Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: As the son of Lloyd Bridges and brother to Jeff Bridges, there’s little question that Beau Bridges has acting in his blood, and his résumé, which features 70-plus films and 100-plus TV appearances, handily backs that up. Although he got his start as a child actor, Bridges took a break to actually have a childhood for a while. But after deciding to step back in front of the camera for an episode of his dad’s series, Sea Hunt, when he was in his late teens, he never looked back, quickly racking up a number of guest roles on various series before making the jump to big-screen stardom in the early ’70s. Bridges has successfully bounced between film and TV throughout his career, earning acclaim for his work in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Kissinger And Nixon, and The Descendants, and he can currently be seen starring as Will Arnett’s dad in the CBS sitcom The Millers.
Will And Grace (2001)—“Daniel McFarland”
My Name Is Earl (2005-2008)—“Carl Hickey”
The Millers (2013-present)—“Tom Miller”
Beau Bridges: Tom Miller, that’s me! I’m a dad. I’m Will Arnett’s father. Margo Martindale is my wife, and I find her exciting and somewhat irritating. [Laughs.] Nelson [Franklin] is my son-in-law, and Jayma Mays is my daughter. I kind of came onto the series because I’d played Earl’s dad on My Name Is Earl, so I knew [series creator] Greg Garcia. He’s also a neighbor of mine.
The A.V. Club: Is this your first experience with multi-camera comedy?
BB: No, I did a Will & Grace episode, which James Burrows also directed, so I’ve experienced his genius before. But that’s it. I’m really having a good time doing it, though. It’s fun. Doing it in front of an audience… It’s like an event.
AVC: So you’re settling into the routine, then?
BB: Oh, yeah. You know, just having a steady gig is part of the fun, you know? [Laughs.] But you also get to develop a character over time. I think it all depends on what the gig is, of course, but I’m really enjoying The Millers. Working with Greg again is great, and Jimmy Burrows, who’s just a legend in multi-camera. And then there’s the cast. I didn’t mention J.B. Smoove a minute ago, but he’s great, too. So with him, Margo, Will, and everybody else, I’m having a ball.
Hammersmith Is Out (1972)—“Billy Breedlove”
AVC: After making that statement on stage [at the Television Critics Association press tour] that you wouldn’t be doing any fart jokes on The Millers, you realize, of course, that now everyone’s just going to be waiting for you to finally deliver your first fart joke.
BB: [Sighs.] I know.
AVC: Are you planning to hold fast to your vow to not do one?
BB: It depends. I mean, I was just telling Margo and Will [Arnett] that one of the landmark moments of my performances as an actor is that I farted on Elizabeth Taylor one time, in a movie directed by Peter Ustinov. Not many people saw the movie—it was called Hammersmith Is Out—but I trained. I trained for days on cauliflower. And I pulled off three takes without having to go back for seconds of cauliflower. Just one after another. Bam, bam, bam. So if I’m called upon, if they paid me enough to do one, I may let one rip. You just never know.
The Goodwin Games (2013)—“Benjamin Goodwin”
AVC: Not that you didn’t land on your feet with The Millers, but it was a shame that The Goodwin Games didn’t end up lasting longer than it did.
BB: Yeah. But, again, you just go in there and do the best you can. I really liked all the folks involved. There were a lot of talented people. It was kind of a high-concept show. Maybe that’s why it didn’t catch on. I don’t know. But I liked doing it.
The Red Pony (1949)—“Beau”
BB: You know, what’s weird is that we’re shooting The Millers at what used to be the old Republic Studios, which is the studio that produced The Red Pony. It’s now CBS Radford Studios, I think they call it. But one of the guys in the crew said, “You know, they’ve got a bunch of Western stars in cement out by where you come out of the parking lot,” these little tiles with guys’ names on ’em who were Western stars, “and you’ve got a star there!” And I said, “What?” [Laughs.] And I couldn’t figure out what the hell it was. I mean, I worked on that lot years ago, but never in a Western, so I couldn’t figure out what it was. So he walked me over there… and it was The Red Pony! Which I thought was hysterical, because I only had two lines in it, if that many. But there it was.
