Bridges made his first screen appearance at the age of almost two years in The Company She Keeps in 1951. In his youth, Bridges and brother Beau made occasional appearances on their father's show Sea Hunt (1958–1961) and the CBS anthology series, The Lloyd Bridges Show (1962–1963). In 1969 he played Cal Baker, a Jobs Corps crew member, in the TV series Lassie episode "Success Story". In 1971 he played the lead role Mike in the TV movie In Search of America. His first major role came in the 1971 film The Last Picture Show, for which he garnered a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He co-starred in the 1972 critically acclaimed neo-noir boxing film Fat City, directed by John Huston. He was nominated again for Best Supporting Actor for his performance opposite Clint Eastwood in the 1974 film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. In 1976, he starred as the protagonist Jack Prescott in the first remake of King Kong, opposite Jessica Lange. This film was a commercial success, earning $90 million worldwide, more than triple its $23 million budget, and also winning an Academy Award for special effects.
In 2000, he received his fourth Academy Award nomination, for his role in The Contender. He also starred in the 2005 Terry Gilliam film Tideland, his second with the director (the first being 1991's The Fisher King). He shaved his trademark mane of hair to play the role of Obadiah Stane in the 2008 Marvel comic book adaptation Iron Man. In July 2008, at the San Diego Comic-Con International, he appeared in a teaser for Tron: Legacy, shot as concept footage for director Joseph Kosinski; this developed into a full 3D feature release in 2010.
Bridges is one of the youngest actors ever to be nominated for an Academy Award (1972, age 22, Best Supporting Actor, The Last Picture Show), and one of the oldest ever to win (2010, age 60, Best Actor, Crazy Heart). Crazy Heart also won him the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role.
Bridges received his sixth Academy Award nomination for his role in True Grit, a collaboration with the Coen brothers in which he starred alongside Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, and Hailee Steinfeld. Both the film, and Bridges' performance as Rooster Cogburn, were critically praised. Bridges lost to Colin Firth, whom he had beaten for the Oscar in the same category the previous year.