ONE AFTERNOON 15 YEARS AGO, BEAU Bridges found himself looking down the wrong end of a gun. He was having a sandwich in a coffee shop in California's San Fernando Valley when another customer started waving a pistol. "There were about a dozen people," remembers Bridges, 49, "and the gunman ordered us onto the floor. I wanted to move, but I was frozen. He pointed the gun between my eyes and screamed, 'Get down on the floor, m-----f-----!' "

Footwear came to the rescue. "I was in my hippie days," says Bridges, "and I was wearing these clogs." When the gunman went into the kitchen to investigate a noise, "I just stepped out of them and tiptoed out the door. I called the police. They chased [the gunman] across the parking lot and arrested him."

Bridges doesn't offer this as an example of heroism but rather of the need for gun control. His profile in courage doesn't begin to compare to that of James Brady, the presidential press secretary whose brain was lacerated by a bullet when John Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan in March 1981. Bridges plays Brady in the new HBO movie Without Warning: The James Brady Story, appearing through July 10. The movie airs just as the Senate is due to vote on the so-called Brady bill, already passed in the House, requiring a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases to give police time to check records. By coincidence, civil damage suits against Hinckley are also slated to be filed this month by Brady and two others who were wounded in the attack.

Preparing for the role, Bridges developed a friendship with the 50-year-old Brady, whose burliness and gruff humor earned him the nickname Bear. Bear now joshingly calls Bridges, who put on an extra 15 pounds for the role, Ugly Bear. But both Jim and his wife, Sarah, 49, think Bridges's performance is a beaut. "Beau had everything down," says Sarah, "like the way Jim holds his left hand." Like the way he feels, even. "His emotions were my emotions," says Brady, who now must undergo up to 15 hours of physical therapy a week.

The man known to Brady as Ugly Bear is better known as the oldest cub of a family of actors presided over by Lloyd (Airplane!) Bridges, 78, and wife Dorothy, 75. Christened Lloyd Vernet Bridges III, Beau (the nickname comes from Ashley Wilkes's son in Gone with the Wind) was able to snag bit parts in movies before age 10, but he was always more athlete than actor. At UCLA he played freshman basketball, but his hoop career "faded with my awful jump shot," jokes Bridges, who transferred to the University of Hawaii before dropping out, having decided he was more actor than athlete.

Though brother Jeff, eight years younger, has landed bigger movie roles (Starman, Tucker), Beau seems free of jealousy. "Jeff's victories are mine, and mine are his," says Beau, who played his brother's brother in 1989's The Fabulous Baker Boys. Jeff agrees. "We always felt that we're on the same team," he says, "rooting for each other."

The brothers and their only sister, Lucinda, 37, have together delivered 10 grandkids to the Bridges dynasty. Beau's contribution includes Jordan, 17, and adopted son Casey, 22, a USC film student, from a first marriage, and Emily, 4, and Dylan, 6, by his second wife, Wendy, 29. They share a four-bedroom home in the San Fernando Valley.

In his next movie, a comedy called Married to It, Beau plays an ex-hippie wed to Stockard Channing. But with gun control in the legislative spotlight, he's concentrating on the questions raised in Without Warning. "The Brady bill is in no way meant to threaten the right to own a weapon," he says. "All it's saying is, wait seven days so people can check you out. The only argument really left is that it's inconvenient for gun owners to wait seven days, and I'd say to them, and I've heard Jim say, 'If you want to talk about inconvenience, sit in Jim Brady's chair for a week, or the chair of anyone else who's been struck down by a bullet.' "

TOM GLIATTO
ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Andrew Abrahams.