Beau Bridges was in stitches as he recalled his first starring role in a movie.
"When I was six years old, I had a leading role in a movie called 'Zamba,' " he said gleefully. "It was also starring Jon Hall, and the guy who was playing the gorilla Zamba was the Western star, Crash Corrigan. I parachuted over Africa and got stuck in a tree and all the wild animals came jumping at me, and then Zamba comes out of the jungle and saves me and takes me to his cave. If you're a late-night movie fan, you can catch it every once and a while."
Fastforward to Sunday, when Bridges can be seen in prime-time in NBC's "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" He plays a stressed-out alien whose spaceship breaks down in a quiet little town and is befriended by the town eccentric, played by Richard Mulligan of "Empty Nest."
"I'm an alien with a problem," Bridges said. "I am a harried alien, who is slave to all of his appointments. I like it so much on Earth, I sort of commute back and forth."
Although "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" is essentially a comedy, Bridges was struck by its underlying message.
"I read something Ray Bradbury said a long time ago. He felt the biggest problem we had as a human race is not one of religion or finance, but an aesthetic one. We can't seem to deal with a different haircut or clothes or different color skin. What's going to happen when some form comes quivering from outer space and stands before us and says, 'Hey, what's happening?' We are not going to be able to deal with it.
"The whole notion of people accepting one another is certainly worthy of some discussion and some play," he said.
Bridges generally has been attracted to unique, though not necessarily commercial, projects. "I am very interested, and probably for better or worse, in films that seem like they're breaking into new ground," he said. "I think part of what's exciting about being in communications is to be a spokesperson for new ideas."
One such groundbreaking film was 1970's "The Landlord," in which Bridges played an aimless rich kid who buys a rundown apartment building in a New York ghetto.
"I think what was exciting about that (was) it was made while life was happening around us that had to do with the movie," he said. "That's probably why it wasn't a commercial success. We were making a movie about black-and-white relations after Watts and Detroit had burned.
"I remember we went to (Brooklyn's) Bedford-Stuyvesant to film the thing and a month before, 'Cotton Comes to Harlem' filmed there and an assistant director had been shot from a rooftop. It was real spooky to do the film there, but (director) Hal Ashby said, 'No police, no guns. We will hire the toughest guys in the neighborhood for protection.' It worked. (The residents) just opened their homes to us, and I felt safer in that neighborhood than in my hotel in Central Park."
Part of an acting family (his father is Lloyd, his brother is Jeff), Bridges acted as a youngster. But he was more interested in athletics.
"My folks didn't press me on (acting), and I got out of it until I was close to 20," he said. "I wanted to play basketball at UCLA, but I realized my jump shots in the corner were not up to what college wanted. That is when (Coach) John Wooden began that string of national championships, so I was a small fish in a big pond. I turned my eyes to my father's shop. 'Sea Hunt' was my first job as an adult."
Like many actors, Bridges has also ventured into directing. Though he's directed two low-budget features, he's most proud of his three TV movies.
"The first one was 'The Kid from Nowhere,' which was, as far as I know, the first time a mentally retarded person had been cast in a leading role. The second one I did was an 'ABC Afterschool Special' called 'Don't Touch,' and that was the first time a film about child molestation was done during the afternoon hours for children to watch. It was the highest-rated children's program of the year and was nominated for an Emmy."
"The Thanksgiving Promise," which he did for Disney, "was unique because it had my whole tribe in the film," Bridges said, smiling. "It had my dad, my mother, my brother, my sister, my wife and all of my children. It needed a family to do it because it is about a family."
Speaking of family ties, Bridges can't explain why last year's "The Fabulous Baker Boys" didn't burn up the box office. The critics hailed the film, which starred the Bridges brothers as a third-rate piano lounge act, with Michelle Pfeiffer spicing up the team.
"I wasn't so much disappointed," said Bridges, "because I know this business is crazy. But it is just amazing that a movie could get the reviews that we got and be received rather luke warmly, and then when it goes to video it goes through the roof. I guess that is what keeps the business exciting. You never know, do you?"
"Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.