That was a classic movie, though. I saw it not too long ago, and it’s a pretty good movie. It holds up. It’s a nice coming-of-age story. I just played one of the lead guy’s little friends. I was, like, 6 years old, and I really did it because Lewis Milestone directed it, and he was a friend of our family’s. We called him Millie. Millie Milestone. And he kind of put me in it as a fun thing to do because he knew our family. We were neighbors. So, yeah, I did that thing. With Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy.
No Minor Vices (1948)—“Bertram”
Force Of Evil (1948)—“Frankie Tucker” (uncredited)
AVC: In trying to find your earliest role, it seems to have been either Force Of Evil or No Minor Vices.
BB: Yes! Good research. Yeah, that was… No Minor Vices was with Dana Andrews, right? I think he carried me in a scene or something. I think that was about it. I appeared in four or five films as a kid. One of them was called Zamba, where I’m rescued by a giant ape who takes me to his cave and keeps me safe from all the other animals. [Laughs.] But that was my first substantial role. We made it at a place called Corriganville. It was a ranch out in Thousand Oaks, that neck of the woods. Maybe it was Simi Valley. An old Western star named Crash Corrigan owned it, and he used to film a lot of movies out there on the ranch.
Yeah, Zamba was a huge gorilla, and… my family has to parachute out of a burning airplane over Africa, but I get hung up in the trees, and this big gorilla named Zamba comes and saves me from all these lions that are jumping at me and trying to get me, and he takes me to a cave and kind of adopts me. I got to play with all of these little lion cubs. It was quite a lot of fun. My mother told the story that, when I went in to audition for the role, the director asked me how I felt about all this action stuff that was happening in the movie, and I told him, “Well, I think I can handle all of it except for that part where I have to jump out of a burning airplane.” [Laughs.] And the gorilla was portrayed by Crash Corrigan! He was in the suit and did it in the dead of summer in terrible heat, and I remember hearing his voice coming out of it, groaning about how he was frying in there.
AVC: Presumably your father didn’t have a problem with you being an actor, given how young you were when you started out, but at what point did you decide that you were going to be doing it as an actual career?
BB: Well, after Zamba, I did maybe one or two small walkthroughs in movies for friends of my dad, but then I got really interested in sports and other things, as kids will do, so I got out of it for a long time. I didn’t really get back into it until I was probably about 18 or 19, when I did a couple of Sea Hunt episodes. At that time, there were so many series on the air, and it was a great time and place for young actors to do their thing and learn their craft, so I did a lot of guest spots on shows like Mr. Novak, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Wagon Train, and Gunsmoke. It was a wonderful proving ground for young actors, and usually the guest-star roles were the most interesting. So I did a lot of those, and that kind of got me into it again.
Sea Hunt (1960, 1961)—“Warren Tucker”
AVC: Doing Sea Hunt must’ve been cool, getting to work with your dad.
BB: Yeah! I did two episodes of the show, but… was Warren Tucker the guy who went down into the storm drain?
AVC: According to IMDB, it was the same character on both episodes.
BB: Well, that storm-drain episode was certainly great. That one was important for me, because it was my first really substantial role as a young adult. My dad was a hard-driving teacher. He wanted the best from us that we could do. Last night I went to see my brother at the Anaheim Grove. You know, he thinks he’s a rock ’n’ roll star now. [Laughs.] He travels around with his band, the Abiders. My niece—his daughter, Jessie—opened for him, and it was great watching them perform together. But this guy walked up to me during the intermission wearing a Sea Hunt T-shirt. I’d never seen one! People still love that show. I saw that, and I said, “Whoa! Where’d you get that, man?” He said, “I got it online!” So I’m gonna try and get one.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)—“Frank Baker”
BB: Yeah, the Baker brothers. Jeff and I call ’em “The Booger Boys.” [Laughs.] What a dream come true, to have time with my brother. We both have families, so time is hard to come by. We love being in each other’s company, but we have so much happening that we really have to work to find that time. But here we were working together. Usually on a project, I’ll just split right away and go home, but we’d just hang in the trailer and have fun. I love that movie. And Steve Kloves, what a remarkable effort for such a young man. I loved it. It was so much fun.
