To be a writer, one has to have imagination, patience, and self-discipline. To be an iconic writer whose works are talked about for decades takes a special gift for storytelling which takes years to develop and the fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Arkansas native James Bridges became one such legendary writer and filmmaker. His talents took him far from Paris, Arkansas, and made him one of the most influential screenwriters and directors of the 1970s and early 1980s. Bridges captured the hearts and imaginations of the public with movies such as The Paper Chase, The China Syndrome, and Urban Cowboy.
James Bridges was born in February 1936 in Little Rock. He grew up in the small town of Paris, just east of Fort Smith. He showed an interest in art and music and graduated from the local high school in 1954.
He enrolled at Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in the fall of 1954. He spent two years there, heavily involved in the theater and the marching band. In 1956, he decided to pursue larger dreams and headed west. He enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles where he tried to pick up work as an actor. He became part of the Professional Theater Group at UCLA, which was directed by legendary actor and stage director John Houseman. His first role was in a largely forgettable 1957 science fiction film Invasion of the Saucer Men and a small role in the film Johnny Trouble. He started to pick up work in small television roles, appearing in two episodes of Dragnet in 1957 and 1958 and the series Mackenzie’s Raiders. He later graduated from UCLA.
By the 1960s, he largely gave up acting in favor of writing and directing. He would find much more success with this change as well as more satisfaction as an artist. He found work writing television episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, ultimately penning eighteen. The first episode was in 1963, “A Tangled Web,” starring Robert Redford as a thief. He adapted a Ray Bradbury short story for a 1964 episode “The Jar,” for which he earned an Emmy nomination. His 1965 episode, “An Unlocked Window,” earned him an award from the Mystery Writers of America and was reprised for the 1985 revival of the show.
His first screenplay for the silver screen was the 1966 western The Appaloosa, which starred Marlon Brando. Bridges wrote two other screenplays but came to national prominence in 1970 when he wrote and directed The Baby Maker, starring Barbara Hershey and Scott Glenn about a pregnant, single woman being convinced to let a couple adopt her baby. The film was his first as a director and was widely praised for his efforts.
Bridges continued to write. He wrote the screen adaptation for When Michael Calls for a 1972 ABC Movie of the Week, based on a novel by John Farris from 1967. He co-wrote Limbo, also premiering in 1972, about a group of women whose husbands were missing in action in Vietnam.
In 1973, he wrote and directed The Paper Chase, a tale of a Harvard Law School student as he struggled with a demanding professor, crushing studies, and a complicated love life. Bridges brought his old mentor Houseman in as the stern law professor and Timothy Bottoms as the law student. The movie earned three Academy Award nominations, including one for Bridges’s screenplay and a win for Houseman as Best Supporting Actor. Bridges adapted the movie into a television series in 1978, writing two episodes. The series lasted for one season on CBS before being revived in 1983 for three more seasons on cable.
He had cemented his reputation as one of the best in Hollywood. However, some of his most notable works would come in the next few years.