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Jeff Bridges' Latest Character

After performing in every other genre, the Everyman actor tries his hand at the action flick

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“Here’s a picture of Francis Coppola getting a massage. That’s Michelle Pfeiffer smoking a cigarette. There’s one of Robin Williams in a straitjacket…”

Jeff Bridges, amateur paparazzo, is sifting through a stack of photos in the sunny living room of his rented house in Bel Air. He’s been clicking pics on the sets of his movies for more than 15 years — big, glossy, black-and-white snapshots taken with a Widelux camera — and right now his coffee table is littered with more A-list celebs than Morton’s on a Monday night. At 44, after nearly 40 films, Bridges has acted with practically everyone in practically every type of movie, including sci-fi flicks (Starman), murder mysteries (Jagged Edge), dramas (Texasville), comedies (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), big-ape remakes (King Kong), and Westerns (he’s currently filming Wild Bill, a biopic based on the life of gunslinger James Butler Hickok).

”When you think about it,” he says, ”there was really only one type of movie I hadn’t done.”

Enter Blown Away, the actor’s first foray into action. The film, which opened July 4th weekend on nearly 2,000 screens, has him starring as James Dove, a Boston bomb-squad expert with a shadowy past and a pahk-the-cah Beantown accent. Tommy Lee Jones plays the bad guy, an IRA terrorist who builds diabolically ingenious bombs out of windup toys and contact-lens cases. There’s also Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game) as a fellow squad member, Suzy Amis (The Ballad of Little Jo) as Bridges’ wife, and — in one of their only pairings since Bridges’ childhood gig on the 1950s TV series Sea Hunt — Jeff’s dad, Lloyd Bridges.

Think of it as Speed with a 50 percent IQ boost. Or In the Name of the Father as Steven Seagal might have directed it. In any case, Blown Away‘s impressive $10 million opening weekend marks it as the most commercial movie Bridges has made in years. Packed with jumbo fireballs, exploding automobiles, and other crowd-pleasing mayhem, it could turn out to be the movie that finally ends his long, noble reign as America’s Most Underappreciated Actor.

”Oh, I don’t know,” he says, making a give-me-a-break face. ”From the outside, it may look like this guy can’t crack through with a big hit, but that’s not the way I feel. I don’t choose movies that way. I don’t have any career plans laid in concrete. I just pick films because they interest me, because they have characters I want to play. My only plan, really, is to do what I want to do.”

”Sometimes, just on his own, Jeff Bridges is enough to make a picture worth seeing. He may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived; physically, it’s as if he had spent his life in the occupation of each character. He’s the most American — the loosest — of all the young actors. If he has a profile, we’re not aware of it. Jeff Bridges just moves into a role and lives in it — so deep in it that the little things seem to come straight from the character’s soul.”

That’s from Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review of The Last American Hero, a totally forgettable 1973 movie about stock-car racers. And she’s far from the only critic to worship at the altar of Bridges’ crafty talent. His credits meander through a mix of the truly great (1971’s The Last Picture Show, for which 20-year-old Bridges received his first of three Oscar nominations), the truly disturbing (1992’s American Heart, a low-budget independent movie about Seattle street kids that Bridges produced himself), and the truly lousy (1980’s Heaven’s Gate). But through them all the critics have adored him.

While there have been notable successes — The Fabulous Baker Boys, Starman — Bridges mostly sticks to modest, offbeat movies that never quite pop with the general public. Last autumn’s grimly fascinating Fearless, for instance — in which he turned in a riveting performance as an air-crash survivor who becomes fixated on cheating death — was typical in winning kudos from critics but keeping mainstream moviegoers at bay.

”He’s not an obvious choice to open an action movie, that’s true,” nods Blown Away producer John Watson.” But we wanted an actor for this movie, someone who could give the story a strong center. We had a list with names like Michael Douglas, Tom Cruise, Richard Gere. But when we came to Jeff’s name everyone was like, ‘Yeah! Perfect!”’

Blown Away director Stephen Hopkins (Judgment Night, Predator 2) concurs: ”This isn’t a $120 million movie. It’s more like a $30 million movie. We had to be more inventive. We couldn’t blow up the whole world. We had to build suspense through characters. That’s why it was important for us to have Jeff, who can carry any scene.”

Bridges, for his part, says he was in the market for a thinking man’s thriller along the lines of last summer’s In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive. Over the years, the actor has made a fetish out of not repeating himself, of mixing up his on-screen personas, and action was pretty much the only virgin territory left. ”I think I’ve been so careful about my roles because I saw my dad get typecast on Sea Hunt,” he says. ”He was such a big hit in that show that people actually thought he was a skin diver who was taught to act.”

So Bridges began that Zenlike nonprocess by which he chooses all of his movies. ”The way my usual rhythm works is that I spend all my energy trying to resist whatever scripts I’m most drawn to — and then when I find a script I can’t escape, I do it,” he explains. ”That’s what happened with Blown Away (and what apparently didn’t happen with The Firm, The River Wild, and Nell — all of which Bridges turned down). I was reading all these action scripts, but this one seemed to transcend the genre. If you took out all the action scenes, the story still held up.”

There must have been times during filming that he wished some of those scenes had been taken out. While shooting, there were numerous reports of accidents disrupting the filming. On an L.A. soundstage, a tear-gas canister accidentally detonated, sending several crew members to the hospital with minor injuries. There were also stories that Blown Away‘s special-effects explosions were popping out windows throughout Boston, where much of the film was shot. ”The reports were out of control,” insists Hopkins. ”People in Kansas were saying we were blowing out their windows.”

”Those action scenes got pretty tough,” Bridges says. ”You get banged around and hurt a lot. And you have to do it over and over. It really makes me appreciate what those other guys” — action vets like Schwarzenegger and Stallone — ”have to do in their movies.”

Still, at least one observer sees Blown Away as a good career move. ”Jeff has turned down a lot of potential hits to do some really weird movies,” says Lloyd, 81. ”It’s made me and my wife (Dorothy, to whom he’s been married for 52 years) so mad we’ve called him on the phone and yelled at him. But I’ve got to hand it to him. This one has all the earmarks of a commercial success. This is one I agree with.”