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How 'Sea Hunt' Star Lloyd Bridges Got Funny In 'Airplane!'

Icons | March 2, 2019

Lloyd Bridges in his 'Sea Hunt' days, and the role that reignited his career, Steve McCroskey in 'Airplane!.' Source: IMDB

A generation got to know Lloyd Bridges from Airplane!, the 1980 comedy film in which he played Steve McCroskey. But the generation before that already knew him from Sea Hunt and numerous dramatic films in which he was a leading man. Bridges (like his Airplane! co-star Leslie Nielsen) pulled off a remarkable transformation late in his career, becoming a mainstay of '80s screwball comedies just as he had been a reliable presence in military dramas and westerns in the '60s and '70s. 

Over the decades, the medium of TV and movies has changed, and the best actors have been able to change with it. When Lloyd Bridges co-starred in the ultra-serious 1943 WWII drama Sahara alongside Humphrey Bogart, he could hardly have envisioned a movie like Airplane! or Hot Shots!, in which every line is a gag. Through his career in films, TV movies and TV shows such as Sea Hunt (1958-61), The Lloyd Bridges Show (1962-63), The Loner (1965-66), and Joe Forrester (1975-76), Bridges was a mastering "serious" acting chops he would later subvert in popular parody movies.

In recent decades, brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges have achieved stardom, as has Beau’s son, Jordan Bridges. In fact, their success may have overshadowed the enormous acting career of the Bridges’ family patriarch, Lloyd Bridges, who passed away in 1998. During his show business career, which spanned from the late 1950s through the late 1990s, Lloyd Bridges, the father of Jeff and Beau, appeared in more than 150 movies and numerous television shows. As a dad and an actor, Lloyd Bridges was dedicated and talented. Let’s look at the life and career of the head of the Bridges acting dynasty. 

Bridges Was A Hollywood Leading Man

Lloyd Bridges in the 1950s. Source: (classicfilmtvcafe.com)

Lloyd Bridges' career as a professional actor goes back to at least 1937, when he made his Broadway debut in the cast of Othello. He became a contract performer for Columbia Pictures, playing small parts in anything the studio gave him. He described the early '40s as "tough sledding," remarking that he would be in two or three pictures a week, and even did a Three Stooges short. But there were great successes in supporting roles in memorable films -- war movies Sahara and A Walk In The Sun (1945), and westerns Little Big Horn (1951) and High Noon (1952). Bridges put his career on hold for a time during World War II to serve in the Coast Guard, an experience that would later lend authority to his Sea Hunt character.

In the early 1950s, Lloyd Bridges had lead roles in numerous films, though you're not likely to run across them as you channel-surf today. They included including Rocketship X-M (1950), Three Steps North (1951), The Tall Texan (1953), The Limping Man (1953), and The Deadly Game (1954)

Bridges Was Targeted by McCarthyism

Bridges in a scene from "Hot Shots! Part Duex." Source: (pinterest)

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, Lloyd Bridges was temporarily blacklisted after he admitted that he has once belonged to the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre, one of the organizations that the House Un-American Activities Committee found to have links to communism. Bridges cooperated fully with the committee and recanted his membership. He even agreed to be a cooperative witness. His name was cleared and he quickly returned to acting. 

Lloyd Bridges Learned To Scuba Dive For 'Sea Hunt'

Lloyd Bridges in "Sea Hunt." Source: (scubachoice.blogspot.com)

In the mid-'50s, Bridges transitioned from big-screen actor to television, becoming a familiar face in anthology or "playhouse" style shows that were then popular. His popularity eventually earned him the lead role on a new TV show premiering in 1958: Sea Hunt. On this show, Bridges played skipper Mike Nelson, a former Navy diver who made his living as a scuba diver for hire, a format that allowed for numerous plot lines and exciting adventures. When he was cast in the role, Bridges knew little about scuba diving but he learned on the set. By the end of the fourth season of Sea Hunt, he was doing most of his own stunts. 

Sea Hunt was a phenomenon, quickly becoming the most-watched TV show in its time slot. The intrigue and adventure on and below the water wasn't just entertaining, it was inspiring to young audiences, creating interest in and a bit of a craze around diving. Sea Hunt did for scuba diving what Top Gun would later do for Naval aviation. Bridges became a celebrity spokesman for Voit diving equipment, and the adventures of Mike Nelson crossed over into Sea Hunt comic books, with a photo portrait of Bridges on the cover of each issue. The series was still hugely popular when came to an end in 1961, after 155 episodes, when Bridges left. According to some accounts, he had become dissatisfied with the show's direction into basic cops-and-robbers plotlines, and wanted it to include more about environmental issues.

