Award-winning actor coming to Aspen to honor his coach and mentor
For nearly 30 years, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden would gather his players on the first day of practice and tell them exactly how he wanted them to tie their shoes.
And when a young Beau Bridges landed on UCLA’s freshman team in 1960, the future film star found himself taking in Wooden’s now legendary shoelacing advice first-hand.
Some call UCLA’s Wooden the greatest coach who ever lived. Maybe for the 10 NCAA men’s basketball championships his teams won over 12 years. Maybe for his astonishing 88 consecutive victories. Maybe for his famous Twain-like witticisms that applied not only to basketball but to life. For example: “Talent is God-given. Fame is man-given.”
And so when Bridges was asked last week: “How is the way I tie my shoes a metaphor for how to live my life?” the beloved star of The Fabulous Baker Boys just laughed and said: “Well, this just might change your life forever when I tell you this.”
When began that first practice by telling his players, “Gentlemen, we will begin by learning how to tie our shoes,” Bridges thought he was nuts. But then, Wooden added: “Your feet are the foundation of your game. You’ve got to take care of them,” and it all started to make sense.
You start at the bottom, Coach said. Just like life. Lace up from downside all the way up: Evenly, tightly and not too uncomfortably. Always finish with a double knot because you don’t want it to come undone in the last two minutes of the game. And don’t forget the socks. If you don’t pull your socks up all the way and you have a wrinkle in them, that wrinkle is going to feel like a rock in your shoe toward the end of the game.
“And he was right,” Bridges said, “like he was right about everything.”
Bridges, the son of actor Lloyd Bridges (also a UCLA basketball player) and the older brother of Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”), was not cut out for college basketball. He averaged just 0.6 points and 1.4 rebounds per game for that freshman team and then transferred to the University of Hawaii, he said, “to major in surfing.” But his brief proximity to Wooden was life-changing for Bridges, and they remained friends until Wooden’s death at age 99 in 2010.
“I learned so much in those few months where I was sitting there by his side on the court. The importance of fundamentals. Of not cutting corners,” said Bridges, a father of five. “But I think the biggest thing I learned from Coach was that you don’t want to live your life alone. You don’t usually take care of any task in life alone. You do it with a team.”
Wooden was well-known for his “Pyramid of Success” motivational program and a series of values-based inspirational books. Bridges started acting at age 7, and as his fame grew, he often was asked to narrate those books for audio, or to introduce Wooden at awards ceremonies. “He called us a dog-and-pony show,” Bridges said, “but it was a great way for us to keep in touch throughout our lives.”
Reading in Wooden’s voice served as fortuitous training for Bridges’ current passion play. Next week, Bridges will star in Coach: An Evening with John Wooden, a world premiere that will be featured at Theatre Aspen’s inaugural one-person-show theatre festival, titled “Solo Flights.” It’s written by John Wilder, the veteran writer of the NBC miniseries “Centennial.” Bridges will perform the play in the Hurst Theatre at the Rio Grande Park on September 18 and 21.
The making of this play has been driven for years by former UCLA basketball player Mike Warren, who was the point guard on three of Wooden’s national championship teams. “But that’s a difficult challenge because Coach didn’t have a lot of sturm und drang in his life,” Bridges said. “There were no hidden secrets and things that people like to see in stories about famous people. He led a really righteous life.
“But what John Wilder has done that I think is really masterful is that he’s made this a love story about Coach and his wife, Nell. They met in high school, and she was there at every game. She was a real inspiration to Coach and to everyone who knew her.”
“This play is a great illustration of what that partnership can mean in somebody’s life.” Beau Bridges
The play begins with UCLA officials offering to honor Wooden by naming the floor inside UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion “The John Wooden Court.” Wooden responded: “It’s either ‘The Nell and John Wooden Basketball Court’ or it’s nothing,” because Coach believed Nell was as responsible for all those UCLA championships as he was.
“The whole glue of the play is their relationship, which I think is beautiful because that’s what I hope for all of my kids – that they find a mate they can go through the whole ride with,” Bridges said. “This play is a great illustration of what that partnership can mean in somebody’s life.”
