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'The Big Lebowski': The Decade of The Dude

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When Joel and Ethan Coen began writing The Big Lebowski, they were at a low point in their careers. After starting with a pair of hits, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, the Minneapolis-suburb-raised brothers had churned out a string of critically worshipped box-office disasters: Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy. Reeling from Hudsucker (a big-industry spoof that cost $25 million and made less than $3 million back), the Coens began work on two separate scripts. The first was Lebowski. The second was a much darker film about a desperate car salesman who hires two thugs to kidnap his wife. Called Fargo, the film became a touchstone of the mid-1990s independent-film explosion – and it made money. It was nominated for seven Oscars, winning Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay, with the Coens sharing the latter award.

But the wild success of Fargo left the Coens confused. "If a movie like Fargo succeeds, then clearly nothing makes much sense," Ethan said at the time. "You might as well make whatever kind of movie you want and hope for the best." Taking that to heart, they returned to finish The Big Lebowski, a film that had been in the back of their minds for years. To form the plot, they drew inspiration from Chandler as well as from the real-life exploits of their eccentric L.A. friends. "A couple of the characters in The Big Lebowski are, very loosely, inspired by real people," Ethan said in 1998. "We know a guy who's a middle-aged hippie pothead, and another who's a Vietnam vet who's totally defined by, and obsessed with, the time he spent in Vietnam. We find it interesting for our characters to be products of the Sixties in some way, but set in the Nineties." (The Coens – as is their frequent position regarding Lebowski in recent years – declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Besides Milius, the main inspiration for Lebowski's Vietnam vet was Peter Exline, a script doctor the Coens met while making Blood Simple, whom they called "Uncle Pete, the philosopher king of Hollywood." A thin, gray-haired man who bears a faint resemblance to Beatles producer George Martin, Exline, with his outsize personality and his lifetime of insane stories, formed the backbone of the film. "At one point, I couldn't go 10 minutes without mentioning Vietnam," admits Exline. He also played in a Hollywood softball league in the mid-1980s – Exline recalls an angry Tony Danza once walking off the field during a game – which the Coens used as fodder for Lebowski's wild bowling league.

Then there's the rug. The famous Lebowski rug has its origins from a party at Exline's house in the late 1980s, which the Coens attended. Exline had just laid down a fake Persian rug in his living room, picked up from neighbors who had moved out. "As I'm barbecuing, every 15 minutes or so I'd look down and say, 'Doesn't this rug tie the room together?'" Exline says. "I keep milking this joke, and everyone's really laughing."

At the same party, Exline says, he told the Coens and his guests a bizarre story about the time his Mazda was stolen and wound up in an impound lot. Inside the recovered car, Exline found a kid's math homework assignment, which led Exline and his friend and fellow vet Lew Abernathy to the home of a 14-year-old kid named Jaik Freeman. "We sit down, and Lew got out the homework. He's walking around the living room like Perry Mason. He sticks it in Jaik's face and goes, 'We know you stole the car, Jaik.'" The homework incident, too, was written into The Big Lebowski.

"I remember when Pete told us that [homework] story and thinking there was something quintessentially L.A. about it," Joel Coen once said. "But L.A. in a very Chandler-ian way."

Chandler, of course, famously wrote about a gritty nighttime L.A. in which his protagonist, detective Philip Marlowe, encounters a series of increasingly weird characters the closer he gets to solving a crime. The Coens drew inspiration from classic Chandler novels such as The Big Sleep, which features a wheelchair-bound millionaire, a beautiful wild child, pornographers and an angry heiress who attempts to seduce the hero. The Lebowski plot also mirrors Farewell, My Lovely, in which Marlowe is a passenger in a ridiculously complicated plot, and is beaten up and knocked unconscious throughout the story.

The Coens decided the central premise of Lebowski would be the replacing of the canny Marlowe with a person almost incapable of solving a caper. Their thoughts immediately turned to Jeff "the Dude" Dowd, a former 1960s activist (and member of the Seattle 7) who helped them find distribution for their first film, Blood Simple. A bear of a man with an unbelievable penchant for talking (during the course of a two-hour phone interview, I managed to ask about three questions), Dowd spent many of his post-activist years in the mid-1970s carousing in the Seattle bar scene, waiting for the heat on his troublemaking past to die down. "Yes, we drank White Russians," Dowd confirms. "They took that period of the Dude, froze him in time and moved him up to 1991. On a fundamental level, Jeff Bridges got my body language down entirely . . . the semi-mumbling talking, going off on tangents and stuff like that. I'm an easy mimic. Redford used to do one of me at Sundance when it first started."

When they wrote the script, the Coens didn't have any particular actor in mind for the Dude. But one name came up early: Mel Gibson, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Ethan and Joel ran the possibility past Ethan's old college buddy Bill Robertson, who would go on to write a book called "The Big Lebowski": The Making of a Coen Brothers Film. "I told them, 'Maybe it's time for you to grow up, get the star and be done with it,'" Robertson says. But Gibson didn't take the pitch too seriously, and the Coens moved on with their Dude search, inviting Jeff Bridges to a meeting at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica.

There, Ethan laid out the story of Lebowski and described the character of the Dude as someone who just lounges around all day, hangs out with his buddies and smokes weed.

A light went on above Bridges' head. "I'm one of those guys," he said.

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