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Monday, November 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The dude behind The Dude of "The Big Lebowski"

Seattle Times staff reporter

In case you're holding a beverage, don't get too alarmed.

The people who put together the two new DVD editions of "The Big Lebowski" (Warner, 1998, R) — a $19.98 widescreen collector's edition and a $49.98 "achiever's edition" with bowling towel and other tchotchkes — may have been high. As The Dude's bowling pal Walter would say, our friends didn't die face-down in the muck for DVDs with no audio commentary! So we picked up the phone and got one from The Dude himself.

That's Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, the inspiration for Jeff Bridges' stoner hero in Joel and Ethan Coen's follow-up to "Fargo." It wasn't initially a hit, but the endlessly quotable comedy about kidnapping, a soiled rug that tied a room together, nihilists, White Russians and bowling has become a cult phenomenon spawning Lebowski Fests around the country.

More loquacious than his film incarnation, Dowd, 55, is a former Seattle resident. He had some early fame as one of the Seattle Seven student protest leaders of the Vietnam era and was co-director of the Seattle International Film Festival.

But talking from his Los Angeles home — where he's a writer, producer and film marketer — Dowd says he's slouched in a T-shirt with his belly hanging out, just like the movie Dude sprawled on porn king Jackie Treehorn's couch.

Ten a.m. seems awfully early for "the laziest man in Los Angeles."

The guy that the Coen brothers depicted in the movie was what they thought I might have been like in the '70s for a while. And indeed they were kind of right. There was a period after the activism of the '60s and the early '70s before we went back to work in which we were hanging out pretty heavy for a couple of years, OK? And indeed drinking White Russians and tequila sunrises and Harvey Wallbangers — whatever the drink was of the moment. ... But then eventually we all went back to work. Most of us anyway.

Don't tell me The Dude's become a yuppie.

No, The Dude's not a yuppie. The Dude's out there in the entertainment world trying to work with really good movies and help artists who hopefully are making good movies get their movies out there, particularly in the independent world but also in the studio world. So I've worked on everything from "Hoosiers" to "Gandhi," "The Black Stallion" to working with Neil Young last year on "Greendale" — and Neil's certainly no yuppie.

So you didn't "burn one" before this interview?

No. A little early in the day.

How do you account for "Lebowski's" huge cult following after it didn't do well at the box office?

Several answers to that question. One is it's kind of like an "Austin Powers" phenomenon, which is a movie you like to watch with other people, and you like to repeat the lines from.

It's also like an album. There's certain albums — CDs, whatever — that have one or two really good songs on them. And there's others that have — like the classics — have like 10 or 15 songs on them that are good, or 8 or 9 songs. But "Big Lebowski" actually has over a dozen scenes that are really good — unto themselves.

Then there's a deeper level. If you go to my Web site (www.jeffdowd.com), there's a letter there from a New York fireman. Here's a guy who is so bummed out by his experience in 9/11, he's watched people die in different ways than he'd ever seen before, had good friends die and he's in total trauma, post traumatic stress syndrome after that, total basket case.

He comes up to me at one of these Lebowski festivals and says, "You know, I got to thank you. I tried doctors, therapists, shrinks, every kind of drug and nothing works. And then one day, seven, eight months later, I see a copy of "The Big Lebowski" on my shelf and I put it in my DVD player, and for the first time in months I started to smile and laugh, and continue to laugh. And I watched it again." And his wife turns to me and says, "And that's what brought him back."

The Coens said they were imagining you in the context of a Raymond Chandler detective story.

Look, they met me, we spent a lot of time hanging together when we were trying to sell "Blood Simple" and market it. They loved riffing off the name, "The Dude," "Duder," "Duderino." ... I was kind of a larger-than-life character, had a bit of a past.

Is there any chance of another Lebowski movie?

It gets mentioned all the time. I don't know if it would emanate out of Joel and Ethan. Obviously you could do that, but sometimes you don't want to do that either, because the chances of failure are very high.

Do you think about what The Dude and Walter (John Goodman) would be up to seven years later?

No, I got a lotta things to think about. I don't live in an insular Dude world.

Not to plug here, but I'm almost done with a book called "The Dude Abides." And I've been very, very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, to be around a lot of extraordinary people who changed a lot of cultural and political history. And out of that, just a bunch of classic tales that we've been orally telling for years at parties or at friends' and everybody's saying "Why don't you write that up?"

Will there ever be a Lebowski Fest in Seattle, and if so, shouldn't it be combined with Hemp Fest?

I would imagine that a fair amount of people do both. It would be a lot of fun and it would make a lot of sense in Seattle, and I think it should actually happen in Seattle, considering my ties and the whole Seattle Seven thing. ...

Bowling: a sport or a game?

Uhh, it's a sport.

Curling, then?

(Thinks a moment.) Curling is ... a surreal sport.

What advice did you offer Bridges to achieve Dudeness?

We just met. Jeff, his whole thing was to catch my body language, which he got 110 percent. He just totally got it. There's people I know who walked into that movie who had not read any press about it, who had no idea of the connection with me, and didn't even know the Joel and Ethan connection with me, and they're watching that movie, and they go "Jesus, it's The Dude!"

Napoleon Dynamite: perhaps related to The Dude?

Absolutely. I think that's somewhat of the appeal of that movie, too. You know, odd characters and friendships and things like that. ... I met those guys and they're big Dude fans.

Why does The Dude abide?

... (Thoughtfully) I think what it means is that the Dude navigates his way through reality in a way in which he will not allow himself to be compromised. That's the way I see it.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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