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James Bridges (1936–1993)

James Bridges was an Arkansan who became a movie producer, director, and screenwriter. He was known for some of the biggest hit films of the 1970s and 1980s, such as The China Syndrome and Urban Cowboy. He also filmed one of his movies, 9/30/55, in Conway (Faulkner County).

James Bridges was born on February 3, 1936, in Paris (Logan County) in western Arkansas. From 1954 to 1956, he attended Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway, where he was drum major with the marching band and was involved with the performing arts. While in school, Bridges heard about the death of screen legend James Dean on September 30, 1955, an event that later influenced Bridges’s work. After two years of college, Bridges left Arkansas for Hollywood, California, in 1956. He found small parts as an actor in such TV shows as Dragnet and Matinee Theater. After becoming stage manager for John Houseman’s Professional Theatre Group in Los Angeles, California, he was recruited by producer/director Norman Lloyd to write television scripts for programs such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For that series, Bridges wrote eighteen episodes and received an Emmy nomination in 1963 for his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Jar.”

In 1966, Bridges’s first movie screenplay was produced, a western with Marlon Brando called The Appaloosa, which Bridges co-wrote with Roland Kibbee from the original novel by Robert MacLeod. For his first film as writer and director, Bridges chose The Babymaker (1970), which marked the screen debut of actor Scott Glenn, who later starred in the TV movie of John Grisham’s A Painted House, filmed in northeast Arkansas.

In 1973, Bridges wrote and directed the movie The Paper Chase about law school students at Harvard. It concerns a first-year law student who feels overwhelmed by pressure, work, and his fear of failure under the stern Professor Kingsfield. He enters a romantic relationship with a girl whom he later discovers is Kingsfield’s daughter. It was popular with audiences and was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Bridges’s adapted screenplay (from the novel by John Kay Osborn Jr.). Though the screenplay lost to The Exorcist, John Houseman won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Kingsfield.

In 1977, Bridges wrote and directed 9/30/55, about the impact of James Dean’s death on a group of Arkansas teenagers. It was filmed on location in Conway. Also known as September 30, 1955 and 24 Hours of the Rebel, it starred Richard Thomas (of TV’s The Waltons) and marked the first major film role for actor Dennis Quaid.

Bridges’s third film, The China Syndrome (1979), was a major hit and cultural landmark starring Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, and Jack Lemmon. Its theme of a nuclear power plant accident coincided with a real-life accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant shortly after the film’s release. One of the decade’s most popular films, it secured Bridges his second Oscar nomination for a screenplay, though it lost to Breaking Away.

Bridges followed China Syndrome with Urban Cowboy (1980), starring John Travolta and Scott Glenn. Another unexpected hit, it centered upon a country boy who moves to Houston to work in a refinery and spend his nights at Gilley’s country music club. The film briefly fueled a craze for riding mechanical bulls. Bridges subsequently wrote and directed Mike’s Murder in 1984, a mystery concerning drug dealing. He then produced and directed Perfect (1985), set around body building and health clubs. He later directed Bright Lights, Big City (1988), based on the bestselling book by Jay McInerney about cocaine-driven yuppie life in New York, and was a screenwriter for Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart in 1990, based on John Huston’s filming of The African Queen.

Bridges’s life partner was actor-writer Jack Larson, who gained fame beginning in 1952 as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen on TV’s Adventures of Superman. Larson co-produced such Bridges films as The Paper Chase, Urban Cowboy, and Bright Lights, Big City, also working on 9/30/55, Mike’s Murder, and Perfect. Their relationship lasted over thirty years, until Bridges’s death.

Bridges was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 1990. He died on June 6, 1993, in Los Angeles and was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in his hometown of Paris. Along with some of the most popular films of the era, his Arkansas legacy includes the James Bridges Performing Arts Scholarship Fund at the University of Central Arkansas and the James Bridges Collection in the UCA Archives, which includes manuscripts, memorabilia, and videos of his movies as well as photographs of filming 9/30/55 in Conway. In 1999, the University of California at Los Angeles dedicated the James Bridges Theatre, which regularly screens the UCLA Film and Television Archives.

For additional information:
“James Bridges.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0108745/ (accessed September 7, 2006).

James Bridges Collection. Torreyson Library Special Collections. University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas.

Tonguette, Peter. The Films of James Bridges. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 11/21/2014

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