[Kloves wrote the film at age 25 and directed it at age 28. —Ed.]
AVC: Did your dad enjoy that, getting to see you two enjoy that sort of success together?
BB: Oh, I’m so glad he was around when we did that, and that he could enjoy it. He loved it.
Ensign O’Toole (1962-1963)—“Seaman Howard Spicer”
AVC: As you said, you made appearances on several series, but your first time as a series regular was on Ensign O’Toole, correct?
BB: Yes! And I was in there with some legendary comedians, like Jack Albertson, Harvey Lembeck, and Jay C. Flippen. There were about nine guys in the cast, and they would shoot a lot of scenes with all of us together in one shot, to move it along. If I so much as moved, the comedians would reach back and hit me to make me stop.
AVC: How was it to be part of an ensemble like that?
BB: Oh, it was great. Dean Jones was the actor who was our quarterback. It’s so important in a show like that, where you have several characters, that you’ve got somebody who can really anchor it, who’s a humble person, who’s not falling in love with his own smell. From what I gather, Will Arnett’s that guy, too, so I’m glad he’s our quarterback on The Millers. He comes in, he loves to work, and he’s all business. He has fun, but he’s respectful of everybody else, and he’s not overwhelmed with his own importance. That’s a big deal.
Village Of The Giants (1965)—“Fred”
BB: Village Of The Giants plays all the time even now. In fact, it’s appeared on that show… what’s that show where the little robots are at the bottom of the scene, insulting the film and stuff? [Laughs.]
AVC: Mystery Science Theater 3000.
BB: Yeah! But when I did it, I was about 18 or 19, and I took it all quite seriously. I thought it was my chance to really be a spokesperson for my generation, you know? I had that long speech when I’m in the theater, and I’ve eaten this goo… that Ronny Howard provides, by the way! He’s the little kid that provides the magic goo that makes the people become giants. But in the movie, I address the police chief of the town about the young people, the teenagers, that he says are losing control, and I speak out about freedom and everything. I took it so seriously, and I think I even rewrote my lines. Now, though, it’s, uh, a little embarrassing. [Laughs.]
The Landlord (1970)—“Elgar Enders”
BB: That was Hal Ashby’s first film. Actually, my brother Jeff and I bookended his career: I did his first one, and Jeff did 8 Million Ways To Die, his last one. I think he’s probably one of the greatest American directors who ever lived. I don’t know if a lot of people appreciate him the way they should, but if you think about his movies—Coming Home, Harold And Maude, Shampoo, Being There—he made some great ones. To be around him and be a buddy of his and work with him, that was big time in my life. That was one of those jobs where the movie was fun, I thought it was entertaining and great, but the experience of making it… I made a lot of lifelong friends, including Lou Gossett. Great people.
Elvis And The Colonel: The Untold Story (1993)—“Col. Tom Parker”
BB: Yeah, that was really fun. I love playing real characters, people who’ve really lived a life, because you’ve got somewhere to start. You’ve got research you can do, and history’s always been one of my favorite things to do, anyway. So I got heavy into studying up on Elvis and Col. Tom Parker, and… I thought it was kind of a decent movie. It didn’t cover the whole thing, but it covered part of their lives. He was a colorful character, the Colonel.
Heart Like A Wheel (1983)—“Connie Kalitta”
Without Warning: The James Brady Story (1991)—“James Brady”
Kissinger And Nixon (1995)—“Richard Nixon”
BB: You always feel a certain responsibility when you’re playing someone’s life. I played Richard Nixon in Kissinger And Nixon, and that was an interesting person to inhabit because I didn’t really go along with all of his political views. So I had to kind of immerse myself in it from a different perspective, and I grew to realize what a difficult job it is to be president. I mean, I knew that anyway, but especially when I got into the part, I really felt that.
