless” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” suggests that the actor’s low-key career is irrevocably linked to his family, an unusually tight clan that functions in the tradition of great theatrical families, co-starring with each other, sharing vacation homes and faithfully logging the birth of each grandchild in the pages of Variety.

“Jeff is an extraordinary actor, but he also has that perspective, like Jane Fonda does, that comes from being a second-generation actor,” Weinstein says. “He sees acting as a profession--of being a working actor like his father--and not as the pursuit of stardom.”

Bridges shifts in his chair, as if the conversation or the faint northern light from the hotel window is too focused on him. “I don’t feel unappreciated, and I’m not trying to be somebody who is more popular,” he says, hunching his shoulders under his button-down shirt. “It’s still mysterious why I get drawn to a project. That idea of fear, that you do something because it’s a challenge. A lot of times I have to make sure I’m not doing something just because of that. Like, yeah, I can jump off that cliff, so why not do it? In a funny way, that’s the theme of ‘Fearless.’ ”

As Bridges remembers it, he was sort of ambushed. He was filming “The Vanishing,” and he was invited to dinner with Weir. Weir had a hunch that the actor was right for Max Klein, the Angst -ridden hero of “Fearless,” which he was directing as his first film since 1990’s “Green Card.” Weir, who also directed “Witness” and “Dead Poets Society,” had been sent the script by Weinstein and the late Mark Rosenberg, her husband and partner at Spring Creek Productions, she said, because “we knew from his earlier, Australian films that Peter had never been shy about tackling the big issues--love, death, fear and spirituality.”

While Weir recognized the unusual nature of “Fearless,” which was loosely based on a crash in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, he also knew there were risks in making a film about “the trauma that is modern life.”

“You had to feel that this was about more than a plane crash survivor; otherwise, it would play like a disease-of-the-week movie.”

Crucial to that was casting an actor who could carry the film’s emotional content as Klein, who leads a group of fellow passengers to safety, finding his life transformed: At one point, Klein says, “We’re safe because we’ve died once already.”

“Jeff seemed to be the sort of man who has a friendliness that is part of his public persona,” Weir says, “but who also has a harder edge that I wanted to tap into.”

In preparation for the film, which also stars Isabella Rossellini as Klein’s wife and Rosie Perez as a fellow crash survivor whose religious beliefs come to influence him, Bridges spent several weeks in Montana reading Yglesias’ novel, watching interviews with crash survivors and studying architectural drawings.

“This is a guy who is afraid to fly, and to combat that fear he learns as much as he can about planes and flight,” Bridges says. “He has a very logical mind and not much use for religion, but the effects of the crash make him doubt his doubt.”

Because much of the film focuses on the characters’ emotional response to the crash, Bridges spent a lot of time with his friend Busey, who had survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1988, “the grand wake-up call,” as Bridges put it.

“Because of his accident, Gary had gone through the same kind of emotional landscape as my character,” he says. “He described it as feeling like ‘an angel in an Earthsuit.’ ”

Not surprisingly, Bridges says, making “Fearless” has stayed with him. “Usually I come away from a film feeling disoriented or like I’m watching a home movie. But this still makes me feel how frightening and exciting it is to be alive and how fear and love are both involved in that--the two partners of life, dancing together.”

For all his going on about the mysteries of life, there is one sure way to crack Jeff Bridges up: Ask him if he ever felt guilty about being the tallest, handsomest--and possibly most talented--member of the Bridges family.

“That just sounded so funny the way you said it,” he says, erupting into cackles, finally loosened up after 2 1/2 hours of talking. “We’ve all had hot streaks at different times. The business has been so great to my dad, and Beau is probably the first actor who won the triple crown (Golden Globe, Emmy and Cable ACE awards) on TV for ‘Brady’ and now he’s got a new series (“Harts of the West”) and he’s doing great.”

Scratch any member of the family, which includes younger sister and sometime-actress Lucinda, and what emerges is this Hallmark greeting card kind of sentiment: “We just love our dad so much,” Bridges says without a trace of irony or self-consciousness.

“They are unbelievably proud of each other,” says Weinstein, who has known the family since Jeff and Beau co-starred in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” in 1989. “Lloyd and Dorothy have created this family whose members really are on each other’s team.”

