By all accounts, the late filmmaker James Bridges was a Southern gentleman. He was also a filmmaker of unwavering conviction who often went toe to toe with studio executives if they tried to change his concept for a movie. In fact, he nearly quit the production of the 1980 hit “Urban Cowboy” because Paramount didn’t want Debra Winger to play the role of John Travolta’s love interest, the independent cowgirl Sissy.
"[Producer] Bob Evans had him testing playgirls of the month, and Jim was agreeably testing them,” recalled actor-playwright Jack Larson, who was Bridges’ personal and professional partner from the late 1950s until Bridges’ death from cancer in 1993 at age 57.
Bridges stuck to his guns and tested Winger, but Paramount wouldn’t allow the actress to fly to the Houston location. “Jim said, ‘you get her on the next plane or you don’t have a director for this film,’ ” said Larson. “So they put Debra on the next plane.”
Larson said that Bridges made only eight features because he wouldn’t compromise. “There were many films that he didn’t do if the situation was going to be bad because he didn’t want to go through that. He would not argue with people. He was Southern and polite ... but he was very tough about all of that.”
Since his death, Larson, now 82, has diligently worked to keep Bridges’ memory alive, including having the Bridges/Larson Foundation donate $500,000 to transform UCLA’s Melnitz Theatre into a state-of-the-art screening room; in 1999, it was renamed the James Bridges Theater. And the Bridges/Larson Foundation gives out the James Bridges Award in Film Directing yearly at UCLA, USC, Columbia and the American Film Institute.
On a recent afternoon, the remarkably boyish Larson was reminiscing about Bridges in the living room of the historical hill-top Frank Lloyd Wright-designed George Sturges House in Brentwood that the two had shared. The occasion was the publication of Peter Tonguette’s new book, “The Films of James Bridges” -- the first substantive book on the Oscar-nominated writer/director.
Larson is a fan of the book. “He [Tonguette] admires Jim’s films, and he admires the smaller films like ‘September 30, 1955' and “Mike’s Murder’ even more than his well-known films.”
Larson is still best known for playing energetic cub photojournalist Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet in the 1950s TV series “Adventures of Superman.” During that time he was cast in a supporting role in the 1957 drama “Johnny Trouble,” with Ethel Barrymore and Stuart Whitman. Making his feature debut in the film was Bridges, then a young actor from Arkansas.
Both their acting careers ended shortly after they became partners. Bridges turned to writing and directing, eventually making such acclaimed, character-driven films as 1973’s “The Paper Chase,” 1979’s “The China Syndrome” and 1980’s “Urban Cowboy.” Typecast as Olsen, Larson found success as a playwright and opera librettist. And when Bridges’ film career took off, they formed a production company, with Larson producing several of Bridges’ films.
As for being gay in Hollywood in the closeted 1950s and ‘60s, Larson said that they were both private and that it wasn’t a problem.
“It was obvious to anyone that since we lived together we were partners,” Larson said. “We always went places together. We never pretended. I always did what I felt like doing. I never did publicity when I was very popular as Jimmy. The question [about being gay] never came up.”
Bridges turned from acting to writing and eventually caught the attention of actor Norman Lloyd, who was then a producer on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He offered Bridges a chance to work on a “Hitchcock” script that was in trouble. “He liked that script and then Jim wrote 15 more ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ episodes and won awards,” said Larson.
Larson became a writer as well, and Bridges began his career as a director working on his partner’s plays. Among them were “The Candied House,” which opened the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theatre in 1966. Larson has also written librettos for various operas including Virgil Thomson’s “Lord Byron.”
Bridges’ first feature success was “The Paper Chase,” based on John Jay Osborn Jr.'s account of his first year at Harvard law school. Timothy Bottoms played the law student and John Houseman, then a well-respected film and theatrical producer who had been Bridges and Larson’s mentor, played gruff Professor Charles Kingsfield. Houseman won the supporting actor Oscar, and Bridges earned an adapted screenplay nomination.
Larson said, though, that Bridges had a lot of disagreements with 20th Century Fox over the film. The studio originally wanted to call it “Up the Ivy” and then changed it to “All the Bright Young Men.”
The filmmaker was always press-shy during his career. “He never did interviews,” said Larson. “He said the films speak for themselves.”
Larson pleaded with Bridges to talk to CBS’ legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite in 1979. Bridges’ nuclear disaster film, “The China Syndrome,” with Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, had opened just 10 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster.
“He didn’t want to do it,” Larson said. “I said it is Walter Cronkite. He said, ‘This is too serious a thing to market a film.’ He was a serious person.”