Reaching the young boy, who had been swept into the churning water from his perch on the rocky ledge of the cave he had been exploring, the man grabs him around the waist and pulls the boy from beneath the water swirling forcefully around them as high tide comes in. Setting him atop a rock jutting out from the rising tide, the man asks with a mixture of relief and concern, “How are you, Davey boy?”
The dramatic rescue scene, replete with orchestra music crescendoing in the background, involves real-life father and son, Lloyd and Jeff Bridges, and is from the elder Bridges’ 1958 hit television show, Sea Hunt, in an episode from the first season called The Lost Ones. The younger Bridges, then eight, made his acting debut at the age of two in a film with his mother, Dorothy, who was an actress and poet. (His older brother, Beau, also would appear in a few of the 155 episodes of Sea Hunt, which ran for four years, and can still be seen online in the original black and white cinematography.)
January 2023 will mark the 65th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Sea Hunt. Ahead of its time, the series dealt with serious issues that continue to be relevant today, giving the episodes short, succinct titles like Toxic Waste, Underwater Quake and Danger – Mines Ahead!
Family of Man
Sitting in his home office in California on a sunny September afternoon, with a large picture window behind him offering a view of his neighbors’ Spanish tiled roofs, Jeff Bridges leans back in his chair and runs his hands through his hair. The actor and environmental activist, who turns 73 in December, smiles and reminisces about his father.
“He really pulled that part off well. People thought he was this skin diver that did some acting lessons,” but, in fact, he was given a crash course in scuba diving in order to play the role of former Navy frogman, Mike Nelson. Not only did he become so adept at diving that he eventually did almost all of his own stunts, but Bridges says, “He fell in love with the ocean and all its beauty and its creatures, and he passed that on to his kids.”
Bridges also remembers his father bringing home a book called The Family of Man, based on Edward Steichen’s 1955 groundbreaking photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and which has continuously been in print since 1955. “The book was a beautiful photo essay about what it’s like to be alive all over the planet and how we’re actually one big family,” a philosophy that has stayed with Bridges throughout his life.
“We’re all in this together. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we are part of our environment – we can’t get away from it.” Smiling, Bridges says he’s imagining his father being in the ocean. “We’re part of a chain and each link affects the others, and so my father turned me on at a very early age to being concerned with our planet and each other.”
Trees of Life
Bridges would later work and become friends with scientist and physician John C. Lilly, whom he refers to as “an explorer of the mind,” in the 2014 BBC documentary, The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins, which chronicles Lilly’s experiments in an attempt to teach dolphins to speak English, in order for humans to be able to communicate with them.
“It seemed like an obvious idea that wasn’t really taken seriously,” Bridges recalls. “We’ve got a being on our planet that’s got a brain larger than ours and we’re not attempting communication; that seemed odd to me. I thought John was really on to something. Now, we hear about the intelligence of plants and trees and we can all learn from each other.”
“Sue,” Bridges says, deferring to filmmaker Susan Kucera, who is dialed into the Zoom call from her home in Hawaii, “what do you say? We’ve talked about this before. We’re both fans of the book, The Overstory,” he says, referencing author Richard Powers’ novel, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and focuses on trees – “living wood” – to illustrate the interconnectedness between humans and the world of nature.
“Everything requires energy,” Kucera chimes in. “Obviously, plants need energy; we need energy. We need energy to dance; we need energy to eat. Everything takes energy and engineers are looking for new ways of doing things.” Laughing, she is reminded of a story Bridges had been telling her, referencing a 1966 experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison involving a group of monkeys and some bananas, known rather unimaginatively as “Five Monkeys in a Cage.”
At first, Bridges says it’s a “long, drawn out story,” and suggests that I look it up on the Internet some time to learn more about it. Then he changes his mind and says he will attempt to tell it quickly. Needless to say, Bridges’ version is more colorful than the one found online.
Essentially, it’s an experiment in behavioral reinforcement and group think. One of the monkeys in the cage climbs up a ladder to retrieve a banana at the top of the cage and all of the animals are sprayed with a blast of cold water. Naturally, the other monkeys don’t appreciate being punished for something they didn’t do and proceed to beat up the monkey who tried to retrieve the banana. This continues with the original monkeys being replaced one by one with new monkeys who have never experienced the blast of cold water, but don’t even attempt to retrieve the banana.
