Do you recall the first time the Coen Brothers told you about this movie?
I remember hearing the title, which I figured they were going to change.
And how did they explain it to you?
It's like film noire with a usual gang of morons. I remember the word "noire" and "Lebowski." So, uh, yeah, I figured it was gonna be like Harvey Kurtzman style or something like that.
Do you remember the first time that you read the script?
I remember getting pieces of it over the years. I remember that, and just thinking it was gangbusters. I had so many people ask me if it was improvised. I'm not that smart. [Laughs] I'm not that good, but we got lucky and rehearsed for a couple of weeks before we started shooting. That's why that looks so good, like we're improvising.
Did they tell you about the real people that inspired the character of Walter?
Not as much as I've read over the years. It really didn't matter, because what they had on the page was so fully realized that it didn't matter who these guys were, it didn't matter if they existed. All that mattered was what was spelled out on the page, and it was so vivid in my mind. Everything was spelled out for you. It's almost idiot-proof. Almost, I say.
Do you think much at all about the back story of your character, about why he's friends with the Dude in the first place? They seem so different.
Obviously he's not a full human being. He's got this desperate need to please this nice old lady. It's just pathetic. The more you think about it, the more pathetic he is, so why go down that road?
The Coens seem to love bad haircuts.
Yeah man, I tell you, when I did Raising Arizona they said they wanted an "unusual look." So I grew a beard, and when I got down there, they cut my sideburns, and then they put this pomade in my hair that I couldn't get out unless I had Dawn dishwashing liquid, and even then it wouldn't come out. I was still single then, I'd go to the bars with it and try to strike up conversations with people, and it did look like I'd just gotten out of a correctional facility So I didn't float too much romance down in Arizona.
Were any Lebowski scenes shot that got cut?
Originally the Dude had somebody carry the milk out for him. They asked him if he needed help out with it, and he did. [Laughs] Do you see any moral to the movie, or a central message?
Yeah. Dude should never, ever leave his house. [Laughs] No, man, no. The Dude is a very special cat. And boy, who wouldn't want to be down like that? It's the life of a gentleman.
Do you recall the first time you had heard it was starting to become a big phenomenon?
People had always come up to me and said they appreciated it, but I noticed more and more in the past few years that people were younger, and that kind of scared me because I was afraid it would suffer some kind of odd fate like being a cult film and then being forgotten again. I'm really glad that people appreciate it. I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to it.
It seems to get funnier each time you see it.
Yeah. I haven't seen it for a while, I got a real hankering to go back. Next time I see it I want to go back and see it with other people, because it is funnier when you see other people laugh. I want to go to one of those conventions some time, I think that would be fun. I've still got my shorts, got Walter's army jacket and his vest. What else did I keep? Bowling ball, I think.
Are you stopped by fans on the street often?
Yeah. That's mostly what they stop me for. Sometimes they'll throw out a line, "Shut the fuck up, Donny." Steve used to get a lot on the subway. The more obscure the better, as far as I'm concerned.
Do you have a favorite memory from filming?
Most of all it's the pleasure I used to get. Night shoots are always torture, but we'd drive up to the Valley — there was just a good feeling of going to work on this movie. Anytime I had to go to work I just remember feeling great, like I was going to do something fun today. And that's rare, man. To just know that you're gonna have a ball and it's gonna be recorded in some way.