Then I did Without Warning: The James Brady Story, which was about Press Secretary Jim Brady, and I felt that was a brilliant screenplay. The guy who wrote that [Robert Bolt] is a famous playwright, but he also had experienced a brain aneurysm. That one involved a lot of research, and I actually met Jim and his family, and they’re now dear friends of mine. That was an amazing experience, portraying a guy who comes back from a brain injury. Let’s see, what other true people I’ve played? Oh, in Heart Like A Wheel, I played Connie Kalitta, who is another colorful character, in a story about one of the first ladies who was on the racecar-driving circuit, Shirley Muldowney.
P.T. Barnum (1999)—“P.T. Barnum”
AVC: Another real-life colorful character you played was P.T. Barnum.
BB: [Laughs.] Yeah, there’s a guy who existed! And he was responsible in many ways for our whole entertainment industry. He came up with so many ideas and approaches for how to entertain folks. Yeah, that was great. And I especially enjoyed that miniseries because my son Jordan, who was probably in his early twenties at the time, he took the role of Barnum in his early years for the first part, and then I picked him up for the second part. I really enjoyed that. I thought that turned out quite well.
Maximum Bob (1998)—“Judge Bob Gibbs”
BB: That was an Elmore Leonard character. We just lost him, but he was an amazing writer. I think that was based a lot on a character that he knew, a judge in the South, who I actually met. I can’t remember the guy’s name now. But a lot of Elmore’s ideas came from that character, so I followed him around a lot. I loved that series. I was so surprised when that didn’t go. I mean, we got some of the best reviews I’ve ever gotten from a show before, and yet they didn’t pick it up for more than a season. I think maybe it was too out there. Too crazy.
AVC: Before doing Pushing Daisies, Barry Sonnenfeld said that the fact that Maximum Bob didn’t last longer than it did was one of his greatest disappointments.
BB: Oh, yeah, Barry was great. But Barry just came in and did the pilot, and then he was off to something else.
The Wizard (1989)—“Sam Woods”
BB: The Wizard is interesting, because… well, for one thing, I couldn’t tell you what went on in that movie, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. [Laughs.] I know it was about or had something to do with video games, which were happening at that time. But even to this day, I still have people coming up to me all the time and saying, “Oh, I remember you in The Wizard! I was a kid then, but I still remember it!” So I get a lot of feedback on it, but I don’t remember much about it. I remember Fred Savage was in it; he’s a wonderful actor. And Christian Slater, too. But that’s about it!
Child’s Play (1972)—“Paul Reis”
BB: What was really exciting to me at that time was that Marlon Brando was cast in it to begin with, and I actually rehearsed with him for two weeks. Sidney Lumet was the director, who I’d worked with before, and our producer was David Merrick, who was… This was the first film he ever produced, I think. He was a Broadway show producer, and he was quite a character. And two weeks into the filming, Merrick fired Marlon. I couldn’t believe it. But, you know, everyone thought Marlon was washed up. Meanwhile, he had The Godfather in the can. [Laughs.] So they fired him and they hired Robert Preston, who’s a wonderful actor in his own right. I don’t know how the movie would’ve been with Marlon, but it’s a decent movie. I enjoyed it. But mostly for the fact that I got to rehearse for two weeks with Marlon Brando.
The Good German (2006)—“Colonel Muller”
The Descendants (2011)—“Cousin Hugh”
BB: The Descendants was great for so many reasons. It was a wonderfully written movie, and Alexander Payne… He’s a real top guy. It was wonderful to work with him. And George Clooney, that was my second film with him. I did The Good German with him as well. He’s one of the best. I have a home in Kaua’i, where the movie was filmed, so it was like being in my backyard. And, actually, the scene I did in The Descendants in that bar, Tahiti Nui, it’s my buddy Christian Marsden’s bar. And Christian is sitting right next to me in the scene. [Laughs.] So it was fun.
