Hunger is not political discourse to Jeff Bridges.
When the actor discusses food security in Montana or federal nutrition programs, he evaluates them as societal or communal problems as opposed to explicitly political ones.
“I don’t believe that something such as hunger can be a political thing,” said Bridges, who in 1983, founded the End Hunger Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to feeding children around the world.
Bridges and his band the Abiders perform at the Wilma Theatre on Tuesday, March 15, as a fundraiser for the re-election of Democratic Governor Steve Bullock.
“I see all of us working at it from a bipartisan issue and I have great connection with Republican and Democrat governors on the hunger issue, whether it’s Governor (Brian) Sandoval (R-Nevada) or Governor Bullock…Hunger is one of the certain issues I really respond to. And the hunger and the health of our kids is a pretty good compass of where we are as a society. Man, if our kids aren’t doing well then we are far off course.”
Bridges first met Bullock in March 2014 at a meeting organized by Bridges with several democratic governors to address childhood hunger. While severe hunger and malnutrition is rare in Montana, tens of thousands of low-income Montanans face food insecurity, including nearly 22 percent of children (nearly 48,000 kids).
Bridges said that he is aware of the risks of political endorsements but isn’t worried. Nonetheless, he said that he has no aspirations to ever compete on the political front; lending his name to highlight and correct food security in Montana, he said, is the least he could do for what he deems his “home state.” Indeed, Bridges is no well-meaning outsider: a 40-year resident and small-town denizen of Livingston, he is as Montana as unobstructed views, alpine lakes and meandering cold-water rivers.
His relationship with Montana began when he was selected to play opposite Clint Eastwood in the 1974 movie "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot"; shot in 47 days in the summer of 1973, almost entirely in and around Great Falls, the film follows a pair of drifters who fall into friendship and criminal enterprise. Bridges received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
“'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot' was an exciting movie,” said Bridges “I was a young guy and Eastwood was producing (along with Robert Daley) and he was giving Michael Cimino his first shot, his first directorial job. It was filmed partly in Helena, at the Gates of the Mountains, at the Snake River. I fell in love with Montana, I bought a Harley-Davidson, and there was no better place to buy a bike and ride around … It was all a wonderful experience. The light, the mountains, and the people – everything just struck a chord in me.”
The 1975 Montana-made film 'Rancho Deluxe,' written by Thomas McGuane, tells the quaint tale of two modern-day cattle rustlers (Bridges and Sam Waterston) disconnected between a romantic past and a motorized present and the distant memories and principles of the West.
“'Rancho Deluxe' has special significance for me because I met my wife during the filming,” said Bridges. “She was working her way through college and I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl waiting tables with broken nose and two black eyes (from a car accident). She said no. But she said that she might see me around town, though, being such a small town. We were married three years later. On one of our first dates we went along with a Realtor.”
Bridges also played in Michael Cimino’s finance-inflated "Heaven’s Gate" – often derided as Hollywood’s biggest box-office disaster – a mismanaged flop that culminated in the disbandment of United Artists. The 1980 movie, based on an 1890 range war in Johnson County, Wyoming, starred Kris Kristofferson and was filmed at five sites in Glacier National Park as well as several areas adjacent to the park, and a few scenes in Idaho and Colorado.
“Toward the end of the movie, there is a whorehouse in 'Heaven’s Gate' and Michael Cimino said, ‘Does anyone want this cabin?’ He said that the owner or whomever was going to burn it down. I numbered the logs and took them 400 miles south to Livingston. To this day, I’m living in the 'Heaven’s Gate' whorehouse.”
Bridges said that his roots as a professional musician has its origins in the unplanned jam and tutoring sessions that took place on the set of Heaven’s Gate.
“We shot for close to six months on that movie,” said Bridges. “During those six months, Kris Kristofferson invited a lot of his friends. On movie sets, many actors play music. Kristofferson brought Ronnie Hawkins, Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and our down time was spent making music. Some lifelong friendships started there and 'Heaven’s Gate' was really the birth of the music that came out later in 'Crazy Heart.'”
Since then, Bridges has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors, a six-time Academy Award nominee. His performance in "Crazy Heart" (2009) as Bad Blake, the luckless, alcoholic country music singer at the middle of the drama garnered him his first Oscar for best actor in a leading role.
In August 2011, Jeff released his self-titled debut album for Blue Note Records, produced by Burnett. He has also released a solo effort “Be Here Soon,” on his own label, Ramp Records, and a live album “Jeff Bridges and the Abiders Live.”
At 66, Bridges is a guy who loves engaging in art far too much to rest on one medium’s laurels. Indeed, he has been enamored of music (in addition to drawing and painting) since his mother forced him to take piano lessons at age 8, and his interest peaked when he first listened to his brother, Beau, experiment with a Danelectro guitar; in high school, he linked up with a batch of musically-inclined buddies for a Wednesday night gathering, which they continued, weekly, for fifteen years.
Bridges said that acting and music draw from and enhance similar creative forces.
“There is not too much difference,” said Bridges. “I remember years ago while preparing for a role in a hotel room, I had the idea for song, and I was really irritated that I had to get back to work. Sometimes I get an idea for a painting while playing the guitar. I’ve found that over the years all of my creativity is connected and it all gets shook up and manifests in different ways. ... These manifestations of creativity – I think that it all flows together.”
Though recognition encircles him, Bridges said that on the night of March 15 the fight to end childhood hunger in Montana – and America – will be what takes center stage.
“I believe that with hunger and hunger-related issues,” said Bridges, “we make these advances, but if we are not watching, these advances go away and hunger just raises its head again and again. If we are not watching, we will lose programs, lose safety nets, and lose those gains we’ve made. The gains will slip through the holes if hunger programs are not properly supported or funded.
“I will be there with (producer and singer-songwriter) Chris Pelonis and you never know what’s going to happen. There will be a lot of improvisation – a guitar, a harmonica, a piano – and we will be getting together and jamming.”
Leading roles. Intermittent touring. Fundraising. Charity work. There is always something sending Bridges off in a different direction, splintering time.
“Right now, I spend a couple of months in Montana (and the rest of the year in Santa Barbara, California),” said Bridges. “I wish it were closer to 50-50. That sounds pretty good to me.”
Brian D'Ambrosio lives and writes in Helena. He is the author of "Warrior in the Ring: The Life of Marvin Camel, Native American World Champion Boxer."