Bridges, now 77 and a three-time Emmy and two-time Golden Globe winner, admits that stepping onto Hurst Theatre stage in Aspen embodying who Wooden was and what he still represents will be a challenge.
“Frankly I’m a little nervous because he meant so much to me,” Bridges said. “I don’t want to do an imitation of him. I just want to try to capture his essence. I feel confident that John Wilder has written a great play, so I can relax there. I can sort of feel Coach saying to me, ‘Just go ahead and do your best son.’ And that’s what I am going to try and do.”
One quick conversation with Beau Bridges is a basketball fan’s dream. In this interview, he invoked the names of basketball legends Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Denny Crum, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and more. Here are a few more selected exchanges from that conversation:
John Moore: I am guessing that you and your brother grew up as huge sports fans.
Beau Bridges: I was, for sure. I think I was more into team sports than my brother. Jeff is a good athlete and he spent a lot of time surfing. But I really loved team sports of all kinds. I still do.
John Moore: How would you describe your game?
Beau Bridges: Well, I wasn’t much of a player myself. I went to Venice High School in California and I made the varsity, but I was not a standout. When I was 18 I enlisted in the Coast Guard. The blockade in Cuba had just been put up and I thought we were going to war. So my dad said, “At least pick your branch of service,” and I enlisted in the Coast Guard. I played on the Coast Guard basketball team during boot camp and that game upped my game a bit, but not much. When I tried out for the freshman team at UCLA as a walk-on, I saw Walt Hazzard take off from the free-throw line and just jam it behind his back and I thought, “Oh, this is a whole other ballgame.” I think the only reason I made the team was because Gail Goodrich had broken his leg. I sat on the bench for most of my brief time on the freshman team.
John Moore: Did you sense that UCLA was on the precipice of greatness?
Beau Bridges: This was three years before Coach started winning his championships. He won his first one with Fred Slaughter at center, who had been on my freshman team. A lot of people think Coach won all those championships because he had all these incredibly tall centers like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Bill Walton. But the fact is, he won his first title with Fred Slaughter, who was 6-foot-6. He won because of his coaching strategies and his work ethic, starting with fundamentals and his insistence on team-playing. That’s what made those championships possible.
John Moore: One of Coach Wooden’s assistant coaches during your freshman year was Denny Crum, who went on to win two NCAA championships himself at Louisville.
Beau Bridges: Coach always said his favorite game to coach in his entire career was UCLA’s 75-74 overtime victory in the 1975 NCAA Tournament semifinal game against Louisville because he had Gary Cunningham sitting next to him as his assistant, and across the court was Denny Crum, who was one of his best former players. Coach always said Denny coached such a great game.
John Moore: What was John Wooden like day to day?
Beau Bridges: Coach’s favorite time was practice. That’s where he put all his effort – and there was a lot of it. He taught the fundamentals and strategy. When it was game time, he just sat there with his rolled-up program and let the guys play because all of the work had taken place in practice. In my career as an actor and a director and producer, I have always followed his “team effort” school of thought into play. Most tasks involve other people. And they turn out best when you work as a team.
John Moore: Of all of Coach Wooden famous inspirational quotes, do you have a favorite?
Beau Bridges: Yes. I have them all over my house. Probably my favorite is, ‘Make each day a masterpiece.’ That’s a great one.
10 more John Wooden maxims:
(Not all originated with Wooden but he embraced all of them)
- “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” (from Benjamin Franklin).
- “Never mistake activity for achievement.”
- “Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”
- “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
- “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
- “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
- “Little things make big things happen.”
- “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
- “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
- “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
John Moore: Why did you leave UCLA after a year and transfer to the University of Hawaii?
Beau Bridges: I regret that I never did graduate. All five of my kids have now graduated from college. Two of them, I hate to admit, went to USC [the University of Southern California] – but they got a great education there. It was a little frustrating at UCLA because if you wanted to be a film student at that time, you had to wait 2½ years before you could actually get that as your major. I did a play on the side at UCLA, and that was fun. But I realized basketball wasn’t going anywhere for me, and I always loved Hawaii, so I went there. Then I got into surfing and that was it, so I never graduated. That was super stupid. I was so close. But I enjoyed my time there, and I have a home on the Hawaiian Islands now. I go all the time.
