Bridges was born in San Leandro, California, to Lloyd Vernet Bridges, Sr. (1887–1962), who was involved in the California hotel business and once owned a movie theater, and his wife Harriet Evelyn (Brown) Bridges (1893–1950). His parents were both natives of Kansas, and of English ancestry. Bridges graduated from Petaluma High School in 1930. He then studied political science at UCLA, where he was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.
Bridges made his Broadway debut in 1939 in a production of Shakespeare's Othello. In 1941, he joined the stock company at Columbia Pictures, where he played small roles in features and short subjects. (In Here Comes Mr. Jordan Bridges is the pilot of the plane in the "heaven" scene.)
He left Columbia Pictures during World War II to enlist in the United States Coast Guard. Following his discharge, he returned to acting. In later years he was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, 11th District (California) and did several public service announcements for the Coast Guard. Bridge's Sea Hunt character Mike Nelson was sometimes portrayed in Coast Guard Auxiliary uniform. Because of his support, he was made an honorary commodore in the Auxiliary. Bridges' sons, actors Beau and Jeff, also served in the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Reserve.
Bridges was blacklisted briefly in the 1950s after he admitted to the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had once been a member of the Actors' Laboratory Theatre, a group found to have had links to the Communist party. He returned to acting after he was cleared by the FBI, achieving his greatest success in television.
Bridges gained attention in 1956 for his emotional performance on live anthology program The Alcoa Hour, in an episode titled "Tragedy in a Temporary Town", directed by Sidney Lumet. During the performance, Bridges inadvertently used profanity while ad-libbing. Although the slip of the tongue generated hundreds of complaints, the episode won a Robert E. Sherwood Television Award, with Bridges' slip being defended even by some members of the clergy. Bridges received an Emmy Award nomination for the role.
Bridges gained wide recognition as Mike Nelson, the main character in the television series Sea Hunt, created by Ivan Tors, which ran in syndication from 1958–1961. He also wrote a book with a co-author about skin-diving entitled "Mask and Flippers." Following that success, he starred in the eponymous CBS anthology series The Lloyd Bridges Show (1962–1963, produced by Aaron Spelling), which included appearances by his sons Beau and Jeff. Producer Gene Roddenberry, who worked with Bridges on Sea Hunt, reportedly offered Bridges the role of Captain Kirk on Star Trek before the part went to William Shatner. In addition, he was a regular cast member in the Rod Serling western series The Loner (which lasted one season from 1965 to 1966; Bridges pulled out in disagreement over the violent content of the show), and in the two NBC failures San Francisco International Airport (1970/71) and a Police Story spin-off Joe Forrester (1975–76). Later, he appeared in Paper Dolls (1984) and Capital News (1990), both for ABC, and again with Harts of the West (1993–1994), this time for CBS, a comedy/western set on a dude ranch in Nevada. Son Beau Bridges co-starred, along with Harley Jane Kozak as Beau's wife, Alison Hart, and Sean Murray as the oldest Hart son, Zane Grey Hart.
Bridges played significant roles in several mini-series, including Roots, How the West Was Won and The Blue and the Gray.
For more than forty-five years, Bridges was a frequent guest star on television series. He received a second Emmy Award nomination four decades after the first when he was nominated in 1998 for his role as Izzy Mandelbaum on Seinfeld.
He portrayed Commander Cain in the original Battlestar Galactica television series, in the two-part episode "The Living Legend". His fate was left unanswered, spurring fans to call for his return. This popularity led to a radically re-imagined Cain character in the 2004 series.
He started as a contract performer for Columbia Pictures, appearing in classics such as A Walk In The Sun, High Noon, Little Big Horn, and Sahara. By the end of his career, he had re-invented himself and demonstrated a gifted comedic talent in such parody films as Airplane!, Hot Shots!, and Jane Austen's Mafia!. He acted in the role of "The President" in the movie Hot Shots! Part Deux.
Bridges met his wife, Dorothy Bridges (née Simpson) in his fraternity; they married in 1938 in New York City. They had four children: the actors Beau Bridges (born in 1941) and Jeff Bridges (born in 1949); a daughter, Lucinda Louise Bridges (born in October 1953); and another son, Garrett Myles Bridges, who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on August 3, 1948. The actor Jordan Bridges is Beau's son and Lloyd's grandson. Dorothy and Lloyd exchanged vows again for their 50th wedding anniversary.
A world federalist, Bridges once said, "The devastation caused by war and the pollution of our environment knows no boundaries. Only an effective world government could provide sufficient law and have the power to control these destructive forces." He was also involved in several organizations, including the American Oceans Campaign and Heal the Bay, a Los Angeles-based group.
On March 10, 1998, Bridges died of natural causes at the age of 85. He was married to Dorothy Bridges (née Simpson; 1915–2009), from 1938 until his death.
An episode ("The Burning") in the final Seinfeld season (1998) was dedicated to the memory of Lloyd Bridges. He had played the character of Izzy Mandelbaum in the episodes "The English Patient" in 1997 and "The Blood" later the same year.
Bridges' last film, Jane Austen's Mafia!, which came out the year of his death, bears a dedication to him.
In 2011 Bridges was posthumously named as one of six recipients – two of whom are his sons Beau and Jeff – of the Lone Sailor Award, which honors former Coast Guard servicemen who have gone on to forge successful careers as civilians.The Great Glover (1942)
They Stooge to Conga (1943) as Telephone Customer #2 (uncredited)
His Wedding Scare (1943) as Train Conductor Charlie, Susie's 1st Husband
A Rookie's Cookie (1943)
Mr. Whitney Had a Notion (1949) as Eli Whitney
My Daddy Can Lick Your Daddy (1962)
The World of Inner Space (1966)
Wonderful World of Wheels (1967)
I Am Joe's Heart (1987) as Joe's Heart (voice)