Jeff Bridges is early. When I pull up to the beachfront hotel restaurant where we're supposed to meet for dinner, he's standing outside, strumming a guitar while staring out at the Pacific Ocean. The sun has just begun to dip below the horizon. The 90-foot-tall Ferris wheel at the end of the Santa Monica Pier, off to our right, casts a neon glow over the California night, changing patterns every minute or so. Bridges seems hypnotized by it. As I approach, he snaps out of his trance. ''Oh, hey man! Sorry, I was kinda spacing out looking at the wheel.'' He laughs and extends his hand. ''I thought I'd come down here, uh, get the guitar out and see what happens, you know?''
Inside the restaurant, Bridges whose latest film, Crazy Heart, is earning him some of the best reviews of his career heads straight toward a seat by the window facing the Ferris wheel. He's a few days shy of 60, and he has a bushy gray beard and deeply etched wrinkles around his eyes, but there's something about the view and the spinning lights that turns him into a saucer-eyed kid who's witnessing a birthday-party magician for the first time.
He orders a glass of chardonnay. ''Sometimes I get a room at the hotel here and just sit on the balcony and look at that Ferris wheel for hours and smoke a cigar,'' he says. ''It's heavy, because the pattern never repeats itself. It's totally cool.''
''Well,'' he says, leaning in to share a secret that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, ''I like to smoke a joint from time to time, too.''
Bridges has an almost superhuman ability to find things ''cool'' and ''heavy.'' If you didn't know that he was one of Hollywood's most undersung, versatile, and consistently great actors, you might mistake him for a sharper, slightly more together version of the Dude the brilliant and blissed-out cosmic flake he played in The Big Lebowski, the 1998 Coen brothers movie that became a cult hit and spawned an annual festival he's been known to attend. He seems to have a knack for finding wonder in everyday things like Ferris wheels, and sharing that awe with whoever's along for the ride.
Bridges began acting before his first birthday. When he was growing up in L.A., his father, Lloyd Bridges, was the star of the long-running hit TV show Sea Hunt. And whenever there was an episode that called for a child actor, his dad would bribe him or his older brother, Beau, to do the part. ''He'd say things like 'You'll get out of school! You'll get money and be able to buy cool toys!''' Bridges says. ''Unlike a lot of Hollywood actors, my dad really loved acting and wanted to turn his kids on to it. I mean, you never want to be a product of nepotism, but one of the hardest things about acting is getting your foot in the door. And for me, that was handled at an early age.''
Bridges was still a kid just 22 when he was nominated for his first Oscar, for 1971's The Last Picture Show. Back then, he wasn't even sure he wanted to be an actor. He wasn't sure he was any good at it. But as the film's director, Peter Bogdanovich, recalls, ''Even at that age, there was nothing you could ask him to do that he couldn't do. He was just so good right away.''
Since then, Bridges has appeared in more than 60 movies. He's never been a box office draw like Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise, but he's also never been anything less than totally believable, whether he's playing a guy trapped inside a video-game (1982's TRON and its upcoming sequel), a plane-crash survivor (1993's Fearless), or the broken-down country musician he portrays in Crazy Heart. You never catch him acting. Over the years, Bridges has been nominated for an Oscar four times. Following Picture Show, there was 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1984's Starman, and 2000's The Contender, in which he played a particularly Dude-like version of the President of the United States (see sidebar on page 42). Each time his name has been announced, he says he's been both pleasantly surprised and mystified. ''When I was nominated the first time, I think I was living with [actress] Candy Clark in Malibu we'd met and fallen in love on Fat City. I was asleep and the phone rang at, like, six in the morning. I thought it was a dream. I realize that the Academy Awards are a show, but it's not totally a sham. To be honored by your peers, that's a wonderful thing, man.''