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[whitespace] Jeff Bridges Well in Dowd: Jeff Bridges nailed the body language of the real-life Dude with poses like this in 'The Big Lebowski.'

Dude for Thought

As 'The Big Lebowski' plays the Nick, Metro Santa Cruz talks to the real-life Dude about cult-movie stardom

By Steve Palopoli

HOW JEFF DOWD got ahold of our recent article on the phenomenal cult-movie following of The Big Lebowski is a long story. It starts with his sister reading the article in Prunedale and ends with him singing onstage with Robert Earl Keen in Southern California. Seriously.

For those who don't know, Dowd is the man on whom director-writers Joel and Ethan Coen modeled the now legendary character of the Dude, the Zen-like slacker-slash-noir-hero at the center of Lebowski's crime comedy. Dowd--who has been working in film distribution since the late '70s and has secured deals for a number of high-profile indies, including the Coens' first film, Blood Simple--has become a celebrity in his own right as a result of the movie's cult popularity and the mystique of the Dude character. Since Lebowski is playing as a midnight movie this Friday and Saturday at the Nickelodeon, we thought it was a perfect time to follow up with a Dude Q&A as we caught up with him in Los Angeles, where he lives.

Metro Santa Cruz: How huge has the 'Big Lebowski' connection been in your life in the four years since the movie came out?

Jeff Dowd: I can walk on any college campus in the country--practically in the world now--and I'll meet somebody who'll say, "Oh yeah, I know who you are, you're the Dude." This happened in Montpelier, France, even--all of a sudden there's 30 people around me in France. It's a huge cult thing at colleges.

What did you think of the film itself?

It does improve with age. I saw it the first time and I had certain problems with it, small problems. A little bit of the third act, etc. etc. I saw it two times initially, once when they screened it for me down here, a very early screening of it, and the second time at Sundance. Maybe I watched it on tape once. But then I didn't watch it until it came on Showtime and I surfed into it a couple of times. I'd watch like 10 or 15 minutes, and go, "Fuck, this is really great." Then I watched it recently with a friend who hadn't seen it, and I almost didn't have any criticisms at all. It was, like, flawless, you know? I'll tell you what's similar ... did you ever see Gremlins? The first time I saw Gremlins--and I know Joe Dante and I respect him a lot--but the first time I saw it I kinda didn't quite get it all. But the second time I saw it, I saw it stoned, and I went, "Fuck." Because the first time I had this kind of false expectation, because it mixes genres, you know, I mean it goes in and out of some heavy shit. And the second time, knowing that was coming, I totally got it.

How did you get to be the Dude in the first place?

The Dude stuff goes back to sixth grade. These two brothers started calling me Dude, off the name Dowd, I think. Unlike in the movie, where he kind of says, "This is my name," I never used the name, but people discover this name somehow. They would discover it from somebody else, then they'd start using it 'cause they kind of liked it. Joel and Ethan were like that--they'd get on two phones together, and they'd call me up and go, "Dude? Duder? Duderino?" That whole Duder, Duderino thing, that was all them. They always liked riffing off the name, and I wouldn't be surprised if the whole basis for them was starting with the name they liked to riff off so much.

Is it true Jeff Bridges shadowed you while he was trying to get the character down?

A little bit. We hung out. But mostly it was Joel and Ethan. Joel and Ethan and I hung a lot. We know each other really well going back to Blood Simple.. I spent a year trying to sell Blood Simple. We were passed on by every distributor three times before we finally got it in front of an audience at the Toronto Film Festival. You watch Blood Simple alone in a room when you're a distributor and the black comedy doesn't play. And they had assumptions like it wouldn't work for women, that it was too bloody. Then when they finally saw it with an audience, they got it. Then we had a bidding war. Before that, nobody could even get the title straight--you never heard the term "blood simple." My mother would say, "What's that movie you're working on, Blood Sample?"

When did you first hear that 'The Big Lebowski' was being made?

I actually heard about it from a very good friend of Joel and Ethan's who produced a couple of their movies and worked with me on Blood Simple. I knew they were going with John Goodman and Jeff Bridges, and then Joel and Ethan described it to me in a phone call shortly after that. So I figured they had Goodman playing me, 'cause at that point I was about two-fifty. I figured it could go either way, but that the Walter character was going to be me--this was before I read the script. Then I when they said it was Bridges, I was like, "Cool, these guys are taking care of me."

Did Joel and Ethan ever tell you how the idea came about to build a movie around the Dude?

They started with the premise that they'd take a character like me in the '70s--there was a period in the '70s which I would classify as kind of the post-revolutionary period, pre-when-we-went-back-to-work period. We were all hangin' out in Seattle--we were doin' some heavy hangin' for about two or three years in the '70s. We were working, but not towards anything but mere survival--what in later days would be called "slackers," but we were a little older. We'd gone from taking on the government successfully and everything into a "now what are we going to do" mode? Just hanging. That was the Dude character.

What did they take from the real Dude to make the movie Dude?

Some of the references like the Seattle Seven stuff were true, but like any good writers they used lots of artistic license, so, you know, I wasn't the road manager for Metallica. But the body language they got 100 percent. Jeff got that. And then my daughter walked in and saw the one-sheet of the poster I have in my office and she was like, "Geez, Dad, how'd they get all your clothes? Did they borrow your clothes?" Then, like, the way he sits when he goes to see Jackie Treehorn. The White Russians--yeah, we drank White Russians for a few months, somewhere between Tequila Sunrises and Dirty Mothers. Dirty Mothers, that was the really good coffee version of White Russians. We went from different drink to different drink in that period.

In what ways is the character in the movie not like you?

I dance a lot more than that guy does. Although he does do the one dance number, obviously. But I do a lot of dancing. The Dude does like to dance.

The Big Lebowski plays Friday and Saturday night at midnight at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the July 17-24, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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