In the past year, the diving world has lost two giants. One was an explorer, inventor and filmmaker. The other was an actor and casual diver yet his influence equalled Cousteau's in the early days of scuba.
Lloyd Bridges starred as Mike Nelson for only four years out of a 60 year acting career and spent the rest of his life trying to avoid being typecast. 'I don't know why you want to write about me. I'm an actor, not a diver,' was his initial reaction to an interview request.
Sea Hunt was the most successful underwater television show of all time. It originally ran only from 1957 through 1961, yet was consistently among the top rated programs; reruns continued to be shown for 20 years. By today's standards, the old shows weren't as good as our nostalgic recollections.Within a span of 30 minutes (including commercials) a crime was committed, Mike Nelson got into trouble, got out of trouble, rescued a damsel, caught the bad guys and neatly wrapped things up with a safety message. The main reason it worked was Bridges. He was believable, likable and charismatic, rising above mediocre scripts to make Mike Nelson real to millions of viewers.
In a 1994 interview, Lloyd was frank about his limited diving background. 'I do more snorkeling than diving. One of the good things about being recognized is that guys in the business take me out and furnish the equipment. I take advantage of it when I have the time.'
Acting was his passion and his profession. Bridges' movie career began in 1940, but he was stereotyped as a supporting actor, primarily in westerns and war movies. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, he was struggling when Ivan Tors called. Sea Hunt was in the planning stage and Tors had seen Lloyd playing the role of a hard-hat diver in the film Sixteen Fathoms Deep. 'He didn't have any idea whether I could swim or not...and said swimming didn't matter. Of course it mattered very much. I was not a great swimmer, although I swam quite a bit in the ocean.'
It took a while to decide on Tors' offer, because a serious actor in those days didn't want to be stuck in a weekly television show. 'But I needed to feed my family and it seemed so unusual...I read a couple of the episodes and asked Ivan, How can you keep on doing the same thing?' No problem,' he said and he did it.'
On the day before shooting began, Lloyd had his first scuba lesson in Courtney Brown's swimming pool. The next morning he was underwater in Silver Springs, Florida, playing Mike Nelson. 'Someone gave me an almost empty tank. After running out of air in a few minutes, I had to put into practice what I'd been taught about buddy breathing.'
Among the crew were Zale Parry, technical advisor and stunt girl, Ricou Browning, and cameraman Lamar Boren. 'Zale and I did the pilot for Sea Hunt. She taught me a lot about diving...and she was especially beautiful underwater. She doubled for all the gals and played a leading part in a couple of episodes.
'Ivan Tors was the brains of the whole thing....We wouldn't see him on the set very often, he was off dreaming up the next episode. He would give his ideas to a staff of about four or five writers.
'Courtney Brown was my mentor...he taught me so many things about the underwater world....He doubled for me underwater and was responsible for making me look good. We felt my form was very important, my strokes, how I kicked....We wanted to set a good example for the growing number of divers watching.'
In the beginning, Courtney did all of Mike Nelson's underwater stunts, with Bridges appearing only in close-ups. As many as six underwater sequences were shot in a week, so there were times when Brown was underwater in Florida while Bridges was on a sound stage in Hollywood. 'As time went on, I got envious and wanted to do a lot of stunts myself.'
But there were a few drawbacks. 'Carrying those double tanks around all the time got to be a little rough on me....They decided to use balsa wood tanks painted silver so they wouldn't wear me out. But I still had to put that damn wetsuit on and take it off, sometimes three or four times a day, because they'd cut from that to some topside thing.'
Unlike most wetsuits of the time, Mike Nelson's was gray. 'They decided not to have it black because that was kind of villainous looking.' The Meistrell brothers of Dive 'n Surf made the suits and spray painted them, charging $100, which Tors thought was too much. Bob Meistrell said, 'They first tried spraying it with Lloyd's stand-in in the suit;he couldn't put his arms down before the paint was dry. Then they had to cut the suit off him. After that they let us do it.'
Bridges recalled, 'We worked under a lot of pressure...three days to do an episode, sometimes two in a week, 39 episodes a year. It was very important that you kept your sanity and didn't let the pressure of time affect what would be seen later on the screen.
'One embarrassing thing that happened to me...they had the press out on the set one day, and the sea happened to be very rough. Mike Nelson wasn't supposed to get seasick, but I would excuse myself, go on the other side of the ship and toss my cookies, then come back and make believe I was Mike Nelson again.'
Sometimes being Mike proved a burden. Dorothy Bridges, Lloyd's wife for more than 50 years, said, 'The first time we went to Hawaii was at the height of Sea Hunt. In our hotel, there was a message from the admiral of the 7th fleet addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Mike Nelson: If we wanted a tour of Pearl Harbor, the admiral's yacht was at our disposal. Commander Nielsen was in charge of UDT there and he said, ‘We're thinking of buying new regulators and would like you to look them over.' Lloyd said, ‘Commander, you're pulling my leg.' Commander Nielsen turned to the other officers and said, ‘See, I told you Mr. Nelson would be a modest man.' He was serious. It was like he refused to believe there's no Santa Claus. They later asked Lloyd to join in a demonstration of a 100 foot free ascent and I told them I never let him swim after lunch.'
I asked Bridges why Sea Hunt was so successful. 'You mean besides me being in it (laughs)? It was the first time anyone tackled a show that took place underwater. The stories were sort of exciting for kids, like cops and robbers underwater. We never killed anybody, though. There was enough action and suspense without having that kind of violence. The worst thing we did was to pull somebody's air hose.
'When we finished the fourth year they wanted to keep on with it....I said, ‘OK, if we change the format a little bit....There's a lot to be said about what's happening to our ocean, big companies polluting it with their oil and all the raw garbage that's being spilled in there. A lot of villains out there have suits on, that don't look like your regular villain, and Mike Nelson could tackle that kind of situation. It could be just as exciting and maybe do something about clearing up the mess that we're putting in the ocean.' One of our sponsors was Standard Oil, so Ivan didn't think that was a good idea.'
Bridges had no regrets. 'For four years doing that same character all the time kind of bothered me. But...it opened up a lot of doors.'
The end of Sea Hunt gave Bridges time for something he couldn't do while the series was going on;dive. The entire family took a course from Bob Meistrell and got certified (in the show Bridges had rarely gone below 30 feet). Sons Jeff and Beau had begun their acting careers in Sea Hunt. 'We dived off Nassau, a little at Catalina and Hawaii....A lot of people say that Sea Hunt was responsible for their discovering the underwater world. I'm glad, not only that they'll be enjoying diving, but also that they'll be in a position to see the pollution that could ruin our oceans, and may join in the fight to save this precious world for future generations.
'I love the sea and I love diving and (am) very flattered people recognize I had something to do with the development of interest in the underwater world. But I'm foremost an actor. I feel embarrassed being compared to the guys who really work at it....I fake it, I make believe I know all about it, which is what you're supposed to do as an actor.'
Bon voyage, Lloyd Bridges. And thanks for inspiring so many of us to go underwater.
Editor's note: Born January 15, 1913, Lloyd Bridges died March 10, 1998, in Malibu, California, after a brief illness. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Dorothy, sons Beau and Jeff, daughter Cindy and 11 grandchildren.
Bridges was a veteran of more than 100 movies and six TV series. His last two movies, Meeting Daddy and Jane Austen's Mafia will be released this summer. 'He never retired,' Dorothy says.
The Bridges family has suggested that those who would like to remember Lloyd make a donation in his name to one of his favorite charities: American Oceans (800) 862-3260; Heal The Bay (310) 581-4188; and Earth Trust (310) 456-8300.
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