If the Bridges clan seems suffused with family values, it has not always been a picture-perfect household. When Jeff was born in December, 1949, his father was a struggling actor, a former chairman of the UCLA drama department, who had married a promising young student, Dorothy Simpson. Jeff was their third son, born two years after an earlier child, Gary, died of sudden infant death syndrome.

“That was a rough time,” recalls Beau, who is eight years older than Jeff. “When Jeff was born it sort of brought us together again.”

Although Jeff does not speak unbidden about the older brother he never knew, the death united the two surviving sons in an unusually close bond.

“Jeff is not one to show his hand,” says his mother, “and because my husband was so busy doing his TV show, Beau became Jeff’s mentor. He was like this uncle who couldn’t wait for Jeff to grow up.”

Young Jeff would spend hours holed up in his room, picking at the guitar his brother had abandoned to play baseball and basketball. Although both boys played bit parts on “Sea Hunt,” neither initially showed any proclivity toward acting, something of a disappointment to their famous father. “Beau wanted to be a coach and Jeff was always interested in music,” Lloyd Bridges recalls.

In fact it was Beau who goaded Jeff into his first real acting experiences: performing street theater from the back of a pickup truck, attending his first audition, dogging him through those early years. He helped broker the sale of two of Jeff’s songs to producer Quincy Jones, and recommended him to director John Huston for “Fat City” in 1972.

Beau even flew down to the set of “The Last Picture Show” to check up on his kid brother. “I got to the hotel, and the door to Jeff’s room had this huge poster of Jesus looking like a hippie on it which he had signed, ‘Love, J,’ ” Beau says. “I knew he was holding his own.”

But it wasn’t until a year or two after Jeff made “The Last Picture Show” and received the Oscar nomination that he embraced acting as a career.

“Because I was my father’s son, it was sort of like if I went in for a casting call I’d get the part,” he says. “But then I figured they couldn’t be that stupid to keep on hiring me unless I was getting something right.”

He has, however, continued to pursue his interest in music and art. An an accomplished amateur pianist, he played his own keyboard scenes in “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Several of his paintings can be seen in a climactic scene in “Fearless,” and an exhibit of his photographs taken during the filming of his movies opens this month at the Gallery of Contemporary Images in Santa Monica.

“Between films, I just let everything go, don’t cut my hair, eat that pint of Haagen-Dazs right before bed--but when I’m working, I’m really organized,” he says. “When I’m going through a script, I have to get out my right notebooks; I underline my name and get down to it.”

For Bridges, getting down to it means “starting with yourself, finding those aspects of you that line up with the character and letting the rest atrophy.”

“Part of what is exciting is not playing yourself, of transcending those boundaries, so the first thing I do after I take a role is go through my phone book, or even just watch the news on TV, looking for people who are in the profession.”

He is also known for establishing close working relationships with his co-stars. Before filming “American Heart,” Bridges spent several days just palling around Los Angeles with Edward Furlong, his 15-year-old co-star, trying to lay the groundwork for a realistic father-and-son relationship.

While Bridges says he enjoyed producing “American Heart,” he isn’t planning any permanent moves that way, nor does he seem overly interested in directing despite his penchant for snapping photographs on the set. His production company, ASIS, seems to exist largely as a concept: “I don’t even have offices anywhere.” Whatever frustrations he may feel about Hollywood’s preference for big-budget blockbusters--"Instead of making one $80-million movie they could make eight $10-million movies"--he is encouraged by the recent surge of interest in independent films.

For a man supposedly beset by fear, Bridges seems to like the rhythms of his life, the tightly circumscribed personal life that leaves his energies free for work; spending the summers on his ranch with Susan, his wife of 16 years, and their daughters, and winters on a film set or home in his Santa Monica Canyon house, which is, he points out, just half an hour away from his parents’ home.

“I’ve lived in L.A. all my life, but I don’t feel like I know the town much,” he says. “I even get lost in Westwood, where I grew up. I’m still tight with my high school buddies, and my mother and father and Beau and I are very close, but as far as seeing a lot of people, I just don’t do it. I’ll go out for a fancy meal but don’t like it much. At parties, all those people you’ve worked with but you don’t remember their names--that drives me crazy. ‘Hey, Jack, how you doin’ ? It’s Bill.’ I just don’t like that.”

Bridges gazes out the window, his face set tight against whatever onslaughts only he can see. But the battle, at least for now, goes the other way. “I mean,” he says breaking into a grin, “talk about ridiculous fears."*


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