John Moore: Do you remember the name of the play you did at UCLA?
Beau Bridges: Yes, it was called Puddin’ and Tame. It was a musical, actually, based on a British nursery rhyme. I think we all played children or something.
John Moore: What are we going to learn about John Wooden’s life in your play?
Beau Bridges: As a boy, he lived on a very humble farm with his mom and dad. He did all the work plowing the fields. They had coal-oil-burning lamps, and he worked really hard. The first basket he ever shot at was a peach basket that his dad nailed up on the side of a barn. And his mom made him his first basketball out of a bunch of rags stuffed in a silk stocking. That’s how he learned to shoot. And, of course, he became an All-American himself.
John Moore: What’s one more piece of advice Coach Wooden taught you as a young player that you have carried throughout your life?
Beau Bridges: That when you take on a task, you owe that task only one thing, and that’s to do your very best. Coach would say, “If you know in your heart that you did your very best, then you’ve won.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
‘Solo Flights’: Theatre Aspen’s inaugural one-person show festival
- What: Four one-person shows presented in the beginning stages of their development
- Presented by: Theatre Aspen
- Where: September 18-21
- At: The Hurst Theatre 470 Rio Grande Place
- Tickets: 844-706-7387 or theatreaspen.org
Coach: An Evening with John Wooden
- Wednesday, September 18 at 7 p.m.
- Saturday, September 21 at 4 p.m.
- Written by John Wilder
- Performed by Beau Bridges
- Directed by Joe Calarco
- When legendary basketball coach John Wooden gets a call asking about naming a court in his honor, he says his wife Nell’s name must come first. From humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success, the coach reflects on the only girl he ever loved and the journey they took together from a small town in the middle of the country to Los Angeles. John Wooden understood the American Dream, lived it, coached it, and inspired millions of others to pursue it.
- Thursday, September 19 at 4 p.m.
- Friday, September 20 at 7 p.m.
- Saturday, September 21 at 10 a.m.
- Written by Jeffrey Hatcher
- Performed by Daniel Gerroll
- Directed by Lisa Peterson
- Glas, based on the classic Scandinavian mystery novel “Doktor Glas” by Hjalmer Söderberg and translated from Swedish by David Barrett, is the chilling yet witty love story of a 19th-century physician grappling with the decision of a lifetime. The Doctor finds himself madly in love with an unhappily married patient, who presses to see him regularly about her miserable state, pitting his passion against his morality. Ultimately, Dr. Glas is seduced into helping her in any way he can, even if it means murder.
What We Leave Behind
- Thursday, September 19 at 7 p.m.
- Friday, September 20 at noon
- Saturday, September 21 at 1 p.m.
- Book, music, and lyrics written by Jenny Giering and Sean Barry
- Performed by Kate Baldwin
- Directed by Tracy Brigden and Lynne Shankel
- What We Leave Behind is a courageous musical exploring what it means to live a life reshaped by illness. This story follows a woman from her diagnosis of breast cancer through treatment and the onset of a mysterious new condition that robs her of her ability to function fully as a wife, mother and artist. Her journey is juxtaposed with the time before her struggles began, when life was full of daring and passion — when she and her husband together embarked on a relationship with another woman. The musical declares that one’s existence can still be alive with wonder and hope, if we are brave enough to embrace it.
When It’s You
- Thursday, September 19 at noon
- Friday, September 20 at 4 p.m.
- Saturday, September 21 at 7 p.m.
- Written by Courtney Baron
- Performed by Joy Nash
- Directed by Kent Nicholson
- Ginnifer has a fine life. But that’s it – just fine. Unlucky in love and recently returned to her hometown after the death of her mother, an act of violence committed by an old boyfriend forces Ginnifer to ask: How are we all connected? Who are we responsible for? and How is it possible to move forward? This is an extremely personal story about the nature of loneliness, who we become in shifting times, and the courage of the human spirit to go on.
Beau Bridges’ awards
- Emmy 1992 for Without Warning: The James Brady Story
- Golden Globe 1992 for Without Warning: The James Brady Story
- Emmy 1993 for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom
- Golden Globe 1994 for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom
- Emmy 1997 for The Second Civil War
- Hollywood Walk of Fame 2003