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It’s a feat to get a show made at any time, but FX’s The Old Man faced unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced a shutdown in March 2020 after only a handful of episodes had been shot. Months later, star Jeff Bridges, set to make his debut as a TV series regular, was diagnosed with lymphoma.
After receiving chemotherapy, the actor contracted COVID-19 and spent nearly six weeks in the hospital. “I surrendered to the idea that I might die — that it might be the end of the race,” Bridges said at the show’s premiere at the Academy Museum. “That’s what’s going to happen to all of us at some point, and maybe this was my time to go through that.”
It wasn’t, but Bridges faced an arduous recovery. “The first goal was seeing how long I could just stand up. My record, for a long time, was 45 seconds,” said Bridges, who tested himself in the hospital hallways using a walker and an oxygen tank, then visualized making it to his daughter Hayley’s wedding. “I wanted to walk her down the aisle and do that wedding dance thing with my girl,” he explained.
It became a reality last September, and Bridges was eventually able to return to set and finish The Old Man. “It was like a bizarre dream,” he said of reuniting with his collaborators.
They called it a dream come true to see him healthy again. “It was phenomenal,” executive producer Warren Littlefield said of welcoming a healthy Bridges back to set with the entire team. “One of the things he said as he contemplated it all was, ‘I have a job I haven’t finished. I’ve never not completed a job.’ It was a motivation among all the more important things in life. There was something in him that, at some point, said, “No, I have to go back to work. I need to complete this. And then he did.”
In the FX series, based on Thomas Perry’s novel, Bridges plays a former intelligence operative forced out of hiding when a government agent (John Lithgow) pursues him and their past is revealed. The project marks the first onscreen pairing of the two respected stars, and Lithgow tells THR that he relished their time together.
“We were in touch constantly all just by email the whole time,” Lithgow says of the time during Bridges’ illness and the COVID break. “We didn’t really even know each other yet. When we finally worked together, we became lifelong friends — not that we really have a long life from here on — but through the experience, I was able to find a really rare and wonderful acting partner and friend.”
They may get to spend more time together, too. Executive producer Jonathan Steinberg said he’s hopeful The Old Man gets another shot beyond its first season. “This was never intended to be a one-season show or a limited series,” he explained. “Hopefully, we did a good enough job that we’ve earned a season two because there’s definitely more stories to tell. I’m excited about them, and I know Jeff is excited about them. Fingers crossed.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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