“The punchline,” Bridges says, “is, ‘Why do none of the monkeys go for the banana?’ Well, because that’s the way it’s always been done around here!”
Ultimately, the story illustrates that continuing to do something unquestioningly, without challenging the status quo, results in complacency and the lack of desire to pursue new solutions. This leads Kucera to say, “Again, talking about interconnectedness, we – people, consumers – have a responsibility to try to find another way to get the ‘banana.’” She believes that even people who have played a role in creating the current problems the world faces will also have a role in helping find solutions.
It’s one thing to talk about climate change and global warming in the abstract. It is another thing entirely to experience the ramifications of those environmental challenges up close and personally. When asked about experiencing both the fragility and the ferocity of nature, having lost his home in Montecito, California, in a 2018 mudslide, when he and his wife, Susan, had to be rescued by helicopter, Bridges says, “I’m laughing because not only from the flood, but we lost a house in the Northridge earthquake, we lost a house in Malibu to fire, and then the most recent house loss was due to a debris flow after the Thomas fire.”
“Once you experience it, you’re changed. You have new information. New sh*t has come to light, as the Dude might say.”
As the laughter dies down, he takes a moment to reflect and then says, “When you get acquainted with what’s going down, with what the scientists and experts say, and you’ve had something like that happen to you personally, you want to do everything you can for your kids and your grandkids and the planet. It’s a natural [response].”
Bridges believes life presents us with gifts and that one of those gifts was meeting Susan Kucera, and being asked to narrate her 2018 documentary Living In the Future’s Past, which he also co-produced. He thought to himself, “This is a chance for me to make a difference to help realize a dream of how I see the most positive way the earth can go.”
Describing himself as “a pretty resistant cat,” Bridges says he was hesitant to do the project at first, but is glad he “jumped in with Sue” because of her talent – as a director, cinematographer, photographer and writer – but also because, “It would give me an opportunity to learn so much more about our environment than I had known before.”
Emergent behavior is one of the concepts that comes up in Living In the Future’s Past. It is defined by IGI Global as, “Behavior that arises out of the interactions between parts of a system and which cannot easily be predicted or extrapolated from the behavior of those individual parts.”
Bridges has a more relatable take. “It’s this idea that we’re all in this together, creating a super organism. The relationships between each of these smaller parts of the superorganism are what determines what it’s going to become. So, it’s this kind of dichotomy, this paradox. Do we have anything to do with what’s going on? There’s this huge thing happening and so often you feel, what can I do? I’m one little, tiny part.”
“Call Me Trim Tab”
In asking these existential questions, Bridges is echoing the thoughts of Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, whom he calls “one of my heroes.” Fuller, an American architect, philosopher and futurist, was one of the pioneering global thinkers and, while best known for his patented geodesic dome, he is also remembered for a metaphor that was a central part of his philosophy about how the individual can affect change.
Fuller, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, shared in a 1972 interview, “Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do,” and he used the maritime example of how the small trim tab at the edge of a rudder on a huge ship “builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So, I said that the little individual can be a trim tab . . . So, call me trim tab . . . To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way.”
This metaphor may resonate with Bridges, given his relationship to water and the ocean, and also the little-known fact that he, like his father and older brother, Beau, served as a member of the Coast Guard.
Bridges goes on to say, “I think all these little parts have things in common that run through us. The corny L word comes to mind: love. I love being alive, man, just being able to jump into the ocean. We love to see animals, we love plants – that goes for all of us. So, I think [love] guides us to skillful means to create the most positive outcome from the situation that we’re in that I can see. What do you think, Sues?”
The easy rapport between the two illustrates the collaborative nature of their work. In response, Kucera says, “The thing I loved about Living In the Future’s Past is that it didn’t point fingers because we’re all in this together. It allowed people to watch it at home with family members, who might be sort of resistant to the whole idea [of climate change], and that’s why I’m proud of what we did together, and I learned so much from Jeff.”
Climate – A Non-Partisan Imperative
Not only did Living In the Future’s Past facilitate conversation among families, who may have had differing views, it also helped bridge the divide between the two political parties – at least where the environment is concerned. Kucera says her 2021 documentary, Hot Money, which Bridges appeared in and co-executive produced, “Showcases the realities of our money system and its profound exposure to climate change and, obviously, affects us all – no matter the politics.”
