The more things change, the more they stay the same. And with Beau Bridges, that’s a good thing.
The veteran actor appeared twice in my home Sunday night: first in an episode of My Three Sons which my wife and I happened to be watching via the Season One Volume Two DVD set from CBS/Paramount, due out Tuesday. (OK — so I’ve got connections.) And right afterward, there Beau was again — almost 50 years older — playing perhaps the strongest guest role ever on ABC’s Desperate Housewives, a once tediously negative show that’s hit its stride this season with richer characterizations and stronger stories.
Bridges’ one-shot was as Eli Scruggs, beloved handyman of Wisteria Lane. Via flashbacks, we saw how Eli greatly impacted the lives of the series’ principal women, often in warm and meaningful ways.
For too long, “warm” and “meaningful” weren’t terms you could use in the same breath with Desperate Housewives, but the show is now a far better balance of the darkly desperate and the spiritually hopeful.
As an actor, Bridges, too, has been affecting people since he first ventured into telly, around the time dad Lloyd Bridges starred on his Sea Hunt series. When Beau began emerging as an actor circa 1960, he was a natural to play clean-cut youths on shows such as My Three Sons, where he appeared three times, or Mr. Novak. It was only later that he segued to adult roles for the big screen (The Landlord being a strong early example).
I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Beau several times in Houston, where he worked on shoots for a TV movie (Without Warning: The James Brady Story) and a theatrical film (Sidekicks). He was always a down-the-earth gentleman who seemed to enjoy the process. Brother Jeff Bridges, coincidentally, also was in Houston on a movie shoot, for Arlington Road, when their father passed away.
If you missed it, Housewives’ superb 100th episode, in which Beau guest starred, won’t be on DVD until next year. But in the meantime, beyond his many more recent movie and TV roles, you catch his work on the aforementioned My Three Sons, where he’s forever young — about 19 — while playing a young fellow, in sharp contrast to so many productions since then which have high school kids played by actors in their mid-20s. (Take 1978’s Grease.) Bottom line: Wherever you find Beau, you’ll find a fine actor who’s still enriching our lives as he eases into retirement age — and thank goodness he isn’t retiring.
Back to My Three Sons: Is there any more distinctive vintage sitcom? And I’m not talking about its then-new element of having a single parent (Fred MacMurray) raising offspring, a setup that’s since then become cliche. I’m talking about the show’s widely varied stabs at storytelling in terms of style, tone and narrative elements. While comedic and amusingly chaotic on the surface, My Three Sons also often involves mystery, romance, strongly dramatic plots and then-topical themes. The show’s creators didn’t settle for a set narrative form. They experimented.
With most sitcoms, you know exactly what you’re going to get: Jed and his country bumpkin family will experience — and spur — more culture shock on The Beverly Hillbillies. McHale and his misfit crew will indulge in more shennanigans on McHale’s Navy. Randy New York young adults will lie about something — over and over — thus sparking comic complications on Friends.
But in My Three Sons, you never know what’s going to happen, which makes the show more surprising and even challenging than TV series’ usual easy-to-swallow version of comfort food. And in a medium known for so much galling repetition, that, in itself, is a blessing.