Stargate: SG-1 (2005-2007)—“Maj. Gen. Hank Landry”
BB: That was a good gig. I did it for two or three years. The show had already been running, what, eight or nine years before I joined them? So it was like jumping on a moving train. [Laughs.] They really had it all figured out by the time I got there. But I loved the show, I loved all the people, they were really fun to be around. I hadn’t really done a lot of sci-fi before, so that part of it was nice. And when I got the call to do General Landry, my character wasn’t even written. The guys, the producers, just told me they wanted me to play the new general on the show. So I asked them if I could have a hand in creating my backstory, and they said, “Sure!”
So I researched some of the great American generals in our history, the ones that really leaped out at me—Eisenhower, MacArthur, George Washington—and I started writing down some of their accomplishment, some of the quotes of things they’d said. And in the beginning, I was doing it mostly for myself, but as I started to create the backstory of my character for the producers, I gave them a copy of my research, with all these generals and stuff, which they really liked. So what became part of General Landry’s character was that he was a man who was interested in military history. [Laughs.] So a lot of times I’d quote these old generals and stuff. It was a lot of fun.
Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)—“Duane Hansen”
BB: That was great because I was in there with John Schlesinger, who made so many fantastic movies. I mean, Honky Tonk Freeway isn’t necessarily considered one of ’em. [Laughs.] It was kind of crazy, with a ton of people in the cast, all being stranded on a freeway. I couldn’t tell you much about that movie, either. Most of what I remember is baking in 100-plus-degree heat!
Greased Lightning (1977)—“Hutch”
BB: Richard Pryor was a really unique man. A great individual, very talented. I had a lot of fun on that movie. That was sweet, playing his best friend. That was actually based on a [real person]. His character, anyway. Mine was sort of a compilation of several people. But that was an interesting film. I liked that. And we got to drive around in those old ’40s car on a dirt track, which was a lot of fun.
Swashbuckler (1976)—“Major Folly”
BB: Oh, yeah! You know, the original title was Swashcock. [Laughs.] I thought the movie turned out great. It didn’t really find an audience, but I enjoyed doing it. James Earl [Jones] was in it, and Geneviève Bujold. I liked my character. He was kind of crazy, and I could play him to the hilt.
AVC: Well, what else can you do with a character named Major Folly?
BB: [Laughs.] Exactly! So, yeah, I enjoyed it. Plus, it was a pirate movie, and I’ve always liked pirate movies.
Norma Rae (1979)—“Sonny”
Brothers And Sisters (2011)—“Nick Brody”
BB: Norma Rae, written by the Ravetches [Irving and Harriet], a [husband-wife] team. Probably one of the best screenplays to ever come my way. Also, [Martin] Ritt’s a great, great director. He’s made so many wonderful films. And then, of course, getting to work with Sally [Field], who won the Academy Award for her performance. I thought that story was really about something. I remember during our first day of rehearsal, Marty Ritt told us, “We’re establishing a new piece of history right here with what we’re doing,” because there weren’t many places left that were non-union. And a bonus came out of that film I don’t know how many years later, 30 or whatever, when, after playing Sally’s husband in Norma Rae, I got to play her boyfriend on Brothers And Sisters. That was wonderful.
United States (1980)—“Richard Chapin”
BB: You know, I’m doing The Millers with Greg Garcia, who I think is, for these times, one of the great showrunners and writers. United States was the same thing, with Larry Gelbart. I was in there with a guy who was at the top of his game at the time, and I remember he started out with 13 scripts. Usually you don’t get that many, but I got ’em all at the same time, and each one was a jewel. I just loved Larry. I really miss him. He turned out a great show. That was so much fun to do.
AVC: Why do you think it didn’t last? Do you think it was too real for TV comedy at the time?
BB: Yeah, it was unique. It didn’t have a laugh track, and at that time all comedies had a laugh track. I don’t know. It was just material that was too ahead of its time. The critics really loved it, but I don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard to know why networks will stick with something. Sometimes the ratings won’t happen, but there’s excitement at the network, so they’ll stay with the show. With that one, I think we did eight episodes, and then that was it. We were out.