BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It’s a pretty safe bet that any show called “The Old Man” that opens with a scene about frequent urination is going to have a few things to say about mortality — as indeed it does. (Yes, it’s a thriller; don’t worry, it gets more exciting.)
Jeff Bridges, 72, who plays the title character, Dan Chase — a rogue former CIA spy with two very loyal dogs and a gift for close-range killing — knew the gig might raise some tough existential questions. He also knew that its many bone-cracking fight scenes would be harder to perform at his age than, say, the one he did in the 1972 coming-of-age western “Bad Company.”
He didn’t know that he would be playing many of those fight scenes with a massive lump of cancer in his gut.
“What makes me laugh, I’m doing this scene, all that fighting stuff, and I’ve got a 9-by-12 inch tumor in my body, taking those punches,” he said last week in a three-way interview with his colead, John Lithgow. “But it didn’t hurt; it had no pain, so I didn’t feel them.”
“Laugh” seemed like a funny word in this context, even for a famously warmhearted man in a Hawaiian shirt and Hoka sandals, even for the dude who had played the Dude. But then his views on life have become increasingly Zen over the years — or as he put it, “Buddhistly slanted.” As he and Lithgow, 76, talked about “The Old Man,” the conversation was rarely less than joyful, even as it turned to heavier matters.
Created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine and based on the novel by Thomas Perry, “The Old Man,” a brooding cat-and-mouse drama, debuts Thursday on FX. (Episodes will stream on Hulu starting Friday.) It is Bridges’s first regular TV role since he was a child appearing in shows like “Sea Hunt,” an adventure series that starred his father, Lloyd. It is also his and Lithgow’s first collaboration, despite their wide-ranging, award-winning careers spanning decades. (Bridges has the Oscar, Lithgow the Emmys and Tonys.)
“The Old Man” was a heck of a way to bond. Eyes glistening, Lithgow nodded along as Bridges described being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma months after production was shut down by the pandemic — and then being infected by Covid-19 during chemotherapy.
The cancer went into remission, but the Covid nearly killed him — five weeks in an intensive care unit, he said, “made the cancer look like nothing.”
When Bridges and Lithgow finally got to dig into the work together, they were ecstatic. The shutdown had arrived after they had shot four of the seven episodes, and Lithgow — who plays Chase’s pursuer and former colleague, the FBI man Harold Harper — doesn’t share a scene with Bridges until late in the season.
By the time they shot it, two years had passed since production started. The shutdown had ended, but it took Bridges many more months to get back into literal fighting form.
“In a sense, our working relationship unfolded the same way the series does,” Lithgow said. “It was such a payoff, and it was so worth waiting for.”
Alas, the complications didn’t end there. Days before we met on a sunny day here at the Four Seasons Hotel, a person close to Lithgow tested positive for Covid. And although he had tested negative several times since, protocol dictated that he and Bridges not share a room.
They cheerfully made do, as for an hour I and Lithgow, who has the gentle qualities of the perfect dinner host — warm, curious, deferential but not shy — sat together for a video chat with Bridges, who had moved to a different suite after his half of their photo shoot finished. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This is your first time working together. Did you have a relationship before this?
JOHN LITHGOW I’m not sure Jeff even remembers, but we met very briefly at one of the awards season luncheons on the red carpet. Do you remember that? But I felt like I knew him; I’d seen him since he was 19 years old, in the movies.
JEFF BRIDGES And what a gas it was to work with this fellow, man. We had such a good time, huh John?
Jeff, what was it about this story that finally drew you to modern TV?
BRIDGES I dragged my feet doing TV because my father had done six or seven TV series, and I saw the hard work that he had to put in. So I was a little anxious about that. But I read the script. I said, “Oh, that’s good.” I read the book, and “Oh!” And then I said: “Who’s our team? Who’s the writer? I’ve got to meet with those guys.” And then the cast started to fall together, and I got excited and said, “Oh, I’m on board.”
John, you have done plenty of prestige-era TV, like “Dexter,” “The Crown” and others. Did you have any advice for Jeff?