Lloyd Bridges As Captain Kirk?

Lloyd Bridges turned down a chance to be on TV's "Star Trek." Source: (airandspace.si.edu)

When producer Gene Roddenberry was casting his project, The Cage, the pilot for Star Trek, he needed a strong, commanding, and handsome actor to play the captain of the spaceship, Captain James T. Kirk. Roddenberry had worked with Bridges on Sea Hunt and reached out to him to audition for the role of Captain Kirk. Bridges has appeared in another science fiction movie, Rocketship X-M, that had a dismal box office return and was leery of doing another show that was set in outer space, so Bridges passed on the opportunity. In 1978, he did return to the sci-fi genre with a role on Battlestar Galactica

TV Movies Were Among Bridges’ Forte

Source: (legacy.com)

The 1960s and '70s saw Bridges continue as a TV star, beginning with an anthology series ith his own name on it, The Lloyd Bridges Show, which aired for 29 episodes from 1962-63. He played the lead on TV series The Loner (1965-66), San Francisco International Airport (1970), and Joe Forrester (1975-76), and frequently appeared in TV movies, including Lost Flight, A Tattered Web, Haunts of the Very Rich, Trouble Comes to Town, and Running Wild

Bridges Showed Off His Comic Side With Airplane!

Bridges in a scene from "Airplane!". Source: (imbd.com)

Disaster movies were a big thing in the 1970s -- The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake! (1974) and a series of Airport movies. In 1979, Bridges starred in Disaster on the Coastliner, a disaster made-for-TV movie about an impending train collision. But it was in a different kind of disaster movie, the 1980 spoof Airplane!, that Lloyd Bridges began a new stage of his career. Until Airplane!, no one knew how funny Bridges could be -- but he fit right in with the film's fast-paced jokes, visual gags, slapstick humor, and bad puns. As head air traffic controller Steve McCroskey, Bridges delivered overdone tough-guy dialogue and occasional asides about the substances he needs to calm his nerves. "Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop smoking" is echoed with drinking, amphetamines... and eventually "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue." Appearing in a comedy was a change of pace for Bridges but he excelled and earned accolades for his comic chops. 

Lloyd Bridges Continued To Make Comedies

Lloyd Bridges as Admiral Benson in Hot Shots! Source: IMDB

Bridges reprised his role of Steve McCroskey in the 1982 sequel Airplane II: The Sequel. He returned to zany comedy with the 1991 Top Gun spoof Hot Shots! (1991), which also had a sequel (Hot Shots: Part Deux, 1993). He also played a mafioso in the Godfather sendup Mafia! released in 1998, the year of his death.

Bridges Married His Wife In 1938

Lloyd Bridges and his wife, Dorothy, were married for more than 50 years. Source: (pinterest.com)

In the 1930s, Lloyd Bridges attended UCLA where he majored in political science. He joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity where he met a young coed named Dorothy Simpson. The young couple married in 1938 and remained happily married until Bridges’ death. A rarity in Hollywood, the Bridges enjoyed a long and loving marriage and even renewed their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary. Their son, Beau, was born in 1941 and Jeff was born in 1949. In addition, the Bridges had a daughter, Lucinda, who was born in 1953, and a son, Garrett who died in infancy in 1948. 

Bridges Encouraged His Sons Acting Careers

Lloyd Bridges and his sons Beau (left) and Jeff (right). Source: (legacycom)

Lloyd Bridges demonstrated to his children that it was possible to have a stable family life in Hollywood. He encouraged his sons to follow in his footsteps and, while they were still youngsters, Lloyd Bridges even acted alongside Beau and Jeff, as well as his wife, Dorothy. Dorothy appeared on TV’s Sea Hunt with her husband. Beau Bridges starred with his father on a TV western called Harts of the West. Beau and Jeff were regularly seen on The Lloyd Bridges Show. In 1988, Lloyd Bridges had a bit role in Jeff Bridges’ movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Lloyd Bridges Left A Lasting Hollywood Legacy

Source: (meredy.com)

When Lloyd Bridges died in 1998, with his loving wife by his side, he left behind a volume of work that included more than 150 films, several television series, and numerous made-for-TV movies. Perhaps his biggest Hollywood legacy is the acting dynasty he founded. His sons, Beau and Jeff, and now his grandson, Jordan, are all making their mark on Hollywood just as he did. 

Tags: Airplane! | Lloyd Bridges | Sea Hunt | TV In The 1950s | TV In The 1960s

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.