John Lithgow had long wanted to work with Jeff Bridges when he jumped on board FX series “The Old Man,” which was in the midst of filming Season 2 when they met with Anne Thompson on Zoom, but has since been shut down due to the Writer’s Strike. “We had barely met,” said Lithgow. “The town is all divided between the people who worked with Jeff and the people who’ve worked with me. That we’re finally together is two degrees of Jeff and John.”
For his part, Bridges had long thought the 2017 novel by Thomas Perry would make a strong movie. But he resisted the lure at first. “I read the script and that was a page turner,” said Bridges. “And the novel was this same thing. And I said, ‘Well, I got to meet these guys.’ And I resist that, because I know when I start to meet with another creative cat, we start to dream together. And then I’m in the whirlpool of that.”
As soon as Bridges met with showrunner Jonathan Steinberg, he was able to say, “Yeah, we can pull this off. This could be really good.”
Lithgow happily jumped into playing the complex role of dedicated FBI man Harold Harper. “In the first three minutes of the series, you learn this huge backstory that he has this personal loss, he’s lost his son and daughter in a car accident, he and his wife have to take care of his five-year-old grandson, they’re stricken with grief. And he’s in a terrible place in his life. And he’s already an old man. And suddenly he gets a call that thrusts him back into a crisis from 30 years ago with this very complicated, troubled relationship with the guy that Jeff Bridges plays. This was all just fascinating to me.”
Both men are equally charming and likable but capable of dreadful acts of violence. Recent windower Dan Chase is CIA to the core and will do what he has to do when he is suddenly thrown into action again after decades of hiding away with his wife. That volatility makes “The Old Man” compelling and unpredictable.
Even before he got sick, Bridges had to deliver some strenuous stunts including a long-take fight scene at the start of the movie, directed by John Watts. He knew he was in good hands when he asked stunt coordinator Tim Connolly about the current state of the art. He showed him his movie “Atomic Blonde.”
“I’ve always loved doing fights in action,” Bridges said. “It’s just, fun. And yes, along with that comes the feelings: ‘Can I do it? Can I pull this off?’ I hadn’t done a fight scene for quite a while. I like what he did in ‘The Old Man.’”
The fight reminded Lithgow of another that a much younger Bridges had executed in “Bad Company” (1972). “It’s the way life really is,” said Lithgow, “if you ever completely lose it. A tooth and claw a fight with somebody. That’s what it looks like.”
The essence of the series is that these two men often do bad things. “They are essentially good people who have attempted to do things, for all the right reasons, but there have been circumstances,” said Lithgow. “And the whole world of espionage and covert operations has forced them to do some appalling things, including some appalling things to each other. And they had a good friendship that got poisoned by circumstance. That’s a great tension to set up, wouldn’t you say? Jeff?”
“Yes. And then they have a genuine, genuine love for each other,” said Bridges, “that transcends all these obstacles that they have with each other. Something holds them together. There are so few people in our lives, if we’re lucky, we have one or two that you could communicate and they know who you are, they know aspects of yourself that you’re ashamed of or hide. And those relationships are so important.”
Clearly Bridges is referring to both the characters they play and the friendship that grew when they finally did get to work together. “That’s true,” Lithgow said. “And the fact that you and I have hit it off so quickly, and we’ve gone so deep in the short time that we’ve gotten to know each other, it’s made it a lot easier to play these parts. But it’s also informed these parts. Without giving away anything to people who haven’t seen the first season, one of these guys attempted to have the other one assassinated. And to tell a story in which you understand why this had to happen. And one character basically forgives the other, or at least accepts that it had to happen. You just don’t see those stories very often.”
It began to seem like they were never going to work together. Bridges was already experiencing for the first time the unknowns that come with shooting a series. “Unlike a movie, it’s more like life,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. And in the filming that first season, when I got sick, I didn’t think I was going to go back. I thought that I’d be lucky just to live, let alone be well enough to go back to work. I didn’t think I was going to do that. So that was just a complete surprise. When I was sick, I said, ‘Oh, it’s over, that dream of working with John, that’s not going to happen. Man, I try to get used to that. And then life will say ‘no, that’s not the case.’ Then it was like a dream, going back after two years of like a long, bizarre weekend, and I’d see all the same faces and the cast and the crew.”
When Bridges rejoined the series, the two actors embarked on an intense dialogue sequence where they cross the country in a car together. “Thank goodness Jeff could play this long, important, and essential scene, sitting in a car for six days,” said Lithgow. “Because he was not 100 per cent. He was doing great. He was a good 80 per cent. But it was a relief to both of us that we could basically play a scene just like a one act play sitting in an automobile. We’d waited two years for this to happen. And it was such a joy to be able to. Acting the scene was about one tenth of the time that we spent together in that car on that set. The rest of the time was just deeply getting to know each other. And it was the beginning of this perfectly wonderful friendship. And I don’t think the series would have all the substance that it has without that friendship.”
Clearly, with these two wily old pros, you can always expect to be surprised.