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Jeff Bridges: Dude, codger, humanitarian

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen sure know how to make audiences appreciate a dude.

In the Coen brothers’ new Western,"True Grit" (in theaters Dec. 22), there are gruesome gun battles, tender tugs of emotion and side-splitting laughter – all drawing on the myriad talents of the film’s laid-back leading man, Jeff Bridges.

Bridges, who stars as a drunken U.S. marshal on a manhunt for the killer of a young girl’s father, also carried the 1998 Coen cult classic," The Big Lebowski." If that kooky comedy-noir forever cemented him as slacker icon "The Dude,” then 61-year-old Bridges’ turn as Grit’s crotchety Rooster Cogburn is sure to go down as his next great movie persona.

Not that the two have much in common with the real Bridges: Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski was a flunky with a sparkly bowling ball; while Cogburn’s an old coot on a quest for redemption and a straight-shooting pistol.

Jeffrey Leon Bridges, on the other hand, reigns as Oscar’s current Best Actor winner for his portrayal of hard-living country singer Bad Blake in 2009’s "Crazy Heart." And he may make box office history this year when the just-released "TRON: Legacy" (in which he reprises his 1982 roles as Kevin Flynn and Clu) goes head-to-head with Grit in theaters.

Both films were fun for Bridges, but playing opposite Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit" was more of a gas than a gander. While filming on horseback in the wilds of Texas, Bridges got a kick out of creating his character’s idiosyncrasies, including an endearingly warbled heartland accent that makes codger Cogburn sound as if his mouth’s full of sorghum.

“[Rooster’s] a drinker and a smoker, so I kind of let that affect my voice and the way I talk,” the actor said in a recent phone interview with the AJC.

Because the Coens’ version of the film so heavily references Charles Portis’ "True Grit" (which originally appeared as a 1968 serial in The Saturday Evening Post, and later as a book), there was no need to study the 1969 film starring John Wayne, Bridges said.

“A lot of [my portrayal] comes from Portis," Bridges said. "The language is all from the book, the lack of contractions and that sort of thing.”

In one particularly funny scene, a tongue-tied Rooster calls LaBoeuf (Damon) a “nincompoop” and Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) “a harpy in trousers.”

Working with 14 year-old Steinfeld brought out Bridges’ paternal instincts.

“I couldn’t help but fall into that dad/daughter relationship with her,” he said. “She’s very much enjoying the age that she is and not pushing herself to be older than she is, which in a way makes her more mature. She reminded me of my daughters when they were that age.”

Bridges grew up in a showbiz family (the son of actor Lloyd Bridges and younger brother to actor Beau Bridges), yet he’s bucked Hollywood stereotypes throughout his career.

At 22, he garnered an Academy Award nomination for his part in 1971’s "The Last Picture Show"; six years later, he had Clint Eastwood’s"Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" under his belt (as well as a second Oscar nomination). He played an unforgettable plane crash survivor in 1993’s "Fearless" (one of his favorite and most esoteric performances); embodied a fictitious U.S. president in 2000’s" The Contender"; and will voice the role of  Fillmore in Disney’s upcoming "Cars 2″.

Now with 65 movies to his credit, a 33-year marriage and three daughters, Bridges says his family keeps him grounded in these days of tabloid antics and overexposed celebrities.

“I like to think of my wife, Sue, as kind of holding the kite string on the kite, and she lets me sail way out there. It’s tough for both of us,” Bridges said. “The hard part is being away from her, especially this last year when I think we were apart almost 11 months. I was very lucky on this movie to have my daughter Jessie as my assistant, so we got a chance to spend a lot of time together.”

2010 has been an exhilarating ride for Bridges, who’ll host “Saturday Night Live” on Dec. 18 – his first time since co-hosting the TV show with brother Beau back in 1983. Recently, the actor’s bankable currency appears to have reached an all-time high (on Dec. 8, The Baltimore Sun declared, “Jeff Bridges fever”).

“It’s interesting how [this year] has affected my life,” Bridges said. “It’s enabled me to focus a lot of attention and raise some awareness about things I’m concerned with.”

Bridges is the national spokesperson for No Kid Hungry, a partnership between Share Our Strength and End Hunger Network that focuses on ending hunger in America.

“We currently live in a country with 17 million kids – that’s one in four – who live in households where they’re not sure they’re gonna get a nutritious meal or not,” Bridges said. “That’s the upside of the awards and being famous is that you can bring attention to things that need attention – and [hunger] certainly is one of them.”

So what’s next for Bridges?

Until Feb. 27, at least, when a new Best Actor statue is handed out at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, he’s still under the influence of his "Crazy Heart" success – and excited about making more music.

“I just finished up the rough tracks for an album I did with [producer] T-Bone Burnett,” Bridges said. “I’m looking forward to getting on the road.”