LITHGOW Oh, good God, no. The notion of giving Jeff Bridges advice is so absurd. I mean, I was full of stories. Jeff and I, we had a wonderful rehearsal day, and then off we went to shoot our two separate story lines, and we saw each other almost not at all. I was working with Alia Shawkat on my story line, and he was working with Amy Brenneman on hers.
Both of us were having a fabulous time, but both of us were restless, wanting to get together. Chase and Harper have such a fascinating and complex story. We were two tigers waiting for that red meat.
Jeff, what was it like for you coming back to the production after such a difficult couple of years?
BRIDGES It all seems like a bizarre dream because I’d come back to work, and I thought I was going to die for quite a while. I really was in the surrender mode thinking, “Shift gears here, buddy, because this is the end.” And now, blink my eyes, and I’m back at work with all the same actors and crew, and it felt like we had a long weekend. That dream quality, I still have that now in my life. It’s not necessarily a nightmare, either. There were some wonderful things that I think you only discover in times like that.
Those fight scenes are brutal. Did you have to get yourself back into shape first, or did you adapt your approach?
BRIDGES No, we had some fights and stuff that we had to do, and it was important for the story. I had a trainer, Zach Wermers, who was my physical therapist from my illness, and we met three times a week. We had these little goals. The first one said, “Well, let’s see how long you can stand.” And I stand for 45 seconds, and then that’s it.
My big goal was walking my daughter down the aisle without oxygen. After I did that, and I danced with her, I said, “Well, maybe I’ll be able to go back to work?” I really didn’t think I was going to be able to do it.
Do you think that the show has anything specific to say about American foreign policy right now?
LITHGOW My God, yes. The inciting event for this whole series is something that happened 30 years ago, during the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, when America was involved but covertly. When we started doing this, nobody dreamed that there would be a Russian incursion into Ukraine. It was like, “History has caught up with us.” Not that this sheds any light at all on contemporary events, but it resonates.
And yet, what is even more compelling is the personal torment of these characters. It’s this combination of great big global anxieties and extremely personal conflicts, which is the way all of us are living our lives these days.
BRIDGES To me, it’s about consequences, which are personal, individual but also global. What you do matters, when all the chickens come home to roost.
You are both in your 70s; I’m younger, but being made to face huge questions about aging and mortality at work every day sounds like torture. You guys ran straight at it, though.
LITHGOW Well, we are both old, there’s no getting around it. And to me, these are the most interesting years of my acting career. I mean, we are well cast — we’re not pretending that we’re younger than we are. To me, we’re just very lucky actors that we are still viable and hireable, and that there are still projects as complex and challenging as this that really are about age. They’re about mortality.
BRIDGES There’s a thing, and I don’t know what to term it — old-age adolescence? A thing that we’re going through, that we’ve never gone through. It’s like a weird puberty of sorts, becoming older and having different perspectives on things.
Do you find that grappling with these existential themes as artists helps you process them as people?
LITHGOW We live with these subjects. At the most basic level, I can’t learn lines the way I did when I did “Third Rock From the Sun.” I used to be an incredible whiz at that. And now there are those moments when I’m in the middle of a scene, and I’m worried about what my next line is. That never happened to me before.
Everybody knows the feeling, when you get to our age, of just trying to remember somebody’s name. I tossed and turned in bed for two hours one morning, trying to remember the name Max von Sydow! These things happen, and of course it fills you with dread: “Oh my God, I’m losing my marbles.” But you have to acknowledge that it happens.
BRIDGES And it’s a fresh new feeling. It’s like when you’re an adolescent, you say, “I got to ask that girl out!” And this is our version of that. One way to deal with that, I think, is to hang with other old brothers and talk about it, and get a little insight and say, “Oh, I’m not alone.”
LITHGOW Yeah, we’re survivors. There’s a reason Shakespeare calls it “second childishness.”
BRIDGES Oh, there you go!
LITHGOW You just have to simply embrace this, and acknowledge it, and let it make you feel happy, and not unhappy.
If you have to grapple with these questions anyway, it must be nice to have a career where it’s your job to engage them on a meaningful level.
BRIDGES God, it’s really a blessing.
LITHGOW And think what it’s like to make such a friend. I’m 76, and to stumble on this wonderful friendship at our age, it’s just great.