How Jeff Bridges Weathered a Health Scare While Filming FX’s Hit Spy Thriller ‘The Old Man’

TheWrap magazine: After recovering from cancer, the Oscar winner says, “I found myself saying, ‘I just had the strangest dream that I was sick in the hospital'”

Jeff Bridges (Credit: Michael Becker)

This story about Jeff Bridges and “The Old Man” first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Over seven decades, Jeff Bridges has demonstrated an uncanny ability to disappear into characters while still seeming like himself — whether it’s a fawn-eyed extraterrestrial (“Starman”), a chill Zen master (“The Big Lebowski”) or an alcoholic country singer (“Crazy Heart),” a performance for which he won an Oscar. Now Bridges mesmerizes as Dan Chase, a rogue CIA operative pulled back into the game to protect his daughter in FX’s slow-burn espionage thriller “The Old Man,” which has weathered a rough road to completion.

Production shut down during the pandemic and again when Bridges was diagnosed with lymphoma in the fall of 2020. He underwent chemotherapy, then spent several months in the hospital after contracting Covid-19. He is now in remission and healthy, and “The Old Man” has become FX’s most-watched series of all time.

Jeff Bridges The Old Man FX
Jeff Bridges in “The Old Man” (FX)

You’ve mostly focused on film in your career. What’s the shift to television been like?
I was concerned over the years because my father, Lloyd Bridges, had done many TV shows, and I saw how hard he worked, how frustrating it was because the quality of television back in those days wasn’t like the quality of movies. I was kind of reticent to get into the TV world. And then the quality of TV started to get so outrageously cool and the execution was so wonderful. Then this story came along and I got really excited about it.

You’ve often said you’re a family man at heart, and I wondered how much you connected with Dan Chase because of the show’s focus on family and fatherhood.
Well, not to the degree that Dan Chase has been away from his daughter, but being in the movie biz, I spent most of my kids’ childhoods away working. My childhood was often like that, too, with my dad working, so I could relate to the challenges of that. And just talking about acting — you don’t get better actors than guys in the CIA. They’re acting for their lives, you know?

John Lithgow said working with you on this show was amazing because you’re a wonderful person and such an effortless actor. What’s the secret to your approach?
Well, I gotta return the compliment. John and I have become dear friends over the weeks that we’ve been working together. I think we approach it the same way, and the kind of acting that I aspire to and admire is the one where you don’t see the effort. It feels like when you’re watching it, you’re just a fly on the wall watching the thing.

You have some serious fight scenes in “The Old Man.” You can really feel the physicality of them. What was it like doing them? 
I’ve always enjoyed those kinds of action scenes and fight scenes. They are a lot of fun to figure out and we’re so fortunate to have Tim Connolly, our stunt coordinator. He’s a master at it. And it’s the same kind of thing about that effortless quality that you see in the fight scenes that seem real. It’s the same with the acting: to make it seem like it’s happening for the first time and that you’re watching something real.

What would you say was your favorite scene to do?
Looking back, that big fight scene in the first season — I found out quite a few months after we did that scene that while I was fighting, I had a 9-by-12 [inch] tumor in my abdomen, this giant lymphoma cancer, and I didn’t feel it. It didn’t hurt. But that was kind of a remarkable thing, and we took two years off and then got back to the whole show.

The Old Man Jeff Bridges John Lithgow
Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow in “The Old Man” (Byron Cohen/FX)

How did the health issues affect how you approached Dan Chase, a character who’s grappling with his legacy and coming back into the game? I’d imagine having a period of recovery and then coming back to work might be similar.
Yeah, it was funny coming back, I think, for both Dan Chase and for me. You fall right back into it. You know, it’s muscle memory. It was like we had a long weekend and now we’re back and the long weekend was two years long, but the same cast, same crew. I found myself talking to those guys, saying, “I just had the strangest dream that I was sick in the hospital.” It feels a lot like a dream.

You’ve had such an incredible career playing against type, but fans seem to feel, correctly or not, that you’re really the Dude. How do you feel about that?
Well, it’s some of me in all the characters I play. That’s kind of where you start — you think about what you have in common with the character and accentuate some of those aspects and kick aside other aspects that don’t really fit the character. But the Dude is very… God, I’m so glad I got to be a part of that movie! The [Coen] brothers, they know how to do it, man. They’re masters, you know?

You’ve said that you’d be thrilled to do a “Big Lebowski” sequel if the Coen brothers wanted to. What do you think the Dude would be up to today?
Well, Maude’s pregnant! So it’s all set up for a little Lebowski.

Read more from the Drama Series issue here.