Saturday, September 23, 2023

‘The Dude’ abides: Jeff Bridges bases film character on Williamsburg man

An upcoming Hollywood release drew inspiration from the Historic Triangle.

Actor Jeff Bridges stars in the new film “Bad Times at the El Royale.” He plays a man masquerading as a priest, and in an appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week Bridges said he based his character on a man who has deep roots in Williamsburg.

“That’s one of the things I do when preparing for a role, I go through my phone book and think of someone the character kind of reminds me of.” Bridges told Colbert. “I had a wonderful experience with a priest in boot camp…This guy, Don Harris was his name, and he was such a cool guy.”

Harris, 82, founded La Tienda on Jamestown Road after retiring from a long career as an Episcopalian chaplain in the Navy serving at a Coast Guard Base. He graduated from William & Mary in 1953, and had three children attend the college.

Before moving to Williamsburg he served at Base Alameda in the San Francisco Bay the 1960s where he offered counseling to recruits. Harris said many of the recruits were homesick, or were dealing with drug problems during the heyday of flower power.

Harris said Bridges stuck out from the other recruits. He didn’t do drugs, coming from a strong family background.

The two met one day when Bridges’ sergeant gave him a choice. He could either commit to a day of manual labor, or go to church.

“As you heard by the (Colbert) clip the kids had the option, but there really wasn’t one,” Harris said with a laugh. “It was either go out and drill or come to church.”

La Tienda founder Don Harris. (WYDaily/ File photo)
La Tienda founder Don Harris. (WYDaily/ File photo)

The duo would sit and talk about family in the church, and became fast friends over the strumming of Bridges’ guitar.

“I didn’t know it was Jeff Bridges,” Harris said. “He was just another recruit.”

Harris, like Bridges, were big fans of popular bands at the time. Harris told Bridges he once saw Janis Joplin nearly collapse on stage after playing past 2 a.m.

They became such good friends that they even snuck off the island together to catch a concert.

“I sneaked, in a set of civilian clothes, through the gate onto the island. ‘Do you want to do this with me?’” Harris said he asked Bridges. “He didn’t know what we were doing except getting off the island, which of course was forbidden.”

Harris added, “I don’t think they’d be pleased that the chaplain is violating (the rules)…I didn’t do this often.”

Once off the island Harris told Bridges they were going to see a Jefferson Airplane concert. Many people at the concert were on acid, as was the norm for San Francisco nightlife in the late 1960s. He said the two had a great time.

“The whole scene was quite fascinating,” Harris said. “Jeff was the opposite of all of this.”

Harris added that as a minister, he never used such substances, and he never saw Bridges partake, either.

After his 12 weeks in camp Bridges moved on to a lucrative film career. He and Harris remained close friends, and Harris had the honor of administering Bridges’ wedding to his wife, Susan Geston.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” comes out Oct. 12. Harris said he knows very little about the film other than what he’s seen in trailers, adding he’s looking forward to seeing it.

He’s also honored to have played a part in inspiring one of the lead roles.

“I think that’s wonderful. It’s flattering in the best sense of the word,” Harris said. “That was back a long time ago and it means our relationship has continued all those years, and it’s very satisfying.”

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