Bridges watched Bob Inglis, a former congressman (R-SC), and climate skeptic, undergo a personal transformation. “He’s probably my favorite person in Living In the Future’s Past. His son said, ‘Gee, Dad, there’s an election coming up and I want to vote for you, but I can’t with your current leanings on the environment. You’ve got to study up on it.’ So, he took his son up on it and he completely turned around and said, ‘Gosh you’re right.’ He’s a conservative, a Republican, but that didn’t stop him from caring about the planet.”
Bridges was so impressed by the change in Inglis’ mindset that he makes it a point to mention his “wonderful website” called RepublicEn: Home of the EcoRight, “that talks about people with our [progressive] perspective and Republicans, what their approach is. We can work on this together.”
Bridges collaborates on projects that are meaningful to him, acting as a trim tab in his own sphere of influence, which, given his stature and platform as an Academy Award winning actor and longtime environmental activist, is vast. A musician who plays guitar in the band, The Abiders (a reference to his character’s mantra – “the Dude abides” – in The Big Lebowski), Bridges performed his own vocals for his Oscar winning role in the 2009 movie Crazy Heart.
When his “dear friend” Chris Palones offered to introduce him to Tom Bedell, owner of Oregon-based Breedlove guitars, it only made sense that he would combine his passions and join forces with Bedell, whose craftsmen make guitars from sustainably sourced wood.
“I love music and the world presented this opportunity for me to make a signature guitar,” Bridges says of his Oregon Concerto Bourbon CE guitar made from myrtle wood. In 2020, Breedlove debuted its Organic Collection, which includes two “All in This Together” models named for Bridges’ personal motto. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bridges said, “It can’t be overstated how important our forests are to the health of the planet…You can have a beautiful instrument and still be kind to our planet.”
To ensure that, the Breedlove site says, “Owner Tom Bedell traveled to each forest – in Suriname, the Republic of Congo and the Swiss Alps – to verify individual harvest, chain of custody, and sound ecological practices.”
A large portion of the proceeds from the three guitars in Bridges’ “All in This Together” signature line go toward supporting the Amazon conservation team, which is headed by Mark Plotkin, who makes an appearance in Living In the Future’s Past, and says, “You always have to leave room in your analysis of animals… in the broad sense – I include people in that – of thinking that we’re always going to do the right thing, that we’ve optimized all of our actions, our foraging strategies and everything else, and we can extrapolate from there because, if we had everything right, there wouldn’t be any problems, would there? There’d be no poverty; there’d be no climate change; there’d be no warfare.”
No Kid Hungry
If Bridges has his way, there will be no world hunger – specifically, no child hunger. Bridges, a father of three adult daughters and now a grandfather, has long been part of the global crusade against hunger. He, along with a number of celebrities, founded the End Hunger Network in 1983 and in April of that year held the three-hour End Hunger Televent, featuring major stars of the day – Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon and others. In a sense, it was the forerunner to the 1995 Live Aid concert, which featured performances by some of music’s biggest names – U2, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Queen and more – and promoted messaging developed by the End Hunger Network to help educate people about hunger and dispel myths around the issue.
Many years later, Bridges was approached by Billy Shore, head of Share Our Strength – “I love that [name], and I think that’s what all of us can do,” says Bridges – who asked if he wanted to be the national spokesperson for No Kid Hungry (a role he accepted in 2010).
Bridges had lobbied Congress about hunger and was frustrated by what resulted in little more than photo ops. In talking to Shore, he discovered that his approach was to work with state governments, city mayors and take it all the way down to the local level. “That’s what holds hunger in place,” Bridges says, “a lack of community and also the lack of respect for the environment. I got on board with No Kid Hungry and it’s proven just wonderful the differences that that approach has made.”
As the interview comes to a close, something Bridges said earlier is called to mind. “It feels wonderful to be a part of creating a positive situation or dream that we share, and we get with the team, and it’s just a wonderful feeling to get into cahoots with somebody like Susan Kucera. It’s like that emergent behavior is the relationship that you have and that causes a certain amount of energy or heat – friction – and then the fire starts to heat up. Life presents these opportunities to us all the time.”
Headline photo: Jeff Bridges with his Signature Oregon Concerto Bourbon CE guitar created in collaboration with Breedlove. Photo courtesy of Jeff Bridges. Photography by Audrey Hall. www.audreyhall.com